“Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease”

June 5, 2019

“Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease”

By Drew Harvell
University of California Press, $26.95

Reviewed by Tom Henry

A couple of general observations emerge as I read the latest book by marine ecologist Drew Harvell:

First, scientists are going to great depths — bad pun intended — trying to get to the bottom of the climate change story.

And, second, the degree to which environmental journalists can hang with them on their journeys — even if we aren’t well equipped to immerse ourselves quite as deeply — gives us a more panoramic view of the issue and, thus, puts us in a better position to write about it.

“Ocean Outbreak” is a book mostly about marine viruses, pathogens, infectious diseases and other health-related problems in Earth’s oceans, problems that are likely exacerbated by a combination of climate change and more traditional forms of pollution, among them plastic-based litter, land runoff and sewage overflows.

A show of hands: How many journalists really know about and regularly report upon such microbiology? We’ve all heard the oceans are sick, but this book helps explain why through recent histories of four iconic marine animals: corals, abalone, salmon and starfish.

As Harvell takes you deep underwater by recounting anecdotes of her many research dives across the world, it becomes a little more apparent there are surface-level impacts of climate change — melting icebergs, wicked hurricanes, forest fires, floods and stranded polar bears, for instance — that are much easier to see, easier to explain and far less nuanced than what’s happening at great ocean depths.

But Harvell makes a case for the rise of weird viruses altering the underwater ecology on two-thirds of the planet, and much of the food chain that supports humans, as a highly underrated issue.


Disease outbreaks in the ocean ‘a lethal danger’

Part anecdotal journey and part scientific data presentation, “Ocean Outbreak” isn’t your typical climate change book in this regard: It’s not a typical climate change rant, per se. If anything, it could have tied the data together more and played up the climate angle stronger.

But Harvell isn’t just on a campaign against greenhouse gases. She also points out the pitfalls of everything from raw sewage overflows to unwanted aquaculture to the growing impact of plastic pollution and its breakdown while adrift in warming oceans.


'Disease outbreaks in the ocean

are not to be taken lightly because they pose

a lethal danger to ocean wildlife,

to ocean aquaculture, to humans, and

to the functioning of our ecosystems.' 

— Drew Harvell, marine ecologist



In one section of her chapter on corals, she describes an 800-year-old reef off the coast of Mexico that likely began during Mayan civilization. It took a sudden turn for the worse and was dying, probably because of excessively warm ocean water one year.

Harvell writes:

There is something wrong about living through so much of human history only to be brought down now in our time, in this year.  I thought about how magical this place once was, an underwater cathedral created by living organisms and home to so many others. I thought about the exciting work we had done here and all the students we had taught and inspired to study tropical marine science. I felt so discouraged that we had failed to somehow protect this reef. It was a feeling of such helplessness and frustration; there was nothing we could have done in the face of a warming ocean.

In her chapter on salmon, Harvell writes about the rapid decline of Chinook salmon in British Columbia’s Fraser River. They and other salmon are plagued by parasites and that upsets the balance of nature, not just for humans who enjoy an occasional salmon dinner, but also for killer whales that need to find 30 or more pounds of the fish to eat daily.

The Pacific Salmon Commission noted how the Fraser River had gotten much warmer than average in the summer of 2016, in the aftermath of an unprecedented warm-water event in 2015 and a hot El Niño year in 2016. “Such warm river waters not only stoke disease, they can kill salmon outright from heat stress,” Harvell warns.

To help underscore her point that underwater disease is so underrated, Harvell points to plastic litter. While an affront to beauty and undoubtedly an ocean threat, most plastic does not immediately wreak havoc like some microorganisms can.

“What is so uniquely menacing about disease outbreaks in the oceans is that they are facilitated by all the other factors impacting ocean health and can spread like wildfire on their own,” she writes. “Disease outbreaks in the ocean are not to be taken lightly because they pose a lethal danger to ocean wildlife, to ocean aquaculture, to humans, and to the functioning of our ecosystems.”

Drew Harvell, who has published more than 170 scientific journal articles, is no stranger to the Society of Environmental Journalists. Her first book, “A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas’ Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk,” married ocean science with art. For that book, which won an honorable mention in SEJ’s 2017 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award, Harvell searched the world for living counterparts crafted more than 150 years earlier by father-and-son glass artisans Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. She was also featured last year in SEJournal’s author Q & A, Between the Lines.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 23. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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