Great white sharks, coral reefs, Morgan Freeman, and phytoplankton-what do they all have in common? They all share the same ecosystem. This answer might seem obvious, but I believe this is not how most people view their lives and their connection to nature, and more specifically to our ocean. The fact is, it doesn’t matter where someone lives, whether surrounded by an abundance of wildlife or in a big busy city with traffic and tall skyscrapers. We all contribute in one way or another to our planet and all take up and use a part of it in our lives. My paper will investigate the connection between humans and our oceans and the impacts we have on them.
Did you know that 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from little organisms called phytoplankton that live in the ocean (Plastic Paradise)? Did you know that the largest mountain ranges and the deepest valleys on the Earth are in the ocean, and that 97% of the Earth’s life lives underwater (“Why the Ocean Matters”; My Wish)? These figures are pretty staggering and honestly surprised me when I first heard them. But when I began to learn more about the ocean and our planet, it started to make sense. You might have also heard that the ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and contains 71% of the planet’s water (“Oceans” NOAA).
It seems at first that this must be an exaggerated figure. There are so many humans and so much land; we could not possibly do all of this with only 28% of Earth! But like Sylvia Earle said, “97% of Earth’s water is ocean” (My Wish). We are a blue planet, and even without any scientific data, it seems obvious that all that blue must have something to do with us and our life as we know it. How couldn’t it? This connection, I have come to find, is very true.
For me, the ocean is something that’s close to my heart. It’s my passion. My love for our Earth’s ocean started young; I was reading many books and learning many things, and as far back as I can remember, there was just something about that big blue body of water that fascinated me. I remember taking trips to the library with my mother, asking her where the ocean section was, and looking for a book that had plenty of pictures in it. I remember staring at pictures of whales jumping out and splashing in the ocean’s waves. I remember pictures of sharks and colorful fishes. It was some kind of otherworld.
Although I couldn’t articulate why this thing was so close to me, the ocean intrigued me, and I couldn’t get enough. It lit up my imagination and curiosity. Even though I’ve spent my life growing up in Minnesota, nowhere near the ocean, I started developing a passion for it. I knew it was special. And now, having learned so much on the topic, and excited to learn more, I’m finding out just how important it is to everything around us.
The ocean helps regulate climate, weather, and the planet’s carbon balance. It stabilizes Earth’s chemical makeup and workings (My Wish). It’s one of the biggest regulators of the oxygen we breathe and takes in the carbon dioxide we exhale. In fact, 50% of our oxygen comes from the ocean (My Wish). That’s every other breath we take, all the time, every day, year round! Over a long period of time, the ocean has sucked up “most of the planet’s organic carbon,” which is now stored in the depths of the seas (My Wish). Without that, our Earth would be unlivable. The ocean’s coral reefs protect coastlines (Plastic Paradise Movie). Fish and other marine animals are worldwide resources that not only give us food, but support economies, trade, transportation, and a way of living for many.
You could be one of the “2.6 billion people who rely on the ocean as a primary source of protein” or you could be someone who lives nowhere near the great, powerful forces of our waters — either way, you depend on the ocean and use it in your daily life (“Oceans”). Did you know that the ocean heavily influences our planet’s climate and weather and helps stabilize the Earth’s temperature (My Wish)? The ocean shapes Earth’s chemistry and is the very building block of our climate (My Wish). Seventy-one percent of our planet’s surface is covered by the ocean; it surrounds us and affects our lives in such an overwhelming and powerful way, it’s almost hard to imagine (“Oceans” NOAA).
So we know the ocean affects and drives our climate, but can we affect and change our ocean? The answer is yes. And the most dramatic way we’re affecting our ocean is through man-made global warming, or the term I like to use, along with most scientists — climate change.
One rumor that’s gotten around is the idea that climate change isn’t caused by humans. This is a terrible, unfortunate misconception. I have concluded otherwise, along with most scientists. In fact, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and is caused by humans (“Consensus”). This does seem impossible, though. How can humans, one species, affect and therefore change the whole planet? I myself wondered about this. But, as I discovered, the idea that global warming is not happening and not caused by us all comes from unreliable sources. Like many things, climate change is just too complex and technical to accurately convey to people over a thirty-second clip on the news. National Geographic even dedicated one of their monthly issues to this topic and called it “The War On Science.” If you talk to a scientist about this, or any respected scientific organization that’s actually studied and analyzed the data, the conclusion is clear. We are affecting our planet’s climate, and that in turn is affecting us. News reporters and government officials aren’t anywhere close to being experts on this topic. That’s not their job; it’s a scientist’s job. So how do we effectively educate the public on this matter in a simplified and understandable way? We need to find a new, better way to collaborate with each other, whether it’s from scientists to the media and public, or scientists to other scientists, or globally between nations. This is a difficult task that will test us and our future generations. But I could see it bringing us together in an unexpected way, a better way (“IPCC Fifth Assessment”). We could truly work side by side, as brothers and sisters, all in it together. Because the fact is, we already are in it together, as the inhabitants of Earth. It just can be hard to see sometimes through the fog.
