Oceans and Human Connections

No matter where we live, the ocean influences all of us. On the other hand, the actions of over 7 billion humans adds up to influence the ocean.

The ocean provides us with the necessary resources to survive: oxygen, water, and food. Even if you do not eat seafood, fishmeal is used to feed poultry and pork, as well as to organically fertilize crops for millennia. Fish and other seafood are vital for good nutrition. The ocean is also a source of minerals, energy resources, and medicines. Click on the photo of coral to learn more!

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Much of our global population live in or close to coastal areas. These concentrations of people make the need to restore and protect adjacent ecosystems even more important. We are starting to understand more about the protection that natural systems provide us, from marine hazards like rising sea levels, cyclones, hurricanes, storm surges, and tsunamis. The reconstruction of wetland habitats, dam removal, and the inclusion of local knowledge in decision-making is being tested and, with early results, looks promising. People are collaborating to include natural systems' needs in constructed coastline design, giving us a chance to improve how we harden, dredge, and construct harbor and ports.

It is easy to forget in our day to day lives that we are not separate from nature but a part of it. With a continuously growing human population, the need for a sustainable future is increasingly prominent.

The ocean provides us with jobs and stimulates the economy. Fishing, travel and tourism, and research are all industries that provide jobs for thousands of people all around the world. Trade is possible through transportation over the ocean.

Beyond the necessities, the ocean also provides humans with the privilege to partake in leisure activities on the water. Anywhere from sports fishing, to sailing, to water skiing, people partake in ocean sports. The ocean can also be a source of relaxation for people or it may provide inspiration for art. The possibilities that the ocean gives us are endless.

Let's investigate some of the key negative impacts that humans are having on the ocean. We already discussed ocean acidification caused by the rampant burning of fossil fuels. There are some forms of pollution that humans cause but cannot see. About 70% of the earth is water but there are no countries or governing bodies to build laws for the middle of the ocean. It is these unclear marine geopolitical boundaries and jurisdictions that create loopholes for problems such as unsustainable fishing. If some countries have loose regulations that allow for unsustainable fishing, while others are strict about their regulations, that a conflict in the protection of large fish species, like tuna, occurs.

This is just one example of how human activity affects the ocean, often in a detrimental way. Everyone is aware of the pollution that falls into the ocean but most focus on the macro pollutants such as large pieces of garbage. Some of the biggest threats from human interference are pollutants that we cannot see: microplastics and noise.

When plastic enters the ocean, it does not disappear over time. Instead, it breaks down and becomes microplastic that is smaller than krill. Microplastics are almost unidentifiable from regular microorganisms to humans and organisms in the ocean that relies on microorganisms as their food source certainly cannot tell. These microplastics are consumed by filter-feeding animals such as crabs, bivalves, and sea anemones, as well as baleen whales like the Blue Whale and Humpback Whale.

The plastics, unable to be broken down, accumulate in the organisms and provide no nutrients. Filter-feeding organisms, like crabs, are then often eaten by bigger fish which are in turn eaten by even bigger fish. This accumulation of plastic in organisms through the food web is called bioaccumulation. Plastics, pesticides, chemicals and other hazards pollutants can accumulate and become concentrated in larger predatory organisms which can, in turn, make it to our dinner plates.

To understand the role that plastic plays in every day life, complete the Plastic Free Challenge assignment before the end of the course.

Noise pollution is the other form of invisible pollution that is harming the environment, particularly in the arctic. Noise pollution is the excessive amount of noise being introduced into the marine environment through human activity, specifically boat traffic. This noise can cause damage to the sensitive hearing of marine organisms, as well as disrupt their vital communication.

Noise pollution is when we release excess or loud noises into the water. Noise pollution disrupts communication between animals, who rely on communication to find each other in the dark waters. This is especially true for Beluga Whales, who rely on acoustic sounds to communicate between mother and calves.

Dr. Valeria Vergara, a research scientist for the Ocean Wise Vancouver Aquarium, has been studying just that. During one of her research expeditions to the Arctic, she captured some incredible sounds! This is an example of the complex sounds that a Beluga Whale uses to communicate. Imagine trying to communicate like this while you were at a busy playground or on a construction site. With all the extra noise put into the environment, it is extremely difficult for belugas to communicate with each other.

Noise pollution can also cause physical hearing damage. Believe it or not, fish do have ears. And sound is much louder through the water than it is on land. Noise pollution may be invisible but it can still be very dangerous.

As the ice continues to melt in the Arctic, the amount of boat traffic in that environment increases. This boat noise is dangerous for communicative animals such as Beluga whales, the canaries of the sea, who rely on echolocation to communicate with their social pods, as well as between mother and calf. Listen to what the beluga sounds like

Photo by: Thomas Hallermann, Marine Photo Bank

While the threat to the ocean's health is critical, it is not yet irreversible. We have the potential to create real change, every day in our homes and globally through international cooperation. Everyone is responsible for the ocean, and every bit counts. Individual and collective action is needed to secure a sustainable future.

What sort of solutions can you think of to help reduce noise pollution and help Arctic animals? Perhaps you could design a new silent boat engine. Or you could discover what areas belugas inhabit most so laws can be created to protect those areas from boat traffic. The solutions are possible but more research and decisive action is needed to help make a difference.

It starts with you, in your daily life.

One of the ways you can make a difference in your daily life is to choose sustainable food options. Sustainable means taking what you need but leaving enough of the resource for future generations to meet their needs. A common problem seen today is over fishing or unsustainable fishing practices. Many ocean organisms are falling victim to by-catch, where they are accidentally caught by unsustainable fishing methods like bottom trawling. Sustainable fishing means using methods that take only the fish you are intending to catch as well as only taking what we need and leaving organisms in the ocean to maintain the populations in the wild so we can continue to put fish on our plates. In Vancouver, BC you can download the Ocean Wise Sustainable Seafood App. Look for the Ocean Wise symbol to ensure you are eating substantially caught seafood. 

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When we take too much from the ocean, it is not always able to recover and the entire ecosystem can suffer from the removal of one species. A strong example of this is the overhunting of sea otters during the fur trade. Sea otters are a keystone species and when they were hunted to extinction in British Columbia, Canada, it completely destroyed the kelp forests that sustained the ocean ecosystems along the coast. Here is why: 

By removing sea otters from the ecosystem, we removed the sea urchin's natural predators. This allowed for sea urchins to overpopulate and over-eat the kelp. Taking out a key piece of the ecosystem puzzle throws the whole system out of balance.

As a land species, we have been a bit slow grasping how important the ocean is to our lives and how much our activities influence the ocean. Even though it may feel removed and unconnected to our daily lives, the ocean affects us all. Water runs downhill. Whatever we put into our drain makes it's way towards to ocean, as what we put into the air. The more we learn about how the ocean is connected, the more we are grappling with what we need to know and do to secure a sustainable future. A future that relies on the ocean. We all have a responsibility to take care of the ocean, its life and systems, which make all life on Earth possible.

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