Shorebirds in southern Nova Scotia at Port Joli

This photo was taken in southern Nova Scotia at Port Joli and gives a spectacular view of local shorebirds. The photographer posted the original photo on his flickr account.

Kejimkujik shore birds by Sam Blackman \ CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Did you know there used to be giant sloths? I’m not kidding. We’re talking six metres long and occupying much of the globe, including North America. You might imagine something this colossal living alongside the dinosaurs, but you’d be wrong. These giants lived in the time of our ancestors, perhaps as recently as five thousand years ago.

These hairy leaf munchers weren’t the only titans back then. There was the giant lemur, giant moose, giant camel, giant unicorn (that’s right), giant beaver and of course you’re familiar with the mammoth. What happened to them all? They were destroyed by a fearsome predator with an appetite that, at the time, outweighed its understanding of the natural world.

I’ll give you a hint – this predator had two opposable thumbs.

The damage we’ve done to the terrestrial world is unspeakable and in many ways, unquantifiable. 

Here’s my point: the world we love and admire today pales in comparison to the one that existed here only a few thousand years ago before we arrived, spear in hand, then bow in hand, then rifle and axe in hand. The damage we’ve done to the terrestrial world is unspeakable and in many ways, unquantifiable. No matter how many trees we plant or national parks we declare, nothing will bring back the giant sloth.

In our early days of overhunting and habitat destruction, the largest and most vulnerable species paid the ultimate price and since then, every other terrestrial being has been suffering in turn. Quite accidentally, we’ve been bringing about a mass extinction on land. According to a study published in the magazine Science on January 16, our oceans are next.

This study says we are teetering on the brink of a marine mass extinction, during which our oceans will suffer as completely as our lands. Whereas our terrestrial ecosystems have diminished from thousands of years of abuse, the oceans have only fallen victim to our ignorance recently. As a result, the marine mass extinction predicted in this study will be quite sudden in comparison.

How are we causing this mass extinction? Take your pick.

Our oceans have become super highways from heavy ship traffic and a dumping ground for our wastes and garbage. With terrestrial resources growing scarce we’ve taken to mining seabeds and drilling for oil and gas in the open ocean. Although Atlantic Canada is ahead of the world in maintaining a sustainable fishery, even we have our shortcomings.

Terrifying are the impacts of catastrophic oil spills like that of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, but equally frightening are the 188,000 litres of crude oil spilled in Atlantic Canada since 2004 from local oil and gas exploits. Terrifying also is the pandemic of whales washing up on shore with their stomachs full of plastic. Above all are the impacts of climate change, with 90 per cent of global heating being absorbed by the oceans and water acidification running rampant. The coral reefs are the rainforests of the oceans – and already they’ve declined 40 per cent globally.

There’s still time to avoid apocalyptic consequences...we need to fiercely protect important marine habitat.

The authors of this study, mercifully, tell us there’s still time to avoid apocalyptic consequences. In addition to fighting climate change, we need to fiercely protect important marine habitat, regions which support vast biodiversity and are essential feeding grounds for migratory species. They must be safeguarded from industrial development so they might act as sanctuaries for struggling species in the decades to come.

So what does this mean for Canadians, particularly Atlantic Canadians? All eyes turn east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, declared in 1973 to be the most productive marine ecosystem in all of Canada and recognized in 2010 as incredibly vulnerable to industrialization. For the sake of Atlantic Canada and the oceans at large, we should be rude and unforgiving in our defense of this natural haven.

This gem of the east coast is home to blue whales, leatherback sea turtles, Atlantic tunas, salmon, cod and shorebirds of every variety, such as the piping plover and the roseate tern. Yet this fragile paradise is suffering. Ship traffic is increasing, acidification skyrockets and dissolved oxygen is a thing of the past for some regions. The first major oil and gas operations inside its border will soon be underway.

In many ways this study told us what we already knew, but in particular it carries a message of urgency. If preserving our oceans and our Gulf is a mission that stirs you, I encourage you to support organizations which carry this mission out, like us here at the Sierra Club.

Above all, I encourage you to educate yourself about the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Endangered Perspective series is a good place to start.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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