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Signs of a Changing Climate, Seeking Solutions

Aileen Torres-Bennett,
Managing Editor,
Sea Technology Magazine

I've been diving a good amount in Jamaica in the last year, and what strikes me is how little, both in size and population, the fish are. One major reason is overfishing, including destructive dynamite fishing. The poverty level in Jamaica is high, and subsistence fishing, at the very least, is necessary for many households. Even if they catch more than they need for household consumption, what they sell often does not add up to enough money to cover the basics of daily life. Moreover, commercial fishing is not well-regulated.

Another reason is climate change. There are still some reefs in Jamaica with stunning coral structures, but there are clearly reefs that have seen better days. The decline of reefs is evident not only in the lack of biodiversity but in the visible withering and bleaching of corals.

Coral bleaching is caused by a significant change in water temperature. For instance, when regional temperatures rose in the Caribbean in 2005 a massive bleaching event occurred that caused the U.S. to lose half of its Caribbean coral reefs, according to NOAA. Satellite data confirmed that thermal stress from the 2005 event exceeded the previous 20 years combined. Bleached corals signal extreme vulnerability.

The idea that climate change is real is becoming more accepted. The UN held its Climate Summit in September, when world leaders committed to finalizing a universal new agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at COP-21 in 2015.

The common denominator between overfishing and climate change is human action. We cannot fault people in need for turning to the ocean to provide them the resources to live. On a larger scale, internationally we have been looking to the ocean to provide us with food, energy, and a place to store our waste. As global temperatures rise and the oceans become more acidic from higher concentrations of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere due to the forms of energy we consume, the oceans are signaling that our current usage patterns are not sustainable.

We are living in the age of the Anthropocene, as some call it, indicating that people have brought about climate change, which is problematic for all nations because it endangers resources we've traditionally relied on, as well as endangering Earth's ecological balance. As Phillip Dustan says in this issue, there are no quick fixes.

Dustan suggests that ocean industries take a leading role in finding solutions. Supporting conservation efforts is not mutually exclusive with advancing industry. For instance, although fossil fuels do contribute to climate change, the infrastructure that the oil and gas industry puts in place can actually promote the proliferation of marine life. The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's Rigs to Reef program allows decommissioned platforms to be converted to artificial reefs. Moreover, a rig doesn't have to be out of commission to be useful as a habitat for marine life. There are working rigs that have attracted large fish, for instance, in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

What we need is a change in practices, with government involved in the process. In the case of Jamaica, economic reforms and training are needed to create more jobs and increase the number of workers with skills essential to economic growth. If fishing is all people know, then that is what they will do. But if they have the training and opportunity to make a better living, then things could change.

As for global actions to address climate change, that's a work in progress. The UN Climate Summit sought a global vision to advance climate action by cutting emissions, mobilizing money and markets, pricing carbon, strengthening resilience, and mobilizing new coalitions. Ocean industries will undoubtedly, and rightly so, play a large role in what develops.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.