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Large Marine Species Likely to Die First in Mass Extinction

Although the headline may sound alarmist, scientists say that large marine species are indeed most likely to die first in the current (human-caused) mass extinction.

Love sharks? How about whales? Or mantas? These iconic species top most bucket lists when it comes to diving. These animals are majestic and awe-inspiring. Many a diver has traveled halfway around the world for a chance to spend even a few moments in the water with them. Unfortunately, the current (human caused) mass extinction threatens all of them.

But a new study, published in the respected journal Science, brings bad news. Researchers from Stanford University, among others, have studied extinction patterns in the world’s oceans. Their conclusion is clear: the largest marine species are likely to die first in this current mass extinction.

Why the largest species?

In the Stanford University press release regarding the study, Jonathan Payne, a paleobiologist at the university said, “We’ve found that extinction threat in the modern oceans is very strongly associated with larger body size. This is most likely due to people targeting larger species for consumption first.”

And the news gets worse. This potentially looming mass extinction isn’t necessarily just nature’s order, but rather something humans are directly influencing. The researchers used fossils to compare modern extinction patterns to prehistoric events and found that the link between larger body mass and risk of extinction is quite recent. That we can see this pattern on land as well further substantiates these findings.

“We see this over and over again,” says study co-author Noel Heim. “Humans enter into a new ecosystem, and the largest animals are killed off first. Marine systems have been spared up to now, because until relatively recently, humans were restricted to coastal areas and didn’t have the technology to fish in the deep ocean on an industrial scale.”

So what can divers do? Simply become fans of muck diving and macro photography? Unfortunately, that won’t do. The largest marine species have proven time and again to be essential to a healthy ocean ecosystem. They recycle nutrients and manage populations of the ocean’s smaller inhabitants. If these animals disappear, so will the ocean as we know it. It may not seem as though one person can make a difference. But lessening your ecological footprint is a good place to begin. Eat less meat, and cut fish out of your diet. Bike and walk more, if possible. Don’t buy single-use plastic items. If demand for these things falls, so too will their production.

Ultimately, this study highlights the crucial need to manage fisheries and increase protection of vulnerable species. But it should also serve as a warning shot across the bow that change must come, and it must come now.