The ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth — it is the planet’s life support system and is affected by overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction, compromising its ability to sustain humans with food, livelihoods and climate regulation. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the movements and organizations making waves in ocean conservation.
Why Worry About Ocean Conservation?
Healthy oceans sustain life here on planet earth — our security, our economy and our survival all require and are dependent on healthy oceans. Oceans provide us with food – seafood makes up at least a sixth of the animal protein people eat.
Oceans produce the air we breathe and the weather we experience. The ocean produces over half of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.
Oceans regulate our climate. Covering 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean transports heat from the equator to the poles, regulating our climate and weather patterns.
From hotel rooms to dive trips and fishing trips, from clothing and fishing gear, the oceans support jobs. It is estimated that the oceans are responsible for more than $282B in revenue in the U.S. alone.
The ocean and its coral reefs provide natural breakwaters to buffer and protect our shorelines. The reef’s rough surfaces and complex structures dissipate the force of incoming waves, helping prevent flooding, erosion, property damage and loss of life.
Because of the impact the oceans have on every minute of every day, and on our future, ocean conservation is more essential now than ever before.
Our Oceans in Distress – A Need for Ocean Conservation
Many factors are affecting our oceans health today. Sea temperatures are increasing and the warmer oceans cause corals to bleach and die. Oceans today absorb about one-third of the carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere — about 22 million tons a day. Increased carbon means higher levels of acidification — about 30 times greater than previous norms. This higher acidity results in the disruption of calcium carbonate formation. This can affect whole ecosystems, such as coral reefs, which depend on the formation of calcium carbonate to build reef structure, which in turn provides homes for reef organisms.
Pollution is a key factor in our oceans health. Many pesticides and nutrients used in agriculture end up in the coastal waters, resulting in oxygen depletion that kills marine plants and shellfish. Factories and industrial plants still discharge sewage and other runoff into the oceans. Oil spills pollute the oceans. Air pollution is responsible for almost one-third of the toxic contaminants and nutrients that enter coastal areas and oceans.
Over fishing is also contributing to our oceans declining health. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 31.4 percent of fish stocks are either fished to capacity or overfished.
A recent Dive Training article, The Sickly Seas: Reaping the Unwanted Harvest of a Plastic Overload outlines the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and how it’s endangering marine life including seabirds, and the fact that humans are indirectly consuming plastics through the seafood we eat.
Ocean Conservation: Turning the Tide
There’s no shortage of factors affecting the health of our oceans, but there’s good news on the horizon, too. Out there, beyond the predictions, are legions of individuals, communities, businesses, non-governmental agencies and governments working to solve the problems. Let’s take a look at some of the people helping to make ocean conservation a reality.
Our security, our economy and our survival all require and are dependent on healthy oceans.
Working to Eliminate Plastics
Global initiatives to reduce or eliminate the consumption of single-use plastic have been gaining momentum. For example, Vancouver became the first major Canadian city to ban plastic straws, in a move towards banning all solid waste by 2040. Vancouver city council has also passed a ban on the distribution of foam cups and takeout containers that went into effect on June 1, 2019. Costa Rica is taking dramatic action against plastic waste with a plan to ban all single-use plastics by 2021. This includes straws, bottles, cutlery, cups and bags. New Delhi in India, home to over 20 million people, took a major step when it banned all forms of single-use plastic in 2017. Many of the U.S. initiatives to ban plastic straws have been at the state level. Hawaii, California, New York, New Mexico, New Jersey and South Carolina all have legislation aimed at reducing single-use plastics.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition works to educate the public on the multi-tiered problems of plastic pollution. They create guides to eliminating single-use plastics and are currently beta-testing a legislative toolkit to help communities craft sensible policies for reducing consumer use of plastics.
Each year the Ocean Conservancy brings together more than 12 million volunteers from 153 countries to participate in the International Coastal Cleanup. The Cleanup has been an annual event for 30 years and in that time they have picked up more than 220 million pounds of trash.
Since Project AWARE launched its Dive Against Debris program in 2011, more than 50,000 divers in 114 countries around the world have participated.
Innovative companies like 4Ocean, are also hosting cleanups worldwide. To aid in these cleanups, 4Ocean sells a bracelet made from recycled materials. For each bracelet sold, 4Ocean removes one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines. Through their sales they are also able to hire captains and crews that man vessels that continuously monitor river mouths and provide support for cleanups.
Although eliminating all plastics is probably not possible there are new innovative technologies on the horizon that are expanding our recycling capabilities.
For example, a robot nicknamed “Clarke,” developed by AMP Robotics, makes use of artificial intelligence to recognize and sort food and beverage containers. Clarke has already been deployed in a municipal waste facility in Denver, Colorado, where it helps out with the trash-sorting system. Using a visible-light camera, it can spot milk, juice and food cartons and pull them out using its robotic arm and suction cups. These items are then diverted away from the landfill and sent instead to the appropriate recycling facility.
With a reliable rate of 60 items a minute, Clarke picks up recyclable waste with 90-percent accuracy and is about 50 percent faster than a human doing the same job.
