Tracking Ocean Health with Marine Mammals

By Jasmine Oropeza

Marine mammals are important to the marine ecosystem, as over 3 billion people throughout the world depend on marine biodiversity for their livelihoods. Preserving marine biodiversity is critical to the health of the planet. The United Nations (UN) has outlined its goals for conserving and sustainably using the ocean and its marine resources, but our oceans are continuing to deteriorate as a result of human activity. 

Ocean acidification is the process of our oceans absorbing carbon dioxide, ultimately changing the normal concentrations of the ocean. The burning of fossil fuels, water pollution, and the increase of atmospheric carbon has damaged the health of our marine ecosystem. This decline has only worsened in the recent decades. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, ocean acidification has increased by 25%. The rapid rate at which our ocean is deteriorating is challenging for marine life to adapt to. According to a UN report, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. 

Pinnipeds, a group that includes both seals and sea lions, are suffering as a result of ocean acidification and loss of marine life. Exposure to predation, toxins, and change in ocean acidity have affected their reproductive success and survival. Toxic algae that produces domoic acid has been linked to increased ocean acidification. Domoic acid causes seizures, loss of pregnancy, and death in sea lions. 

Studying the health and geographical locations of marine mammals and other marine life in the ocean is a way to monitor the rapid progression of climate change. Seals are powerful indicators of the declining health of our marine ecosystems. Many programs such as Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Marine Program track marine mammal populations in order to protect these species and their habitats. Research conducted by WCS revealed seasonal distributions and movement patterns of five species of Arctic marine mammalsbearded seals, beluga whales, bowhead whales, ribbon seals, and walrusthat allows further understanding of sea ice changes and climate change’s effect on ocean ecosystems. 

Not only do seals provide indicators of the progression of climate change, but they are also important to the health of the ocean. Marine mammals store carbon in their bodies, which they then excrete as waste products that fertilize and protect deep sea marine plants. They also have the ability to counter ocean stratification. As One Green Planet explains, “By diving into deep waters to feed, then rising to the surface of the water to breathe, marine mammals create a ‘biological pump’ which mixes the ocean’s layers.” This biological pump supports the growth of phytoplankton, which provide 50% of the oxygen in the ocean and the base for the ocean food web. The life processes and bodily mechanics of marine vertebrates are essential for removing carbon from the atmosphere, so preserving their lives and habits is important in the fight against climate change. 

Marine mammals allow us the opportunity to monitor fluctuations in ocean acidification and marine ecosystems. Preserving and protecting our current marine life and helping them adapt to the changing environment will help mitigate the environmental changes that are deteriorating the ocean’s health. 

About Author: Jasmine Oropeza is a pre-veterinary student at the University of California, Davis studying Animal Science and Public Health. Having more than 4 years of experience with different animal organizations within the Bay Area, she advocates for the importance of climate education, animal welfare, and accessible veterinary care. When not at UC Davis, Jasmine spends time with her pets in San Pablo, CA.

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