Monthly Review
July-August 2008

The Oceanic Crisis: Capitalism and the Degradation of Marine Ecosystems

Brett Clark and Rebecca Clausen

The world ocean covers approximately 70 percent of the earth. It has 
been an integral part of human history, providing food and ecological 
services. Yet conservation efforts and concerns with environmental 
degradation have mostly focused on terrestrial issues. Marine 
scientists and oceanographers have recently made remarkable 
discoveries in regard to the intricacies of marine food webs and the 
richness of oceanic biodiversity. However, the excitement over these 
discoveries is dampened due to an awareness of the rapidly 
accelerating threat to the biological integrity of marine ecosystems.1

At the start of the twenty-first century marine scientists focused on 
the rapid depletion of marine fish, revealing that 75 percent of 
major fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. It 
is estimated "that the global ocean has lost more than 90% of large 
predatory fishes." The depletion of ocean fish stock due to 
overfishing has disrupted metabolic relations within the oceanic 
ecosystem at multiple trophic and spatial scales.2

Despite warnings of impending collapse of fish stock, the oceanic 
crisis has only worsened. The severity is made evident in a recent 
effort to map the scale of human impact on the world ocean. A team of 
scientists analyzed seventeen types of anthropogenic drivers of 
ecological change (e.g., organic pollution from agricultural runoff, 
overfishing, carbon dioxide emissions, etc.) for marine ecosystems. 
The findings are clear: No area of the world ocean "is unaffected by 
human influence," and over 40 percent of marine ecosystems are 
heavily affected by multiple factors. Polar seas are on the verge of 
significant change. Coral reefs and continental shelves have suffered 
severe deterioration.

Additionally, the world ocean is a crucial factor in the carbon 
cycle, absorbing approximately a third to a half of the carbon 
dioxide released into the atmosphere. The increase in the portion of 
carbon dioxide has led to an increase in ocean temperature and a slow 
drop in the pH of surface waters-making them more acidic-disrupting 
shell-forming plankton and reef-building species. Furthermore, 
invasive species have negatively affected 84 percent of the world's 
coastal waters-decreasing biodiversity and further undermining 
already stressed fisheries.3

Scientific analysis of oceanic systems presents a sobering picture of 
the coevolution of human society and the marine environment during 
the capitalist industrial era. The particular environmental problems 
related to the ocean cannot be viewed as isolated issues or 
aberrations of human ingenuity, only to be corrected through further 
technological development. Rather these ecological conditions must be 
understood as they relate to the systematic expansion of capital and 
the exploitation of nature for profit. Capital has a particular 
social metabolic order-the material interchange between society and 
nature-that subsumes the world to the logic of accumulation. It is a 
system of self-expanding value, which must reproduce itself on an 
ever-larger scale.4 Here we examine the social metabolic order of 
capital and its relationship with the oceans to (a) examine the 
anthropogenic causes of fish stock depletion, (b) detail the 
ecological consequences of ongoing capitalist production in relation 
to the ocean environment, and (c) highlight the ecological 
contradictions of capitalist aquaculture.