Fish Carbon

Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services (Fish Carbon)

Fish Carbon is a term used to describe the carbon interactions of all marine vertebrates: turtles, sea birds, mammals such as whales and dolphins, and fish such as sharks, tuna and sardines. These interactions are summarized in the 2014 report Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services.

Fish Carbon mechanisms are the natural life processes of marine vertebrates that enable capture of atmospheric carbon, allow carbon storage in benign form in the ocean, and provide a potential buffer against ocean acidification.

The Fish Carbon concept is a compilation of eight known Fish Carbon mechanisms that provide marine vertebrate carbon services.

While these marine vertebrate carbon services are not included in most models of carbon cycling, mounting scientific evidence suggests that animals such as whales, sharks, tuna, turtles, otters, dugongs, sea birds and deep sea fish can provide critical pathways, pumps and trophic cascades that:

• Enhance uptake of carbon in the oceans by plants
• Facilitate transport of carbon from ocean surface to deep water and sediment
• Provide a pH buffer against ocean acidification

The Eight Fish Carbon Mechanisms:

Fish Carbon, Climate Change Mitigation and Marine Conservation

Preface to the Fish Carbon Report,

Provided by Dr. Sylvia A. Earle

Upon first voyaging into space, Astronauts were enthralled by the beautiful blue marble they found themselves circling above. American Astronaut, James Irwin, remarking on travelling to the moon in 1971, “As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.”

The ocean is Earth’s life support system. The ocean regulates temperature, climate, and weather. The living ocean governs planetary chemistry; regulates temperature; generates most of the oxygen in the sea and atmosphere; powers the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles. It holds 97% of Earth’s water and 97% of the biosphere. We know that most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated – and much of the carbon dioxide is taken up – by mangroves, marshes, sea grasses, algae and especially microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean. Quite simply, no ocean, no life. No blue, no green. If not for the ocean, there would be no climate to discuss or anyone around to debate the issues.

Recently, the largest gathering of world leaders ever to address climate change met in New York City. However, the largest factor in our climate cycle, the ocean, was absent from the discussions. The ocean’s importance to earth and climate is well understood and documented, with substantial evidence gathered over the last 50 years. Knowing what we now know, it is alarming that the ocean was excluded so completely from the UN General Assembly meetings in September 2014.

While this blue engine provides environmental services critical to human life on Earth, human actions directly threaten the ocean. Over 99% of the ocean is open to extractive activities, drilling, dredging and dumping. While industrial fishing removes millions of tons of marine life from ocean ecosystems, tons of discarded plastics and derelict fishing gear continue to kill more marine life indiscriminately throughout 100% of the ocean. The ocean has also been a place to discard our wastes. This practice has come back to haunt us by way of hundreds of toxic dead zones in coastal waters. The burning of fossil fuels is causing changes in ocean chemistry and increasing the acidity of the water. The effects are already being observed in the thinning shells of young oysters in the Pacific Northwest, the disintegration of the skeletons of young corals, and of sea snails in Antarctic waters.

Both oceanic and terrestrial impacts of global climate change are exacerbated by increased human interference with oceanic cycles: the cycles that are crucial for our life support system. “Business as usual” threatens to squander perhaps the only chance we have to put things right before climatic changes become wholly irreversible.

There is still time if we act now. In terrestrial ecosystems climate policy addresses the release of carbon dioxide by industrial activities. This report is a key step in increasing our understanding of the ways that marine vertebrates contribute to the global carbon cycle, one of the vital functions of our life support system, and how they buffer against ocean acidification.

‘Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services’ highlights the direct relevance of marine vertebrates to climate change mitigation and presents an opportunity to secure this service, at this critical juncture, through the protection and conservation of marine vertebrates.

Acknowledging the importance of marine life in climate change will not only provide much needed opportunities in climate mitigation, but will simultaneously enhance food security for coastal and island communities, while safeguarding biodiversity and marine ecosystems on a global scale, particularly in the unprotected high seas. It is important that we build upon this knowledge and act accordingly. By protecting the ocean, we can continue to benefit from these services, and to secure the viability of Earth as a blue planet conducive to supporting human life.

Now we know. As go the oceans, so goes the fate of life on Earth. The ocean doesn’t care one way or another about us, but for all that we hold dear, including life itself, we must care about the ocean as if our lives depend on it, because they do.

sylvia-earlemissionblue seallianceChairman and CEO, SEAlliance Founder, Mission Blue
Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic


This text is the preface of the publication Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services, Lutz and Martin, 2014.