“a primeval tide of toxins”

A Primeval Tide of Toxins,” the first of five parts in Ken Weiss’s Altered Oceans series, may keep me sleepless for a while. Weiss starts with this evil red stuff on the ocean floor of Australia’s Moreton Bay. It’s called fireweed and those who dare to fish in those waters when the fireweed blooms suffer “searing welts” on their skin, blistered lips, constricted breathing.

The thing about fireweed and other quickly growing and spreading bacterial organisms is not that they’re new products of modern pollution but that they’re ancient bacterial organisms flourishing in the polluted muck that kills off the organisms’ natural predators. Our oceans prove that rather than advancing, we’re in retrograde — to the tune of millions of years. Here’s Weiss:

In many places — the atolls of the Pacific, the shrimp beds of the Eastern Seaboard, the fiords of Norway — some of the most advanced forms of ocean life are struggling to survive while the most primitive are thriving and spreading. Fish, corals and marine mammals are dying while algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked. Where this pattern is most pronounced, scientists evoke a scenario of evolution running in reverse, returning to the primeval seas of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Our pollution kills off the food we need and feeds the non-food that kills us. Part I clearly shows how each bit of our Earth connects with each other bit, because the pollution that dumps nitrogen and carbon into the oceans comes from fertilized farmlands, for instance, which runs off into the nearest river, like the Mississippi, and makes its way south to the ocean.

I’m on to Part II, although I’m not sure it’s good for my nerves. Doesn’t matter. That’s part of the problem — our huge mechanism of denial. Weiss states that we’ve believed for so long that the oceans are too vast to be affected by our polluting ways, but his series proves that, as he says, ” But over time, the accumulation of environmental pressures has altered the basic chemistry of the seas.”

The website for the Altered Oceans series offers video and photographs that I haven’t yet looked at. I’ll admit it: I’m scared to. I’ll leave you with the statistics that the front page offers:

  • 90% of worldwide stocks of tuna, cod and other big fish have disappeared in the last 50 years.
  • 650 gray whales have washed up sick or dead along the West Coast in the last seven years.
  • 150 oxygen-depleted “dead zones” have been identified in oceans around the world.
  • 75% of kelp forests off the Southern California coast, prime habitat for fish, have vanished in the last 50 years.
  • 97% of elkhorn and staghorn coral off Florida’s coast have disappeared since 1975.

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