Another exciting discovery by scientists at Cornell could mean higher performance, more cost effective and environmentally responsible plastic products. At this time only a very small percentage of all plastics are recycled. One of the major problems has been that polyethylene and polypropylene, which account for two-thirds of the world’s plastics, have different chemical structures and cannot be repurposed together. However, the Cornell group has collaborated with a group from the University of Minnesota to develop a multiblock polymer that, when added in small measure to a mix of the two otherwise incompatible materials, creates a new and mechanically tough polymer.
Overfishing and What Can Help
Billions of people rely on fish for protein and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world. For centuries, our seas and oceans have been considered a limitless bounty of food. However, increasing fishing efforts over the last 50 years as well as unsustainable fishing practices have pushed many fish stocks to the point of collapse. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic blue fin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened. Target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, is changing marine communities. This leads to an abundance of smaller marine species, such as sardines and anchovies. To help address this issue, the world’s governments adopted their first tangible international target in 2004 under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — they committed to conserving at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2012. This deadline has now been extended to 2020.
In 1985 there were only about 430 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Today there are more than 15,600 covering more than 9.7 million square miles (25 million square kilometers), or nearly 7 percent of the Earth’s oceans, according to the latest figures from the U.N.’s Protected Planet data repository.
But not all MPAs are created equal. Studies have found that the best MPAs are those that have nofishing zones that are well enforced, they are more than 10 years old and are relatively large in area, and they are isolated from fished areas.
MPAs help to protect nursery grounds and spawning grounds as well as provide protection of exploited species. A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Marine Science found that no-take marine protected areas yield higher quantities of fish and more ecological diversity. For those who fish on the perimeters of MPAs, the spillover can also be lucrative. For example, researchers studying rockfish populations off Southern California have found that by protecting rockfish in certain areas, there ends up being more baby fish, or larvae, both inside and outside of those conservation areas.
A group of ecologists, climate scientists, economists, and data scientists from National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative are beginning an ambitious project to map exactly where and when the world should create more MPAs. They will look at environmental hot spots where an MPA can create tangible benefits like biodiversity, food availability from fisheries and climate change resilience.
Sustainable Fishing Practices
Bottom trawling is one of the most destructive ways to catch fish and is responsible for up to half of all discarded fish and marine life worldwide. Bottom trawling also disturbs seafloor habitats including corals and sea grasses, so banning bottom trawling along coastlines has been another important and successful step in ocean conservation. The U.S. has banned bottom trawling in large areas off the U.S. Pacific Coast and in some sensitive habitats off the U.S. East Coast. A few countries, such as the popular dive destinations of Palau and Belize, have banned bottom trawling in all of their waters.
Also gear modifications to ocean trawling equipment are helping reduce environmental impacts and accidental bycatch.
Seafood consumers can do their part by opting for seafood deemed “sustainable.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries maintains two comprehensive websites, fisheries.noaa.gov and fishwatch.gov, designed to help consumers better understand sustainable fishing practices and make responsible seafood choices.
Addressing Oil Spills
January 1, 2015 marked a major milestone in preventing oil spills. That date was the deadline that the landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) specified for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters. The act passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, required that all new tankers and tank-barges be built with double hulls. Any single-hull tankers constructed prior to 2015 were allowed to operate, but those vessels are now at the end of their operational life and will no longer be able to carry oil as cargo. The removal of single hulled oil tankers should have a significant impact on reducing oil related tanker spills.
Taking on Carbon Emissions
Reducing carbon emissions is critical to the health of our oceans. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was officially entered into force on November 4, 2016 and, as of November 2018, 195 member countries had joined the Agreement. The agreement requires all participating countries to take action, while recognizing their differing situations and circumstances. Countries submitted their own nationally determined climate action plans, with the overall goal to create a downward shift in projected global temperature increase. To learn more about this global initiative visit the United Nations Climate Change.
Air travel is important for travel and especially for divers wishing to visit faraway destinations, but it means leaving a “carbon footprint” when traveling. According to the International Association of Travel Agents (IATA), carbon offsetting is a way for air travelers to “neutralize” their portion of an aircraft’s carbon emissions by donating to carbon reduction projects.
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Funding Ocean Conservation
Developing new conservation initiatives and restoring our oceans isn’t cheap. Organizations with ties to the scuba industry supply funding to researchers, aid organizations and grassroots activists.
The Sea of Change Foundation provides two types of grants. Their Conservation Priority grants fund projects that can create measurable, positive change in these focus areas: Coral Reefs: Restoration and Resilience, Ocean Pollution: Public Awareness and Action, Threatened Species and Habitats. These grants range from $5,000 to $20,000 per year. Their Reef Rescue and Rapid Response grants help support the immediate response to coral reef damage from anchor drops, vessel groundings, entanglement, oil spills and acute pollution that impact coral reefs. These grants range from $500 to $5,000 per project and are available on a rolling basis and as funds are available.
