World Oceans Day - 8 June

World Oceans Day unites conservation action to grow the global movement calling on world leaders to protect 30% of our blue planet by 2030. 

The ocean impacts each of us every day. It’s the largest living space on earth and helps to provide the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the marine life we love. Our oceans are fragile and complex. Human activity is pushing them to a point from which they may not be able to recover unless we act now. 

Major threats to the world's oceans include: 

  • Habitat Destruction
  • Overfishing
  • Pollution
  • Global Warming 

Habitat Destruction 

The oceans are home to the largest organisms on earth, and to some of the most amazing gatherings of wildlife to be seen. According to National Geographic, most areas of the world's oceans are experiencing habitat loss. Pollution, dredging, draining of wetlands, and coastal development, are all factors that lead to marine habitat destruction. Dredging can destroy seagrass beds and other habitats that provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds. Pollution from developments near coastal waters can contaminate the ocean with toxic substances and excess nutrients from fertilizers and domestic sewage.

How does this impact us? 

Did you know that half of the planet’s oxygen comes from plants under the ocean’s surface? Billions of tiny plants make up what is known as the ocean’s ‘invisible forest’. Naked to the invisible eye and up to 200 metres below the ocean’s surface, it is filled with microscopic organisms ‘phytoplankton’ which suck up carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The phytoplankton also serves another purpose by providing nutrients for ocean creatures and our seafood. Changes in ocean temperature, pollution, and climate has the potential to upset the balance of the ecosystem in this ‘invisible forest’ with unknown damaging effects.

Coral reefs, the ‘rainforests of the sea’, are some of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on earth. They occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet are home to more than a quarter of all marine species, and provide food and resources for more than 500 million people. But coral reefs are in crisis. A variety of factors, including destruction and overfishing, coastal development, pollution, and the global effects of climate change are putting them in danger. About a quarter are already damaged beyond repair. If we continue on this path, 90 percent of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030, and nearly all of them by 2050. Overfishing and damaging fishing techniques, such as trawling, and the use of explosives are the most destructive. When herbivorous fish that eat seaweed are overfished, uncontrolled seaweed growth can smother coral. Coastal development and runoff containing fertilizer and sewage effluent can boost algae growth, starving the water of oxygen, causing eutrophication. A study of 159 reefs in the Pacific found that plastic pollution is also killing coral. When coral reefs come into contact with plastic waste, the incidence of disease increases by bacteria on the plastic infecting the coral. When corals overheat, they react to the stress by expelling their algae, which results in coral bleaching, leaving coral vulnerable to disease and affecting the species that depend on the coral.

The average temperature of tropical oceans has increased by 0.1˚ C over the past century, resulting in extensive coral bleaching around the globe, involving thousands of square miles of reefs. More than 80 percent of the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef has now suffered severe bleaching. Coral reefs can recover from bleaching in approximately 10 to 15 years, which gives time for their algae communities to recover. However, the increasing frequency of bleaching events means that many reefs may never have the chance to recover. Organisations like the coral gardeners are raising awareness of the importance of coral reefs. Their mission is to restore the coral reefs through ‘reforestation’, transplanting coral cuttings onto degraded areas of reef in the hope they will grow to strengthen the reef for the future.

What can you do to help? 

  • Petition for zoning coastal areas into Marine Protected Areas (MPS’s)
  • If you are lucky enough to live near the ocean, volunteer to monitor marine sanctuaries, protect marine wildlife or clear ocean debris.
  • Eat only sustainably caught fish.
  • Don’t buy souvenirs made of coral or other marine species.
  • Curb your carbon emissions by eating local and organic food, walk or ride a bike instead of driving, switch to clean energy sources, switch off lights and power sockets where you can.

Overfishing 

Eating fish and seafood is good for our health and many people worldwide, particularly in low-income countries, rely on these important sources of protein. Unfortunately, nowadays there aren’t plenty of fish in the sea. Due to unsustainable fishing methods, and with an ever-increasing population, overfishing is one of the greatest threats our oceans face. Global fish populations are rapidly decreasing due to high demand. Unsustainable fishing practices are where more fish are caught than the population can reproduce. It’s estimated that a global collapse of our fisheries is projected to happen as early as 2048, thanks to overfishing, wasteful fishing practices, and massive overconsumption. Overfishing and fishing techniques such as deep-sea trawling and the use of dynamite and cyanide are the most destructive. Trawling is a type of fishing method that drags huge nets through the ocean that scoop up every animal and the ecosystem, including coral, in its pathway This results in bycatch, including dolphins, marine turtles, and seabirds. A little-known fact is that tens of millions of tropical fish are also taken from the oceans each year for aquariums, most from tropical reefs, and only one in five of these survive. Their deaths are caused by cyanide exposure used in fishing practices or stress and disease from captivity and transportation. These tropical fish are the stewards of the reefs, keeping coral reef ecosystems balanced. Removing the fish disrupts the fragile system causing the reefs to become susceptible to stress from bleaching, acidification and warming oceans. Long-term transformation will require a change in legislation, fishing practices and how the industry is regulated. 

What can you do to help? 