One of the main reasons for climate change is the shift in the levels of carbon dioxide on Earth and in our atmosphere. Basically, it all starts from the sun. The sun gives off rays that hit the earth and heat our planet, but some of these bounce back into space. Amazingly, this method works just right for us — we get the heat and oxygen we need to breathe and live and thrive, and the rest gets naturally dispersed. What we are doing, which is a relatively new problem that started with the industrial revolution, is producing extra carbon dioxide through the burring of fossil fuels (Pickrell). This thickens the atmosphere, creating the greenhouse gasses, which make a kind of thick layer or cloud in the ozone, preventing the remaining sun rays from escaping. They are therefore trapped here on Earth, creating extra heat.
One direct effect of this warming on our oceans is coral bleaching (“What Is Coral Bleaching”). This is when the waters that are home to coral reefs become too warm for them to live, and just like the term suggests, they turn from their beautiful array of colors to a deadly pale white. Although when this happens, a lot of the time they aren’t completely pronounced dead. They still have life in them, and with some protection and nutrients they can come back. But because of things like overfishing and pollution from us, it just makes it that much harder for them to fight and regain their health back, and many of them die. One massive bleaching event in the Caribbean took place in 2005, and we lost half of our corals there (“What Is Coral Bleaching”). On a worldwide scale, we’ve lost half our coral reefs just in the last few decades (Mission Blue). This is definitely a concern. Coral reefs are the foundation of some of the most amazing and unique ecosystems in the world, and even though they only take up one percent of the ocean’s floor, 25% of marine animals depend on them and call them home (“What Is Coral Bleaching”). The corals also help us by being a kind of natural barrier that prevents coastal erosion and helps slow down the incoming waves that would otherwise smash our beaches and shorefront properties. Small fish and sea urchins and anemones use and live off the reef. The bigger fish like the tuna eat the smaller fish, the dolphins and sharks eat the tuna, and, yes, we eat the sharks (or at least their fins). It’s all one big cycle, and Earth is just one big ecosystem.
Another negative effect of climate change is ocean acidification, which is also caused by us. When the carbon dioxide levels started to rise in the industrial revolution, they needed somewhere to go, so the ocean took on the job. An estimated 50% of our emissions since then have been absorbed by the ocean and in turn helped us by slowing down climate change (Pickrell). This is a great deal and something to be thankful for. Unfortunately, there are consequences for this. The ocean is a major converter of CO2 to oxygen, but at this unnaturally fast pace, the ocean just can’t keep up with the demand. When the CO2 reaches the water, half is cycled and the other half remains in the ocean, causing the ocean to acidify. When ocean acidification happens, other marine animals suffer, and it makes its way up the food chain.
Sea level rise is another consequence of climate change. A good example of this is the changing ice caps in the north and south poles. One environmental photographer named James Balog went out on a journey to capture these amazing structures for proof of the warming temperatures and the declining ice. He took a time-lapse camera, aimed it at the hovering cold ice sheet, and let it roll for several years. His findings were jaw dropping and became the June 2007 cover story for National Geographic. Balog found that the ice sheets were melting at a much higher rate than expected. His title on the cover page was, “The Big Thaw: Ice on the Run, Seas on the Rise,” which says it all (“National Geographic Magazine”). The important point is that we’ve been able to link these two things more precisely. By pulling ice core samples from the sheets, you can get a glimpse of our planet’s past. By analyzing them, you can get a record of the carbon dioxide levels and the temperature levels from previous years. What they found is a link between the temperature and the carbon levels — a direct correlation. Since 1980, scientists have been studying polar ice caps, and the data now shows that there’s a link between temperature rising, ice caps melting, and carbon dioxide levels (Chasing Ice). The ocean drives our climate and regulates our whether, but now there’s a new force stepping in and making a name for itself in this picture — humans.
