Panel Discusses Impact of Human Activity on Marine Ecosystems

Three marine scientists discussed the detrimental impact human activity is having on the evolution of ocean organisms Thursday as part of the Evolution Matters Lecture Series.

The panelists fielded questions about the current state of the planet’s various ocean ecosystems and how to prevent further environmental damage.

Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Peter R. Girguis began the discussion with an overview of the changing marine ecosystems around the world.

“Death and disease caused by polluted coastal waters cost us $13 billion a year,” Girguis said.

The panelists discussed changes to environmental ecosystems, expressing concern about the methane being released on the ocean floor and lowered oceanic oxygen levels. The trio pointed to climate change as prompting some of the changes.

“How does the ocean respond to that? Can the organisms that live in the ocean buffer the atmosphere and consume that gas before it goes out?” said Samantha B. Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia.

While elaborating on one of the many ways humans rely on basic processes of marine ecosystems, Bruce H. Robison, an ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, referenced the beneficial carbon pump created as organisms migrate from the deep sea to surface layers of the ocean during nighttime.

“They bring organic carbon out of the surface waters, down into the midwaters, and then help to sequester it onto the seafloor,” Robison said. “If we don't do something about the way we are heading, we are going to see massive changes of the composition and structure of these vast oceanic ecosystems.”

Randi D. Rotjan, a professor at Boston University, said she worries that the changes to marine ecosystems and coral reefs specifically “may be perceived as subtle or minor” and that people would not understand the gravity of the damage.

Girguis emphasized the need to take immediate action to prevent the significant effects of global warming on the world’s marine ecosystems.

“Paying for car insurance seems like a waste of time until you get hit,” he said.

Joye also voiced concern for the current “obscene” environmental destruction, but she expressed hope for the future of green energy.

“We have taken more than half of the fossil fuels on this planet and exploited them,” she said. “When 17 percent of a population believes in something, that is where the tipping point is; that is what drives change.”

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