The key threats our oceans are facing today – and how we can be a part of the solution
Life on earth is dependent on its oceans. Whether it is food or livelihoods, millions across the world rely on healthy oceans for both economic security and their own well-being. Roughly 3 billion people rely on fish for their major protein needs. Additionally, oceans produce 50% of the oxygen we breathe and absorb roughly a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions!
Yet, our oceans are under tremendous stress today because of a number of factors. Given below are stressors that barely scratch the surface of the impact we have on our oceans:
There is the looming spectre of climate change, acting as a stressor on many of the ocean’s regulatory functions. As far as sheer scale goes, climate change has the potential to alter the physical, chemical and biological composition of the ocean. Increased water temperatures have direct impacts on marine life, to begin with, the most prominent being the bleaching of coral reefs. We are already seeing a scenario in which species distributions are changing, as the average temperature of tropical areas is increasing and pushing populations out towards cooler, polar waters.
The presence of more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere also causes ocean acidification, a result of dissolving carbon dioxide forming a weak acidic solution in ocean water. Increased sea surface temperatures cause unnatural melting of polar ice caps, resulting in widespread sea level rises, with calamitous impacts on coastal ecosystems and communities.
Marine pollution is a direct impact our activities have on ocean health. Plastics form the bulk of solid marine debris, entangling, ingested by, and smothering marine animals and habitats. Another significant pollutant is the immense quantity of agricultural run-off, in the form of fertilizers, finding their way into coastal waters. An overuse of fertilizer results in eutrophication, or the excessive richness of nutrients in water bodies. A bloom of plant and algal life will follow, depleting oxygen in the water column and asphyxiating aquatic animals. Additionally, noise is a form of pollution that disrupts underwater communication.
Our reliance on the ocean for resources coupled with exploding populations and livelihood concerns has resulted in much unsustainable harvesting. Over ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries as a source of livelihood and today, most of global fish stocks are either fully fished or overexploited. In addition, oil and gas exploration along with prospecting for mining opportunities continue to open up more area for human disturbance. Aquaculture, slated as the means by which the world’s growing population can achieve some level of food security, has its own set of impacts.
Most of the discards and by-catch from highly destructive trawl fisheries are given value, when used as feedstock for aquaculture systems. A system has been created in which means of fish production that are supposed to remove the pressure from wild populations continue to rely on wild fisheries to operate.
While the scale of these threats is rather overwhelming, we can build a movement in the right direction – simply by changing some aspects of our behaviour and consumption! How?
Changing small aspects of our lives can reduce our footprint. Choosing to buy produce from closer to home for example, reduces the carbon released in transporting food. Reducing consumption of high carbon emission foods such as meats and certain kinds of dairy impacts our personal footprints. We travel and also live in environments that rely on energy from fossil fuels. Electricity is still primarily produced from coal, something to keep in mind when using appliances at home and at work!
Much of what we buy comes packaged in material that long outlasts its time of function. From our electronic devices to food to clothing, there are large amounts of unnecessary packaging. Choosing options with less packaging and refusing that which can be avoided are ways to reduce the waste we generate. Asking the question of whether we truly need something before buying it goes a long way towards streamlining consumption patterns.
There exist a large number of guides for consuming seafood responsibly, based on breeding patterns, stock levels and distribution of seafood species. The choices are hard to make often, especially when choosing between farmed and wild caught fish, as quantifying the impact of each might be complicated. However, the effort taken in informing oneself goes a long way towards making better choices.
There are many examples of community driven recycling efforts that have prompted local municipalities to follow suit. Each of us has the potential to do the same. Similarly, individuals from all over the world have attempted to go zero waste and have documented their efforts.
The impact of tourism on marine spaces is vast. From direct structural damage to sites like coral reefs, to beach litter, practices when visiting marine sites matter enormously. Leaving no trace behind is a fundamental tenet to responsible marine tourism and should be followed rigorously. It is no coincidence that some of the highly visited coastal sites also have issues with marine litter!
To open up about the knowledge and passion one possesses, and transferring it to others around us is more a responsibility than an option. Our positive impact is cumulative, and will eventually gain enough momentum for large scale changes, through the sharing of ideas and opinions. Discussion and inclusiveness, with a certain amount of reaching out and compromise fuel societal change!