The world’s oceans are a source of food, income, and inspiration for billions of people — they’re also, of course, home to an untold number of marine animals. Although several major problems currently threaten our oceans, a variety of different groups are standing at the forefront of the fight to protect them. In honor of their efforts, we’re highlighting a few of the outstanding organizations and movements that are doing all they can to safeguard our seas.
Picking up plastics: The Ocean Cleanup
It’s no secret that our oceans are polluted with an alarming amount of plastic. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area roughly three times the size of France — but our oceans are also home to four other zones of trash accumulation. Why is this problematic? Because plastic debris kills thousands of marine animals every year, eventually polluting human food sources, too.
The garbage patches are growing larger every day, as more and more single-use plastics and discarded items arrive via swirling ocean currents. Luckily, one nonprofit organization thinks that it has found a solution.
For several years, the Ocean Cleanup has been developing a system that can capture ocean trash and store it until it can be taken back to land. The system will work like this: a curved, buoyant, 0.6-to-1.2-mile-long (one-to-two-kilometer-long) pipe will float on the surface of the water and suspend a long textile screen. The screen will be impermeable, collecting trash while allowing marine animals to pass beneath it. When the system is full, a support vessel will arrive, collect the trash, and take it back to land for recycling and resale.
And, in an ingenious feat of engineering, the system will move with the current, naturally taking it to the most heavily polluted areas in the garbage patches.
The Ocean Cleanup has already conducted extensive research and tested two prototypes in the North Sea, so it won’t be long before it deploys its first full-scale system. Cleanup on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is set to begin sometime this summer, and the nonprofit hopes to turn its attention to the other four garbage patches by 2020.
The organization’s projections estimate that the system can clean up 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years — which is huge progress! In the meantime, individuals can help by limiting their plastic consumption (e.g. using metal straws, taking canvas bags to the grocery store, carrying reusable water bottles, and avoiding excessive food packaging, among other things).
Researching coral reefs: Great Barrier Reef Legacy
With ocean temperatures ever on the rise, 2016 and 2017 were devastating years for coral reefs around the world. As water temperatures increase, coral polyps undergo higher levels of stress and expel the algae that make their residence inside the coral. Since those algae produce the carbohydrates that the coral needs, the expulsion leads to the coral’s starvation (and, eventually, death). The process leaves highly visible proof that the reefs are in trouble, stripping the coral of its bright colors and leaving it white and skeletal.
To combat this alarming development, one particular group is working hard to provide leading researchers free access to the world’s largest coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef Legacy operates the only independent research vessel in Australia, which aims to facilitate scientific projects that will provide much-needed knowledge about coral reefs.
The Legacy’s first major venture occurred in November 2017, when 11 scientists set out to complete several research projects. Throughout the 21-day expedition, their findings included the discovery of a previously unknown coral species, the identification of a highly resilient coral species, and the mapping of 12 coral sites.
In the future, the Legacy hopes to offer hundreds of free spaces on its vessel to scientists, educators, partner organizations, and journalists. But they’ll need a little more cash to make that happen — so feel free to donate to this important crowd-funded effort!
Whether you can contribute to the Legacy’s mission or not, you can still help the coral reefs by reducing your carbon footprint. Widespread lifestyle changes — like turning off the lights when you leave a room, eating a plant-based diet, and taking public transportation when possible — will prevent (or at least minimize) future bleaching events more effectively than any other effort can.
Combating overfishing: Legislation around the world
At first, overfishing might not sound like one of the most dire problems facing our oceans, but unfortunately, this is a bigger issue than many seem to realize. As we deplete our fish stocks, we jeopardize local ecosystems and economies, and we preemptively take a future food source out of people’s mouths.
Somewhat surprisingly, the United States provides a good example of a governmental solution to overfishing. The U.S. has enacted annual catch limits, which are determined by scientists and enforced by agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These limits allow the fishing industry to haul only the maximum sustainable amount of fish, and as a result, many fish populations are recovering. What’s more: the administration also regulates fishing equipment, which prevents the industry from overhauling designated stocks, bycatching other marine animals, and damaging the environment itself.
When it comes to overfishing, Europe has been a major culprit for many years, but the E.U. is also beginning to crack down — the Common Fisheries Policy stipulates that all stocks must be fished sustainably by 2020. Stocks are already rebounding in the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea, but there’s still a long way to go in the Mediterranean and Black seas.
Although most of the changes will be driven by lawmakers, consumers can make a difference, too. No matter where you live, you can choose to eat sustainably sourced seafood; when in doubt, you can rely on resources like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website and app.
Slowing down acidification: Ocean Conservancy
The Industrial Revolution ushered in plenty of changes, but 200 years ago, no one guessed that ocean acidification would be one of them. Unfortunately, over the past two centuries, humans have been pumping out staggering amounts of carbon emissions — and our oceans have absorbed 30 percent of those gases. These ever-increasing carbon dioxide levels react with water to produce carbonic acid, which changes the oceans’ pH levels from 8.2 to 8.1 — a seemingly insignificant shift, until you remember that the pH scale is logarithmic. In layman’s terms, today’s oceans are roughly 30 percent more acidic than they were when the Industrial Revolution began.
For many ocean-dwelling species, that’s a huge problem. Acidification makes it harder for coral reefs to grow, sharks to smell, and oysters to build their shells, and acidic seawater is dissolving the shells of marine animals like mussels and sea butterflies.
But there’s a silver lining. More and more institutions are exploring the causes and effects of ocean acidification, and some of them are conducting exhaustive searches for solutions. Ocean Conservancy is just one such group.
Although its website clearly states that reducing global carbon emissions is the best long-term solution to this problem, Ocean Conservancy is also looking for short-term fixes. This NGO reaches out to scientists, legislators, and everyday citizens to facilitate conversations, exchange information, and advocate for research funding and new regulations. It’s also working with shellfish farmers in several coastal American states — including Washington, Oregon, California, Maine, Maryland, and Florida — and connecting them with their legislators, as well as serving as a founding partner and major influencer in the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification.
Even though the effects of acidification are already poignant, this research is still in its early stages. Now more than ever, it’s important for us to do our part and cut back on our carbon emissions — then wait to see how we can support organized efforts to slow down ocean acidification.
Although we have our work cut out for us, there are many ways to protect our oceans, no matter where we live. Make a donation, opt for reusable utensils, ask a few questions before purchasing seafood, take public transportation, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. After all, a lot of individual efforts will make a difference — and mistakenly believing that your actions don’t have an impact will just hurt the environment.
Header image by Frank McKenna