Blog Poll: Preserve Our Ocean to Protect Our Life

Tail of a sperm whale off the coast of Kaikoura, New Zealand.
Tail of a sperm whale off the coast of Kaikoura, New Zealand.

By Patrick Safran

It is our collective responsibility to take care of and protect our oceans if we want to live longer, better, and healthier.

In our May blog poll, we asked readers what they think is the most urgent intervention to manage our oceans more sustainably.

Over half (55%) of the respondents in the survey picked curbing marine pollution as the priority for sustainable management of oceans. I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean, a source of life that covers more than 70% of the planet’s surface, and 90% of our biosphere. Oceans contain 97% of Earth's water, vital to sustain life, and according to most scientists they contribute through phytoplankton 50-85 % of the oxygen we breathe. The underwater world is still full of mysteries as we have only explored 5% of it to date.

When I became a marine biologist, traditional fishermen taught me to humbly love and respect our ocean, which nurtures the fish to ensure a sustainable livelihood for all. This notion of respect has largely faded, and our ocean is now fragile and highly vulnerable due to all kinds of human damage. As an active scuba diving instructor, I always emphasize to my students the moral ethics of respect for our aquatic environment. Most people believe that marine pollution is mainly the result of industrial waste and man-made negligence; they often forget that human ignorance—associated with the lack of proper civic behavior and education—causes more marine pollution than industrial waste. Today our oceans have been turned into a huge open dump where plastic discarded by humanity accumulates.

Recent studies show that about 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, accumulating in gyres or areas where currents converge. About 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating at sea in the ocean, where one million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to plastic pollution. The survival of at least 100 species is at stake. Plastic pollution is also a carrier of invasive species that threaten native ecosystems, and causes around $13 billion in damages to fishing, shipping and tourism, among other industries. And when the chemicals in the plastic enter the human food chain through the fish and seafood we eat, we become at risk of developing cancer, malformation or impaired reproduction.

The ocean cannot absorb and degrade our waste indefinitely; we must rethink our relationship with the ocean, and learn how to behave respectfully toward it. To save the main source of life on the planet before the damage is irreversible, we need to educate or re-educate ourselves, and our communities. Together we can start to make a difference. If you’re a diver, I encourage you to join this year’s International Coastal Cleanup in September. In 2015, nearly 800,000 volunteers collected over 8,160 tons of trash from the ocean.

A quarter (25%) of ADB blog readers believe responsible fishing is the best way to keep our oceans healthy. Fisheries and aquaculture are a direct or indirect source of livelihood for over 500 million people, mostly in developing countries. Once again, the ocean is also an important source of socio-economic development. But the ocean is also sick from overfishing, or taking wildlife from the sea faster than populations can keep up. Also, unsustainable fishing methods such as purse seining or longlining result in high levels of bycatch – the capture of unintended species like birds or sea turtles, and other fish such as swordfish. Fishers remove more than 77 billion kilograms of wildlife from the sea each year, and scientists fear that if we don’t slow down global fisheries may soon collapse.

To maintain fish stocks, we need to reduce overfishing and bycatch through sustainable fisheries management. This is no easy task and requires cooperation at all levels of government, civil society and local communities to develop regulations based on scientific data. The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is a step in the right direction, but its implementation rests with individual countries. Moreover, enforcing fishing regulations in international waters is extremely difficult.

For 15% of participants in the poll, protecting coral reefs is key for sustainable oceans. Coral reefs provide a habitat for over 9 million species covering approximately one fourth of marine life, destination sites for marine tourism, fishing grounds and shoreline protection from storms. The annual value of all these services is estimated to be over $375 billion. Sadly, coral reefs are under grave threat, and unless we take immediate action scientists calculate we could lose up to 70% of them by 2050.

Both as a scientist and a diver, I am particularly sensitive to this tragedy. I never miss an opportunity to educate and sensitize my fellow divers on how important it is to be careful with and respect coral, which is composed by the most fragile living marine organisms. A branch of coral can be destroyed by a careless, negligent diver in a second, but a reef takes a very long time to grow back – from 100,000 to 30,000,000 years to fully form depending on the size of the reef.

Finally, 5% of respondents chose promoting fish farming as a way of ensuring food security without overfishing. Maybe so, but it’s a controversial method that would require careful practices and management to avoid unexpected negative effects.

The ocean is a source of life, our life. Money can pay fees at the hospital, but it can't buy life. It’s the same with the ocean – it is our collective responsibility to take care of and protect our oceans to save our life if we want to live longer, better, and healthier. I will never forget what Jacques Yves Cousteau would always say: “A lot of people attack the sea; I make love to it. People protect what they love.”