June 8 is United Nations World Oceans Day, a day to celebrate the oceans of the world and the role they play in everyday life. Each year, on this day, ocean conservation organizations and people around the globe take time to appreciate the importance of the sea to humanity.
In 1992, the concept of World Oceans Day was proposed by Canada at the Earth Summit United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Observance of the day is meant to inspire action to protect the ocean and encourage the sustainable use of marine resources.
Covering 71% of the globe, the ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth. Although divided into distinct named regions, the ocean is a vast, connected body of water that performs vital regulatory functions of global weather and climate systems that impact even those living far inland. But this invaluable life source is in a dire state due to the damage inflicted upon it by pollution.
Ocean Trash and Pollution
Ocean trash has become a serious issue affecting the health of people and marine animals. With 17.6 billion pounds of plastic leaking into the marine environment from land-based sources every year, plastic is a major threat to the marine environment. Plastic doesn’t ever fully decompose, so single-use plastics such as straws, water bottles, utensils, cups, bags, balloons, wrapping for produce, take-out food containers, and so much more are causing compounding damage.
While some trash is dumped directly into the ocean, it is estimated that 80% of the litter accumulating in the sea comes from land-based sources. Trash can make its way to the ocean from far inland via storm drains, sewers, and other routes. Oil from boats, airplanes, cars, trucks, and other fuel-powered devices is also constantly polluting the waters. Furthermore, storm runoff contaminated with chemical discharges from factories and raw sewage overflow from treatment systems create a toxic combination.
Burning fossil fuels not only pollutes the air, but the oceans too. This growing problem results in the oceans’ absorption of over a quarter of all man-made carbon emissions. As a result, the pH of surface water undergoes acidification. Environmental scientists report that this process is occurring faster than it has in 300 million years. At this rate, the surface waters will increase nearly 150% in acidity by the end of the century, inhibiting the long-term survival of marine ecosystems.
Mussels, clams, coral, and oysters need calcium carbonate to build their shells. In acidic waters, this compound is extremely low, and marine life suffers as a result. If these creatures do not thrive, then the fish, seabirds, and marine animals that prey on them for sustenance also cannot thrive. Shellfish and fish enterprises constitute a billion-dollar industry and are the economic backbone of numerous coastal communities worldwide. Their destruction would pose a serious threat not only to the balance of nature but to global economic stability.
Providing the majority of oxygen needed for life on the planet, the ocean is crucial for survival. According to a study in the journal Nature, “Decline in Global Oceanic Oxygen Content during the Past Five Decades,” oxygen levels have dropped by 2% over the past fifty years, which has had a significant rippling effect on the environment and will continue without intervention.
Some scientists agree the lowering oxygen levels are mostly due to increased use of fertilizer for crops that mix with runoff water, ultimately draining into the ocean. Bacteria and algae then feed on the massive amounts of fertilizer, taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, thereby removing dissolved oxygen from the sea, simultaneously taking it from other marine wildlife. As the planet warms, the oxygen levels are even further depleted since colder liquids hold more dissolved gas than warmer ones.
As the resources for the livelihood of marine life is challenged, overfishing—catching fish at a higher rate than fish can reproduce—is another issue on the minds of ocean preservation advocates. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 30% of the world’s fisheries have been overfished and are in need of strict management to restore them.
The target fishing of top predators like Atlantic bluefin tuna is threatening species survival and changing marine communities. Unsustainable fishing to harvest shark cartilage, coral, sea turtle shells, and other treasures of the ocean also pose a threat to important species and ecosystems.
What Can Be Done to Protect the Ocean?
There is a growing movement to call on world leaders to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. The effort—known as “30×30”—aims to safeguard at least 30% of the ocean, which is the critical mass needed to preserve the environment and ensure the future of the planet.
While leaders grapple with this initiative, there are also many things that individuals can do on a daily basis to help save the ocean.
Specific Ways to Help Preserve the Ocean:
- Purchase organic products and support regenerative organic agriculture
- Choose plastic-free alternatives when purchasing products.
- Reuse and recycle whenever possible.
- Organize a beach, riverbank, or land cleanup.
- Avoid products that harm the ocean such as cosmetics derived from shark cartilage or jewelry made of shells.
- Use microfiber absorbers to wash synthetic clothing.
- Vote for candidates that support policies that protect ocean wildlife and benefit the ocean.
- Write to politicians to make them aware of the issues.
- Reduce your carbon footprint. Since carbon dioxide makes oceans more acidic, choose to bike to work, turn the lights out when leaving a room, and keep the thermostat low.
- Buy sustainably caught wild seafood that requires minimal freshwater to produce, emitting less carbon dioxide than land-based proteins like beef.
- Leave nothing behind after a day at the beach or a picnic on the bay by making sure to dispose of all garbage.
- Spread the word about the problems of ocean pollution and let others know how they can help.
- Support reform of fishery management, focusing on practices that conserve ecosystems, but also sustain livelihoods and ensure food security.
- Join an ocean conservation group to share efforts to purify the ocean with like-minded people.
With a conscious effort, people across the globe have the ability to invoke change and make a positive impact on the Earth—a planet that has proven time and time again to have the ability to heal and replenish its resources. While many across the globe retreated into quarantine due to COVID-19, the Earth began to heal. Wildlife returned to California’s Yosemite National Park without the usual hordes of visitors scaring them into hiding. Densely populated cities from India to London and throughout the United States have seen air quality reports normally in the “low” to “moderate” levels of toxins and pollutants, now achieving levels of “satisfactory” and even “good.” The canals of Venice, Italy, recently murky and polluted, had dolphins dancing on the surface of sparkling blue waters.
The sea is a great gift to humanity. It serves as a source of joy, peace, energy, transport, and sustains life on our planet. The ocean is also a vital resource that has been misunderstood and underappreciated. The power to stop the current, foreboding trajectory of its vulnerable ecosystem of life lies with us all. With community engagement and technological innovations, our beloved, great oceans can heal, revive, and self-preserve to be cherished for generations to come.
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