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.