© Ocean-Vida
 Copyright 2006-2014

A remote beach in the Western Caribbean, an atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean  and a mangrove island off Miami (above) have a lot in common: They are awash in trash, eroded by rising sea and polluted.  Although separated by hundreds of miles of open ocean, they face similar environmental problems.   The connection is clear; we are negatively impacting the world’s ocean everywhere in ways we are just beginning to understand.

Historically we have treated the ocean as a free, all-you-can-eat buffet; eating and discarding without much concern for its future.  We have also used the ocean as  a sewer and garbage dump.  And that was okay because we were relatively few and far in between.  During the last hundred years or so, however, the world’s population exploded and our capacity to consume and transform the planet increased exponentially, with deadly implications for the world’s ocean.  From the seemingly pristine atolls of the South Pacific to the pollution-choked bays of developing countries, the ocean is under attack from all fronts, and we are reaching a point of no return.  

Why? These are some of the most important reasons our ocean is dying: 

•	Global Warming: Our planet is getting warmer mainly because we inadvertently found ways to produce energy by burning things, especially oil, natural gas, coal and trees.  When we burn these things (fossil fuels) we release some chemicals into the atmosphere like CO2 that trap heat and warm up the planet.  The consequences of a warming planet are catastrophic: melting of polar caps and glaciers, sea level rise, disruption of the marine food web and ocean currents, coral bleaching (causes coral to die), stronger and more frequent tropical storms (for more info go to NOAA).  

•	Acidification: The ocean plays a key role in regulating global climate. So it is not surprising that the ocean, which scientists tell us absorbs about half of the CO2 produced by humans, is trying to offset global warming.  Recent research, however, has demonstrated that too much CO2 is reaching the ocean, changing the chemistry of the water, making it more acidic. For millions of years the acidity levels of the ocean have been relatively stable.  Then we burned fossil fuels on a massive scale for the las two hundred years.  Scientists are just beginning to understand the consequences of this process, but they already know that ocean acidity is up by 30 percent, and an acid ocean is bad for everybody, especially for those organisms whose skeletons and shells are being dissolved by it, like pteropods, coral and shellfish (sources: NOAA and National Geographic).

•	Overfishing:  Imagine living on a savings account that for every $100 you withdraw, you deposit $10 back.  Obviously you will run out of money sooner or later.  Something similar is happening to the ocean.  We are taking way more seafood than the ocean can replenish, driving key species to the brink of extinction and altering marine ecosystems in ways we are just beginning to comprehend.  Already we have eaten or destroyed 90% of the big fish in the ocean, including sharks and bluefin tuna. Entire fisheries have collapsed such as the Atlantic salmon, codfish and Chilean sea bass (source). Sea turtles, dolphins, whales, manatees, manta rays and many other marine species are endangered or threatened because of  overfishing and other problems.  Evidently our savings account in running out of money (source).

•	Pollution: Tossing our garbage into the ocean has been an old human tradition.  Coastal people have done it for millennia with no long-lasting consequences: fish and marine organisms quickly took care of it.  But as human population increased and our society became mechanized and dependent on man-made chemicals in the last century, our capacity to produce trash and pollute the ocean increased to unprecedented levels—most of what we trash cannot longer be biodegraded by the ocean.  Today everything from deadly chemicals and agricultural runoff to mountains of plastics and raw sewage reach the ocean and stay there for a long time, affecting everything in the food web.  Dolphins and large fishes swimming in open ocean are contaminated by high levels of mercury, which we all produce when we use coal-generated electricity and burn gas in our cars.  Albatrosses living on the most isolated island in the world (Midway Island) are tragically dying from eating the plastics you and I discard thousands of miles away.  Scientists observing the deep ocean are appalled at the amount of trash they see on the bottom of the ocean hundreds of meters deep.  Perhaps the most dramatic sign of our pollution in the ocean is the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic soup of floating debris, mostly tiny pieces of plastic, swirling around the Pacific Ocean, carried by ocean currents.  Nobody knows exactly the size of the Patch, but scientists believe it extends for thousands of miles horizontally, and nobody knows how deep.  What they do know is that many areas contain more plastic particles than living plankton.  Sea turtles, seabirds, fish and other marine organisms are mistakenly eating plastics, which means we may be eating plastic already in our seafood platter.  

