Stop All Ocean Abuse!

We are killing our oceans. As I write, barrels of oil are still gushing from the broken BP well into Gulf of Mexico waters. The blog commentariat is in gusher mode too; most people are expressing heartfelt pain for the toll this environmental disaster is taking. But some seem to think the problem isn’t too severe. The ocean is vast, they say, and what is pouring into it from below its floor is by comparison tiny. One person compared it to a spoonful of oil in a swimming pool.

This is absurd. But it brings up an interesting point about our attitude towards the ocean. We think it is so large as to seem limitless. On old maps the oceans stretch to the horizon, the limit of the knowable, whereupon people fall off the edge of the Earth. We know better now, but somewhere deep inside us the vestiges of that mythology live on.

We’re in danger of forgetting what oceans used to be like and lowering our standards for what constitutes a healthy ocean.

That’s partly because we stand in awe before something so vast; it also reflects, I suspect, a subconscious desire to rationalize our careless ways. It is nearly impossible for most of us to believe that we are having catastrophic effects on our oceans—indeed, most of us are probably unaware of it. Three things are killing the oceans, explains Professor Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego: overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

I’ve written before about acidification, how carbon emissions have accomplished the unthinkable by changing the ocean waters’ chemistry, imperiling valuable coral reefs and other forms of sea life. That’s only part of the picture.

Let’s take it at the local level. Are our waters pristine, anywhere? Here in Rhode Island, we are now pounded with increasingly common heavy rainfall that causes rapid flooding of rivers. During these storms, our sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed, and when they flood, fecal matter pours into rivers and flows into the ocean. Beaches are closed, from time to time, because of high bacterial counts in the water. This happens up and down the East and West coasts.

Let’s assume we can’t swim, but we can still walk the beach. This is one of my favorite things to do, at any time of the day or the year. I like low tide best, when I can catch a glimpse of that mysterious intertidal zone, and watch the creatures in the little pools that collect around the granite outcroppings characteristic of this area. These days, I no longer walk empty-handed, as I once did, because it isn’t the plovers that are catching my eye. It is the plastic.

Marine debris on the beach
Plastic trash and debris abound in the ocean and litter our beaches.
Photo: Ocean Conservancy

All year round, I fill trash bags with the detritus of human activity, from soda cans to sneakers to plastic baggies to abandoned toys; it is worse in the summer. The cigarette butts drive me crazy; has the beach become one big ashtray?

Magnify what’s happening on my beach to a global scale and you get the Texas-sized patch of plastic debris that is swirling around in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five major oceanic gyres. No one can say with certainty how large this trash patch is—it could be as large as the continental U.S.—because the plastic breaks down into particles that are suspended in the water below the surface. But one thing is certain: The plastic in the ocean—which will never biodegrade—is wreaking havoc on wildlife.

We don’t seem to understand—or appreciate—the catastrophic effects of such cumulative pollution. If someone drove a dump truck to the beach and unloaded a pile of trash onto the sand, beachgoers would be furious. They would do what they could to stop it. Yet they are heedless when their neighbors leave trash, bit by bit, as if it will simply disappear into the blue beyond. We don’t perceive trouble that creeps over us slowly the same way we do trouble that hits with an immediate force. But perhaps epic disasters like the BP gusher can focus attention on the subject of ocean abuse.

As Jackson describes it, we succumb to “shifting baselines syndrome”; we don’t pay close attention to slow change, even if it is chronic. Think of it in a personal way: if I gain two pounds every year, I might say (as I have) to my doctor, well, I’m only two pounds heavier than I was last year, so that’s pretty good. But if I shift my baseline, and look at my weight now compared to fifteen years ago, the picture isn’t so healthy.

Our baselines have been shifting with regard to our oceans. We are in danger of forgetting what they used to be like, lowering our standards for what is an acceptable measurement of health. Overfishing is, according to Jackson, “the most important alteration to oceans in the past millennium.” Because our supermarkets are full of fish, we assume ocean life is as abundant as ever—even while it is deteriorating.

Take lobsters. In the early 1800s, they were so abundant that they were used as bait and fertilizer. They were caught by hand during low tide along our rocky shores. In Rhode Island, colonial law protected prisoners and servants by limiting the number of times a week they could be served lobster. By the end of World War II, lobsters were a delicacy. In the last ten years, debate has raged among lobstermen about whether the lobster fisheries are in danger—because they are comparing catches from last year to catches from five years ago. But if we step back, and compare catches to one hundred years ago, there is no question that the lobster population is crashing.

There is something seductive about the dark, opaque surface of ocean water; it is mesmerizing. Many of us have felt the lulling solace of the eternal movement of waves and tides. Because we can’t see through the ocean’s surface, we irrationally operate with the assumption that the ocean can overcome anything.

Kids at the Beach
Now is the time to decide what sort of ocean we want to leave for the generations that succeed us.

We know better, intellectually: we know, for instance, that BP was drilling 1 mile deep. Underwater, that seems an enormous distance because we don’t have a human experience of such depth the way we do, say, of a one-mile walk, or a seven-mile run. (The ocean’s deepest point is seven miles.) No one can go such a distance underwater unaided and survive. In some atavistic way, one mile in the ocean seems far, far deeper than ten miles on land.

