As a child, I lived on a remote island and spent a lot of time criss-crossing a windswept channel in a tiny ragtop speedboat, waves crashing all around and splashing me with ocean spray. So, understandably, I grew up terrified of the ocean. But I had it exactly backwards. I had little to fear from the ocean. The ocean, on the other hand, had plenty to fear from me.
I want to change that, and I’m guessing you do too.
The lungs of the earth
The oceans are in trouble. So much so that in June 2017, representatives from nearly 200 countries gathered at United Nations headquarters for a conference on oceans—the first of its kind—to chart a course away from catastrophe.
From that meeting came an urgent international call to protect and preserve the world’s oceans and habitats for the sake of the planet as well as ourselves. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it in his speech to the assembly, “Conserving our oceans and using them sustainably is preserving life itself.”
He was right on the money. Besides providing roughly half of the oxygen we breathe every minute of the day, the oceans also play a pivotal role in regulating the earth’s climate.
But everywhere you look, human activity is threatening the health and normal functioning of the oceans. The good news? Wherever there are threats, there are also opportunities (that’s business school 101!)—some of which you’ve probably never considered before.
Large and small plastics find their way into the ocean from a range of activities and products, from consumer packaging to car tires and fishing lines. And apparently all that plastic makes a tempting snack. At this point, plastic has been found in tens of thousands of marine organisms, in some cases contaminating up to 80 percent of a sampled species.
This is a big deal for marine wildlife. Ocean plastics can act as a carrier for chemicals and organic contaminants, from PCBs to DDT, and reports have shown that ingestion of plastics can have a wide range of harmful effects on marine organisms—changing energy levels, growth, breeding success and other behaviors.
Opportunity: Buy clothes that you’ll love more. The secret is investing in stuff made from natural fabrics like organic cotton. (So soft!) Buy fewer clothes made of synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic or polyester—when washed, they shed tiny plastic fibers that end up in the sea.*
Threat: Ocean acidification
Another critical threat to marine life, not to mention the world climate as a whole, is ocean acidification. One of the ocean’s major functions is to draw carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Each year, it gobbles up 30 percent of the world’s CO2, helping to protect the world from climate change.
Unfortunately, that process also increases ocean acidification, which disrupts species’ growth and reproduction, contributes to the erosion of the coral reefs and—this is key—reduces the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2.
The only solution to this problem is to reduce our carbon emissions. If we don’t, the result will be drastically altered marine ecosystems, dead coral and a much warmer world.
Opportunity: You probably already know the major opportunities for cutting carbon in your life, like driving less and eating plant based. But the next time you’re shopping for a computer, you’ve got another opportunity: to choose a laptop instead of a desktop computer. Laptops are up to 80 percent more energy efficient!
Fish poulations are under relentless pressure from overfishing, despite gains in many areas in recent years.
According to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, almost 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either overfished or fished to capacity. Of those, 31.4 percent are overfished, meaning that they are fished at a biologically unsustainable level.
Opportunity: Eat delicious plant-based seafood substitutes (yep, they exist!), and encourage friends and family to try them out too.
Sewage outfalls. Agricultural runoff. Oil spills. Coal smoke. Pollution enters our oceans from a whole bunch of sources, and the results can be super harmful for animal and human health.
Perhaps the most worrisome is agricultural runoff—especially from nitrogen fertilizers—which, along with other pollutants, contributes to the formation of massive “dead zones” in the ocean.
Another particularly concerning contaminant is the neurotoxin methyl mercury, which transfers to the ocean from sources like coal plants and gold mines, then bioaccumulates in large marine animals.
Opportunity: Get gorgeous! Yes, really. By choosing natural beauty products with nontoxic ingredients, you’re choosing to help ocean health. Everything that goes down the sink generally ends up in the ocean, so whenever you wash off chemical-laden makeup or sunscreen, it ends up you-know-where. Products containing glitter are especially bad for the ocean. Fortunately, responsible natural beauty companies use minerals like mica for a safer shimmer, so you can still channel your inner mermaid!