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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Food Chains in Peril: How the Melting Ocean Floor is Changing Food Chains

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Food Chains in Peril: How the Melting Ocean Floor is Changing Food Chains

Changing Food Chains

The Effects of Global Warming on Food Chains, From Phytoplankton to Whales

Is the food you’re going to eat ever a consideration? Consider it thoroughly, you know?

The ocean is frequently reduced to nothing more than a food source for humans. However, where does it originate? Fish do not appear out of thin air. From the largest whales to the tiniest plankton, every level of life is interconnected in this intricate ecosystem. Fish, for example, prey on organisms smaller than themselves, and those organisms, in turn, may be nourished by even smaller animals.

Is the invisible biological iceberg below the water’s surface large?

We have a reasonably solid plan, which is surprising.

Can You Explain Biomass?

I bought two filets of hake fish, and they were in a white package. Imagine if they were enormous, weighing five kilograms before entering that container, symbolizing a piece of marine life weighing one to ten kilograms. 

  • Right next to it, picture a crate containing 10 Dover soles weighing around half a kilogram. The two containers hold the same overall mass, but the second one has marine life ranging from 0.1 to 1 kilogram, represented by fish weighing a tenth of that weight.
  •  To continue, you will find 100 sardines in the following box, followed by 1,000 Atlantic shrimp, and lastly 10,000 little rock-pool snails, each weighing 1 gram.
  • Research has shown a rule: for every tenfold drop in size, there are 10 times as many individuals in each size category with the same total biomass.
  • Counting all the different kinds of life in the ocean yields the same total mass: crustaceans, fish, marine animals, bacteria, sea stars, and every other kind of life imaginable.
  • There are 1 gigatonne (one billion tons) of organisms in the ocean, with a tenfold distribution throughout different size classes: 0.1 kilo to 1 kilo, 0.1 gram to 1 gram, and so on.
  • The ocean has a staggering diversity of sizes, with one gigaton of life in every category. There’s a lot of life out there, and the majority of it is invisible to us.
  •  If we continue to descend the size scales from the tiniest snails, we will fill fourteen more boxes with invisible marine life. The final one, primarily bacteria, has the same weight as the original hakefish.

Healthy oceans function on this principle, from the tiniest plankton to the largest whales. The size range of these organisms spans twenty-three orders of magnitude, with the largest being one trillionth the size of the smallest, meaning that 61% of the biomass in the ocean cannot be seen without a microscope.

That is, Until Recently. This Equilibrium Remained Unbroken in 1850. Will it be Today?

 Not at all. Has everything disappeared? It was ours. It was either sold for parts, used as fertilizer, or fished out by humans. We have altered the energy flow of the ocean, which has caused it to redirect essential resources to land. The amount of life that has disappeared from the oceans is around 2.7 gigatonnes, even though the total mass of humanity on Earth is only about 0.4 gigatonnes.

Put it in your mind: We are upsetting whole ecosystems by removing large fish. The water that ought to be flowing loses energy, and the loss of nutrients upsets the delicate equilibrium of life.

More importantly, who is bearing the cost? Sixty percent are absent for sizes greater than 10 grams. Nearly all of the biomass has disappeared in the whale habitat.

Deep Water Whales

  • Centuries of continuous hunting brought humpbacks dangerously close to extinction. By the middle of the 1970s, just 1,200 to 1,600 were left in the North Pacific.
  • However, humpbacks made an incredible recovery following the 1982 prohibition on commercial whaling.
  •  Their North Pacific population peaked at around 33,500 in 2012, expanding at a remarkable average rate of 6% from 2002 to 2013. Their astounding comeback allowed the US to delist them from the Endangered Species Act in 2016.
  • Their comeback appeared to be an example of conservation at work. There was a brief period of pure bliss.
  • Royal Society Open Science reports that humpback whale numbers in the North Pacific dropped by 20% from 2013 to 2021, during a period of extremely hot weather.
  • Between 2014 and 2016, the northeast Pacific had an extreme maritime heatwave that caused sea temperatures to rise three to six degrees Celsius above normal. 
  • This messed with the movement of nutrients in the water. And it had disastrous consequences. The demise of phytoplankton—the foundation of the marine food chain—caused by nutrient-starved seas set off a chain reaction of depletion throughout the ecosystem. Seabirds and sardines alike felt the squeeze.
  • Whales were no different. Between 2013 and 2021, over 7,000 humpback whales died in the North Pacific, mostly due to food scarcity.
  • Scientist Ted Cheeseman of Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, the study’s primary investigator, said, “It was a tragic event.” “Humpbacks are hardy creatures, but when the ecosystem takes a hit, they take a hit too.”
  • Whales become more vulnerable to illness due to starvation and emaciation caused by prolonged heatwaves. Warmer water temperatures decrease humpback pregnancy rates, according to research conducted in Antarctica.
  • The Hawaiian waterway between Lanai and Maui also saw decreases of a similar kind. Mother-calf encounters dropped by around 77% from 2013 to 2018, suggesting that humpbacks’ reproduction ability has drastically decreased.

