We all have the ability to affect our oceans, for better or for worse, no matter where we live.
Oceans 101 is an introduction to what you need to know about our oceans, the threats they face, and what you can do to help protect them.
Over 70% of the globe is covered by the ocean and half the world's population lives within minutes of the coastline. Rich with resources and potential, our oceans have long been thought of as both infinite and indestructible. But they are not. Overfishing, climate change, pollution, acidification, dead zones, and more have put the world's ocean and marine life at great risk. But if we take action now, this grim future can be avoided.
Marine Protected Areas
These underwater national parks preserve fragile ecosystems for us and future generations. Learn how you can support the establishment of new ones.
Coral reefs, the most bio-diverse regions of our oceans and home to 25% of all marine life, are under threat. Find out what you can do to protect them.
Due to climate change, our oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, the polar ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising. You can help stop this.
One of the most serious threats to our oceans is plastic pollution - it makes up 90% of all trash floating on the ocean's surface. Learn more about what you can do.
We're catching fish faster than they can reproduce, and are nearly at the point of no-return for many fish populations. Take action now to help preserve fish populations.
Marine Protected Areas
If you’ve ever been fishing in central California, snorkeling in the Virgin Islands, or hiking along the Olympic Coast, you’ve been to a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Created to preserve biodiversity and sustain fish populations, today over 1,700 MPAs have been established throughout the United States. They cover 34% of our marine waters and span a range of habitats, including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes.
Not only do MPAs provide recreational and economic opportunities for millions of people, they also sustain critical habitats and marine resources. By protecting marine life from destructive human activities, MPAs act as an insurance policy to ensure that our oceans—selected areas of them, at least—will continue to thrive for future generations to enjoy.
Less than 1% of international waters (beyond countries' territories) are protected. As awareness grows, an increasing number of countries are seeking cross-national solutions: in 2000, the island nations of the Caribbean made a resolution to preserve 20% of their shared marine environment by 2020.
MPAs are found in every region of the United States. Although the West Coast has the most MPAs, the largest marine protected area is located in the Pacific Islands.
Coral reefs aren’t just beautiful - they're essential. Coral reefs protect coastlines from erosion by acting as a natural buffer against waves, storms, and floods. They are also the foundation of the most biologically dense areas of the ocean, supporting more than a quarter of all marine life. But human activity has put these reefs in jeopardy; one-third of them face extinction.
The destruction of coral reefs wreaks havoc on entire ecosystems. Overfishing, pollution, and coastal development are suffocating reefs with layers of sediment and trash. Climate change is warming and acidifying oceans, causing coral to expel the symbiotic algae they need to survive and the reefs to lose their color (this is called bleaching) and become more susceptible to disease and death.
But the impact of reef decline isn’t just felt below the surface. Historically, coral reefs have been a major source of protein-rich food for people: nearly 25% of the fish caught in developing countries come from these reef areas.
To date, one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs have already been lost. Scientists warn that with the current rates of greenhouse gas emission, which are expected to double in 50 years, we risk losing all reefs permanently, perhaps even within the century.
500 million people live within 60 miles of a coral reef.
Scientists estimate 50% of the reefs in the Florida Keys and up to 90% of the reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands were lost in 2005 after weeks of elevated water temperatures.
There’s an important relationship between the atmosphere and our oceans, which is out of balance due to climate change pollution. As oceans warm, they lose their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, causing them to become “acidified.” As global temperatures rise, polar ice caps melt, which in turn raises sea levels. Both of these changes are causing coral reefs—which are critical to coastal protection, home to 25% of all marine life and provide sustenance to millions of species and humans—to actually dissolve.
The consequences of warmer ocean waters could be catastrophic for millions of ocean species who will be unable to adapt to higher temperatures. There will be a collapse of marine food chain, as many species will be unable find a livable habitat and not be able to survive. This will affect everything from plankton to polar bears, and ultimately humans, who are dependent on fish for survival.
Rising sea levels due to global warming pollution are a major threat to the economic livelihood, safety and health of the millions of people who inhabit coastal communities worldwide. The number of environmental refugees worldwide will continue to grow as coastal areas and islands are destroyed. The loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice does not bode well for birds or marine mammals, such as the endangered polar bear, whose hunting and breeding grounds will disappear.
Sea levels could rise between three to six feet this century if current warming trends continue. This will result in major coastal erosion and threaten the health, safety and economic viability of many coastal communities.
Arctic ice is rapidly disappearing which severely threatens polar bears who are dependent upon sea ice, hundreds of miles from land, to survive. Without help, polar bears could disappear from U.S. shores by 2050.
One of the most serious threats to our oceans is plastics pollution. Plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. Why is there so much plastic in the ocean? Unlike other types of trash, plastic does not biodegrade; instead, it photo-degrades with sunlight, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never really disappear. These plastic pieces are eaten by marine life, wash up on beaches, or break down into microscopic plastic dust, attracting more debris.
Plastic is also swept away by ocean currents, landing in swirling vortexes called ocean gyres. The North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest ocean garbage site in the world. The floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life by a measure of 6 to 1. These floating garbage sites are impossible to fully clean up.
Plastic poses a significant threat to the health of sea creatures, both big and small. Over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic.
It takes 500-1000 years for plastic to degrade. Even if we stopped using plastics today, they will remain with us for many generations, threatening both human and ocean health. Despite these alarming facts, there are actions we can take to address the problem of plastics.
Our oceans were once healthy bodies of water teeming with an abundance of fish. However, there’s now a giant sucking sound in the oceans, and, unfortunately, that drain is our stomachs. Since we’re catching fish faster than they can reproduce, we’re nearly at the point of no-return for many fish populations. Our dinner table options are becoming slim: Most fish populations have been depleted by 70-95%. In the past 50 years, 90% of all large ocean predators, such as tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod and flounder have been killed due to overfishing.
Fish is the number one source of protein on the planet. Nearly three billion people worldwide rely on fish for food and that number is expected to increase by 10% in the next decade, which means an additional 11 million tons of fish will be required to feed everyone. The U.S. ranks third, after Japan and China, as the largest consumer of seafood worldwide.
Fishing has become an industry dominated by large corporationsthat use trawlers, which are nets that are several miles long to scoop up everything in their boat’s trail. What they don’t want, known as by-catch, is dumped back into the ocean. Unfortunately, in their quest for one type of fish, millions of others, such as turtles, sharks, dolphins and other unwanted fish die in these nets. For every four pounds of fish caught, one pound is thrown away. It is even worse for shrimp: for every pound caught, four pounds are by-catch.
The real possibility of oceans devoid of big fin sharks, tuna and countless other seafood and marine life is frightening. As a consumer, there’s much you can do to make the right choices to protect these species.