Oceans of problems, oceans of opportunities

June is National Oceans Month. Appropriately, this June a lot of attention in Washington, D.C., has been focused on the ocean. Although we land-dwellers can easily overlook it, the ocean has vital importance for all of humanity. It covers nearly three quarters of our planet’s surface and contains 97 percent of its water. It has given us much of the oxygen we breathe. It provides us with rain, food and energy, regulates the Earth’s temperature and helps slow the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide by absorbing a great deal of carbon emissions from human activities. However, those activities have also caused the ocean a great deal of problems and, if we do not change our ways, we will suffer too.

Recently, the problems of the ocean were in the spotlight at Capitol Hill Ocean Week (June 8-14), affectionately known as CHOW, an annual event that gathers scientists, industry representatives and policymakers, whose work is concentrated on the ocean’s present and future. I attended with interest, as a researcher concerned with the relationship between the ocean and climate change. The numerous experts and leaders who presented at CHOW echoed a sentiment I have developed in my many years of ocean research: studying and protecting the ocean is not optional. Protecting the economy and people’s well-being requires continued investments in ocean observation and conservation.

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The importance of the ocean on people’s livelihoods is experienced first-hand by the 39 percent of U.S. inhabitants who live along the coasts and generate nearly half of the national GDP. If the U.S. coasts were considered a separate economy, they would be ranked the third in the world, just behind the U.S. as a whole and China. Clearly, the nation’s economy can be hit hard if those having power to make changes do not take action very soon. The problems are many and they are acute.

It is estimated that 20 percent of all wild marine fish caught in the world comes from illegal fishing operations, which are often connected to other illegal activities (trafficking of drugs, weapons and people). A disturbing illustration of the degree of ocean pollution came from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who noted that top ocean predators are so loaded with toxins that dumping their carcasses along the coastline would be in violation of the national anti-pollution laws! The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, swirling with pieces of plastics that are now entering food web, potentially harming human seafood consumers too, is yet another example of how we treat the ocean as a dump.

Climate change is a particular threat to oceans. Species that used to be concentrated in the Californian seas are now looking for refuge in cooler waters off the coast of Pacific Northwest. The warming ocean water expands and gains volume from melting ice on land, which has led many coastal communities to experience more frequent flooding and even permanent loss of land and its cultural heritage. Shellfish producers are acutely aware of the risks brought by the increasingly sour oceans. Many other organisms can also be harmed by ocean acidification and this damage can climb up the food chains all the way to humans.

As Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell put it in her address to the CHOW audience: the problems are complex, but can be made less complex if we all join forces in tackling them. If everyone contributes to making a positive change, we have a good reason to believe in a better future for oceans and for us. Societies that fail to recognize that humans are part of the natural environment expose themselves to a risk of downfall.

To work toward a balance between human activity and ocean protection, we must continue and broaden our observational capabilities. The ocean is being put under an unprecedented stress and we need observational data to monitor how it will respond. For instance, my research on ocean phytoplankton, the tiny plants at the bottom of almost all ocean food chains, would be impossible without continued satellite observations. Learning how phytoplankton will react to future environmental pressures, such as warming, is crucial to know what will happen to other organisms, including those that are commercially important.

There are many more unknowns about the ocean than phytoplankton alone and sustained observations of various other ocean variables from a range of platforms, from ships to satellites, will be needed. Support should be ensured for the existing observational programs, but new investments will also have to be made, as new ocean areas, such as the Arctic, become exposed to increased pressure.

Generally, repeated calls for continued and expanded ocean observations that would serve science, safety and management have been heard at CHOW from scientists, industry members, the Navy and government representatives alike. The federal government will have to make sure that these observational needs are met, both by supporting the relevant activities of agencies such as NOAA and NASA, and by partnering with other nations on pioneering efforts. Only by arming ourselves with sufficient knowledge can we come up with effective ecosystem management strategies.

Milutinović is a postdoctoral researcher in ocean science at the University of Pennsylvania.