Derek Hatfield has always known about the loneliness of the long-distance sailor, but he’s never felt as alone as he does these days when racing over the vast, empty expanses of our dying oceans.
Hatfield recently completed his second successful race around the world, sprinting to a third place finish in the grueling VELUX 5 Oceans competition, a solo round-the-world ocean race that is held every four years.
But the last eight months have been an eye-opener for the New Brunswick-born sailor when it comes to the state of the world’s oceans.
Streaking across the open waters in a sleek, 60-foot yacht that affords him a unique, close-up view of marine life, he has been troubled by what he is not seeing.
“You don’t see the fish, you don’t see the turtles, you don’t see the birds,” Hatfield said in an interview from Nova Scotia, where he now lives.
“Along the coast you will see the odd humpback whale but it is getting more and more rare. Last year I did a transatlantic race and I didn’t see one whale in the whole 15 days of racing across the North Atlantic. Not one whale! . . . The oceans are dying and they’re dying very quickly.”
He especially misses the company of dolphins.
Hatfield, who has been making long sea voyages since the early 1990s, says he always used to stop what he was doing when dolphins showed up to race beside the bow of the boat or follow behind.
“It is much lonelier without them,” he says.
“They’re such an intelligent animal and such great company, especially when you’re out there by yourself. Now it’s a rare sight.”
Around the world, even here in New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy, people who live, work and play on the water are reporting significant changes in marine ecosystems.
From fewer fish to fewer shorebirds, from growing blooms of algae to shrinking amounts of seaweed, the world’s oceans are showing the effects of climate change, pollution and overfishing.
There have been experts sounding alarms about the oceans for many years, but a new report presented to the United Nations last week has struck a chord with its blunt warnings of looming mass extinctions.
“We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” the international panel of marine experts state in the report.
Alex Rogers of Oxford University, scientific director of the International Program on the State of the Ocean, which convened the expert panel, told Canadaeast News Service the most frightening finding is the quickening pace of change.
Rogers said in an interview from Oxford that the state of the oceans is declining far more rapidly than even the most pessimistic anticipated.
Rogers said climate change is the biggest factor, warning that the rate at which carbon is being pumped into the oceans is already far greater than it was at the time of last major extinction of marine species, 55 million years ago.
“The thing is the rate at which we are seeing change now is unprecedented,” Rogers said.
“The rate of carbon dioxide emissions is huge compared to the past. The closest comparison we have to our present time is about 55 million years ago and at the moment we’re pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at about 10 times the rate at which it was entering the atmosphere during that period, which was associated with a major extinction.”
Rogers says the greatest peril to ocean life is what he refers to as the “deadly trio” – global warming, ocean acidification and lack of water oxygen.
These are common factors which researchers have found to be linked within all known mass extinctions, he says. Global warming builds up carbon dioxide which is then absorbed into the oceans, which causes acidification, while run-off of fertilizers and pollution chokes off oxygen in the water column.
Rogers says there is no single solution to the growing problems in the oceans, but he says a good starting point would be for politicians to at least move the issue higher on policy agendas.
“The first thing that has to happen is that oceans are put higher on the agenda for things like climate negotiations, including the large Rio earth summit next year,” he says.
“I was completely flabbergasted when I read some of the literature on the upcoming summit and found that although they spoke about terrestrial environments and freshwater, the oceans weren’t even mentioned in much of the documentation for that meeting. We’re talking about 90 per cent of the living space for life on the planet.”
Peter Wells, a marine scientist formerly with Environment Canada and now a professor at Dalhousie University, says there’s nothing really new in the report presented to the UN last week.
“The scientific community has recognized various issues for decades, particularly around the coastlines of the world’s oceans,” Wells said in an interview.
“It’s not a new issue. It’s just that it has come to the fore because things are being pressed by climate change and also by the population explosion.”
Wells said that he has pushed the urgency of the situation throughout his career.
He says there have been improvements especially in terms of measures to curb industrial waste and municipal sewage.
In addition, he says the recently released results of the census of marine life give hope in terms of the many new species discovered in the oceans.
The international census, involving more than 2,700 scientists around the globe, has formally described more than 1,200 new marine species, with another 5,000 or more in the pipeline awaiting formal description.
But the best chance for those new species is that they are inedible, because Wells says that is the biggest challenge facing the oceans – overfishing.
“The biggest stress on the coastal systems and on the ocean shelves has been fishing,” he says.
“Fishing has created more change over the last few hundred years than any other stress. That’s the removal of biomass, that’s the removal of species and knocking down populations and in some cases so hard they don’t recover, such as the northern cod.”
Hatfield says it’s not surprising to him that the oceans are undergoing rapid change, pointing out that no one could have imagined northern cod stocks would be wiped out in fewer than 100 years.
“It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole ocean,” he says.