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The Poisoned Pacific

March 22nd was World Water Day, and to celebrate that over the next few weeks, Let's explore the world’s biggest source of water: our five oceans. We’ll start with the biggest and deepest, the Pacific Ocean.

Something is going on in the Pacific: reports of seal pups, sea lions, and whales found dead and dying; sardines and other fish declining in numbers; and starfish disintegrating are frightening, but perhaps not surprising. El Nino has been wreaking havoc on the eco-system, heating up the water and changing the currents, which is bad for the fish and, in turn, bad for the marine life that feeds on the fish. But, there is another factor: the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, sent enormous amounts of radioactive material into the ocean, killing fish and other creatures. Descriptions of the sea off the leak site are horrifying, with accounts of fish and animals with lesions and tumours, spotted from Japan to Alaska. Dreadful as this is for the animals, it is also affecting humans: between 73 and 100 per cent of fish species we eat, such as halibut, tuna, cod, and mackerel, are contaminated with radiation, claims blogger Gary Stamper of “Collapse Into Consciousness,” who says that we should not eat Pacific seafood for the forseeable future.

Scientists studying the ocean floor noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of dead sea life on the bottom of the ocean in the wake of the Fukushima accident. Jim Covel, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has described the phenomenon as “global weirding.” Fukushima and Chernobyl were both level 7 nuclear disasters, but some observers say that the Japanese event is worse because instead of a one-off, contained spill, it has continued to leak radiation for going on five years.

In what looks like a “perfect storm” of problems, combining El Nino and nuclear run-off, the warming sea water encourages the growth of algae which harbours neurotoxins, making things like Dungeness crab fished from the Pacific unsafe to eat. The California crab harvest was delayed in 2015 because the creatures were inedible due to their contamination by eating poisonous algae. Fishermen make $60 million alone, and this isn’t counting the money for restaurants and retail sales, so this was a huge deal for the state’s fishing industry.

Scientists from the well-respected Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, however, say that the levels of radiation in the Pacific, although high, are still well below what the US considers safe for drinking and swimming, and when they aren’t eating toxic algae, the crab are safe to harvest. Science writer Claire Leschin-Hoar, writing on, accused Stamper of “scaremongering,” and said that fish that reached the US are safe to eat. She writes that an individual would have to eat 4,000 lbs of tuna, for example, to increase their radiation level by one per cent.

Unsurprisingly, other observers sit on the middle ground, saying that Fukushima is definitely a cause for concern but that the deaths of the sea animals are attributable to other causes. Dr Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole points out that there are nearly 100 nuclear reactors on or near the US coast, all pumping radioactive water into the rivers and oceans. He wants to see the public educated much more thoroughly on the subject of radiation so that we are neither unjustly terrified nor blissfully ignorant.

There is another factor that has gone unmentioned in this debate: the “Ring of Fire” string of volcanoes that sit on the Pacific Rim. The molten lava brewing below the surface might also have something to do with the temperature rise in the ocean. As one observer said, “the Ring of Fire is waking up…” The average number of volcanic eruptions for each calendar year in the 20th century was about 40: in one week in May 2015 alone, there were 35…. It is only a matter of time before the dormant but not extinct volcanoes in the United States, for example, come back to life, with potentially disastrous consequences. Undersea volcanic eruptions can cause tsunamis, threatening the coastal areas which are already facing rising sea levels and threatened natural habitats.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest all over, home to the Marianas Trench, the deepest on earth, and other undersea valleys. Any drastic change in its marine ecosystem will have a worrying domino effect on the rest of the planet's natural balance.

Next week, we'll examine the Atlantic Ocean and look at its particular environmental issues....

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