The Human Impact
For many coastal peoples, the sea is rich in meaning and spirituality, religiously significant and central to their very being. The legends and traditions of the Maori of New Zealand feature fishing heavily, with one tale positing that the country was discovered by the great explorer Kupe while hunting a giant octopus. Traditional coastal whalers in Japan maintained Shinto whale shrines and whale temples, where detailed descriptions of the whales and their deaths were maintained. For the Inupiat of Alaska, the hunting of the bowhead whale remains to this day more than a form of acquiring food, but is instead the fundamental act around which every aspect of their society, and indeed the very purpose of their existence, revolves.
However, the human presence on and near the ocean has not always been to the ocean’s benefit. Because of over-hunting, gray whales are no longer found in the Atlantic and are close to disappearing from the western Pacific; in the Atlantic Arctic, bowhead whales number in the hundreds at most. In the Southern Hemisphere, where once there were perhaps 200,000 blue whales, there are now maybe 1,000. The great auk, sea mink, Steller’s sea cow and Caribbean monk seal are all extinct.
Today, the vaquita, a porpoise found only in the Gulf of California, may number as few as 100 individuals. The southern bluefin tuna and elkhorn coral are critically endangered, as are several species of sea turtles. Hammerhead, thresher and white sharks have declined in the Northwest Atlantic by more than 75 percent in 15 years; in the Mediterranean Sea, sharks have declined 99.99 percent from historical abundances in the early nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.
Since 1980, an area of seagrass meadow the size of a soccer pitch has been lost every 30 minutes, and almost 30 percent of all seagrass beds are estimated to have been lost. Similarly, about 35 percent of both mangroves and coral reefs worldwide are believed to have been damaged or destroyed as a result of human activities - a figure that does not take into account the growing impacts of climate change.
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