Nov. 2, 2006 -- The apocalypse has a new date: 2048.
That's when the world's oceans will be empty of fish, predicts aninternational team of ecologists and economists. The cause: the disappearanceof species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.
The study by Boris Worm, PhD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, NovaScotia, -- with colleagues in the U.K., U.S., Sweden, and Panama -- was aneffort to understand what this loss of ocean species might mean to theworld.
The researchers analyzed several different kinds of data. Even to theseecology-minded scientists, the results were an unpleasant surprise.
"I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are --beyond anything we suspected," Worm says in a news release.
"This isn't predicted to happen. This is happening now," studyresearcher Nicola Beaumont, PhD, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, U.K., saysin a news release.
"If biodiversity continues to decline, the marine environment will notbe able to sustain our way of life. Indeed, it may not be able to sustain ourlives at all," Beaumont adds.
Already, 29% of edible fish and seafood species have declined by 90% -- adrop that means the collapse of these fisheries.
But the issue isn't just having seafood on our plates. Ocean species filtertoxins from the water. They protect shorelines. And they reduce the risks ofalgae blooms such as the red tide.
"A large and increasing proportion of our population lives close to thecoast; thus the loss of services such as flood control and waste detoxificationcan have disastrous consequences," Worm and colleagues say.
The researchers analyzed data from 32 experiments on different marineenvironments.
They then analyzed the 1,000-year history of 12 coastal regions around theworld, including San Francisco and Chesapeake bays in the U.S., and theAdriatic, Baltic, and North seas in Europe.
Next, they analyzed fishery data from 64 large marine ecosystems.
And finally, they looked at the recovery of 48 protected ocean areas.
Their bottom line: Everything that lives in the ocean is important. Thediversity of ocean life is the key to its survival. The areas of the ocean withthe most different kinds of life are the healthiest.
But the loss of species isn't gradual. It's happening fast -- and gettingfaster, the researchers say.
Worm and colleagues call for sustainable fisheries management, pollutioncontrol, habitat maintenance, and the creation of more ocean reserves.
This, they say, isn't a cost; it's an investment that will pay off in lowerinsurance costs, a sustainable fish industry, fewer natural disasters, humanhealth, and more.
"It's not too late. We can turn this around," Worm says. "Butless than 1% of the global ocean is effectively protected right now."
Worm and colleagues report their findings in the Nov. 3 issue ofScience.