World Oceans day

Written by Shari LaRue, Docent


We are privileged at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center to have one of our animal care supervisors come to us with experience from working at Miami, Florida’s Seaquarium.  Shanna Simpson spent seven years working with sea mammals such as the bottlenose dolphin, California sea lions, Pacific harbor seals and the Pacific white sided dolphins.  One of her favorites and one she worked with as an animal trainer was the killer whale.  She recalls how much of an impact these animals had on those that visited the Seaquarium.  The experience engaged all your senses, from the smells of the salt water, the humidity in the air, the sights of these ocean mammals and how intelligent they are.  The killer whales with their striking black and white colors and their abilities to interact with their trainers is an experience that Shanna treasures.  Killer whales are a top predator of the ocean, yet Shanna says they are such gentle giants to work with.  They form deep bonds with each other and live-in social groups known as pods.  They are extremely smart and playful, just as is another ocean mammal most of us are very fond of, the dolphin. 

And the Ocean’s whales are a success story for humankind.  There was a time when they were hunted to near extinction.  Then efforts to save the whales began and in 1978 Australia outlawed whaling, followed by the USA outlawing the practice in 1986 along with a worldwide ban on commercial whaling.  Blue whales of the Antarctic were less than 1% of their original numbers.  The West Pacific Grey Whales had less than 100 individuals left and were endangered.  The humpback whale was near extinction with a population that went from 1,000 to over 21,000 today.  Seven of the thirteen great whale species are still threatened or endangered, but the efforts to save them have made a difference.

There is a lot to be worried about when it comes to our oceans.  The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development adopted June 8 as World Ocean day back in 1992.  Just recently, the UN reported the following statistics:

  • Rising carbon dioxide levels are causing acidification of our Oceans.
  • The number of dead zones, areas with reduced oxygen affecting the Oceans ability to support life in that area has increased from 400 globally in 2008 to 700 in 2019.
  • 90% of mangrove, seagrass and marsh species and 31% of seabirds are threatened with extinction.
  • 15% of sandy beaches are seeing retreating shorelines and an average of 3.3 feet per year or more over the last 33 years.

Increasing carbon dioxide levels are causing our Oceans to become more acidic, affecting the ability of living organisms to survive.  Seawater is slightly basic (meaning a pH of greater than 7).  As the pH changes to less than seven (towards higher acidity) this decreases the production of shells for shellfish.  The carbon dioxide that is released into our atmosphere is absorbed by our ocean waters, but also our rivers and lakes.  In some areas, the concentrations are high enough that it forms carbonic acid.  

Not only is the acidity of the ocean affecting life but increasing temperatures of our Oceans are also causing a decrease in our ocean’s biodiversity.  According to the published assessment done in 2013 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 93% of the excess heat from greenhouse gases absorbed by the Oceans, causing temperature rises.  The modeling in this report predicts that there is likely to be an increase in mean global temperature of 1-4 degrees Celsius by 2100.   That is a tremendous change when you consider the volume of water in our oceans.   Warming of the oceans leads to a decrease in available oxygen and sea-level rise resulting from the thermal expansion of water and accelerating ice melting.   

This does not just affect the biodiversity of the oceans, although reducing fish stocks and dying corals are a worldwide concern for humans.  Rising temperatures also affects vegetation like the mangroves, which protect our coastlines, just as coral reefs help to decrease storm surges.  The expanding ocean waters and increased oceanic temperatures threaten our coastlines, destroying housing and infrastructure and forcing those affected to rebuild or relocate.

 However, Kansas is so far from the ocean.  How do citizens of Kansas affect the health of the oceans?  Our waterways eventually run to the ocean.  Garbage, plastics, soil contaminates that are washed into our waterways eventually get to the ocean.  Plastics have become a huge problem, contaminating soil, waterways and making micro plastic contamination, something found in almost every living organism.  

Plastics do not decompose, they breakdown into smaller and smaller particles (micro plastics).  These particles become air borne and deposited through air currents to even the most remote places such as the Artic Glaciers.  Trucks and cars send micro plastics from the roadways into the air, aloft in the winds.  Airborne micro plastics can stay in the atmosphere for seven days, long enough to be carried across the continent and land in our oceans.  

Your plastic straw from 1980 by now has fragmented into tiny pieces too small to see.  These pieces are cycling through the atmosphere, oceans, air and even infiltrating the soil.  Hot spots for land-based plastics are the US, Europe; Middle East, India and East Asia.  In our oceans, the hot spots are the Pacific and Mediterranean.

So, how big is the plastic problem?  Worldwide, 381 million ton of plastic waste is created each year.  This is set to double by 2034.  Fifty percent of this plastic is single use plastics like a straw, a produce bag, a takeout container or cup.  8 million ton enters our Oceans each year and by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.  It is estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and over 1 million sea birds are killed each year from plastics.  You have probably seen some of the photos of plastics found in the stomach of dead whales, seals, turtles and other sea creatures.  Other means of death is being tangled up in plastics and being unable to escape.

In addition, micro plastics can be found in our soil, which means our plants are now integrating plastics into their cells.  One hundred percent of sea turtles have micro plastics in their systems.  Humans on average ingest 5 grams of micro plastics per week, which is an equivalent size to a plastic credit card.  Plastics found in bottled water with up to 90,000 more micro plastic particles consumed by people who drink bottled water compared to tap water.  These plastics have been found to be hormone disruptors in humans, decreasing testosterone levels and sperm counts in men and causing metabolic diseases.  

You have probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It is a patch of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean that now 1.6 million kilometers squared.  This area is bigger than the State of Texas.  The plastic problem is huge.  

We all have a role to play in improving the state of our waterways and our Oceans.  Here in Kansas, we are dependent upon the oceans for the weather we experience, the seafood we consume, the export of grains and other products and more.   At the Topeka Zoo, we are working to make a difference.  We have eliminated single use plastics such as bags for your purchases and plastic straws for your drinks.  People everywhere are working to eliminate plastics or find alternatives to plastics such as bamboo plates and utensils, reusable silicon covers instead of plastic wrap, cloth grocery bags instead of the store’s plastic bags.  Researchers and Scientists are working to accelerate the evolution of corals so that they can live in warmer waters.    There are people working to clean up the Ocean and pick up beaches and roadways.  Zoos and Aquariums are working to conserve our waterways and educate people to the problems as well as help rehabilitate marine mammals and sea life that are struggling to survive.  There are many ways that each of us can do our part.  Make sure you take some time out on Saturday, June 12 to visit the Topeka Zoo and learn more about World Ocean Day.  It is a beautiful planet that we live on with the huge bodies of water that support life everywhere. Let us celebrate together.