The ocean covers 70% of the earth’s surface and has a far bigger impact on our lives than we may initially consider. Its health is intrinsically linked to the overall health of both our planet and species.
Having long been considered as one of our most important natural resources, the world’s ocean plays a vital role ecologically, economically, and socially. In Great Britain alone, coastal tourism accounts for roughly £17.1bn of yearly tourism spend.
If it weren’t for the ocean, the world would turn into a desert. Oxygen levels would massively deplete (by around 70%), 80% of all life on earth would be gone, and we would be left without one of our main sources of minerals, energy, and medicines, not to mention a crucial mode of transport, with up to 90% of global trade being carried by sea.
Whether you live on the coast or not, it impacts your livelihood, and so, on World Oceans Day and every day, it’s crucial that we are aware of the role we play as individuals and as a collective society in preserving our precious ocean. As climate change shifts the world as we know it, the ocean is suffering hugely. With over 500 locations recorded as ‘dead zones’ meaning marine life cannot exist there, and plastics set to outnumber fish by 2050, ocean health is on a steep decline.
The relationship between the ocean and the world’s climate is reciprocal; they are mutually dependent on each other. The ocean stores solar radiation, distributes heat and moisture and drives weather systems. It’s essentially a carbon reservoir, absorbing about a quarter of the CO2 created when we burn fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas. If it weren’t for this, the planet would be in an even worse state. In turn, changes in climate affect the ocean, predominantly due to increasing temperatures which result in higher water temperatures, more acidic water, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels.
The most important role the ocean plays in keeping us alive is producing oxygen. But it’s not the water itself that does this, it’s what exists beneath the surface. Plankton are a large variety of tiny organisms which include things like algae, bacteria, crustaceans and mollusks. As they are extremely small in size, they drift rather than swim. However, despite being tiny and at the base of the ocean’s food chain, they are an intrinsic part of our aquatic ecosystems.
Phytoplankton in particular (plankton that are plants) are responsible for producing an estimated 70% of the world’s oxygen along with other aquatic plants. To put that into perspective, rainforests produce around 28%. The oxygen that phytoplankton produce is a byproduct of photosynthesis, which is the process of carbon dioxide and sunlight being converted into sugars which are used for energy. As well as oxygen production, phytoplankton’s other main job is carbon sequestration, again through photosynthesis. They capture and securely store carbon from the atmosphere, protecting us from warmer temperatures and worse impacts of climate change.
The ocean supports human life in many ways, however, we do not repay the favour. Only 2.7% is highly protected, which means an astonishingly vast proportion is at risk. Highly protected areas are able to build resilience against the many environmental problems linked to climate change as well as more direct manmade threats such as overfishing and pollution (particularly plastic). Having more marine protected areas is vital in order to safeguard biodiversity and maintain the overall health of marine ecosystems now and in the future.
There are many organisations which are working to preserve our oceans, with specific areas of focus.
Healthy Seas is a foundation which was founded in 2013 to tackle the ghost fishing phenomenon, which is one particularly significant threat that is a combination of both overfishing and pollution. Ghost fishing is when derelict fishing equipment such as nets is discarded in the ocean and continues to fish by default, resulting in the unnecessary death of marine animals. Healthy Seas carry out cleanups with volunteer divers and partner with key stakeholders within the fishing industry to prevent further marine litter. The recovered nylon nets, together with other nylon waste, are then regenerated by Aquafil into new ECONYL® nylon. A substantial amount of the work Healthy Seas carries out focuses on seas that are heavily fished and involves education and raising awareness within fishing communities and schools. Through collaboration with fishermen, fish farms, local communities and other stakeholders, they are able to prevent more waste nets from ending up in the sea. They also educate children in local schools through education programmes, so that younger generations will grow up with an awareness of climate change and the ecological and economic importance of healthy seas, as well as a sense of responsibility and empowerment to inspire change for the future.
Project Seagrass is a UK-based agency raising awareness of seagrass which are in danger due to marine pollution. Project Seagrass provides coastal and non-coastal communities with vital information and work towards garnering the attention and help of people around the world by partnering with national governments, public and private institutions and NGOs.
Coral reefs are also hugely under threat. Climate change, fishing, coastal development and natural predation have all played a part in their decline. Environmental NGOs such as The Coral Reef Alliance collaborate with local communities and protect coral reefs through multiple initiatives which promote healthy fisheries, cleaner water, preserving and replanting reefs and education.
There are many ways that you can play an active role in marine conservation, like joining programmes such as these, advocating for their work within your own community, campaigning, taking part in clean-ups and donating towards research.
Human health does not subsist in isolation – it is connected to our environment and the ecosystems we share the earth with, particularly the ocean, which sustains us all. It’s imperative that the ocean’s natural processes are protected, so that it can keep reducing carbon, producing oxygen, protecting coastlines, providing sustainable food supplies and economic opportunities for coastal communities, and remain a sanctuary for marine species to mature and reproduce.
Author: Eva Ramirez