Another area of concern that’s affecting our oceans is pollution. Unlike climate change, pollution is a broader and more well-known concept. This is because it’s not just something that happens in our oceans, but also on our lands and in our lakes and rivers. I can see it when I’m walking my dog in the park or on the side of highways and streets when I’m driving home from school. The ocean is a little different, though. If I were to take a summer trip down to the Florida Keys, stand on the beaches and look out onto the waves, what would I see? I would see the beautiful blue ocean, the sun on the horizon, and maybe some dolphins or sharks if I’m lucky. And if I came back the next year, I would see the same thing. The ocean is being polluted; we just can’t see it. It’s far, far beneath the waves, and unless you were to go snorkeling or scuba diving or were doing some research on the subject, you would be oblivious to this deadly intruder.
There are two main kinds of pollution; both are harmful but appear in different forms. The first is something called a “dead zone.” This phenomenon originates not in the ocean or on the coast, but in a place far away—our farm fields (Mission Blue). When the farmers get busy in the spring planting their seeds for the upcoming season, they spread chemicals like fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides on their crops. When it rains, these chemicals start to run off into nearby streams and rivers, and then, for example in the United States, flow into the great Mississippi river (Mission Blue). The chemicals make their way all the way down to the mouth of the Mississippi, pouring out and dispersing into the Gulf of Mexico. When this happens, certain algae feed off these chemicals. The algae population explodes and starts to take over the water, causing what’s called “hypoxia” (“Happening Now”).
This might sound like a rigid scientific term, but it’s really quite simple. Hypoxia occurs when the levels of oxygen in the water get so low that the marine life begins to suffocate and die. As you can imagine, this has some major consequences. If you’re a bigger fish that can migrate to another area, you have a chance at making it out alive, but the smaller marine life and the corals just can’t survive. This large-scale death creates a dead zone. In 2014, a study was conducted on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and the findings were shocking. As of now, it is the biggest dead zone in the world measuring, a total 5,052 square miles (“Happening Now”). This is not just tragic for the fish and sea animals that live in the area, but for the people who live off and depend on the gulf to make a living. NOAA conducted a study on this alarming issue and concluded that dead zones are a costly problem for the U.S., estimating $82 million in losses per year in the seafood and tourism industries (Smith and Janson). It’s not just the Gulf, though; we’re seeing increases across the globe, and now close to 500 dead zones worldwide are popping up (“Facts and Figures”). The damage can be so severe that you can see dead zones from satellites.
The most important victims of dead zones are phytoplankton, which are so small that millions of them can fit into a single jar (“Earth Science Week”). But they also appear in large quantities. Phytoplankton are the very basis of the food chain in both the oceans and on Earth as a whole. NASA oceanographer Dr. Gene Feldman said, “If it weren’t for phytoplankton, the earth as we know it would probably not be able to exist; life on this planet pretty much depends on phytoplankton” (“Earth Science Week”). An amazing 50% of the air we breathe comes from these tiny ocean creatures (Plastic Paradise).
There is thankfully some good news, though. When these dead zones appear, they don’t always stay forever. At the end of summer and start of fall, winds start to pick up along the Gulf, and naturally, again, Mother Nature steps in and cleans up the mess. The wind current hits the ocean surface, then turns and mixes the water from the top of the waves to the bottom of the sea, restoring and replenishing the oxygen levels. This makes the area livable again, and the underwater creatures start slowly making their way back. All is safe and sound, the community is alive and well again, until next spring.
This cycle is a growing problem and something we’re going to need to look into further. We might have to reevaluate our whole food system—how we produce our crops and feed our livestock. Maybe we even need to go back in time, back to our roots and an older way of farming. At the very least, we need to start making more organic foods. This would be a solution to those nasty dead zones, not to mention the benefits we would gain—less herbicides and pesticides and chemicals in our foods means less of them in our bodies. I’m not saying I’m completely against modern farming and the new way of doing things. But things right now are at the point where the effects are just too great, and the oceans won’t be able to handle them and take on the load forever.
The second kind of pollution in our waters can be boiled down to one word — trash. This can come in many forms, one of them being the dumping of barrels into the ocean, or ocean dumping. Big ships and barges need somewhere to put their leftovers, their hazardous chemicals and radioactive waste, so they put them in barrels and tip them overboard, descending into the depths, as if the ocean were their trashcan to be used however they wish. This new and efficient way of disposing of your unmentionables was popular in California from 1946 to 1970, when over 47,800 drums were thrown into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco (“Farallon Island”). Luckily, people came to their senses and since 1993, the dumping of these chemicals is banned, and on a worldwide basis too (“Farallon Island”).
