By Gabby Cushman
Breaking down ocean conservation for our young advocates
For the month of April, our theme is focused on ocean conservation. We’ve talked a lot about environmental advocacy in our monthly learning kits and blog. Oceans are such a crucial part of our natural world that need protection. Our oceans are what connect us all over the world, and our actions directly impact them.
It can often be tough tackling environmental issues with our little ones. These issues feel so much bigger than them and seem overwhelming to tackle, causing anxiety about our planet’s future. Yet we don’t want to avoid the topic altogether or not tell our learners the whole truth about the environment’s current state. Instead, we can break down the issues in a way they understand while providing examples of how everyday people can contribute to conserving our oceans. For this blog, we will break down three of the main threats that negatively impact our oceans to provide you with a starting point for a conversation about ocean conservation. These issues are interconnected and must all be addressed by conservation efforts.
Threat #1: Climate Change
Climate change affects many aspects of our world, and our oceans are no different. With ocean temperatures warming, marine ecosystems are being destroyed. This is because the species that can move relocate away from the unlivable environments, and the species that can’t move (think ocean plants) can’t survive in those conditions. The Arctic specifically is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth, with its ice disappearing by more than 10% every ten years. This affects marine life, other land species, and Indigenous people in the area, who can lose access to food and their traditional homelands.
Indigenous communities are not the only people impacted by these changing ecosystems. Fisheries aren’t able to catch food to sell like they used to be able to, and people living along coasts have to increasingly deal with erosion and storm surges (the abnormal rise in seawater level during a storm). The oceans are a crucial part of our lives, and a part that climate change is impacting just as severely.
Threat #2: Ocean Pollution
Over the years, we’ve seen a concerning increase in ocean pollution. According to the 2022 report by Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, only 5% of plastic actually gets recycled in the U.S., even though 52% of our recycling facilities accept plastics. The rest of our plastic gets tossed in landfills, where it unfortunately can end up in our oceans through storm drains, streams, and rivers. Once in the ocean, marine life will either eat the pollution or get entrapped by it. This could kill or harm them. Plastic can also get broken into smaller pieces and eventually become part of the ecosystem itself as microplastics. These are incredibly tiny, sesame seed-sized plastic bits that will get consumed by small ocean creatures and passed through the food chain, causing harm as it goes along. Our natural ecosystems are finely-tuned living machines that get incredibly disrupted when artificial things are recklessly thrown in. Limiting pollution through recycling can make a huge difference in protecting our marine life.
Threat #3: Overfishing & By-Catch
As we mentioned above, ecosystems can get easily thrown off due to human involvement. Along with pollution, we also have changed marine ecosystems due to overfishing. Nearly three billion people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, but with the rates fisheries and other companies are fishing at, there is not enough time for marine life to reproduce. This throws our oceans’ ecosystems entirely off balance and causes rippling effects throughout the food chain. Some species can be left to starve or decide to relocate to a different ecosystem, but this permanently changes their old and new habitats.
By-catch is another effect of fishing that negatively impacts our oceans. Because our modern fishing gear is often undetectable and robust, it catches other ocean creatures along with the desired species fishers are trying to get. These unintentional catches, which could even be animals like dolphins and turtles, are then hauled up with the rest of the catch and discarded overboard, dead or dying. Not only is the unnecessary death of these creatures tragic but them being discarded back into the ocean negatively affects the ecosystem as a whole. There are solutions to by-catch, such as modifications to fishing gear to let non-target species escape, which are simple and inexpensive. However, they have yet to be widely adopted by the fishing industry.
(Note: By-catch can be an especially upsetting topic to discuss with your little ones. Use caution when bringing this issue to attention and use your best judgment to determine if your learner is emotionally prepared to tackle the topic.)
So, what can we do about these threats to our oceans? Although climate change is a systemic issue that requires significant systematic change, we can take individual action to help fight it by decreasing our carbon footprint. Pollution is similar, with large corporations being the biggest contributors to ocean pollution; however, we can do our part by properly recycling plastics instead of throwing them away. Lastly, we can use our voices to raise awareness about sustainably caught fish and encourage politicians to strengthen legislation on by-catch. For more actions and activities you can participate in with your little ones, check out this month’s learning kit on Ocean Conservation.
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