  • Reduce your consumption of fish, especially larger fish such as Tuna.
  • Check if your fish is sustainably sourced.
  • Raise awareness – share information with friends and colleagues.
  • Support organisations helping to protect the oceans.
  • Avoid buying fish for home aquariums, if you do buy tropical fish make sure they are bred for the purpose. 

Pollution 

The problem the oceans face from pollution, especially plastic, has been well documented in recent years, yet the oceans are still facing a massive and growing threat from plastics. The dawn of ‘throwaway living’ and single-use plastics have brought great convenience to people around the world, but they also make up a big part of the waste that’s now choking our oceans. 

An estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic leaks into the marine environment from land-based sources every year killing millions of marine animals. That’s approximately one garbage truck full per minute. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. 

These plastics, over years, break down to what is known as microplastics. A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. This means that all the microplastics from every piece of plastic you have thrown away will still be floating around today, sponging up toxins and waiting to be eaten by marine life and ultimately by us one day. The largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is located between Hawaii and California. 

On Henderson island, uninhabited coral islands in the south pacific, researchers have found an astonishing volume of plastic. They were able to read labels and determine the country of origin for 88 of the items they found. More than a third came from China or Japan, more than a quarter from South America, and some came from as far away as Scotland.

It’s hard to imagine life without plastic, however, as individuals we need to change how we live and put pressure on corporations to look at new sustainable methods to help to decrease the consumption of plastic.

Governments have started to take steps to reduce plastic pollution entering our oceans by introducing bans on single-use plastics, for example. Projects such as The Ocean Clean-up and companies like Parley are heading innovative solutions to remove and re-use plastic from the ocean. Drastic action must be taken as leading environmentalists see the end of most sea life within the next 6-16 years.   

Unlike plastic, noise pollution cannot be seen but rising noise levels in the ocean from human activity can negatively impact ocean animals and ecosystems. This can lead to a reduction in the population of some marine species due to increasing stress. Ocean noise refers to sounds made by ships, submarines, offshore oil rigs, and sonar. This noise interferes with the ability of marine animals to hear natural sounds in the ocean and can even be the cause of mass beachings. Like humans, extremely loud sounds may cause hearing damage in marine animals and behavioural changes that can interfere with the health and survival of the animals. The constant sound impacts how marine organisms search for food and communicate, causing stress which can impair the animals’ immune system making them more susceptible to illness in general.   

The event of lockdown due to coronavirus and curtailing of shipping has led to evidence of a drop in noise pollution. This is giving scientists the opportunity to study the effects of quieter oceans on marine wildlife. We still do not know how badly humanity’s growing acoustic footprint is damaging ocean life, but there are ways to combat it. The use of better technology can dramatically reduce noise pollution – for example, the use of quieter propellers and ships can also reduce noise just by slowing down. Regulations need to be put into place to restrict noise in sensitive or known breeding areas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap aims to reduce impacts on marine animals. 

What can you do to help? 

  • It may seem cliché but the words reduce, reuse, and recycle are essential. These easy, small adjustments can help prevent waste from entering the oceans.
  • Reduce the consumption of single-use plastic items such as straws, plastic cutlery, coffee cups, water bottles, plastic bags, balloons.
  • Avoid food wrapped in plastic.
  • Always carry a reusable bag and water bottle.
  • Volunteer for a clean-up in your community.
  • Raise awareness and educate others. 

Global Warming 

The temperature of the earth’s atmosphere is increasing and this is generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by pollutants, like carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. Our oceans help to regulate the global climate and are the world’s largest store of carbon. Over the last 200 years, the oceans have absorbed a third of carbon dioxide (CO2) from human activities. The oceans not only store CO2 they also store heat, absorbing more than 90 percent of the heat generated by manmade CO2 emissions. Rising ocean temperatures affect marine species and ecosystems, including plankton which forms the basis of marine food chains. A major threat to the oceans though, is rising temperatures, alongside the absorption of carbon dioxide, which is causing acidity levels to increase, coral reefs to die and the ecosystem to collapse. Some scientists predict that if temperatures continue to increase at current levels, the oceans will be too warm for coral reefs by 2050. 

Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, countries committed to curb carbon emissions and protect oceans. The legislation includes safeguarding mangrove forests, salt marshes and seagrass beds, to ensure the carbon they store is not released and to focus on dealing with rising sea levels.  

If we are going to solve global warming, we need our oceans to thrive. Climate and ocean experts agree that saving one can’t happen without the other. As the founder of Sea Shepherd, Captain Paul Watson stated, “If the oceans die, we die.” 

What you can do to help? 

  • Reduce the effects of climate change on the ocean by leaving the car at home. Walk, take public transportation, carpool, ride share or cycle to your destination when possible.
  • Buy less stuff! And buy used or recycled items whenever possible.
  • Support and buy from companies that are environmentally responsible and sustainable.
  • Switch to renewable energy.
  • Plant trees and hedgerows.
  • Get involved, sign petitions to demand action on climate change. 

 Guest article written by Courtney Wemyss to mark World Oceans Day - 8 June 2020 

- June 8, 2020