Another kind of physical pollution entering our oceans is plastics. Plastics were first invented, or discovered, in 1839 by the chemist Charles Goodyear (Freudenrich). It wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that plastics started appearing in the consumer’s hands; fast forward to the present day, and you can find them everywhere—from our cars and cell phones, to our kids’ markers and toys, to our food and kitchen containers, to our convenient plastic water bottles and shopping bags. This is one of the problems of plastic. On one hand it was a remarkable human invention, a material that can be made and shaped into almost any size, shape, or color. We can make them as durable as tires or lightweight and flexible like plastic bags. On the other hand, because plastics are formed in the lab and not from a raw material that’s found in nature, they’re almost impossible for the earth to break down. In fact, “every single piece of plastic that has ever been created since the 19th century is still somewhere on our planet” (Plastic Paradise Movie). They’re easy to use but hard to get rid of. So where does all our plastic end up? The majority, I’ve come to learn, is in our oceans, and the numbers are staggering. New findings now estimate that eight tons of plastic enter our oceans every year, and growing (Parker)!
One common example of plastics harming our oceans is marine animals getting caught in fishing nets. Back in the day, fishermen’s nets were made out of wool or silk, but now they’ve modernized and upgraded to nylon—a cheap form of plastic (Plastic Paradise). It’s great for fishing, but bad for everyone and everything else. These nets are scattered across the oceans, and all varieties of sea creatures can be found trapped and entangled in them, from a baby Queen Angel fish to a 100-year-old Leatherback turtle, to sea lions, to Great White Sharks, to the biggest animal in the sea, the elegant Blue Whale. These nets also cause damage to the ocean’s smaller critters and to the coral reefs, which are already threatened and endangered by climate change and overfishing. What happens is that nets act like tumbleweeds in the sea. They get thrown overboard to be discarded, and unless an animal picks them up, they reach the ocean floor and start collecting debris, eventually turning into one big ball of plastic nylon and sea creatures. This ocean tumbleweed then gets swept and carried away with the current and makes its way to our precious coral reefs. There are many different kinds of coral, some more round and spherical, but a lot of them are formed with more of a pointy, stick-like structure. The ocean tumbleweeds get snagged on these corals, snapping and breaking pieces off of them. This carnage is simply added to the collection, and the tumbleweed rolls on to get bigger and bigger (Plastic Paradise). Unless one of us humans makes an effort to pull them out of the water—which can be a struggle considering by then they’ve usually reached massive proportions—they’re down there forever.
Plastics are in our oceans, in our lakes and rivers, and in our homes and neighborhood parks. Plastics are in things we use every day. We wear them on our backs as clothes, and they even hold the food we eat. Plastics aren’t just affecting our ocean’s health, but alarmingly, our health as well. When I said before that plastics don’t biodegrade, this is true, but they do over time break down, getting smaller and smaller and eventually ending up as microscopic particles. These particles float in the ocean and unfortunately are attracted to environmental pollutants like PCB and DDE (“G Word”). These chemicals stick to the plastic particles and actually become part of their makeup. Why would this be such a concern for us or the oceans, especially if they’re so small the naked eye can’t even pick them up? Well, just like phytoplankton, they are tiny but become the basis of the food chain. The small fish suck them up, the bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and we eat those fish. Yes, that plastic is ending up in our bodies. This is a perfect example of how our actions affect ocean life, which in turn affects us.
One single pollutant in the ocean is taking over from the microscopic plankton, ending up in the stomachs of the ocean’s animals. In 2010, an autopsy was performed on a deceased Gray Whale, and the findings were incredible. The stomach content included a golf ball, some duct tape, a pair of sweatpants, some surgical gloves, a few small towels, and more than 20 plastic bags (Groc). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic. In 2010, a shocking total of 270 million tons of plastic were produced around the world, the U.S. being one of the main contributors with 14 million tons in our name (“First Estimates”; “Wastes”). Plastic is everywhere, the oceans being a leading vessel. The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that for every square mile of ocean, there’s a whopping 46,000 pieces of floating plastic (“Facts and Figures”). Our handy dandy plastics of the world are taking over. We stumbled across a remarkable material, and we just couldn’t get enough. It was too easy to make and too flexible to fit and mold into anything we saw fit. Plastics have revolutionized our world, both on land and, unfortunately, in the sea.
