Our oceans: mysterious, underappreciated and critical

Published Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Not long ago, I found myself walking down one of Grand Manan Island’s magnificent beaches.  The sea was calm, the air was warm and the gulls were talking up a storm.

Before long, I saw an empty pop bottle – so I picked it up.  A little further, I spotted a plastic bottle cap and a piece of styrofoam.  I picked them up too.  Then I picked up an old oil jug and a tattered plastic bag.  Then one of those elastics fishermen put on lobster claws to restrain them.  Then another, and another.

Soon my hands were full – but there was still plastic litter all around.  It was discouraging – and perhaps a bit symbolic of how easily we take for granted our mysterious, underappreciated and critical oceans.

Planet Ocean

If planets were named after their most prominent features, our home wouldn’t be called Planet Earth; it’d be Planet Ocean.  Oceans cover about 70 per cent of the world’s surface.  Most of us relate little to them because we live on land, the other 30 per cent.  But oceans are critical to us:

  • They provide food – about 80 million tonnes of fish and shellfish per year.
  • They provide jobs to a quarter-billion people – most of them in Asia.
  • Ocean plants – phytoplankton, kelp, algae – are integral parts of Earth’s carbon cycle.  They absorb carbon dioxide, and emit 70 percent of our atmosphere’s oxygen.  In other words, two-thirds of the oxygen we breathe comes to us courtesy of our oceans
  • Oceans play a huge role in our global climate, because they absorb massive amounts of heat and move it via currents like the Gulf Stream.  

Pressure

Yet our oceans are under enormous pressure:

  • Overfishing is rampant, and annual catches have been declining since the late 1980s.  The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery stands as a stark example.
  • Oceans are warming, having absorbed more than 90 per cent of the extra heat Earth has received in the past half century.  The Gulf of Maine has been warming faster than most waters; many traditional fish species are waning and warm-water species are showing up.  Plankton levels in the Bay of Fundy appear to be declining, perhaps explaining why endangered North Atlantic right whales have started bypassing the bay for colder waters further north.  And warmer temperatures are being blamed for unprecedented bleaching of Australia’s famed Great Barrier Coral Reef this year.
  • Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide from the air, making it difficult for lobster, clams, shrimp and many other shellfish to create their calcium-based shells.
  • Finally, oceans are polluted with plastic, which breaks down into tiny pieces but never really degrades.  According to a report earlier this year, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic is added to our oceans every minute; if present trends continue, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. 

What to do

If, like me, you are distressed by all of this, take heart: there’s much you can do:

  • First, choose sustainable seafood when you shop.  An organization called SeaChoice makes it easy by ranking different species as green (best), yellow (some concerns) or red (avoid).  You can browse listings at www.tinyurl.com/sea-choice-recommendations, download a chart at www.tinyurl.com/sea-choice-chart or download their app from iTunes.
  • Second, don’t litter, and pick up whatever plastic you can to keep it from washing or blowing into our waterways.
  • Third, why not take part in the Nature Trust of New Brunswick’s Great Fundy Cleanup this Saturday, July 23?  Teams of volunteers will tackle a dozen sites – including, I’m delighted to note, that Grand Manan beach I walked a few weeks ago.  Call Lisa Lawyer at (506) 453 4886, or email l_lawyer@ntnb.org to volunteer or learn more.  Or take part in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup:  join an already-scheduled event in your area, or plan your own cleanup anytime, anywhere.  Learn more here: www.shorelinecleanup.ca
  • Fourth, help slow down warming and acidification by reducing your carbon footprint in every way you can.

Our oceans – mysterious, underappreciated and critical – are worth it.