Let’s celebrate the ocean!
June 8th of every year is World Ocean Day, and June is a month-long celebration of the ocean and all that it does for us. From an anthropocentric point of view, the ocean is indispensable – it provides us with food and medicine, produces almost three-quarters of our planet’s oxygen, and fuels our economy. But even without our dependence on the ocean, the simple fact that it has intrinsic value and is a living breathing entity – in fact the world’s largest connected ecosystem – should be enough to make protecting the ocean a top priority.
This article will give a brief overview of the science behind the ocean, delve into the endless list of benefits that the ocean provides us with, and conclude with ways we can come together to address issues that impact the ocean.
The Science of the Ocean
The world ocean roughly covers 70% of the Earth’s surface and is historically divided into five parts: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic (or Southern) Oceans. The largest ocean is the Pacific Ocean, covering 30% of the planet’s surface. Plate tectonics define the structure of the ocean floor, forming seamounts, underwater volcanoes, and trenches. Underwater volcanoes that are high enough to penetrate the surface of the ocean form islands. Salinity, temperature, and pressure determine the density of seawater, and it is the difference in water densities that drive the circulation of large masses of water in the ocean such as the North Atlantic Deep Water and Antarctic Bottom Water.
The Atlantic Ocean from space. Source: Sun’s reflection on Atlantic Ocean seen from the International Space Station | Earth Blog (earthspacecircle.blogspot.com)
The chemistry of the ocean is fascinating — and it’s not just water molecules!. A total of six ions – chloride, sodium, sulfate, magnesium, calcium, and potassium – make up 99% of the total weight of ions in the ocean, with chloride ions accounting for over half of all ions by weight. Furthermore, carbon dioxide in the ocean acts as a buffer, regulating the pH of the ocean. The global average pH of the ocean is 8.1 but is expected to drop to 7.8 by the end of the century which makes it much harder for shell-forming organisms to survive.
As for ocean biology, there is more life in the ocean than anywhere else on Earth, and the diversity of living organisms within ocean waters is indescribably vast. Organisms range in size from ultraplankton less than 5 micrometers (10^-6 m) in length to the Blue Whale, which can grow to be 30 meters in length or the length of three school buses lined up! However, there is still much we do not understand about the ocean – to this day, only 5% of the ocean has been explored.
Left: Bluecheek butterflyfish, from Sea Life | AmO (amolife.com) Right: the Blue Whale is the largest animal known to have ever existed on Earth. Source: Blue Whale Facts: Breathtaking Gentle Giants of the Ocean – Animal Sake
What the Ocean Provides
While research efforts are ongoing, there is no doubt that the ocean is essential to each and every one of us. Whether one lives by the ocean or not, one depends on the ocean for food, medicine, oxygen, climate regulation, and mental wellbeing. For over 4.5 billion people, marine products account for roughly 15% of our daily intake of animal protein. Natural extracts from the ocean have also been used to treat diseases such as cancer. Without the ocean, the average surface temperature of the Earth would increase dramatically (not to mention that animals and plants would dry out immediately). Finally, spending time near the ocean has been shown to improve mental health, and it is recommended that doctors prescribe time in nature as a treatment – such prescriptions have been called “blue prescriptions”.
In addition to improving our wellbeing, the ocean is vital to the world’s economy. In fact, 90% of trade uses sea routes and millions of people have marine-related jobs in sectors including marine aquaculture, marine capture fisheries, marine fish processing, and offshore wind and port activities. It is estimated that the value of the global ocean industry may double in size from $1.5 trillion USD in 2010 to $3 trillion USD in 2030.
Issues Affecting the Ocean
It is clear that the ocean does so much for us and that we need to help protect it. Without a doubt, you may already be aware of several issues impacting the ocean today, including overexploitation, climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. As the world population increases and pressure on the ocean’s resources grows, we need to ensure the ocean can survive – in spite of mounting pressures – and that it can also continue to provide for us from an anthropocentric point of view. While we admire the ocean for its intrinsic beauty, there is no doubt that humanity depends on it for various physical benefits and that we need to make sure it can continue to sustain the human population now and in the future (sustainability in this context is defined as maintaining natural resources now and for future generations).
There are many signs that the ocean is under stress. The closure of beaches and aquaculture farms, harmful algal blooms, and contaminated seafood are just a few of the symptoms of declining ocean health.
Pollution, increasing acidity due to greenhouse gases, overexploitation of species, habitat destruction, and offshore drilling are just some of the many stressors impacting the ocean today. Source: » Ocean Pollution Cleanup Update and The Plastic Bank (blueocean.net)
Dr. Chelsea Rochman, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto and Scientific Advisor to Ocean Conservancy, says, “The ocean is critical to life on Earth, including our own terrestrial environment. The ocean is a source of oxygen, a sink for carbon dioxide and full of resources that are critical to our livelihood. Importantly, the ocean is critical for biodiversity. The ocean covers most of our blue planet and is home to a large fraction of the biodiversity on Earth. It has always been important to protect the ocean, but today it needs our attention more than ever. The ocean’s health is not what it used to be. Water quality and populations of organisms are decreased by overfishing, pollution, and climate change. The ocean needs our help.”
In order to sustain the ocean, the impact of stressors impacting ocean health must be tracked and efforts made to alleviate the stress placed on the ocean by these issues. For instance, overfished species need to be given time to recover so that species do not become endangered or extinct. Sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs need to be shielded from damage by coral bleaching, coral mining, pollution, disease, etc. Inputs of ocean pollution including chemical, nutrient, oil, and trash pollution need to be mitigated.
