Is planet Earth on the brink of the next great extinction?
By Eric Souder
When I met Helen for the first time in 2016, she was still recovering from her accident. She’d lost a huge amount of her mobility and wasn’t able to live on her own. Her caretakers told me that with the injuries she had, she would never be able to live unassisted.
Helen is a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin living at Vancouver Aquarium after becoming entangled in a fixed fishing net off the west coast of Japan in 1996. To save her life, veterinarians had to amputate much of her pectoral fins — her “flippers” — leaving her unable to hunt or survive on her own, says the Vancouver Aquarium. The governments of Canada and Japan believed that releasing her into the ocean would be a certain death sentence, and so she was permitted to remain in human care for the rest of her life.
Helen is not the only animal with a story like this. Every year, the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Center says they rescue over 150 marine mammals, of which a large fraction require rescue because of problems humans have caused. Along British Columbia’s coast alone, the Rescue Center says they estimate over 400 sea lions are entangled in discarded packing straps, rope, string and nets each year. And while the seals, otters, and sea lions rescued by the Rescue Center are adorable and easy to relate to, marine mammals are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of animal deaths by way of humanity.
A New Extinction Event
In 1502, the Large St. Helena Petrel and the St. Helena Hoopoe, both from the same small island, became extinct. In 1690, the Dodo bird. In 1768, the Stellar’s Sea Cow. In 1870, the Labrador duck. The Tasmanian Wolf, 1936. The Deepwater cisco fish, 1952. The Golden toad, 1989. The Bigmouth Rocksnail, 1994.
The United Nations says that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within the next twenty or thirty years, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number since a vast amount of endangered species have still not been discovered. The Smithsonian Institution estimates that our present rate of extinction is hundreds or even thousands of times higher than the natural baseline rate — that species could be going extinct at a rate of more than 1 out of every thousand species every year.
Within scientific circles, there is a growing movement to categorize this loss as a mass extinction event, known as the Holocene extinction. Forgoing the usual clinical tone of a peer reviewed study, a research article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calls it a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization” and a “biological annihilation”.
A Tipping Point
Many scientists, however, are not as quick to call the current losses a mass extinction event, citing that less than 1 percent of species have become extinct in recent human history. This is not to suggest that humans have not done massive and overwhelming damage to the environment — they have — but that the losses so far do not constitute an extinction event. They point out that the five previous known mass extinctions killed off about 70 percent or more of the species alive.
The planet, in their eyes, is like a game of Jenga. You can continue to take away more and more pieces from the tower until it all falls in a single instant: a spectacular, compounding and impossible to predict collapse of food webs and ecosystems. It’s not the initial shock of the asteroid, super volcano, or human destruction that causes the majority of the extinction, but the rippling effects throughout ecosystems that it triggers.
Back from the Brink
Even if we aren’t in a mass extinction yet, we aren’t far from it. Every day, we draw closer and closer towards the brink of collapse without ever knowing what the final straw will be. However, this might be better news that it sounds. It means we have the opportunity to avoid it.
Back at the Vancouver Aquarium, inside and downstairs from Hellen’s habitat, an art installation is on display. Vortex, by Douglas Copland, shows the story of ocean plastic pollution in a way that most people haven’t seen it before. A large pool in the center of the room — once a habitat teeming with dozens of adorable cownose rays — sloshes around, filled with plastic flotsam that Copland has collected off the coast of British Columbia. On a wall, shelving catalogues the colorful multitudes of waste plastic he has recovered. A boat full of plastic people floats up and down in an artificial wave and a sign on the wall reminds visitors that ocean plastics are expected to weigh more than all of the fish in the sea by 2050.
It’s very real. It’s a visceral wake up call about the plastic in our oceans — which kills over a million seabirds each year — and a stark warning. While the exhibit is gone now, (it was only ever intended to be temporary) the message it shared still resonates though the city streets of Vancouver. As of April 2020, plastic straws have been banned by the city of Vancouver as well as foam cups, takeout containers, and disposable utensils. Plastic bags are set to be banned in 2021. While these changes are not enough, they are — at a minimum — deviations from the status quo. Lead by artists, attitudes are changing throughout Vancouver and much of the world. It might even be enough to pull us back from the brink.
Disclaimer: Eric Souder is a volunteer at Ocean Wise/the Vancouver Aquarium, but is writing in a personal capacity based on his own experiences and not as a representative of the Ocean Wise Conservation Association.