The health of all life on Earth depends both directly and indirectly on a healthy ocean. We’re told to conserve the ocean because we need it for our survival. Let’s break down what this really means.
First, what is a healthy ocean?
A healthy ocean has intact and undamaged habitats. Habitats are essential for the survival of living things in the ocean. Wetlands and mangroves act as buffers against storms, helping to reduce flooding and protect coastal communities. Healthy habitats also include reef systems, which provide feeding, spawning, and nursery grounds for over 1 million aquatic species.
The next vital element to ocean health is biodiversity. Marine biodiversity is the variety of life in our ocean and is what allows our ocean to be productive, resilient and adaptable to environmental changes. Each species in the ocean has a particular role to play. From marine worms as the base of photosynthesis to converting organic material into carbon dioxide for marine plants to sharks and their role in controlling prey populations. Some species play similar roles in an ecosystem, so if one species becomes extinct, another will be able to carry out the same service. All species are an integral part of their ecosystem by performing specific functions that are often essential to their ecosystems and often to human survival as well.
Some of the different functions marine species provide include the ability to; capture and store energy, produce organic material, decompose organic material, cycle water and nutrients, and help regulate climate and atmospheric gasses. Biodiversity within coral reefs, the habitats of the ocean, allow for advancements in biomedical research. Coral reefs are home to thousands of species that may be developed into pharmaceuticals to maintain human health and to treat and cure disease.
The last main aspect of ocean health is water quality.
The factors within water quality include water temperature, pH, oxygen content, or toxin loads.
Water quality affects the amount of phytoplankton that are present in the surface water, which is critical as phytoplankton naturally absorbs large amounts of carbon and releases oxygen to the environment. Damage to water quality is connected to warming water, ocean acidification changing ocean pH levels, ‘dead zones’ caused by fertilizer runoff, and the pollution of toxic substances. In some bodies of water, the concentration of microscopic algae, quantities of pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and other contaminants may also be measured to determine water quality.
Now that we have a better idea of what defines a healthy ocean. Let’s understand why this directly affects us.
Food: Let’s start with the most obvious connection to the ocean. More than 3.5 billion people depend on the ocean for their primary source of food. Fish supply the greatest percentage of the world’s protein consumed by humans. Even if you do not eat seafood, fishmeal is used to feed poultry and pork, as well as to organically fertilize crops for millennia.
Climate Regulation: Ocean currents transport warm water and precipitation from the equator toward the poles and cold water from the poles back to the tropics. These ocean currents regulate global climate, affect weather patterns, and moderate carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. These are all things we couldn’t live without.
Carbon Sink: The ocean plays a vital role in the Earth’s carbon cycle, removing carbon from the atmosphere and the upper ocean layers. The ocean’s marine plants also act as carbon sinks by sequestering carbon in seabed sediments which provides a climate regulation service.
Our Air: Not only do ocean plants produce half of the world’s oxygen, but the ocean also acts as an “air-filtering device” by absorbing nearly one-third of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Phytoplankton are tiny plant-like organisms that live in the sea, and they are responsible for at least 50% of the oxygen on Earth. They contain chlorophyll to capture sunlight and use photosynthesis to convert it into the energy they need, producing oxygen as a byproduct, vital to our existence.
The Economy: Ocean-related industries such as fishing, tourism, and transportation, provide indispensable revenue and in the US alone, more than $128 billion in GDP annually results from ocean tourism, recreation and living resources. By 2030, ocean-based industries will employ more than 40 million people worldwide, an OECD report estimates. The biggest share of those jobs is likely to be in the fisheries sector, followed by tourism.
Transportation and Commerce: Ocean-bound shipping accounts for more than 90 percent of global trade.
Medicine: Marine animals, plants, and microbes have evolved to defend themselves and aid communication. There are countless Biomedical products derived from marine plant and animal sources. Marine ingredients have numerous medicinal and health benefits.
Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected and dependent on the existence of the sea. The more we learn about how humans and the ocean are connected, the more we see the urgency of its protection. We all share the responsibility to take care of the ocean, it’s life and systems, which make all life on Earth possible.
Ocean conservation is the protection of marine species and ecosystems in oceans and seas worldwide. It involves the protection and restoration of species, populations, and habitats in addition to the mitigation of human activities such as overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, whaling and other issues that impact marine life and habitats.
Marine and ocean conservation is a relatively new topic. People became more aware of their impacts on the environment in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the first things that brought attention to the need for ocean conservation was the “Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas” agreement of 1966. This agreement called for the cooperation of several countries in solving the issue of overexploitation of marine resources as a result of the technological advances of that time.
Within the same time period, Jacques Cousteau brought the wonder of the oceans to people through television. As scuba diving technology improved, more people were able to experience the beauty of life underwater.
The list of marine conservation issues is often growing, but here are a few:
- Ocean acidification
- Climate change and warming ocean temperatures
- Sea level rise
- Reducing bycatch in marine fisheries and entanglements in fishing gear
- Establishing marine protected areas to protect important habitats, commercially and/or recreationally valuable species and feeding and breeding areas
- Regulating whaling
- Protecting coral reefs through studying the problem of coral bleaching
- Addressing the worldwide problem of invasive species
- Marine debris and the issue of plastics in the ocean
- Dealing with the problem of shark finning
- Oil spills
- Protecting endangered species
The efforts to conserve the ocean will not stop, nor should they. The rate at which we can conserve does not compare to the rate at which the ocean deteriorates. An important part of marine conservation is outreach and education. A popular environmental quote by conservationist Baba Dioum states that “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”