Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll have a post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
Ocean. The word conjures up images of vast blue water, of sandy beaches or rocky juts of coastline where water permanently crashes in rhythmic thunderous waves, soaking us in salty mist. The oceans are where all life began on our planet, and where the most biodiversity of any habitat still exists. The oceans feed us and sustain us, nourish our bodies and our souls, support the very life on this earth.
But for how long? Their very vastness led mankind to believe that the oceans were invulnerable, able to absorb all of our mistakes, all of our unwanted messes, and that these messes would simply disappear, never to be seen again. But the hard truth is, our oceans are not invulnerable. They are, in fact, at risk. In the last 100 years, the changes in our oceans are visibly noticeable — and time is running out before we destroy it all.
97% of the water on earth at any given moment is in the ocean. The water does go through cycles of evaporation, rainfall, then eventual return to the sea through any number of paths. Free running fresh water, the water you and I use every day in our taps, that industry uses in its operations, accounts for less than 1% of all the water on the planet — and all of that water eventually returns to the ocean. But in what state? And what do we do with it when it’s there?
The ocean is no longer pristine. It’s now filled with our castaway garbage and careless waste: oil, pesticides, plastics, metals, fertilizers, sewage and all of the other substances that we use and throw away. Over 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based activities — so whether it’s oil that drips from our cars that gets washed into streams that eventually makes it to the ocean; whether it’s sewage dumped straight into a water body; whether it’s our everyday trash that’s improperly handled and makes it eventually into the ocean, where it’s mistaken for food by animals and ingested, leading to their death: it all comes from you and me.
Every 8 months, we spill enough oil on the ground to equal that spilled by the Exxon Valdez — and that all eventually ends up in our oceans. Add to that “true” marine waste — that waste generated by marine vessels such as dumping garbage, oil spills, sinking vessels — and we have thousands upon thousands of tons of our waste entering the oceans every year, never to be cleaned up or removed.
A very visible, tangible effect of pollution is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area twice the size of France in the North Pacific covered in bobbing, swirling trash, carried to the middle of the Pacific ocean by prevailing winds and currents and ending up together, a veritable man-made plastic soup. Bottle caps, toothbrushes, plastic bags and other objects form a sea of plastic that does not decompose but rather will simply disintegrate and poison the water and the organisms trying to live off this water. Including us.
Photo Credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service on Flickr
Overfishing and Species Scarcity
When European explorers first discovered the New World, they were amazed at the seemingly boundless population of cod in the oceans off what is now called Newfoundland. The fish were so populous that sailors could reportedly scoop the fish from the sea in baskets! But the populations were not boundless. We’ve been fishing in those waters for more than 500 years. But then, between 1960 and 1970, the catch from the Grand Banks nearly tripled — and that spike did so much damage that the cod stocks collapsed. When advances in fishing technology led cod fishers to haul in larger and larger catches, they not only took too many cod, they took the reproducing, breeding stock, leaving none left to breed new fish. Eventually, these irresponsible fishing techniques depleted both the cod and the prey stocks so badly that the cod couldn’t recover. In 1992, the Canadian government declared a moratorium on cod fishing which remains in place today, destroying a generational way of life.
Newfoundland Cod is not unique: this is a scenario playing out all across the world among hundreds of species. A major issue in overfishing problems is that individual countries are making rules for their own territorial waters which are then often not respected by vessels from other countries — leading to international disputes, and ultimately damaging species stocks even further.
And overfishing is only one problem that’s causing mass extinction in our oceans. Habitat destruction, pollution, acidification all mean that fish, mammals, crustaceans and all kinds of species who were once plentiful are now scarce — and soon may disappear.
Photo Credit: Derek Keats on Flickr
As we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels and deforestation, the greenhouse effect created by that excess CO2 means that our planet warms. But it also has another effect: oceanic acidification. Part of the role of the ocean in the harmony of our planet is to absorb a certain amount of CO2 to clean the air and return it to appropriate balance. But when too much CO2 is in our air, the ocean then absorbs too much. This excess CO2 converts to carbonic acid in the oceans, thus lowering the pH of the ocean and making it inhospitable for ocean flora and fauna. The effect is slow, but unmistakable.
A notable example of this is the collapse of the Oyster fishery in Washington. Since 2005, millions of oyster larvae have failed to survive. Scientists have pinpointed the cause: the water is too acidic for the larvae to survive. This means that for the last 7 years, no new baby oysters are making it to maturity, meaning fewer and fewer oysters are making it to your plate. Oysters are also one of the organisms considered the “ocean’s filter“; their disappearance means the ocean’s normal self-cleaning mechanisms are being dangerously disrupted. The case of the disappearing oysters is just one example — the canary in the ocean’s coal mine.
Photo Credit: Orin Zebest on Flickr
What can we do?
The news is dire. Our oceans are in trouble. And yet, there are patches of pristine beauty: areas where the modern world has not touched the ocean, where species flock and flourish and have not yet been overfished or driven out or poisoned. And when we make clear attempts to repair the damage, the water will clear and species can return. But our lifestyles, our lifestyles that demand fossil fuels and plastic packaging and factory farming and herbicides and pesticides, will have to change. Every move we make, every piece of garbage or drop of waste we make, has an impact. We need to be conscious to only eat sustainable and responsibly harvested ocean species, and say no to unethically harvested or endangered fish. We need to be aware of how our everyday lives affect the oceans, and the world as a whole. Only then, can we begin to think of saving our oceans – and saving ourselves.
Photo Credit: The Bridge on Flickr
Top photo: Jill Clardy on Flickr