Hot on the heels of World Environment Day, this month also hosts another important marker: World Oceans Day. This day is designed to remind people of the major role that oceans have in everyday life, and how important it is to protect them. There are five specific oceans: the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean. Together they provide up to 85% of the oxygen we breathe, act as sources of food and medicine, and serve as habitat for countless precious species of animal and plants, acting as a vital part of the biosphere.
Our oceans are as important as they are beautiful, and they are a habitat that is widely loved by many. Here are some ways you can help protect them.
1. Wear reef safe sunscreen
Sunscreen is important. However, researchers have found that chemicals like oxybenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreens, cause bleaching of coral reefs (which are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth) as they contain nanoparticles that can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles. Considering that 14,000 tons of sunscreen are thought to wash into the oceans each year, that’s a lot of damage. Even if you don’t swim while wearing sunscreen it still reaches waterways when you shower, while aerosol sunscreens can spray the product onto sand, where it gets washed into oceans (read more here on why you should avoid aerosol products in general).
Lawmakers in places like Hawaii have started banning the sale of sunscreen containing harmful chemicals like oxybenzone, but you can also help by opting for reef safe, non-nano sunscreen. Learn more and find some recommendations here.
2. Choose your seafood wisely
Global fish populations are rapidly declining due to overfishing, loss of habitat, and unsustainable practices. A 2012 report from the United Nations warned that almost 30% of the world’s wild fisheries are overexploited, and over 57% are ‘at or very close’ to their limit, so how fish are caught and managed is highly important.
Additionally, according to Bloomberg and scientists from Ocean Cleanup 46% of ocean plastic waste comes from fishing nets cut loose, and other fishing equipment makes up a lot of the rest. Countries belonging to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation have already agreed on guidelines for how to change this, which involves marking gear so that those responsible for anything abandoned at sea are held accountable, however this has yet to pass into public policy.
On a systemic level, you can talk to your local representatives and environmental bodies about implementing these fishing policies. On a personal level, you can address your own consumption of seafood. The MSC certified sustainable label isn’t the most trustworthy, and it doesn’t address plastic waste at all currently. If you decide not to give up fish fully, check out my guide to the MSC and advice for finding more sustainable seafood here.
3. Reduce your waste
Plastic is one of the most visible issues we are currently dealing with when it comes to our oceans. It is estimated that 13,000,000 tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean every year, killing 100,000 marine animals annually. We can all combat this by reducing our plastic consumption, pressuring corporations to opt for plastic-free design solutions, and asking local businesses to reduce their waste too.
Check out my guide to lowering your personal waste here to help you on the journey.
4. Keep the beach clean
Whenever you visit a beach make sure to clean up after yourself, taking all rubbish with you, and pick up any litter or waste left behind by others if you see it. When on the beach don’t interfere with wildfire or move rocks and coral.
Also, if you have the time and ability, volunteer for beach cleanups that are local to you. You can find these regularly listed on websites such as the Marine Conservation Society and The National Trust.
5. Support charities who protect our oceans
There are multiple charities and organisations who work tirelessly to protect our oceans and the living beings who call them home. They will all benefit from regular financial contributions, fundraising efforts, or volunteering and advocacy. Some of my favourites include Surfers Against Sewage, Marine Conservation Society, and Waste Free Oceans.
6. Go organic
Fertilisers and pesticides are common in small gardening as well as large scale agriculture, but the excess can pollute rivers and other waterways, eventually ending up in the ocean. This results in ‘dead zones’ that have very low oxygen levels in the water, meaning marine life must flee the area or die.
Switching to organic practices at home, as well as buying organic produce, will help reduce the number of chemicals that end up in our oceans.
7. Be a conscious ocean dweller
If you are in the ocean for recreational reasons like boating, kayaking or surfing, make sure to act responsibly. Be aware of marine life in the water you’re in and maintain a safe distance between the wildlife and yourself, don’t throw things overboard, pick up the litter of others if you see it, and check out this free guide to being an eco-friendly boat user.
8. Don’t buy items that hurt marine life
This is particularly common with tourists hunting for unique souvenirs, but there are certain products you should steer well clear of, as they contribute to the destruction of coral reefs and marine populations. Avoid coral jewellery, tortoiseshell accessories (made from hawksbill turtles), and shark products. Also make sure to check that any cosmetics you buy don’t contain squalene that has been sourced from sharks.
9. Be a responsible pet owner
When choosing food for your pet, also remember to consider seafood sustainability and to check the labels. When caring for your pet opt for eco-friendly, organic pet care products too.
It’s also important to think about the waste your pet creates. In America alone dogs and cats create 10 million tonnes of waste per year. This waste carries harmful bacteria that makes water unsafe for drinking and swimming, as well as contributing to the destruction of shellfish beds. This waste can make its way to waterways via storm drains, so make sure to always pick up after your dogs using biodegradable poop bags, never put animal waste in a storm drain, and look into a pet waste compost system or making your own.
Cat litter can also be destructive to the environment, as most supermarket brands use silical clay that has been strip-mined, a process that can destroy local environment and habitats, displacing animals and contaminating water. This litter also carries carcinogenic silica dust that has been linked to health problems in the cats that breathe it in or ingest it. Instead opt for eco-friendly litter alternatives such as wood shavings, recycled newspaper, or materials such as wheat.
10. Keep clean properly
Even if you don’t live near the coast anything that goes down your drain can eventually end up in the ocean. Because of this, be careful with your cleaning products. Opt for non-toxic, water safe products or go DIY with safe ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and essential oils.
Make sure that any potentially hazardous waste you produce also doesn’t end up in the ocean because it wasn’t disposed of properly. Don’t pour motor oil down the drain, instead make sure to dispose of it at specific drop-off sites designed for this purpose. Don’t flush anything down the toilet that shouldn’t be flushed, for example wet wipes (even ones that say they’re flushable – don’t do it), sanitary products or cotton buds.
Also make sure to pour leftover fat, grease or oil from cooking into the bin, or to wipe down oily pans before rinsing to prevent oils going down the drain. When these substances are poured down the sink they harden and clog pipes, meaning that when it rains pipes overflow and these substances end up in the ocean too.
11. Fight the oil industry
There are multiple reasons why the oil industry hurts our oceans.
Firstly, fossil fuel usage leads to global heating. This has led to drastic ocean warming as the ocean has absorbed 80% of this added heat as well as melting ice caps, ocean acidification, changes to major current systems and rising sea levels. This then causes coral bleaching, species death and migration, the destruction of marine ecosystems, rising sea levels, and changing weather systems. Additionally, oil spills from tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, drilling rigs and storage facilities kill marine birds, mammals, fish and shellfish.
Essentially, oil is awful, so let’s make sure we don’t support it inadvertently in any way. Move your money into fossil free banks, switch your pension plans, join the divestment movement, switch to renewable energy, march and protest, vote for climate-conscious candidates, and bother your local representatives until they’re absolutely sick of you. And then bother them some more, because phasing out fossil fuels is essential to keeping our oceans (and ourselves) alive.