Overfishing, fossil fuel use, farm runoff from over-fertilizing, oil spills, and government inaction over the last century has made a mess of the world's oceans.
Jeremy Jackson, senior scientist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, delivered that sobering message to members of the Franklin & Marshall community attending Common Hour Nov. 20.
For the hundreds attending the discussion in Mayser Gym, Jackson painted a grim picture of the near future –- as soon as the year 2100 -- when rising sea levels are expected to inundate the cities of New Orleans and Miami and overrun parts of New York and seaside metropolises around the globe.
Already overfishing has depleted the waters around the United States and reduced the size and quality of the fish left in the world's oceans, Jackson said. In Japan, certain species of fish are so prized that they may soon become extinct. The Bluefin tuna, for example, can sell for $3,600 per pound.
"With that kind of impetus, we will catch the last Bluefin tuna in the world," Jackson said.
Meanwhile, runoff from the world's farm fields -- where over-reliance on chemical fertilizers is standard agriculture practice -- goes into streams, rivers and eventually the oceans, resulting in oxygen-poor dead zones where marine life cannot prosper.
Other pollution, ranging from oil spills to plastic dumping, are destroying marine life and altering oceanic ecology, increasing the populations of what Jackson called "the rats and cockroaches of the ocean:" jellyfish, dogfish, zebra mussels, and toxic bacteria, among others.
Jackson acknowledged that his message was disheartening, but the scientist also said he sees hope. "Virtually all of it is fixable, and we know how to fix it," he said.
He cited as one example the island of Bermuda. Several years ago the government imposed stiff fishing restrictions that halted overfishing and allowed the fish species there to thrive. Jackson said the world must embrace sustainable practices at all levels.
"We know how to stop this. We just don't do it," he said.
He cited political corruption, economic self-interests and a public that is unaware of the problems and their magnitude as the primary reasons for lack of action.
"The central problem has nothing to do with science," Jackson said, gesturing at the audience. "You're the ones who will be living with the debris of what we did. Go out and make a difference."
Following the talk, sophomore Jamie Henzes, a biology major, said he appreciated Jackson's candor.
"I think what he's doing is good because people don't have an understanding of it," Henzes said. "Like he said, it's my generation that has to do something about it."
Sophomore Kathryn Benedetto, who is planning to major in environmental science and business, systems and organizations, said Jackson's message hit home.
"It makes you not want to eat fish," Benedetto said. "It definitely puts a lot of pressure on our generation to do something."