Interdependent Feeding Relationships in the Whaling Cascade

  • Whales and many other species suffer from whaling and biomass extinction. The consequences reach far and wide, upsetting the fragile equilibrium of entire ecosystems. Consider the Southern Ocean, the enormous sea that surrounds Antarctica and is home to the blue whale, the biggest mammal on the planet. 
  • After a feeding dive, these magnificent creatures, like humans, must come up for air. Equally strange is the present that whales, like humans, leave behind after feeding: poop. The waste product of only one whale provides essential nutrients to the marine life around it.
  • There isn’t much of a complex food web in the Southern Ocean. When illumination is nearly continuous in the northern summer, phytoplankton employs photosynthesis to generate energy. This process releases 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the deep ocean annually, accounting for about 40% of all CO₂ emissions. 
  • Phytoplankton also sends at least 50% of the oxygen we breathe into the atmosphere. This is the same as the annual CO₂ sequestration capacity of 1.70 trillion trees or the equivalent of four Amazon forests. 
  • To put that in context. Changes in natural CO₂ absorption may put ecosystems and the world’s climate at risk, and these changes might lead to a perilous discordance in energy transmission up the food chain.

Antarctic Krill Quickly Fixes the Southern Ocean’s Energy Transfer Problem, Which Typically Takes a Long Time.

These crustaceans, which resemble shrimp, are like the brooms of the Southern Ocean. In their aquatic habitat, they continuously gather and consume bacteria and other microbes that are 10,000 times smaller than themselves, using their six front legs as a sort of basket.

The blue whales, the top predators of these krill, then use them as food. Dive down to feast, then come up to let it all out; that’s how much krill an adult blue whale can eat in a day.

Things went wrong, though, at this point. Human hunting caused blue whale populations to fall to near extinction. Upon their eventual protection in 1966, about 1-2 percent of the initial population remained.

The krill population dropped by 80% in areas where whales were prevalent, which goes against the expected boom when a major predator disappears. Many marine animals, including penguins, seals, squid, and fish, rely on krill as a food source, and their reduction has had a domino effect on this web of life in the Southern Ocean.

Why Did That Happen? 

Iron is essential for the most fundamental biological activities, such as photosynthesis and respiration. Although this molecule is absent from the Southern Ocean, it is abundant in other nutrients.

If there are no whales, there will be no iron, meaning there will be no phytoplankton, and thus no krill.

At this point, the whales’ journey is complete. Their waste, which is rich in iron, helps keep phytoplankton alive in the water. Even while phytoplankton doesn’t eat waste products directly, it grows by absorbing the iron discharged into the water.

Reuse and recycling are fundamental to Earth’s biosphere. Through atomic recycling, the very makeup of ecosystems and the kinds of life inside them dynamically change. Our atoms continually travel across space and time, maybe as components of other things.

Therefore, hunting whales is simply one aspect of whaling. Disrupting the delicate balance of life on Earth is what we’re talking about here. No matter how little our actions may seem, 

they all have far-reaching effects on the intricate web of life.

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Are We Able to Fix What Is Broken?

To put it mildly, our ecosystem’s future is uncertain. Everyone stands to lose something. Too hot oceans not only affect fish populations and whales but also change the ocean’s engine. Climate change is making a difficult situation even more precarious for marine life. Food webs and patterns will change, and new connections and separations between once-isolated regions may occur.

The only certainty is uncertainty.

The ocean has been used as a landfill for too long, and this will only get worse if it continues.

Look at this case in point. There will be more traffic, employment, pollution, and extinction of some species if a cement factory is constructed in a former forest. 

The effects of fishing from the ocean floor, on the other hand, are completely invisible. Neither the immediate nor the distant consequences of the injury are known to us. The number of workers working on the fishing vessel and the price of the catch are observable effects.

 We need to exercise caution when engaging in activities associated with the ocean since it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when submerged.

Solving problems one at a time will not be effective. There is a systemic problem. The ocean is an intricate web of relationships that affects our daily lives and the flow of energy and materials worldwide.

Our civilization is based on denying that our home planet has a finite amount of time. Without considering our planet’s life-support system, we have constructed, expanded, consumed, and produced. 

We have stripped ourselves of the pleasure of belonging to a greater whole and severed ties with nature. We may not give it much thought, yet the ocean is nonetheless vital to our survival and has shaped our culture, history, and the marine creatures we encounter.

  1. What comes after this? 
  2. How can we face what is ahead?
  3.  Is it more important that our actions boost our egos than that they positively impact the environment?

Knowledge and technology alone aren’t enough to solve the problem. It’s all about shifting your viewpoint. We must rethink our connection to the ocean and acknowledge our responsibility as stewards of this enormous and intricate system.


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Please ask questions in the comment section (claps are always appreciated), and I will try to answer them.

Good luck isn’t all I have in store for you.

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