The last area of concern for the oceans, but certainly not the least, is overfishing. It’s a big one, and some say maybe the most important. The three main areas that I decided to focus on weren’t really my opinion of the worst threats. From all the videos, documentaries, websites, and readings, it became clear that climate change, pollution, and overfishing were the elements to focus on. Overfishing surprised me, though, because it’s not an issue you hear about every day, but the impact it has on the earth is so massive.
What images come to mind when you think of the ocean? Do you see a beautiful sandy beach with palm trees and a body of water that goes on forever until it touches the sunset, like a picture from a calendar? Do you think of a place crawling with life like in the movie Finding Nemo? Do you think of the movie Jaws and the possibility of getting eaten alive by a shark? Maybe you just envision the open ocean with waves that go on forever and ever. Speaking for myself, my image of our oceans has drastically changed from when I started my research. Out of all the figures I’ve come across, the most astonishing and alarming number is the current total of remaining fish in our seas.
As of now, we (humans) have fished out and eaten 90% of all the big fish in our ocean (My Wish). Out of the entire ocean on Earth, all the waters around all the continents and countries with all the different people and cultures and from our shore lines to the open ocean, 90% of all the big fish we used to have are simply gone (My Wish)!
How could this be? When I first heard this figure, I was in shock, which turned to disbelief. My source was more than credible, but this was a figure I couldn’t comprehend. So I did more research and investigated this claim further; it was indeed true. Only 10% of all large fish remain, meaning all the cod, halibut, swordfish, marlins, tuna, and sharks around the world (“Big Fish”). Since man carved a stick into a spear thousands of years ago, humans recognized the potential of life in the sea and got busy benefiting and drawing out its resources. But it’s not until recently, within the past 100 years or so, that we’ve really picked up the pace and become remarkably efficient and successful at this skill; the problem is, the natural system just can’t keep up (My Wish). You might be asking how we’ve been able to accomplish this number. The answer, put simply, is overfishing, using the newest technologies available to catch the maximum number of fish, without worrying about the consequences.
So exactly what kind of fishing is problematic? There’s recreational or sport fishing, which I personally enjoy in the summer time, but then there’s commercial fishing, and that is where the trouble lies. There are three kinds of commercial fishing: ocean dragging, long line fishing, and big net fishing.
Our new way of fishing is really quite remarkable; it doesn’t require a huge ship with a captain and a long list of crew members. For example, with long line fishing, sometimes all it takes is a small boat, one or two helpers, and a minimal amount of supplies. They get the longest, most durable rope they can find, some 20 miles in length, and attach many hooks to it (Jackson). A normal line consists of one or two million hooks per line (Jackson). They can set up buoys at each end attached with anchors on each side, throw them out, hurry off home, and let the bait take. They’ll come back in a few days, gather their cheaply-caught food, set it up again, and repeat the cycle.
Ocean dragging, also known as bottom trawling, is a very different modern fishing technique, but just as efficient. The type of equipment and gear used varies slightly, but all consist of the same the basic setup. It starts with one big long net, narrow on one side with a big wide opening on the other end. Connected to the front end of these nets are trolling doors, basically big heavy boards, usually made of steel, that drag on the ocean floor (Jackson). They provide assistance to the net by weighing it down, making sure it stays steady and as close to the ocean floor as possible so it doesn’t miss a thing. Well, congratulations to whoever invented this, because without a doubt, it effectively does its job. They have successfully figured out how to fish every level of the ocean, from the surface to the middle, and graduating to the depths of the ocean floor. Unfortunately, bottom trolling is simply devastating. It not only uses the big industrial nets, but it has an added bonus of the trawling doors. With nets, corals or fast-moving critters at least have a chance at surviving or high tailing it out of there before it’s too late. But these manmade doors, solid heavy steel frames, are just too evolved and out of their world. This mysterious invasive species is unlike any natural predator they’ve ever encountered; there is no defense against them. Humans are the top predator, and with technology like bottom trawling, these creatures are at our mercy.
Since human fishing began, the current total estimated area that’s been fished (if you can call it that) is equivalent to all the forests in all the countries across the entire world (Jackson). That’s how much ocean floor we’ve swept away, and we did most of this in the last 100-150 years (Jackson). I’m at a loss for words; all I can say is this ocean dragging needs to stop. It’s an incredibly reckless and inefficient way of getting the food we want. Reckless fishing on the high seas can be done because it’s the largest and least protected ecosystem on Earth (My Wish).
