Why we should care about the bottom of the ocean

A New Yorker cartoon taped to my office door reminds me not to take the public’s awareness of ocean issues for granted. It depicts a group of ladies having tea in a well-appointed living room, with one saying, “I don’t know why I don’t care about the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t.” It appeared in 1983, the same year the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) opened for signature, and I’ve often wondered whether it was coincidence or commentary.

We celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8, and each year it feels like the whole world briefly comes together to agree that our oceans are in danger. We depend upon them for many things that make life on Earth possible. They provide not just food and jobs, but also more than half of the oxygen we breathe. But the sense of alarm fades as we move onto the next crisis in our hyper-connected, information-overloaded world.  Given the scale of the oceans and the magnitude of the problems they face, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, even to disassociate from thinking or caring about them, like the lady in that cartoon.

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However, this year is different; there’s political momentum and newfound public awareness about the health of the oceans. We have the opportunity to actually make a difference with how most of the planet is used and protected.

In September, the United Nations begins negotiating a new treaty to address the high seas, the approximately 64 percent (nearly two-thirds) of the oceans that lie beyond national territories. This treaty will enhance UNCLOS, which was born during the Cold War and fails to keep up with the myriad of threats facing our oceans including illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, the scourge of plastic pollution, and the impacts of climate change. New challenges to address include mining for metals and minerals in the high seas, an industry that is about to take off, akin to a deep sea gold rush. Researchers will soon look to these distant regions for new biological material, referred to as “marine genetic resources,” which may help us create new medicines such as the antibiotics we are running out of.  

Until now, the high seas have been “out of sight and out of mind,” but this, too, is about to change. The recently aired Blue Planet 2 BBC series left a tremendous impact on the public, galvanizing efforts to ban plastic bags and even drinking straws. Ocean pollution issues are not new, but have gained greater recognition, and elicit concern and action on a scale I have not seen before. I’m optimistic that we can turn the tide. Beyond the UN, conservation efforts are making an impact worldwide. Tracking success stories is a priority in the conservation world. A hashtag (#OceanOptimism) and related movements highlight what we’re doing right. 

My own research looks at the important role of marine protected areas (MPAs), or parks in the ocean. MPAs can’t solve every problem the oceans face, but if implemented correctly and enforced properly they can protect vulnerable habitats and species, and help sustain people whose livelihoods depend on the oceans. To do this, a careful balance is necessary. Many MPAs are protected in name only, not fully closed to fishing, mineral, oil and gas extraction. The scientific consensus is that at least 30 percent of our oceans need protection from human impacts to keep the waters healthy, yet the international targets negotiated so far only call for 10 percent. UN negotiations this fall will seek to extend these parks into the high seas while civil society will need to ensure such far-away places, and enough of the oceans, are protected.

As an educator and ocean conservationist, my greatest fear is that we have failed to move past the “I don’t care” attitude depicted 35 years ago in that New Yorker cartoon. Recently, one of my students commented anonymously about our class, saying “I think I honestly care more about marine environments because of her.” This gives me hope. Each of us can make a difference in our own way, whether by advocating for marine protection, boycotting plastic, eating sustainably-caught seafood, or just helping our friends and children learn to value the 70 percent of the planet we often take for granted. On this World Oceans Day, and every day forward, let’s hold onto that momentum and make a sea change.

Elizabeth De Santo (@OceanAcademic), assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, researches and writes about marine conservation and protected areas. She has authored more than 20 peer-reviewed articles and is co-editor of the 2016 book “Science, Information and Policy Interface for Effective Coastal and Ocean Management.”