During the past century, the extinction of animal species continued to exceed natural rates. There’s no doubt humankind drives the phenomenon. Climate change and the relentless pursuit of nonrenewable resources decimates habitats. Housing developments encroach upon the homes of native species.
The ocean is not safe from the devastation man wreaks. If current consumption continues unchecked, many scientists believe there will be more plastic than fish in the seas by 2050. What’s even more troubling is the species we may lose — and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Is it too late to save the most endangered marine animals?
1. Polar Bears
The town of Barrow, Alaska, lies above the Arctic Circle. Over the past 50 years, temperatures have increased by 4.5 degrees, causing polar ice to melt. Residents move entire coastal villages due to the devastating effects of climate change. They now must also contend with an influx of polar bears as the ice destroys the creatures’ normal habitat.
Arctic sea ice is one of the most endangered habitats on earth. Researchers report polar bears drowning as they attempt to cross ever-widening bodies of water between ice floes. When these animals wander into areas populated by humans, they often meet their doom at the end of a gun muzzle.
2. Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are classified as a government red list species, and only a hair over 7,000 exist in the wild. Whale sharks are the largest fish alive on earth today. They reside in tropical waters all over the globe.
Whale sharks do not attack humans. In fact, they sometimes allow divers to catch a ride with them. However, commercial fishing operations threaten the species. Whale sharks have a lengthy gestation and maturation period, meaning their populations take longer to rebuild when damaged.
3. Sea Lions
Sea lions represent a partial success story. They were originally added to the endangered species list in 1990 due to fishermen shooting the creatures when they showed up in nets, consuming the day’s catch. Outreach efforts brought a halt to this barbarism, fortunately.
However, unchecked climate change threatens the sea lion habitat in the Galápagos and elsewhere. Some scientists propose cloning endangered marine animals as one means to preserve the population. However, cloning doesn’t rebuild lost coastal habitats. Even if researchers successfully recreated the creatures, they’ll have nowhere to live if global warming continues unchecked.
4. Hawksbill Turtle
The hawksbill turtle ranks as critically endangered, meaning they face a high threat of extinction in the wild. The human desire for tortoiseshell jewelry and hair accessories drove this species to the brink. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species prohibits the sale of these turtles or any products made from them.
Climate change also threatens turtle habitats. Dwelling primarily in tropical waters, the turtles feed on sponges. As ocean temperatures warm, their food source may lead to their extinction despite trade prohibitions.
5. Galápagos Tortoise
Somewhere in these remote islands could dwell a tortoise who walked the earth back when Darwin penned “The Origin of Species.” These long-lived creatures may not survive the invasive hand of man, however. Increased tourism to the Galápagos risks the introduction of nonnative species, such as feral pigs and even rats that eat tortoise eggs, threatening their survival.
Artificial intelligence offers one way to monitor numbers of this species without requiring contact from humans. Drones, for example, can collect data via flight, and advances such as facial recognition technology can monitor individual animals.
This diminutive porpoise ranks as the most critically endangered marine animal in the world today. It lives only in the shallow waters off the Gulf of California in Mexico. Even though people do not hunt the creature directly, they can become caught in gill nets used by commercial fishermen.
The Mexican government took action to protect the vaquita. Former President Enrique Peña Nieto declared a two-year emergency ban on gill nets. Still, scientists fear this tiny porpoise could disappear within 10 years, and call upon Mexico and the U.S. to do more to save the vaquita.
7. Sea Otters
During the 19th century, hunters nearly drove the sea otter extinct. Sea otters live in coastal estuaries, and crude oil spills decimate their populations by sealing off the protective air bubble under the fur they rely upon for warmth.
Additionally, the interconnectivity of ecosystems threatens their survival. As ocean waters warm, this impacts mollusk populations, which are primary food sources for sea otters.
8. Short-Tailed Albatross
At one point, scientists believed the short-tailed albatross extinct. These birds live on the islands off the coast of Japan and migrate across the Pacific to breed. Unfortunately, they need to fuel themselves during such long flights — and often mistake plastic for fish.
The great Pacific garbage patch now covers an area bigger than the state of Texas in size. The light reflected off floating plastic resembles fish scales to albatross. Because their bodies cannot digest this plastic, they eventually starve with their stomachs full.
9. Blue Whales
Commercial whaling activities decimated blue whale populations, a creature now protected by the Endangered Species Act. However, blue whales remain at risk of getting tangled in nets or struck by marine vessels. Additionally, even though blue whales consume plankton, they can ingest plastic microbeads. When this occurs, the whales cannot extract the nutrition they need from food, and they eventually perish.
10. Coral Reefs
Coral may resemble colorful underwater plants but actually consists of tiny animals. Some coral is as small as a pinhead while others reach the size of quarters. Warming ocean temperatures threaten the coral population, as does dredging, the act of digging up the ocean floor to allow large cruise ships to pass.
Saving Our Marine Life
The 10 animals above represent only a few of the hundreds of marine critters facing extinction due to pollution and climate change. If we hope to preserve these species for future generations, we must take action now.