The Rapid Ocean Conservation (ROC) Grants Program is a project of the Waitt Foundation. Grants fund projects related to the Waitt Foundation mission of supporting sustainable fishing and MPAs, which includes sub-themes of scientific research, policy, management and communications. Proposals for up to $20,000 are reviewed monthly on a rolling basis, with funding distributed within two weeks of approval.
The Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF) is a nonprofit organization that provides educational, mentorship, financial, and career opportunities to the diving community throughout the world. Each year, WDHOF awards scholarships and training grants that provide financial and educational support to individuals of all ages, particularly those who are preparing for professional careers that involve diving. The 2020 application period will be open from September 1 to October 31, 2019.
Protecting Our Coral Reefs
Roughly half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the past 30 years and scientists predict this trend to continue unless people find a way to reduce pollution, overfishing and climate change. An innovative collaboration in the Mexican Caribbean is hoping to restore the reefs of the area. The Nature Conservancy has united fishermen, hotel owners, tour operators, government officials and scientists in a program called Guardians of the Reef. Divers are trained to identify broken coral (especially important after a hurricane) and make repairs to the coral.
Several organizations in the US and the Caribbean are successfully growing coral fragments, called “frags” in shallow coral “nurseries” for outplanting onto coral reefs in areas damaged by storms or disease.
One such group is the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) based in Key Largo, Florida. CRF partners with NOAA to rehabilitate and restore coral reefs in the Florida Keys.
CRF’s original founder is Ken Nedimyer, who now operates an international reef restoration consulting service, Reef Renewal, LLC. He assists island nations and individual dive centers wishing to establish their own coral nurseries.
Coral Restoration Foundation Curaçao (CRFC) and Reef Renewal Bonaire (RRB) are nonprofit organizations aimed at developing innovative ways to restore coral reefs in Curaçao and Bonaire. Both organizations are successfully growing elkhorn and staghorn corals. CRFC has coral nurseries in several locations around Curaçao. RRB reports it has outplanted more than 14,000 new corals to Bonaire’s reefs.
The Cayman Islands Department of the Environment is collaborating with several local dive operators to bring coral restoration to the Cayman Islands. Nurseries are currently established on the house reefs of several dive centers, including Cayman Eco Divers, Divetech, Ocean Frontiers and Sunset House.
Freeport officially opened the world’s first land-based commercial coral farm. This project will establish sustainable aquaculture and innovation for reef restoration in Grand Bahama and The Bahamas. The coral is being grown 50 times faster in open touch tanks and will be transplanted to the ocean to restore dying coral reef systems in The Bahamas. The operators are using a technology known as micro-fragmentation to accelerate coral growth so that what would normally take decades in the ocean will occur in the farm in a few months. They have also been able to use a process termed “assisted evolution” to grow a more diverse hardy, cost effective coral resilient to threats of climate change. Read more at tribune242.com/news.
Practically all organizations with coral nurseries offer programs that train volunteer divers to assist.
Force Blue is a nonprofit organization that trains Special Forces military veterans to restore coral reefs. Their team deployed to the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico in late 2017 to assist in repairing reefs damaged during Hurricanes Irma and Rita.
Dive Training’s own Senior Editor Alex Brylske, Ph.D, now heads up Ocean Education International (OEI), a consulting firm that provides environmental education and professional development services for the marine tourism industry. OEI helps tourism stakeholders, including dive centers, implement programs that promote healthy marine ecosystems.
Wrangling Exotic Non-native Invaders
Non-native species of plants, animals and fish can wreak havoc when introduced into environments where they do not belong. Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) is dedicated to educating the general public about the problem of invasive marine species. They sponsor lionfish “derbies” during which divers and snorkelers collect and remove as many invasive lionfish as possible. The organization also compiles data on exotic/invasive species. According to REEF, Sightings from the REEF program have been included in the US Geological Survey Non-Indigenous Aquatic Species Database.
Mangroves Support Ecosystems
Mangrove conservation and restoration efforts have helped stem the decline of mangrove regions along vulnerable coastlines. Mangroves help to reduce the vulnerability to climate-related coastal hazards such as sea-level rise. Mangroves filter and trap sediment from run-off and river water before it reaches adjacent ecosystems, thus improving the water quality and allowing essential light to reach ecosystems. Mangrove restoration has been used as an ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and adaptation measure, particularly following the 2004 Asian Tsunami, when many affected countries embarked on ambitious replanting programs.
Mangrove Action Project (MAP) is a global network that helps coastal communities restore and conserve their mangrove forests and related coastal ecosystems. Over the last two decades the MAP network has grown to include over 500 non-governmental organizations and over 350 scientists and academics from more than 60 nations. In general, mangrove restoration is complicated, expensive and time-consuming, and many well-intended efforts fail. MAP developed its signature Community-based Ecological Mangrove Restoration methodology to offer coastal communities a holistic, cost-effective approach that gives coastal residents the training and tools they need to succeed.
Now It’s Your Turn to Help with Ocean Conservation
Many organizations are working to make our oceans better. You can be a part of the ocean conservation movement. Consider donating your time and/or dollars to support one or more of the ocean conservation organizations mentioned in this article. With all of us working together we can ensure the opportunity to take those dive vacations we all love.