Learning to Relate to the Ocean

The author reflects on the need to understand the ocean’s role in our lives

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The image of families and children enjoying the beach this summer is still fresh in our minds.

The immense blue ocean that lets us enjoy the sun, cool down and take time to relax, is also one of the most popular tourism destinations, enjoyed by millions of people on their annual vacations.

No doubt, this time off is one of the few moments during the year when most people think about the ocean, if only as a place to have a good time.

Dili, East Timor an area with plastic in the ocean
Aerial View near Dili, East Timor; © UN/Martine Perret

We should all remember that these immense bodies of water are the reason Earth is called “the blue planet”. Water covers 72% of its surface, and the oceans are its motor in a large part. They control the climate and, together with the forests, they are its lungs, since they release most of the oxygen contained in our atmosphere. They are home to 210,000 different life forms and provide a source of protein for a billion people. Half of the world’s population lives along ocean coasts and, according to estimates, in the next 20 years this figure will reach 75%, or five billion people.

The ocean is therefore a source of energy resources, minerals, wealth and work and, as such, it is essential to the balance of our planet from all points of view. However, the oceans are now suffering from the greatest destruction and degradation in the history of mankind.

The problems are not limited to overfishing or the overpopulation of algae and microorganisms due to an excess of pollutant nutrients, which consume much of the dissolved oxygen, hampering the proliferation of living beings. Moreover, today huge quantities of plastics are turning this magnificent and fundamental environment into the world’s garbage dump.

Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox have estimated, based on waste collected in coastal areas of the United States, that there are some 7.5 million plastic straws littering the coasts. If we extrapolate this figure to the world as a whole, it could reach more than 1 billion plastic straws. The plastic straws from our vacation drinks. Of course, that is not the only kind of waste that ends up in the oceans.

According to an article in Science magazine from 2015, since 2010 nearly 9 million tons of plastic have been dumped into the oceans.

If all this plastic in the ocean were collected into bags along the planet’s coastlines, there would be a full bag every 30 centimetres. Plastic ocean waste is then degraded by the effect of UV rays and breaks down into thousands of little pieces, dangerous microplastics, which are ingested by birds and fish.

Given this situation, it seems clear that to ensure that our planet remains our home as we know it – or as we once knew it – we must create re-education programs to raise awareness of the need to make changes in our way of life to revert the immense damage we are causing on a global scale. We need to replace certain products with more sustainable ones, while implementing ocean clean-up programmes.

Plastic bottles and rubbish at the edge of the river, that later get washed out to sea. © UN Photo/Martine Perret

Fortunately, various initiatives of this kind already exist. In 2016, Japanese scientists discovered a bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, able to digest the plastic used to make single-use bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), accelerating the natural degradation of those plastics. This process is not without its dangers, since the bacteria could also present a threat to the plastic products we use every day if it were to escape our control.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable clean-up efforts is being carried out by the foundation The Ocean Cleanup. While diving on the coast of Greece, its founder, Boyan Slat, saw more plastic in the ocean than fish. That experience motivated him to join together scientists and investors to find a solution. In 2014, the foundation collected enough funds from 38,000 donors in 160 countries to start one of the biggest communal clean-ups using a system of floating barriers that harness ocean currents to capture waste, which can later be recycled.

There are sceptics of this initiative, but our planet needs more people like Boyan Slat.

Because, thanks to projects of this kind, perhaps one day, in another of those summers when the beaches are full of children playing and people swimming or sunbathing, we will sip our cool drinks from recycled plastic containers beside an ocean free of waste.

And that day, just as people in some ancient civilizations paid homage to the sun that gave them energy, we will see beach-goers stop and look out at that great blue ocean for a few seconds with a sense of respect, before enjoying it as they do every year.

Main Image: The Maldives ©Laika ac