February 25, 2020

Time to Wake Up: Dwindling Catches

As-prepared for delivery.

Mr./Mdm. President, I come to again raise an alarm about the massive carbon pollution we are dumping into our natural world, and to tell the stories of two ocean creatures suffering from that pollution.  We may mock or ignore these creatures, these lesser creatures so far down the food chain from us, but we are fools to ignore the message of what is happening to them. 

Matthew 25:41 admonishes, “as you did it to one of the least of these . . . , you did it to me.”  So we ought not mock and ignore these lesser species.  They also have a lesson for us — a warning.  If we keep up what we’re doing to them, it will soon enough be us that suffers.  As Pope Francis warned: slap Mother Nature and she will slap you back. 

Let’s start with the overview.  First, it’s not just these two species.  The science writer Elizabeth Kolbert has warned that we have entered a Sixth Great Extinction, the first great extinction in humans’ time on the planet, and it’s driven by manmade pollution and climate change. Scientists from around the globe have just issued one of the most comprehensive reports ever on Earth’s biodiversity, and the head of that panel, Sir Robert Watson, summarized its findings this way:

“The overwhelming evidence . . . presents an ominous picture.  The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The legendary David Attenborough warns that we face “irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”  He says: “It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”

And we need to remember our oceans.  Oceans are warming, and acidifying, and literally suffocating ocean species as oxygen dead zones expand. Earth’s oceans warm at the rate of multiple Hiroshima explosions’ worth of heat per second.  They acidify at the fastest rate in at least 50 million years.  They’re also fouled with our plastic garbage, and polluted by runoff from farming and storm water. Our oceans’ warnings are loud and clear and measurable. They are chronicled by fishermen and sailors, and measured with thermometers, tide gauges, and simple pH tests measuring acidification. 

Acidification takes us to these two species.  The oceans are absorbing around 30 percent of our excess CO2 emissions, and they do that in a chemical interaction that takes up the CO2 but acidifies the seawater.  Don’t pretend there’s any dispute about this.  Acidification is a chemical phenomenon.  You can demonstrate it in a middle school science lab.  You can demonstrate it with your breath, an aquarium bubbler, a glass of water, and a pH strip.  In fact, I have, right at this desk. 

Here’s the first species:  the tiny pteropod.  It’s an oceanic snail about the size of a small pea. It is known as the sea butterfly because it has adapted two butterfly-like wings that can propel it around in the ocean.

Acidifying waters make it harder for pteropods, and a lot of other shelled creatures, to grow their shells and develop properly from juveniles to adults. Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have reported what they called “severe shell damage” on more than half of the pteropods they collected from Central California to the Canadian Border. 

These images show the pteropod’s shell when the creature’s underwater environment becomes more acidic. That is not good for the pteropods. Maintaining their shells against that acidity requires energy—energy that would otherwise go into growth or reproduction. So increasing ocean acidity makes it harder for species such as the pteropod, and other shelled creatures at the base of the oceanic food chain, to survive.

Who cares?  Who cares about the lowly pteropod?  Who cares about some stupid ocean snail? 

Well, for one, salmon do. Half the diet of some salmon species in the Pacific is pteropods.  Salmon fisheries support coastal jobs and economies across our Pacific Northwest.  Offshore fishing in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry, connected to hundreds of thousands of livelihoods.  If you care about our fisheries industry, you should care about the humble pteropod.  An entire food chain stands on its tiny back, and we are in that food chain. 

Move up the food chain a little and you find another creature facing peril from acidification: the Dungeness crab.  You see this crustacean on ice at your local fish market.  It’s an important commercial catch along our West Coast.  In 2014, the latest year the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission did a comprehensive report, the Dungeness catch was worth nearly $170 million.  It is Oregon’s most valuable fishery, and important also for Washington State, and for California where annual landings run between $40 and $95 million.  Up north, in 2017, Alaska’s commercial landings of Dungeness crabs totaled more than 2.1 million pounds.

Last month, marine scientists reported that acidified oceans are dissolving the delicate shells of Dungeness crab larvae.  The acidic environment is also damaging the larvae’s mechanoreceptors— the hair-like sensory organs that crabs use to hear and feel and make their way around the sea.  The damage to the crabs is bad news, but worse is that we’re seeing it now.  Scientists thought hardy Dungeness crabs wouldn’t be affected by acidification for decades.  Richard Feely, senior NOAA scientist and co-author of the study, reports that these “dissolution impacts to the crab larvae … were not expected to occur until much later in this century.” 

The sentinel implications for the entire ecosystem are grave.  If the Dungeness are feeling the effects of ocean acidification now, what other creatures are feeling those effects, too?  Another lead author of this study said, “if the crabs are affected already, we really need to make sure we start to pay much more attention to various components of the food chain before it is too late.”

Their concerns about the Dungeness crab echo what scientists said of early findings about the pteropod.  Oceanographer William Peterson, coauthor of one such study, said, “We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades.”

The pteropod and the Dungeness send a common message, one echoed by a Rhode Island fishing boat captain who told me, “Sheldon, things are getting weird out there.” 

And they’re getting weird faster than expected.  The rapid ocean acidification that we are measuring now, that we are causing now with our carbon pollution, is nearly unprecedented in the geological record.  The closest historical analogs scientists can find go back before humankind to the prehistoric great extinctions – when marine species were wiped out and ocean ecosystems took millions of years to recover. 

In his encyclical Laudato Sii, Pope Francis, a trained scientist himself, reflected on “the mysterious network of relations between things.” In that mysterious network of relations between things, the pteropod and the crab larva give their lives to transmit food energy from the microscopic plants they eat, that would be no use to us, up to the fish that consume the pteropod and larva—fish, which we, in turn, consume—all in that great “mysterious network.”

What’s happening to these two species is a signal then, a signal of a looming global ecological catastrophe.  Lesser species can sometimes be sentinels for humans, like the legendary canaries taken down into coal mines.  When the sentinels start to die, it is wise to pay attention. 

What happens when in our arrogance and pride we refuse to heed the warnings from creatures so humble as pteropods or crab larvae?  Remember why Jesus was so angry with the Pharisees — what was their sin? Their arrogance and their pride blinded them to the truth.

The Senate —this greatest deliberative body — has blinded itself to the devastation fossil fuels are unleashing on our Earth’s “mysterious network.”  We careen recklessly into the next Great Extinction.  Pope Francis says, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.  We have no such right,” he says.  Indeed, we have no such right.

I challenge us to see the damage we have done — the damage we are doing now, today — to this mysterious network of life that supports us.  I challenge us to turn away from dark forces of corruption and greed — the fossil fuel industry forces that have deliberately crippled our ability in Congress to stop their pollution.  I challenge us to heed the humble creatures sharing this planet with us—the least of us, who share God’s creation.  They suffer, at our hands, and in their suffering they send us a message, a warning, that we would do well to hear.

I yield the floor.