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Editorial

Severe stress on oceans affects us in the mountains

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"The findings are shocking. As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean the implications became far worse than we had individually realized."

Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO )

"The world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history."

So warns an international panel of marine experts in a just released report.

It is easy to read the sentence and just turn the page - oh, yes; another report from experts bemoaning the way the human race is destroying its habitat. Though alarming, these reports have in the past had a way of numbing people into inaction so great is the feeling of fear and ineffectiveness they instill.

But recently I have noticed that perhaps there is a change in the way people are thinking... and acting.

While at a grocery store I overheard a woman ask if the fish department had an Ocean Wise selection - it did.

Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. It works directly with restaurants; markets, food services and suppliers ensuring that they have the most current scientific information regarding seafood and helping them make ocean-friendly buying decisions.

Several restaurants and food suppliers in Whistler are also part of this program as are many in Vancouver and more and more across Canada. In all there are over 300 participating members, for a total of over 2,700 locations.

It is one of hundreds of initiatives being taken around the world to address at a grassroots level some of the concerns we are seeing more and more frequently in the media about the threats to our oceans.

On June 15 Toronto's municipal council voted to send its Fin-Free Toronto campaign to the city's licensing and standards committee to look into the ramifications of banning the use of shark fins in cooking - particularly shark-fin soup, a Chinese delicacy.

Brantford, Ont., passed a similar ban in June, becoming the first Canadian city to do so.

While the movement to draw attention to the horrific treatment of sharks - it is estimated 73 million are killed annually for their fins in this billion-dollar industry -is not new.

What is new is the move by Canadians of Chinese decent choosing not to have the soup at their weddings. This move has captured headlines here in Vancouver and elsewhere.

In restaurants shark fin soup can range from $25 for a bowl the size of a tennis ball to $120 for an extra large bowl.

The fins have to be soaked in cold water for half a day and then boiled with ginger and spring onions. They have no taste of their own.

They are then soaked in tap water for a further four hours before being boiled for six to eight hours with chicken stock and Chinese ham to add flavor.

Shark fin soup conveys status when served and eaten, and the idea of it pervades Chinese society. Serving shark fin soup at auspicious events has been a tradition since the Ming Dynasty among elites, but the Chinese bridal and restaurant industries have turned it into an essential element of any middle-class wedding or important business meal. As China's economy expands, more people are putting the soup on the menu.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (2008), 50 shark species are listed as being at high risk of extinction (either Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable). Another 63 shark species are approaching threatened status.

The just-released report cited at the start of this column came after the first ever interdisciplinary international workshop to consider the cumulative impact of all stressors affecting the ocean. They gathered under the auspices of International Programme on the State of the Ocean and the IUCN and looked at pollution, acidification, ocean warming, overfishing and deoxygenation. What they found is that this combination, along with climate change, is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth's history, and that this is happening far faster than anyone has predicted.

As examples, the group cited:

•The rate at which carbon is being absorbed by the ocean is already far greater now than at the time of the last globally significant extinction of marine species, some 55 million years ago, when up to 50 per cent of some groups of deep-sea animals were wiped out.

•A single mass coral bleaching event in 1998 killed 16 per cent of all the world's tropical coral reefs.

•Overfishing has reduced some commercial fish stocks and populations of by-catch species, such as sharks, by more than 90 per cent.

These are frightening revelations - but rather than turning away we need to make choices about what we eat, what we use in everyday living and how we get rid of our garbage - let's ban plastic water bottles for a start.

We know what needs to happen. What we need now is government to listen and to act.