The impossibility of ever seeing this undersea world makes it seem as remote and untouchable as the surface of the moon—so how could we possibly have an impact on it? But we have—for the worse. The only possible good that could come of the terrible BP-Gulf Gusher is that as a nation we realize what a mess we are making of our world, our home. The oceans cannot take infinite abuse. But if we protect them, they will provide infinite food, inspiration, refreshment, and wonder for generations to come.

Personal Nature
Take action! Support EDF’s work to restore our oceans.

5 Responses

Comment from Peter Dudek
July 6th, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I just Googled “largest environmental organizations” and this site came up as one of them.

I came here expecting to see OUTRAGE over the Obama administration’s blocking efforts to protect the coastlines and clean up the oil.

Instead I see this pitiful article that concludes we should learn from this disaster “what a mess we are making of our world…”

So I guess to this writer and this organization, political affiliation is more important than actually doing something to help the oceans and the environment.

The hypocrisy of “environmentalists” during the worst environmental disaster of all time is staggering.

Obama should let states protect their beaches. He should let other countries help clean up the oil while it’s still at sea.

Shame on you for your lack of will. Be bold. Be honest. Raise your voice!

Comment from lisa
July 8th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

The author said nothing about “political affiliation”, Peter, but spoke to the cause of the problem instead of just harping on the latest symptom and pointing fingers at “the government” like everyone else.

“OUTRAGE” and blame games aren’t what anyone needs. There is no unity in what or whom we’re AGAINST. We all need to shed the false perception of hopelessness over “what good can one person do” and start doing the right thing.

To quote the author’s blog, “Remember Smokey the Bear’s campaign to Stop Forest Fires? We need a campaign to Stop Trashing Our Oceans, a campaign that sinks into the national consciousness because it is seen everywhere, for years and years…Nemo? Little Mermaid? Any other ideas?”

Comment from madgew
July 8th, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Obama shouldn’t be blamed for EVERYTHING. He is not a miracle worker. He has a lot on his plate and I would suggest he was not in office when deregulation and lax control over oil was instituted.

Pingback from poem i wrote for a friend? what do you think? | Tea
July 9th, 2010 at 1:51 am

[…] Dominique Browning's Personal Nature Column » Stop All Ocean Abuse! […]

Comment from vavaveve
July 9th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Each of us must take responsibility for our ocean, for our earth! We all need to clean up after not just ourselves, but for those that for one reason or another, don’t clean up after themselves!

I have an adopted son who is autistic. He is 18 years old and brilliant but has no organizational skills whatsoever! I, on the other hand, am reasonably organized. His room is chaos! It is often overwhelmed with wrappers, containers, paper, soda cans. . . all things that need to be recycled, composted, reused, or (unfortunately) tossed. He cannot sort through this chaos to save his life. So things pile up until he absolutely can’t find anything anymore and then he just puts all things into one bag and brings it to the trash (which I try to catch afterwards and sort through. I have often found his ipod and new cds and dvds, books, clothing, etc. along with the ‘trash’. I rescue the assorted things that I am sure he didn’t want gone, and recycle the rest. I use this to illustrate that there are many people who don’t have the ability to ‘see’ what is at their feet. The cacophony of visual confusion (at least in this illustration) is so overwhelming that he cannot see ‘the tree for the forest’ (ie. he cannot see the single tree because there are so many trees)! I just about drove myself mad trying to teach him to ‘see’ one single tree while it was surrounded by the other trees. He just was not wired to be able to do that. Then I just about drove myself mad by trying to think like he does so I could understand why he couldn’t ‘see’. I will never be able to ‘see’ the world as he sees it, just as he will never be able to organize, what seems to me to be, his chaotic world.

I know that not everyone is like my son, but I have come to realize that the spectrum of human conditions is vast and broad, and that I should not judge someone for not being able to pick up after themselves. Although many of us can view what we perceive as obvious, there are just as many who cannot see ‘the tree for the forest’! And yes, there are just as many again who abuse their priviledge of being on this earth, and don’t care that they left trash behind or don’t want the inconvenience of walking over to the trash receptacle or hauling a bag of trash home.

So, my point finally is this. . . A campaign something like, “Only YOU can prevent ocean abuse” would be very effective by making EACH of us responsible for the big picture. Making us realize that EACH of us must act! Making EACH of us feel compelled to do more than just our little part. We EACH need to help others do this too.

Finger pointing and expecting the government do our will is not as effective as EACH AND EVERY ONE of us doing our part to take care of our world. And ‘our part’ is not necessarily our ‘fair’ share! Each of us needs to pick up trash left by others. Each of us needs to do the RIGHT THiNG when we see bad decisions being made and then are asked to carry these decisions out. Each of us needs to be proactive in caring for our earth. In our families we need to shop smarter, consume less, walk more, in our businesses we need to be vigilant about our decisions and speak up when things aren’t right, in our schools we can set up programs to teach our children how to be stewards of our earth by setting up lunchroom composting programs, promote classes about sustainablitiy, and explore energy options for the school and our neighborhoods. . . in EACH of our lives, we need to jump in and make it our business! Our lives are at stake!

Personal Nature is powered by WordPress.

RSS feeds are available for posts and comments.

Share this Blog