We vacation near it, get food from it, transport ourselves and consumer goods on it, mine and drill in it for minerals and oil and take it for granted. The ocean, covering two-thirds of Earth, also plays a vital role in providing us with oxygen, regulating the climate and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is so vast and so deep that for centuries we’ve viewed it as an invulnerable source of infinite resources.
Pollution, ocean acidification, overfishing and other problems may make you feel helpless, but the really great news is that every single day, every single one of us can do something to protect the ocean, the wildlife that rely on it and our own health.
Here are some suggestions:
- Avoid single-use plastics as best you can. The six most common single-use plastic items are bottles, bags, straws, utensils, lids and cups. Besides bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, try filtering your tap water to break the one-use water bottle habit. If you buy cold coffee drinks, be sure to bring a reusable glass or stainless steel cup and don’t forget your stainless steel or durable, reusable plastic straw. This helps prevent marine life from later getting entangled or trapped in plastic that inadvertently end up in the ocean, and there is less potential for animals to mistake plastic for food. Eating plastic can lead to starvation or malnutrition when it collects in an animal’s stomach making it feel full, preventing vital nutrients from being absorbed, causing internal injuries and infections or leaching toxic substances that can cause death or reproductive failure.
- Even so-called biodegradable plastic is a problem. Industrial facilities can use special techniques to break it down, but that doesn’t happen floating around in the ocean. (Curious about this myself, I added a “biodegradable” water bottle to my backyard compost bin. Two years and counting, it still looks like new but for the rich, composted dirt stuck to it.)
- Be alert to the danger lurking in soaps and other hygiene products. Plastic microbeads, added for scrubbing, are now found in facial cleaners and toothpaste and used by millions of people every day. A single bottle may contain more than 350,000 tiny beads. Too small for wastewater treatment plant filters, billions of these beads end up swirling down the drain and, ultimately, into the ocean, where zooplankton and other aquatic life mistake it for food. To avoid these products, don’t buy anything with polyethylene and polypropylene listed in the ingredients. (A barcode-scanning smartphone app that tells you if the product contains microbeads is available.)
- Remember that plastic is a petroleum product. This means that the one-use utensil you just tossed in the trash could be the result of off-shore drilling, which puts marine life at risk of oil catastrophes. Try keeping a camping spork in your bag.
- Know that wastewater treatment plants treat only organic matter. For the sake of all our waterways use nontoxic, natural cleaners (vinegar is a natural disinfectant, for example), avoid garden pesticides and don’t flush prescription medicine. Mix pills with coffee grounds or kitty litter to make them unattractive to scavengers and put them in the trash or take them to a community drop-off site if your city offers it.
- On rainy days, put off running the washer and dishwasher. When cities get hit with a deluge of storm water, it can overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and water goes untreated directly to waterways. Organic wastes won’t hurt the ocean but sewerage authorities are there to catch litter, too.
- Leave your landscape unpaved, leave gaps between pavers and use permeable material for patios and driveways. This allows water to seep into the ground rather than rush down concrete, picking up pollutants. It replenishes groundwater, too.
- Reduce your energy consumption. Carbon buildup in the atmosphere is making the ocean acidic. This makes it hard for corals and clams, for example, to build their skeletons and shells. Try to drive less, eat less meat—its production has a heavy carbon footprint—take the stairs, don’t turn on the air-conditioner when a fan would suffice, go solar. It all adds up.
- Last on this list—but by no means the least of what we can do—eat sustainable seafood, if you eat meat at all. High demand and unsustainable fishing practices are causing global fish populations to crash and other marine life to suffer as we deplete their only food sources or die when they are incidentally caught in fishing gear. Grocery stores and restaurants can greatly influence how seafood is caught. Make your concerns known to the businesses you frequent, so that every day can be World Oceans Day.