Ocean Devotion (part 1)
We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.
– Mother Teresa of Calcutta
It is easy to conceptualize the ocean as infinite. It is unquestionably vast, deep, powerful, mysterious. Since before the Polynesian navigators set out in double-hulled outrigger sailing canoes to settle new archipelagoes, and Jules Verne imagined secret cities and worlds 20,000 leagues down, the unfathomable size of the world’s oceans have reminded humanity of how tiny and insignificant we are.
The living ocean is in real danger. Surfers now get infected from contaminated water at some of the world’s classic breaks, such as First Point Malibu. Older generations of fishermen and divers tell us of the limitless bounty of fish and seafood of their era, telling us of catches so big and abalone so abundant that we would laugh them off as “fish stories” if it weren’t for the photos. Scientists tell us that sharks and some other fish are at 10% of their previous population. How are we impacting the vast oceans?
Plastic Pollution Threatens Wildlife
In the 1967 film “The Graduate”, a well-meaning friend of his parents tells young Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) that “there is a future in plastics…” and he was not wrong. In the last fifty years, plastics have been instrumental in developing technological advances from the fighter jet to the ipod.
But single-use plastics—which are built to be practically indestructible— have had a devastating effect on our oceans. They inevitably find their way into the ocean, where they break into tiny pieces and become floating detritus, harming birds and fish and other creatures that mistakenly ingest these foreign substances, but cannot digest them. Plastic pollution has now been carried by the currents to contaminate the most remote and pristine ecosystems in the world.
Earlier this month, my hometown Los Angeles became the largest city in the US to ban single-use plastic shopping bags. This is a huge step towards reducing plastic waste in the oceans, and other cities will follow. We all make choices every single day about when and how to use and dispose of plastics, and we should always consider ocean health when we do.
Ocean oil spills such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident and 2010 Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico attract a lot of attention as tragic accidents with disastrous consequences, and they are. They are impossible to clean up and follow-up studies are showing that the effect on the ecosystem will be wide-ranging and long-lasting.
Oil drilling is destructive to the oceans even when there is no catastrophic spill. Seismic exploration for oil wells can kill and injure marine mammals, and carbon pollution from the use of oil contributes to acidification.
Right now, Shell is trying to obtain a permit for drilling in the Arctic, and there are ongoing battles against drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic Coast as well. It is essential that we let our political leaders know that we will not tolerate this risk.
Acidification from Carbon Pollution
It is common knowledge that emissions from fossil fuels contribute to climate change and sea-level rise, but much less talked-about is the fact that elevated carbon in the atmosphere actually affects the chemical composition of the ocean water itself? Corals and shellfish are most directly affected by acidification, which prevents them from creating their calcium exoskeletons and rippling effects throughout the ecosystem.
To counter ocean acidification, we need to drastically cut the amount of fossil fuel emissions worldwide by transitioning to cleaner energy sources. The first step is to end government subsidies for the coal and oil industries.
Hope and Action
Last week, the top 20 economic powers in the world met in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for an “earth summit” to assess the state of the world environment. Ocean protection was one major topic of discussion and it looks like a lot was accomplished. International conventions and binding agreements are important structures, but the most impactful things we can do are often simple everyday actions. Substitute a car trip for a bike ride, say no thanks to a plastic bag at the store, or pick up three pieces of trash when you pack up your next blissful day at the beach.