Efforts have already been undertaken to help conserve the ocean. For instance, the ‘Ocean Health Index’ was an important tool created to help scientists, individuals, and policymakers track numerous factors that influence the state of the ocean and its ability to provide for humans. Marine Protected Areas have been declared which are areas in the ocean designed for the purpose of conserving marine resources. As of 2010, roughly 6,800 MPAs exist across the globe. In fact right here at home, there are currently 14 MPAs across Canada, that comprise roughly 6% of Canada’s marine and coastal areas. The UN also declared 2021 to 2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science to engage researchers and ensure that the science is available for countries to properly manage our oceans.
To take part in this cause, here are some important ocean health tracking tools to know about and ways you can get involved:
The Ocean Health Index (OHI)
The OHI assesses the ability of the ocean to obtain maximum flows of ecological, social, and economic benefits by calculating a comprehensive measure that takes numerous factors or goals into consideration. A goal is given a score from 0 to 100 that indicates whether maximum benefits can be delivered without compromising the ocean’s ability to deliver those benefits in the future. Examples of goals considered in the OHI include food provision, carbon storage, artisanal fishing opportunities, tourism & recreation, clean waters, biodiversity, and more. This index puts human health at the centre of the assessment, and is an important tool for policymakers and researchers to track our progress and whether conservation goals are being met.
Sustainable Seafood Apps
To help vulnerable fish populations recover, it is important to choose seafood that can be sustainably eaten, if seafood is a part of your diet. In addition to reading seafood labels when you are shopping as well as asking your restaurant servers, sushi chefs, and seafood vendors about the sources of their seafood and methods of capture, using a sustainable seafood website such as Seafood Watch or Ocean Wise can also help you to make informed decisions about the food you eat.
Both Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise recommend logos or eco-certifications. However, their scoring system is a bit different – while Seafood Watch uses a ‘three-tiered traffic light system of Red, Yellow, and Green’, Ocean Wise uses ‘Sustainable’ (Ocean Wise) vs ‘Unsustainable’ (not recommended). Source: Our Standards – Ocean Wise Seafood
Campaigns to Get Involved in
There are numerous organizations at the forefront of conserving the ocean and/or maximizing the benefits it delivers to humans. One notable organization is Ocean Conservancy, which runs the International Coastline Cleanup program every year. Getting involved in beach clean-ups is a great way to get your feet wet and help tackle ocean pollution. Greenpeace also has campaigns focused on protecting the oceans.
And young people are at the heart of the movement for a healthy ocean. Dr. Rochman agrees: “Youth can get involved in MANY ways. Youth can volunteer for organizations whose objectives are to protect the oceans, they can write letters and call their politicians about supporting relevant strategies, they can help educate others about the issue, and they can change their own behaviours in ways that can make a difference – like using less single-use plastic items or driving less to reduce carbon emissions.”
Coastal cleanup in Rayong, Thailand. Source: Embassy Volunteers joined Coastal Cleanup in Rayong | U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Thailand (usembassy.gov)
There is always the opportunity to join the UN Decade of Ocean Science by submitting an activity or event. Examples of events that have happened already or are set to take place include virtual empowerment series, ocean stakeholder meetings, workshops, and tsunami awareness days. You can visit the official World Ocean Day website to get involved in social media campaigns and spread awareness.
Finally, as Dr. Rochman mentioned, there are many small actions individuals can consider in our everyday lives to help the ocean. National Geographic offers a list of top ten actions we can do today, including lowering our carbon footprint, making sustainable seafood choices, using fewer plastic products, educating ourselves on marine knowledge, and avoiding the purchase of items that exploit marine life such as coral jewelry and shark products. I also want to mention that participating in citizen science is very important because science informs all of the policies and actions that governments are taking and therefore is crucial.
Products such as accessories and souvenirs can be made from fragile marine ecosystems including coral reefs. Avoiding products that exploit such ecosystems is one way to protect and sustain the ocean for future generations. Source: Collection of 30 Vintage Shell, Coral and Plastic Sea Side Souvenir Sculptures at 1stDibs
Here are some exciting citizen science opportunities:
Jelly Watch – describe a jellyfish, squid, red tide, or other unusual marine life you saw or even better snap a photo, and submit to the website to aid marine biologists in better understanding the ocean
iNaturalist.org – learn to identify new species, record them, and share them online
International Coastal Cleanup – a program of Ocean Conservancy, where anyone around the world can register a cleanup and start collecting debris. Even better, clean with friends and family!
Report Sea Star (Starfish) Wasting Syndrome – submit photographs of sea stars with symptoms to help biologists
Cornell Lab of Ornithology – one of the oldest citizen science labs in the US, Cornell Lab of Ornithology has exciting opportunities for anyone to contribute knowledge on bird species, eggs, and young
Dive Against Debris – a program of Project Aware where divers around the world survey underwater trash pollution
Reef Check – volunteer divers trained to collect data on nearshore reefs
Marine Debris Tracker – download the app and report where you see trash along coastlines and waterways
Dive Against Debris at Tenggol Island, Malaysia in 2016. Source: Dive Against Debris @ Tenggol Island, Malaysia, 28-29 May 2016 | Project AWARE
I hope I have convinced you that the ocean is really important to all of us and inspired you to take action. There are endless ways to get involved and every bit counts! Happy World Oceans Day!