Humans have relied on the bounty of the sea around the world for a millennium.
We have fished for food and for recreation, we have dumped our waste in the waves, we have dug below the sand to find fossil fuels, and throughout it all we have left our mark.
More than half the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coastline and it is estimated that 50- 70% of the Earth’s oxygen comes from the sea. Where once the oceans were used as a seemingly bottomless trash bin for human waste, many countries have realized the importance of keeping the valuable oceans clean, establishing regulations on what makes it into the water and what can be taken from the water. But is it enough to curb the destruction of the delicate ecosystems that call the oceans home? Many scientists say no.
With an estimated 40% of the oceans affected in some way by the pollutants dumped directly into the sea, and by what humans are doing on the land, researchers agree there is a long road ahead of us if we plan to reverse the long term damage humans have done to the sea, and we haven’t even begun to walk it.
Changes to the oceans caused by humans include:
Ocean Acidification: The ocean doesn’t only produce oxygen, it also absorbs CO2. Increased carbon emissions change the pH, or acidity level, of the sea water. Scientists warn that this has the potential to do large scale damage to sea life, particularly in colder water regions where the CO2 is more soluble. Ocean acidification specifically affects shelled animals causing them difficulty when forming shells.
Solution: Mass reduction in carbon emissions from factories, energy plants and transportation. This would require an overhaul of how we live, starting with our energy choices. Changes would need to be global as the Earth is a closed system when it comes to water. The lax emission laws in China that have resulted in smog covered cities, counter the stricter laws of places like the U.S, where emissions regulations are purported to be the most strict.
Eutrophication: Another big science word that boils down to too many nutrients in the water. Largely caused by river and stream run off filled with nutrients from fertilizers, the excess nutrients cause phytoplankton “blooms”. The “blooms”, which might at first be a great thing for other sea life that consume them, then result in massive decomposition of the phytoplankton. As they die off, the decomposition results in a decrease of oxygen levels, which can, in turn, lead to the death of larger sea life such as fish.
Solution: Global restrictions and regulations on fertilizers. Methods used in fresh water, such as dilution of the body of water and ultra sonic irradiation, are not feasible in the ocean.
Pollution: From the accidental oil spills to the trash that doesn’t quite make it to the dump, human garbage is filling up the sea. Three (so far) “Islands” of floating garbage have been identified, one the size of Texas. The trash, caught in the ebb and flow of the tides, clumps together creating blatant examples of how humans are directly responsible for the damages being done. Plastic, in particular, has been a major culprit. While its use makes life all that much easier, it also does serious harm. From the microscopic bits of plastic from your synthetic clothing that wash out with the laundry water, to the plastic trash bags that blow away in the wind, all can be found just where they don’t belong.
There is hope. The pollution listed and the countless other ways humans impact the oceans that are not listed, have a solution. Better news, it’s you. Only humans themselves are capable of undoing what we have done. In a little less than 100 years we have managed to affect the tender balance of nearly half the world’s oceans. For many, it is a simple fact of ignorance. Education on the impact of our daily choices can help many to make the small individual changes that could add up to a substantial reversal to the damage being done. Major cities in the coastal state of California have banned the use of thin film plastic grocery bags and many cities across the nation have adopted sorting garbage from recyclables as part of waste management.
While minor changes by the world’s population at large will begin to turn the tide for the ocean, much broader reaching reform to the large global industries such as farming and energy production are desperately needed.
Image: Wikimedia Commons