The Atlantic hasn’t lost 90% of its plankton

The Atlantic hasn’t lost 90% of its plankton

Posts on social media claim that the Atlantic Ocean’s plankton population has suffered a decimating 90 percent decline, citing research by marine biologists. But the claim is false; The article — which the author described as an “observational thinker” that was never “intended for peer review” — covers only part of the ocean, and independent scientists say there’s no evidence that plankton activity has decreased as a result big margin.

“Scientists are revealing our empty oceans. Research: 90% of Atlantic plankton lost,” reads the headline of a cover story in Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post, published on July 17, 2022.

The same claim then garnered thousands of likes and shares on social media after the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy and charity project Save the Reef shared it.

Screenshot of the Sunday Post front page, July 17, 2022

Screenshot of an Instagram post from July 26, 2022

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), plankton can be divided into two main groups: “phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). They play a crucial role in the ecosystems of the oceans.

Climate change has affected the habitat of plankton. But the claims shared online are false.

Scientists say 90% of plankton has not disappeared from the Atlantic – and if it had, it would have caused significant and visible disruption to marine life.

Researcher corrects claims

The Sunday Post article is based on a project by Howard Dryden and Caroline Duncan, marine biologists at the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES) foundation.

Her article, titled “Climate Change…Plankton Productivity in the Equatorial Atlantic and Caribbean Pollution…A Contribution to the Discussion,” relies on “plankton sampling and other observations” to conclude that plankton losses “have occurred closer to 90%.”

But Dryden said the project never covered the entire Atlantic Ocean, as the Sunday Post posts and article claim.

“Errors have been made in publishing our results, we may have been inadvertently responsible for not communicating properly, but I would like to make the statement that the results are only for the equatorial region of the Atlantic,” he said in a statement sent to AFP.

Dryden added that the report, which was revised, was an “observational thinkpiece” – not a peer-reviewed scientific study.

“This is only a first observation and comment on the results obtained, it was not intended to peer review the document,” he said.

The marine biologist told AFP the statement of a 90 percent reduction in plankton productivity in the region is a “prediction” based on other data and reports.

The title of the online version of The Sunday Post article has been updated and a note has been added to the end of the article.

“This story was edited on July 23, 2022 to clarify that the samples examined by the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation are from the equatorial Atlantic and have not yet been confirmed by other scientists or research teams,” the note reads.

Jim Wilson, editor of the Sunday Post, told AFP in an email that the newspaper “denies misrepresenting the research and stands by its reporting”.

“We have about Dr. Dryden’s research accurately reports,” he said. “Our headline perhaps could have more accurately described the geographic boundaries of this research, but the story was clear and would not have confused a sincere reader.”

Scientists question results

But several independent scientists, after reviewing Dryden and Duncan’s article, urged caution, pointing out the lack of a transparent methodology for collecting and analyzing data.

“We cannot trust the results presented in this report,” Marie-Fanny Racault, a biological oceanographer who studies the impact of climate change on marine ecosystem resources, told AFP.

Racault, lead author of a chapter on ocean and coastal ecosystems for the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, said claims that 90% of plankton have disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean are “not supported by robust scientific evidence.”

“No base reference is given, ‘90% gone’, but since when? Or compared to what period of time or on what terms?” she said. “Furthermore, the report does not consider previous findings reported in the published peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

Marine conservation ecologist Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, who leads plankton expert groups for the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Northeast Atlantic (OSPAR), echoed Racault’s concerns.

“It’s very difficult to identify real changes in oceanic variables (as opposed to natural fluctuations) without at least 20 years of data,” she told AFP, adding that “identifying plankton is a tricky skill.”

Environmental damage in oceans caused by human activities ( AFP / Emmanuelle MICHEL, Emilie BICKERTON)

McQuatters-Gollop teams work with hundreds of thousands of plankton samples collected over 80 years in 14 different countries.

“This is compared to the 500 samples used in the paper, whose collection and analysis methodology is not described,” she said.

The scientist told AFP that “if any aspect of plankton had changed 90% recently,” the impact would be felt in many areas, including fisheries.

“A catastrophic change in productivity as described by Dryden would be much more obvious than what is currently observed, with a probable collapse or near-collapse of the Atlantic marine food web,” McQuatters-Gollop said.

However, the fact that the claims shared online are inaccurate does not mean that climate change is not a threat to plankton.

The latest IPCC assessment report indicates that ocean warming and sea ice changes are among the main drivers affecting plankton productivity.

“There is no doubt that ongoing and future climate change and ocean acidification are changing the marine environment,” said Alessandro Tagliabue, ocean biogeochemist at the University of Liverpool. “Understanding how these changes affect plankton productivity is one of the major challenges facing the oceanographic and marine science communities.”

AFP has fact-checked other claims about the environment here.

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