The oceans are our 7th largest economy. 820 million people rely on them for their livelihoods, they’re the main source of protein to nearly half the world’s population (and to the half that’s increasing rapidly) and absorb 90% of the extra carbon we pump into the air. They are the epitome of too big to fail.
Over 90% of world trade is transported via the ocean, with volumes set to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, and it makes up 3% of global emissions.– The snail and the whale
We currently know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the deep ocean - but that won’t be the case by 2030.– Mars versus ocean
The ocean depths are packed full of fascinating chemically weaponised creatures - to catch prey and fend it off - it’s the largest chemical factory on the planet.– The world’s largest chemical factory
The ocean depths are packed full of fascinating chemically weaponised creatures - to catch prey and fend it off - it’s the largest chemical factory on the planet.
It is a treasure trove of potential biotech applications and its opportunities dwarf that of the land. One drop of seawater contains 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses - and we have no idea what is at the deepest parts. Scientists expect that the answers to antibacterial resistance, Alzheimer’s and cancer are all down there, but we need to find them before ocean acidification and temperature rises polish them off. A chemical from a coral sponge discovered recently in Fiji, for example, has already gone through three levels of cancer treatment trials; it’s proven to be effective against prostate cancer that is resistant to chemo.
Over-fishing also tends to remove the bigger creatures in each species. Doing this then limits the population's ability to recover because, when you’re a lady fish, size matters; the bigger you are, the more eggs you have.
We’ve started to limit how much we take from the ocean but demand for protein keeps rising - with the gap being filled by fish farms (in the 1970s we got 5% of our fish from aquaculture – now it’s 50%). Fish farms are mixed bags. They allow production of large sources of protein, without mega-trawlers dragging enormous nets that catch anything and everything (many are large enough to snare the Titanic), but the antibiotics we pump into them, and the poo they pump out, pollutes the water. We also pump in tonnes of pesticides to deal with parasites such as sea lice (sort of a cross between a woodlouse, a prawn and a trilobyte); the little blighters have given the Scottish salmon industry a particularly hard time.
Companies are beginning to experiment with ‘closed-container’ fish farms; they look a little like giant hot tubs floating in the sea and are, as the name suggests, totally contained within themselves. The fish poop filled water is treated within it, minimising contamination of the sea and coastline.
3%? That’s not much we hear you say. But, it is one of the few areas where emissions are rising - S&P puts it at 17% by 2050 - and there are few alternatives to it (bar maybe the end of capitalism or consumerism…). And it has other bads bar carbon emissions. Whales, and other creatures do not like the sound of cargo ship engines. It disorientates them, puts them off feeding and migration routes, and, as we all know, “with their ear splitting roar, it makes [them] swim too close to the shore.” They don’t all have a gutsy literate snail on hand to help.
China has built the world’s first electric cargo ship, an engineering feat, but they’ve used it to transport coal... Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, has committed to being net zero by 2050, with the first carbon neutral vessels rolling out in 2023. It sees methanol (e-methanol and bio-methanol), alcohol-lignin blends and ammonia being the primary fuel frontrunners for the future, but shipping is somewhere we could see hydrogen play a significant role.
We’re at the beginning of what has been dubbed the decade of greatest oceanic exploration and research in our history.
In 2017 6% of the ocean floor had been mapped - in the summer of 2020 that was 19%. It’s estimated we’ll be at 100% by 2030. The impact this will have on biotech and rechargeable batteries alone has been described as incomparable. Magma drives mineralisation - gold, lead, copper etc., - and there are millions of volcanoes in the sea floor, we just haven’t seen them yet. As one oceanographer put it: ‘Manhattan could be on the ocean floor and we wouldn’t know it.’ The danger is, in true human form, that what we can access and measure, we can exploit. Organisations are looking at how we manage those resources sustainably.