Breakdown of the Marine Food Web

Image by Gerald Schömbs.

For the first time, a significant loss at the base of the marine food web has been detected. The Scottish research vessel Capepod reported the findings in equatorial waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s a disturbing discovery, but first a look at the marine food web, starting with the lowest organisms: (1) phytoplankton – plant-like plankton: green algae, diatoms, and dinoflagellates eaten by (2) zooplankton – microorganisms: crustaceans, rotifers, insect larvae and mites eaten by (3) small fish: anchovies, sardines, shrimp, squid, krill eaten by (4) bigger fish: sturgeon, sunfish, sharks, manta rays eaten by (5) mammals: seals, dolphins, polar bears, and last but certainly not least, humans at an increasingly wobbly end of the food chain.

At the bottom of the food web phytoplankton generically serves as the most significant resource of marine life simply because nothing else eats if phytoplankton doesn’t exist. Moreover, phytoplankton performs photosynthesis, converting sunrays to energy, absorbs CO2, and serves as a major source, producing oxygen for the biosphere.

Teams of scientists study plankton and keep track of changes at the base of the food chain. Their results are reported to various governmental agencies that hopefully take remedial action if things are going sideways. But, umm… well, onward with the story.

Only recently, disturbing news came from the Scottish research group Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (“GOES”) Edinburgh that spent two years gathering samples of plankton along the equatorial Atlantic. The team detected unmistakable signs that the food web is compromised: “Their sampling suggested plankton levels may have fallen by 90% in parts of the Atlantic.” (Source: Expert: Warmer Seas are Forcing Crucial Plankton to Move North, The Sunday Post, Dundee, Scotland, July 24, 2022)

The GOES research team spent two years collecting water samples from the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Previously, it was assumed that plankton had fallen by 50% since the 1940s, but this new evidence suggests a mouth-dropping -90%.

According to the GOES team, plankton is directly impacted by: “An overload of CO2 along with a deluge of lethal manmade chemicals in cosmetics, plastics, sunscreen, drugs, and fertilizers is inundating the marine environment. It’s all toxic to underwater life and once the water reaches a tipping point of activity, vast amounts of plankton will simply dissolve.” (Source: Atlantic Ocean ‘Pretty Much Dead’ Says Scientist as Plankton Wiped Out, Marine Industry News, July 18, 2022)

GOES’s research: “The team expected to find up to five visible pieces of plankton in every 10 litres of water – but found an average of less than one (ed.-meaning some samples were zero) Conversely, they’d expected to discover 20 microscopic specks of toxic particles per litre of Atlantic water – but actually counted between 100 and 1,000. The discovery suggests that plankton faces complete wipeout sooner than was expected,” Ibid.

In addition to the above-referenced GOES survey in parts of the equatorial Atlantic, another research team Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey (“CPR”) of Plymouth, UK monitors plankton with vessels across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, up to 30 vessels generating 5,000 samples per year. CPR has been monitoring plankton in the North Atlantic for 70 years and reports results to governments in the UK, EU, and North America.

Preliminary evidence suggests, in addition to human influenced chemicals, etc., for the first time, microscopic plankton sea creatures are negatively reacting to warming ocean water in a profound manner. In part, the issue is the change of water temperature conditions required to support certain species life cycles. It appears that global warming’s impact is displacing them northward as the equatorial waters turn too warm. This shift northward by plankton may be okay for the short-term but more ocean warming will become extremely problematic as plankton essentially run out of enough cooler water space to migrate without overcrowding its own kind in jumbled clumps of plankton crowding onto and battling over the same space. This can become toxic in many respects.

According to David Johns, head of CPR: “Are we in a situation that requires mitigation as a matter of urgency? Yes, I would say so. If they carry on moving north and run out of water, if the seas become too warm, then we’ll lose a lot of those types of plankton that are critically important for fish species and marine mammals,” Ibid.

Of course, nobody knows for certain whether the horrendous falloff is a result of migration north because of too warm of waters or decimation by toxins such as plastics, chemicals, and farm pesticides/fertilizers. However, it’s likely a combination of factors, which essentially doubles the trouble.

The world community should be overly concerned and overly reactive to do whatever it takes as quickly as possible! This type of bad news has a tendency to get worse over time. Moreover, is there a fast enough solution to make a big enough difference in enough time?

The risk is that a loss of plankton brings in its wake a collapse of the ocean food chain. According to Dr. Howard Dryden of GOES, a tipping point could arrive within 25 years unless direct action is taken on toxins from plastics, chemicals, and farm fertilizers. Still, a big issue is temperatures goosed up by inordinate climate change/global warming as a result of excessive greenhouse gases emitted by humans as well as CO2’s hugely negative impact on ocean acidification.

As for solutions, according to David Johns of CPR: “I’d definitely focus on reducing CO2.”

Which brings forth the heartbreaking reality that CO2 emissions are nearly guaranteed to keep on increasing at the current rate of 10 times more than the paleoclimate record over the past 66 million years. Umm, 10xs faster! And 66 million years left in the dust.

Here’s why CO2 is destined to continue choking the planet: Public announcements of oil and gas production plans guarantee excessive levels of greenhouse gas emissions for years ahead: World’s Biggest Fossil Fuel Firms Projected to Spend Almost a Trillion Dollars on New Oil and Gas Fields by 2030, Global Witness and Oil Change International, April 12, 2022. At the same time, both China and India have once again rediscovered affairs with coal.

Withal, the threat to plankton goes much deeper than human-generated greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals. It’s much worse, to wit: Indeed, scientists have observed zooplankton eating plastic. Micro-plastic resembles food for zooplankton. This horror film analogue introduces a variety of toxic chemicals to the marine food web. Heaven only knows the final results, maybe 3-eyed fish and lots more people with totally fried brains that are easily swayed to believe outright lies. (Source: Plastic Pollution is Killing Plankton. How the Loss of This Species Threatens the Oceans,, 2021)

All of which brings to mind if, when, and how there’s any chance whatsoever of globally unified remedial policies on a worldwide scale to prevent total collapse of marine life. Hmm! That’s asking for a lot, especially when nations of the world couldn’t even follow thru on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris ’15 climate agreement. That’s been a total failure. What then of the oceans?


James Lovelock, July 26, 1919 – July 26, 2022

Gaia theory – Earth is a self-regulating living organism

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at