Sensing Global Ocean Health


Moderated by Roger Payne, Founder and President, Ocean Alliance

“The solution to pollution is dilution.”

Dr. Roger Payne led an informative and sometimes startling discussion about the overall health of our oceans today during our FiRe Breakout Sessions. Dr. Payne’s organization, Ocean Alliance, is currently addressing the challenge of trying to measure background contaminants in the ocean. One of those, PCBs “are one of the big problems along with organic halogens, such as chlorine and bromine, which are shockingly insoluble in water but incredibly soluble in fats. So what happens is that when anything dumped on land flows down into the ocean, it becomes assimilated into the ocean life,” said Payne.

This cycle, according to Payne, is generating startling results in some of their most recent samples collected. “We go around the earth and try to get samples with a research vessel and measure concentrations of a suite of substances, including toxic metals, therefore building a baseline of the oceans,” said Payne. “It is a huge undertaking.”

After a 5-year voyage around the world, gathering 958 sperm whale samples, the worst result was the discovery of high levels of chromium. This discovery was made in the former Gilbert Islands, which is “as far as you can get from agricultural and industrial processes, yet the same concentration as that found in chromium plant workers who die from 20 years of exposure,” according to Payne.

The real threat is the rising levels of these toxins in algae and plankton, entering the food chain at a critical point.  Getting the toxins and the plastics out of the oceans to drastically reduce levels continues to be a challenge.

“If you kill off plankton, that’s the ball game – life is gone,” said Payne. “It’s over. It’s the basis of the food chain. Two-thirds of air you breathe in your lifetime comes from plankton in the sea.”