Oceans Are Important, and Humans Are Wrecking Them

Saturday, June 8, is World Oceans Day, and precisely because oceans aren’t my area of expertise (my usual lane is more politics, reproductive health and rights, and comic book movies), I volunteered to write the blog post about it.

I wasn’t really sure where to start; I had (like, I suspect, a lot of people) a general awareness that oceans are important, and that humans are negatively affecting them, but no particular understanding of the various issues involved.

So I started reading. And reading. And reading. I learned so much more than I can cover in a 500-word blog post. Really, if you have any interest in the subject, I recommend setting aside some time to read the sources linked in this post.

One of the first things I learned: Only about one-eighth of the world’s ocean area is “ocean wilderness”—considered free from human impact. As you might expect, these areas are the places that are so cold or so remote we’ve had little reason to be there. Everywhere else? It’s hard to overstate how much damage we’ve inflicted.

Our impacts on the oceans can be roughly divided into three different types.

  • Pollution. Oil spills are probably the first things that come to mind for many of us, though it turns out they’re not the largest source of ocean pollution. Agricultural and industrial runoff in the form of animal waste, fertilizers, and other chemicals throw off the nutrient balance of the oceans, leading to algae overgrowth that can have toxic impacts on other species. Humans also dump an extraordinary amount of trash (especially plastics!) into our oceans—up to 8 million metric tons per year. This garbage has devastating effects on all sorts of sea life, from microscopic plankton species to whales and ocean birds.
  • Overfishing. We are drawing fish from the oceans more quickly than fish can reproduce—especially the large, slow-growing, slow-reproducing varieties. The UN estimates that more than two-thirds of fish stocks are overexploited. This disrupts ecosystems and has consequences up and down the food chain, including for humans, since more than a billion people worldwide depend on seafood as their primary source of protein.
  • Climate change. A warmer atmosphere means a warmer ocean—and it’s happening faster than we thought. Warmer water alters marine ecosystems and pushes species out of their normal habitats. Additionally, seawater absorbs a fraction of the carbon dioxide in the air, lowering the overall PH level and moving it outside the narrow band where many forms of sea life—including not only corals and shellfish, but larger prey fish, as well—thrive.

There are bright spots, to be sure. Greater awareness of the impacts of plastic trash has led to efforts to reduce usage and remove some of what’s already there. Fishing limits are working in a lot of the places where they’ve been implemented. Local laws about dumping and limited runoff have yielded dividends.

But the world’s oceans remain severely threatened. Join us in marking Word Oceans Day this year by setting an intention to consume more considerately, and by learning about how creating more consumers (i.e. population growth) hurts the planet’s oceans and the “wilderness” that resides there.

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