What Will Become of the Seas?

Floating tunicates are common as krill in some oceans

Perhaps the saddest thing about the continuing worsening of the ocean’s chemistry towards toxic waste dump status is that when sea life is gone–other than the absence of gulls in the air and fishing boats on the horizon and seafood restaurants–we will have lost countless creatures that were never even named, as well as so many known species we never really knew apart from an occasional deep-trawler extraction or National Geographic special.

We are cut off from the sea’s reality and fate by the boundary between air and water, a duality of denial and indifference based on the medium of our lives and theirs.

One such group that I’ve not thought about since Invertebrate Zoology days decades ago is a group of lowliest-possible chordates called the Tunicates. Take a look at the diversity in the group here–this is really worth a minute.

Then realize these creatures not only exist. In many oceans, these sack-like filter feeders are vastly abundant and important in the food web that includes sea turtles that consumes a kind of tunicate called “pyrosomes” in large quantities. Pyro as in fire: these creatures are among the most spectacularly bioluminescent creatures on the planet.

And they are dying in huge numbers now in the Gulf of Mexico with oil toxins in their tissues. Apparently the turtles will eat the toxic pyrosomes that tend to float after death. So that if the oil doesn’t kill them directly, these turtles still take a hard hit from the oil.

The chemical state of the oceans discussed in this piece in Forbes Magazine is going to get a lot more attention soon, especially after the release of the paper last week that revealed the plight of the world’s marine phytoplankton, about which more soon.

See also this NPR piece on the subject from this past week.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. We had better get a grip on this immediately. Loss of life in the oceans means loss of homo sapien. The oceans, given millions of years, would recover but we would likely become extinct.


  2. I know we run the risk of “crisis fatigue” but we potentially have a last chance to make really long-reaching decisions with sacrifice in the short run that will save immense suffering for generations ahead. Will we make those hard choices? Probably not. And herein will rest our fate as a civilization–if not a species. All is not lost. But much already is. We have to go on as if our efforts and conversation matter.

  3. Fred: What’s your take on today’s statement by BP oil (or their scientist-spokesperson) that 75% of the oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico is “gone”? You do much more research on such issues than I, which is why I ask.

  4. Here’s the scoop:

    “Up to 4 million barrels (167 million gallons), the vast majority of the spill, remains unaccounted for in government statistics. Some of it has, most likely, been cleaned up by nature. Other amounts may be gone from the water, but they could have taken on a second life as contaminants in the air, or in landfills around the Gulf Coast.

    And some oil is still out there — probably mixed with chemical dispersants. Some scientists have described it floating in underwater clouds, which one compared to a toxic fog.”

    David A. Fahrenthold and Leslie Tamura report for the Washington Post July 29, 2010, with Marc Kaufman and Steven Mufson.


    “Mainstream Media Helps BP Pretend There’s No Oil” (Mother Jones)

    “Gulf Oil Spill: Where Has the Oil Gone?” (Christian Science Monitor)

    “BP Lies (Again), This Time on Drilling ‘Mud'” (Mother Jones)

  5. Those photos of tunicates were astonishing. I was a biology major, and know the term tunicates, but doubt that I ever saw any photos of them. That mucus producing type is truly incredible!!