Is this really an efficient way of getting food, in the larger sense? You have the cost of running the ships, the time, paying the workers, pollution from the gas (which you also have to pay for), a job that’s unsustainable, all for an end product that’s far less important than the destruction of land and sea life. In fact, every time you eat seafood, you can expect a good amount of bycatch that came with it (My Wish). Bycatch is the unwanted and untargeted marine life that gets caught along with the fishermen’s target commodity (Jackson). This is also a terrible tragedy; every year an astonishing 30 million tons of marine life are killed this way (Guynup). So how is this possible? It’s simple; our oceans aren’t protected. On land, we’ve been able to rack up a total of close to 12% of land mass that is protected in some way or form (My Wish). In our waters, the percentages are in the single digits, coming in at less than three percent (“Hope Spots”). Our oceans are virtually unprotected, with the remaining 97% open to fishing, mining, drilling, and dumping (My Wish). No wonder this kind of environmental damage is taking place.
The third method of modern fishing is the use of big nets, which is just what it sounds like. Fishermen use nets that are massive and almost indestructible. When they locate a school of fish, they lower the nets and scoop the fish into their boats. The problem is that, unlike the method of using one pole and a single fishing hook, they’re taking the entire school of fish. If you’re the kind of fish that swims in groups, which are the ones that big net fishing targets, your entire family, from the babies to the elders, the ones responsible for making and reproducing, are all captured. Big nets take out the whole community. They’re not being selective or limiting what they catch, because there are no limits. That makes it very difficult for the stock to be replenished and the ecosystem to continue. Big net fishing is less devastating than ocean dragging, but it still results in a sad and wasteful loss.
Fishing provides a means of living for a lot of people, and a total of 200 million people around the world are employed (“Oceans”). So what can we do about this? For starters, we are finally beginning to create marine reserves, just like we do on land. This is the only way to stop the bleeding. We protect an area and make it a safe environment for fish to come back. If we let it grow and live, the ocean will thank us in return.
For example, Palau was a beautiful island with a thriving coral reef system. It had abundant and rich marine wildlife, so beautiful that some considered it one of the seven underwater wonders of the world (NG Live). However, locals needed to provide for themselves, so they opened their waters to commercial fishing. It wasn’t long before the sharks were gone, and not long after that, the fish started disappearing. Before they knew it, the ecosystem became virtually nonexistent. The island was now left with no money and no fish. So the locals declared their waters off limits, and in 2009 Palau became the world’s first shark sanctuary, an area of 500,000 square kilometers that’s completely off limits to foreign and industrial fishing (“National Marine”). Now, the community is thriving. They replaced their fishing fleet revenue with commercial diving revenue—what an idea (NG Live)! This way, they can keep their priceless reefs, exotic tropical fish, octopi, and sharks. Their dolphins and clean water can stay, the nasty barge ships can go, and they can even invite people from around the world to come in for a glimpse. They’re setting an example for the rest of us while making money and thriving on a whole new level.
The restoration of Palau’s ocean life was one of oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s “hope spot” projects. Since Earle’s hope spots started, the protection of our oceans jumped from less than one percent to almost three percent (“About Us”). This might not seem like much, but in fact it is a cause for celebration and hope, hence the name “hope spots.” Earle, as you may have noticed, has been cited throughout my paper, because she’s the foremost expert on ocean conservation. She also puts her ideas into practice in the real world. Many consider her a hero, even a legend, but she would simply call herself an explorer (Mission Blue). Sylvia A. Earle has dedicated her entire life to saving the oceans, which in her lifetime have unfortunately suffered a landslide of destruction. After her award-winning TED Talk in 2009, “How to Protect Our Oceans,” Earle was inspired to take action. She founded Mission Blue, an organization attached to the global movement to save and protect Earth’s great treasure. Earle considered the oceans Earth’s biggest global common, “used by all, protected by none” (Earle, “The Sweet Spot in Time” 67).
