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Celebrate World Oceans Day - June 4, 2017

Celebrate World Oceans Day

         Some of my best and earliest memories are of the vastness of the ocean. I remember the endless joy I felt while being thrown about by the persistent energy of breakers on the shoreline. I remember the ceaseless struggle of building sand castles against the rising tide, my brother and I watching our grainy empires wash into the sea. I remember my boundless curiosity with the mysterious flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore; traces of a never-ending cycle of birth and death that I yearned to know more about. My mother will never let me forget the time I got lost following a flock of seagulls down the shoreline. I will never forget the enormity of the ocean I felt on a quiet twilight at Assateague, when the heavens were so blue-grey I couldn’t tell the sky from the sea.
         Those of us who live here on the Eastern Shore need few reminders of the importance of oceans. These waters are our lifeblood, connecting us, defining us, and for many, providing our livelihood. So many of us are here because of our love for the endless marshes, dunes, and rolling waves of the shore’s bountiful beaches. That endlessness is awe-inspiring, but it can also be dangerous. It can be easy to think that our actions have little impact on such a massive system, and that these infinite coastlines don’t need our protection. For most of human history this mindset held authority. In fact, it wasn’t until 1958 that any sort of global protection for marine resources existed. Today, the ocean is plagued by environmental degradation caused by three major factors: inadequate protection, rising global temperatures, and pollution.
         In order to protect existing fisheries and natural resources, there is a major need for marine sanctuaries; designated marine areas of low or no human use that allow ocean resources to recharge. Small scientific research reserves have existed in the United States since the 1920’s, but they had no power to enforce regulations or protections. It wasn’t until the National Park Service began creating national parks with marine components (like Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve, and Assateague Island National Seashore) that protections for marine resources could be implemented. However, even these protected areas could hardly be called marine sanctuaries. The vast majority of marine protected areas in the United States and the world are protected in name only, and most (including our National Parks) are open to fishing and resource use. In truth, some of the most successful US marine sanctuaries have been accidental: The large “No Trespassing” areas of military bases restricted from public use have acted as unintentional oases for fish and other wildlife. There certainly needs to be a better balance between ecology, recreation, and commercial exploitation, and protected marine reserves may be the answer. In a time where commercial fisheries around the globe are declining and less than 3% of the world’s oceans are protected in any way, marine reserves made now could easily act as a sort of savings investment for future generations: Stick some productive ocean area in the maritime bank and watch your investment multiply.
         Global climate change is responsible for a myriad of dangers to the world’s oceans: Sea level rise and the accompanying saltwater intrusion will have serious impacts on wetlands, coastal ecosystems, and prime beach real estate. Rising levels of atmospheric CO2 contribute to ocean acidification, causing a drop in oceanic pH by 0.1 since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This lowered pH causes weaker shell formation in ocean organisms and major coral bleaching events, and will have serious impacts on ocean productivity and biodiversity in the years to come.
         Pollution is the most easily recognizable danger to world oceans, and often the one that invokes the most visceral response in those of us that live on the coast. There are few things worse than seeing your beach littered with garbage, and there are few things worse than the dangers they can cause to marine life. Nutrient and pesticide runoff, oil and gas spills, and improperly disposed garbage can cause serious problems in ocean environments, from fish kills, to reproduction problems in marine organisms, to health effects on humans. One rapidly increasing form of pollution is the growing amount of plastics in the ocean. More than 8 million tons of plastic waste finds its way into the ocean every year, ending up in the bellies of seabirds, dolphins, and our favorite food fish. Garbage patches, like chunky soups of plastic trash, slosh around most of the ocean’s major gyres.
         While threats to the ocean may seem bleak, great strides are being taken to conserve and protect this incredible natural resource. In 2014 the United States designated 490,000 square miles of ocean around the Pacific Remote Islands as a protected area, currently the largest one in the world. While the US has recently pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, 146 countries have ratified, and 48 have intended to ratify the accord to phase out fossil fuels and adopt cleaner energy sources. Worldwide, people and multinational companies are using alternatives to plastics, helping ensure a cleaner future.
          Thursday, June 8 is World Oceans Day, a global day of ocean celebration, awareness, and protection. If you appreciate the incredible beauty and fragile finiteness of this valuable natural resource, I encourage you to celebrate.

Simons is a seasonal scientist with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
 



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