•	Coastal Development: It takes a simple look at the satellite image of South Florida to realize just how much we have changed our coasts by building cities, towns, industrial complexes, etc.  But before this development took place, extensive mangrove forests, which are now considered one of the most important and productive ecosystems on the planet, covered South Florida coasts.  Today only isolated patches remain (except for the Everglades National Park).  This widespread destruction of critical habitats is not unique to South Florida, it is a worldwide process that has already affected over 40% of the world’s coasts, and continues to increase at a frightening pace.  In fact, it is nearly impossible to find a coastline that has not been touched by development (source).  As people continue to move into coastal areas, the inevitable happens: more natural habitats are destroyed, more pollution is generated and more pressure is put on the ocean. 

•	Deadly Combination and Hope: Obviously, global warming, acidification, overfishing, and coastal development do not occur in isolation.  They are parts of the same problem, so when we put them together a very disturbing picture emerges, auguring a hopeless future.  However,  if we look at the other side of our development process worldwide, at the positive effects of population explosion, mechanization and technology, we may have reasons to believe we will find solutions.  Our capacity to harm the planet has been accompanied by an equally unprecedented development in human history: our ability to create, accumulate and use knowledge.  Let’s hope it is not too late to use it wisely.      

Ocean Conservation 

When I was teaching and I mentioned these problems to my high-school students, their first reaction was absolute astonishment—why are we doing this to our blue planet?  Are we nuts?   Then they wanted to do something about it.  I believe that we are doing this simply because we don’t know.  We as a whole, all 7.4 billion of us--and counting--have little idea of out impact on the planet.  Who, in their right mind, wants to have a lifeless ocean full of plastics and noxious chemicals?  I believe that we have to educate people, not in the traditional sense at the post-secondary school level (we already do that), but at all levels:  At the fishermen level, at the office level, but especially at the primary and secondary school level.  And what better way to teach that than by paddling, snorkeling or sailing to our mangroves, coral reefs and beaches?  This way we would not only see the beauty and the problems firsthand, but also the solutions.  

Even people in Congress can learn from a paddle into the wilderness, so to speak.  Some time ago I read an article by former congressman Bob Inglis in which he describes how he changed his mind about global warming, something he was not even willing to consider.  Politics aside, he became interested in the science behind climate change at his son’s request when he was elected to Congress the second time in 2005.  He then joined the Science Committee and went to Antarctica in 2006 to see for himself.   He learned from scientists and saw the evidence.  And that propelled him to fight global warming in Congress—at a considerable political risk.  

I like his story because it brings to light two important considerations.  One is how an 18-year-old convinces his father to help the environment (his son was 18 at the time).  The other is how a scientific trip to Antarctica teaches a person about climate change and urges him to protect the planet for future generations.  This is what we try to do at Oceanvida.  I believe that bringing people in contact with the ocean, as we do at Oceanvida, accomplishes two things. It makes people feel better and happier, and it spurs action to protect  our beautiful ocean.* 

Miguel Hernandez

*The ocean (and water in general) as a source of happiness, spirituality and health has been brilliantly demonstrated by Wallace Nichols in his book Blue Mind.   Richard Louv, in his bestseller Last Child in the Woods, has similarly put together scientific evidence to prove that exposure to nature  (including the ocean) plays an essential role in every child’s physical and mental development.  
Remote Caribbean beach
Mangrove island off Miami
Albatross killed by plastics on Midway Island, the most remote island on the planet.  Photo by www.chrisjorna.com
Plastics reach the most remote islands on the planet
 Some of the plastics we discard are taking by ocean currents hundreds of miles away and end up in the most remote places of the planet, and often in the stomach of marine animals, like this albatross from Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  
Photo by Chris Jordan  
Photo by Miguel Hernandez                                               
                                           Ocean degradation 
 © Oceanvida
 Copyright 2006-2018
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