Organizations like Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue can help protect and restore some areas, but what about the rest of the world? Well, the solution for that is also marine reserves! By setting up these areas, specifically “no-take reserves” (completely protected zones that are off limits to any kind of removal of wildlife or altering of habitat), it gives marine life in the area a chance (“No-Take”). It provides a refuge, kind of like humans have our homes to go to, a place to grow, a safe place we can escape to when needed that offers protection from the outside world. When areas aren’t protected, the fate of these habitats is put into the hands of the industrial fishing fleets or whoever else wants to capitalize. This practice isn’t sustainable, and as you can image, doesn’t last long. The area quickly gets fished out, their home is broken, and the ships speed off, only to find a new area whose fate inevitably becomes the same.
The good news is, after setting up some of these protected areas, scientists quickly jumped at the opportunity to investigate and study this newly protected ecosystem. Their findings were remarkable. What they found is that by making just a fraction of their waters off limits, their underwater ecosystem exploded, burst out of its man-made limitations, and became the thriving community it once was.
Creating more marine reserves would definitely benefit marine life, but could it also actually benefit the fishing industry and the world’s demand for seafood? Well, when a no-take zone is formed, the ecosystem undergoes a drastic change for the better. If you compare them to unprotected areas, the variety of species increases by 21% (Glimpses). The size of the fish and organisms increase by a third. The abundance—the amount of fish per square meter in the area—increases by 170%. The biomass—the total amount of wildlife in the area—skyrockets to an average of 4.5 times greater, and in some places up to 10 times greater (Glimpses). The beneficial side effect of having these no-take reserves is that unlike land, the ocean has no set border; there are no fences or gates to contain the fish in open water. So when we provide these marine reserves, the ecosystem starts regaining its strength; it starts to grow, slowly but surely getting healthier each day, until they finally reach their full capacity, tumbling and spilling over, ever expanding their range. This is when the fishermen start to reap the benefits (Glimpses). The fishermen actually make more money by fishing less around an area that’s protected (Glimpses).
One scientist by the name of Enric Sala, who’s currently “leading a global marine conservation initiative at National Geographic,” put it quite simply (“About Us”). Our current approach to our ocean, “or a world without reserves is like a debit account where we withdraw all the time and we never make any deposit” and “these marine reserves are like savings accounts; we have this principal that we don’t touch that produces returns: social, economic, and ecological” (Glimpses). This is our ticket out; this is our solution. Our world is changing; our population is increasing, along with our demand for food. With our oceans being a primary supplier, it would be wise of us to start introducing more of these marine reserves. We can still have our commercial fishing of seafood, and we can still take a trip to our local grocery store for some salmon and tuna; we just have to make some slight adjustments. These marine reserves hold the solution to our overfishing problem.
So, in the end, how does our impact on the Earth’s oceans in turn affect us? The answer is almost immeasurable and partially still a mystery. This might seem odd based on all the data and facts I have presented to you, and the overwhelming amount of evidence in the scientific community and organizations around the world working hard to fight back against this crisis. But if you take in all the facts, analyze them, break them down to try pinpoint the origin, the original culprit or starting point of this whole mess is actually pretty clear. First, I apologize if this brings anyone discomfort or sadness, but the species responsible for the current state of our ill oceans, and really the earth itself, is a species called homo sapiens — that’s us!
All this knowledge about the damage we’re doing may be overwhelming. We’re severely harming our oceans, our planet, and nature itself, which has negative effects on our wellbeing and our future. But it’s absolutely something that we can change. I am unaware of a cosmic meteoroid that struck our planet and sent it into an extinction period. We are the meteoroid, and we have the power. Yes, we are the reasons behind this mess, but we are also the ones that have the power, the knowledge, and the strength to turn things around. Nature is very resilient and forgiving. It can and will fight to survive, just like we do; it just needs a little help and some tender loving care. I’m not giving up hope, and I do have faith in our species. We might have taken some wrong turns and made some wrong decisions, but we can also be very compassionate. The solution is really quite simple; find the love in your heart that you use with the ones close to you, and apply that to nature as well.
People often ask Sylvia Earle, how much of our oceans should we put into protected zones? Her simple answer is this: “How much of your heart do you want to protect? Whatever it is, a fraction of one percent is not enough” (Earle, “The Sweet Spot in Time” 68). The good news is that we’re starting to connect the dots. Since 2012, the year Earle published The Sweet Spot In Time, we’ve raised our protection to almost three percent (“Hope Spots”). This planet we live on is pretty incredible. It gives a lot and asks for nothing in return. Love Mother Nature, and, free of cost, she will love us back. I know it might seem like we are separate from the earth, and maybe in a way we are, but really, we are just another species struggling to survive, and nature is a powerful ally.
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