May 31, 2022
IThe ocean is a fundamental aspect of our planet’s natural system, comprising 70% of the globe, and holding about 97% of all water on Earth. Without it, our planet would be unrecognizable and uninhabitable, and yet despite this immense power and vastness, there is a limit to how much the ocean can take. For years now, humanity has inched closer and closer to this limit, and unless we do something about it, there seems to be no sign of slowing down.
Since the 1970s, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of anthropogenic global warming. This causes rapidly rising sea surface temperatures (SST) which have resulted in catastrophic consequences on our planet: the melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, coral bleaching, frequent and more severe storms, mass species migrations, deoxygenation, and changes in the ocean’s currents… Not only that, but global warming has also affected the ocean’s chemistry – the more carbon dioxide we emit, the more is absorbed by the ocean. This results in an increase in ocean acidification due to the higher levels of carbonic acid in the water, this has shown to be harmful to the development of creatures with calcium carbonate shells like corals, shellfish, and even plankton. All of these effects have devastating impacts on our planet and its inhabitants, causing a cascade of events that we are only beginning to understand.
Humans have clearly made a lasting and irreversible influence on our planet’s systems, environment, and biodiversity. These changes of such a massive scale have made many detrimental impacts on our ocean’s health. Our reliance on freshwater has caused us to divert this precious resource with the use of mega-dams and massive irrigation systems, severely impacting the flow of water downstream, and affecting the nearshore ocean ecosystem’s salinity, temperature, density, and other metrics. Many marine animals require specific conditions to survive, and any sudden changes in these numbers can drastically affect their ways of life. Not only do humans impact the freshwater input to the ocean, but we also pollute our waterways with chemicals found in stormwater run-off, fertilizers, farming, and other industries. These chemical pollutants find their way into the ocean and put significant stress on our nearshore ecosystems. Land-based pollution is also commonly found in the form of petroleum-based plastics that have now found their way into every major ocean gyre. These plastics break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which have now inundated every trophic level of marine life, eventually finding their way back to us as we consume seafood. Microplastics have recently been discovered in human blood for the first time! There is also light pollution and noise pollution to consider which also impact a large number of marine life.
Coastal land conversion is another example of human activity that poses severe threats to our ocean ecosystem. This widespread destruction or alteration of coastal and nearshore marine habitats leaves many places and species threatened and vulnerable. Land reclamation, the construction of large coastal structures, the development of commercial fish farms, and sand mining are just some examples of coastal land activities that contribute to the degradation of our oceans. These large-scale projects cause an increase in sedimentation and pollution to nearby marine communities. In the context of commercial aquaculture and the highly-developed tourist industry, there is also an increase in invasive alien species and diseases. These affect humans in several ways. Coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses, and sand dunes all play a role in protecting coastal communities from severe storms, tsunamis, king tides, and other potentially hazardous natural phenomena. Both tourism and fisheries industries, some of our country’s main economic drivers, are also highly dependent on a healthy natural ecosystem to thrive.
We have not only caused alarming degradation in many nearshore and offshore marine environments, but we have also exhausted our fisheries. This spells disaster for an archipelagic country like the Philippines, where fish serves as our main source of animal protein, threatening our national food security and economy.
We need to drastically restructure the way our economy works. If we are to transition to a better world for all life on Earth, we need a just and green economy. Humanity must produce and consume goods differently, and invest in ideas that can accelerate this economic transformation. One model is called “Doughnut Economics,” the aim of which is to meet the needs of all people within the means of a living planet. Using this as a compass for our decision-making can help us ensure that the needs of humans are met without posing harm to our planet.
There is no perfect approach to sustainability, the one thing that matters is that we all keep trying. In whatever shape or form we do that, we are already making a big impact in our lives, our surroundings, and yes, even the world at large. This can mean using less plastic or adopting a low-waste lifestyle. It could be shifting to sustainably-sourced seafood or adopting a plant-based diet. The point is we reduce our carbon emissions wherever we can. We can do this by walking or biking to a nearby destination, composting, and recycling. The list is seemingly endless! One big step you can take is to be proactive in your communities and volunteer with local environmental or social groups. From there, you can meet like-minded people who share your vision for a better world. Together, you can maximize the positive impact you all make on our planet.
Governments have the capacity to enact widespread changes in our communities; whether these changes are good or bad is determined by the policies they set forth and whether or not they can uphold them. To protect our ocean environment, our government must ensure that all environmental guidelines are updated and strictly observed, particularly the proper waste disposal of major polluting industries, as well as any major construction work happening in coastal areas. There must also be an increase in funding, partnerships, and transparency amongst adjacent local government units (LGUs) so that they can do a better job of monitoring illegal activities like illegal fishing and poaching. Greater collaboration amongst stakeholders and LGUs will allow better protection of their shared ocean resources. Governments must also pass mandates which will require producers to change their designs and systems so that their products are packaged and distributed to customers in a more environmentally-friendly way. In the process of achieving this, they must mandate that polluting companies also offset their carbon emissions and waste generation by contributing to environmental conservation projects. In our current economy, most producers will not stop shifting the responsibility to consumers unless otherwise mandated to. Our governments should invest heavily in renewable resources for energy and support research in other sustainable technologies. The government must create recycling facilities for different types of waste, this can help create green jobs and new industries.
Being an archipelagic country, “home” is made up of many islands. While there are those of us who live hundreds of miles apart, ultimately, we are all connected by the vast ocean.
Traditionally, we look towards the ocean as this body of water that separates us. But instead, let us view it as that which connects us all. We are all dependent on a healthy ocean ecosystem to survive and thrive—a healthy ocean regulates our climate, protects our islands, providing us with food, medicine, livelihoods, and endless wonders to behold!
Everything we do is connected to the ocean, however distant the relationship may seem. As Filipinos, we are islanders… let us continue to foster our relationship with the sea.
We are lucky to live near the ocean, I encourage you to go visit these blue places as many times as you can, fall in love with the waves and what lies beneath them, and use that inspiration to move you and take action for the protection of our blue planet.