Happy World Oceans Day!
Happy World Oceans Day! Today is a day dedicated to educating ourselves and others about the crucial roles that oceans play in sustaining and supporting our planet and humankind, recognising the current conditions of our oceans and the issues and risks surrounding them today, and encouraging positive change as individuals and communities to conserve and protect Earth’s life support system. Ecotourism is an industry that not only benefits from and depends on pristine natural environments and ecosystems, but can also act as a platform through which to educate visitors, encourage and support involvement in conservation initiatives and inspire positive, environmentally-friendly tourist behaviour.
Why are oceans important and why should we protect them?
- Oceans are the largest ecosystems on Earth, covering over 70% of the planet’s surface, and support the greatest biodiversity on Earth. Marine biodiversity is essential in maintaining critical ecosystem functions (such as habitat creation), and marine tourism certainly depends on this wonderful variety of life. Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are essential in protecting and enhancing biodiversity and critical habitats, ocean productivity and resilience.
- Approximately 97% of the Earth’s water comes from our oceans. Around 2% of the remainder is frozen in ice caps and glaciers and less than 1% is fresh water.
- Oceans supply around half of the oxygen that we breathe. Phytoplankton, microscopic single-celled organisms that live in the surface layer of the oceans and form the base of the marine food web, are primarily responsible for this. They produce oxygen through the process of photosynthesis: they use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into organic matter. Some of the oxygen they produce is absorbed by the water, but most is released back into the atmosphere.
- Oceans have a significant impact on the climate and play a key role in the global carbon cycle. Around 48% of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels is sequestered into the ocean, sometimes for hundreds and thousands of years. For a better idea of the different processes in the carbon cycle and where carbon is stored, have a look at this nifty interactive diagram (link: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/689-the-ocean-and-the-carbon-cycle). Oceans help regulate the Earth’s climate through the uptake, storage and release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Moreover, oceans facilitate the distribution of heat, pumping large amounts of warm water and air towards the poles and cold water and air towards the tropics. Thus, inconsistencies in ocean currents caused by climate change can engender major shifts in regional climate, weather patterns and subsequent human migration patterns.
- Oceans support economic and social benefits. Coastal and marine tourism supports livelihoods by providing jobs, recreational activities and educational opportunities. The Great Barrier Reef alone supports 69,000 Australians employed in tourism and related industries, with many coastal communities (or approximately a billion people) around the world being completely dependent on our oceans.
- Oceans supply living and non-living resources. In addition to supplying food sources (around 88 million tonnes of fish and seafood a year), oceans also offer significant potential for medical discoveries through blue biotechnology and renewable energy technologies.
What issues are we facing today?
- Climate change and its impact on the oceans. Ocean warming, which occurs when atmospheric temperature increases resulting in an increase in ocean surface temperature, leads to sea-level rise. Sea-level rise, in turn, can have impacts on beach erosion, habitat destruction and could potentially lead to the submersion of small islands and coastal regions, severely affecting the tourism industry, marine ecosystems and people residing in coastal areas. A rise in sea surface temperatures can also bring about the process of coral bleaching, which occurs when thermal stress affects the symbiotic relationship between corals and microscopic algae that live in their tissues called zooxanthellae. These algae supply food (up to 90% of energy) for corals and give them their colour, while the coral provide habitat and protection for the algae. When stressed, the algae leave the coral, causing the coral to lose its major source of food and its colour as well as become more vulnerable to disease. The most recent research reveals that 91% of the individual reefs in the Great Barrier Reef have experienced bleaching. Ocean acidification occurs when the ocean’s pH level reduces due to increased levels of atmospheric CO2 being dissolved in the water, rendering the seawater more acidic. Together, ocean acidification, ocean pollution and warmer temperatures can have a severe impact on reef resilience, productivity and coral growth and breakage. Loss of coral reefs has the potential to put a staggering $1 trillion at risk globally.
- Overfishing. Over 85% of all fisheries in the world are now either fished to capacity or overfished. Causes of overfishing range from illegal fishing practices, a lack of protected areas, and a lack of management and regulations in fisheries. One impact associated with overfishing is the threat to food security, particularly for coastal communities who depend on fish as their primary source of protein. Overfishing can also lead to a marine life imbalance, disruption to marine communities, as well as cause severe impacts on an economic level. One thing we can do as travellers and businesses in the tourism industry is to choose seafood that is sustainably sourced (http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au) whenever possible.
- In addition to the issues raised above, the disposal of waste into our oceans can also lead to serious impacts such as the entanglement of and harm to seabirds, fish, and marine animals, and ocean pollution (the spreading of harmful substances such as plastic, oil, chemical particles and industrial and agricultural waste).
Fun facts about our oceans:
- Oceans absorb nearly ⅓ of all the carbon dioxide that we emit each year.
- It is estimated that 95% of our oceans are still yet to be explored.
- Only 3.4% of the ocean is currently protected.
- Coral reefs cover around one fiftieth of the ocean floor, but about one quarter of all marine species make the reefs their home.
- The largest recorded blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed, was 33 metres long, or around the height of an 11-story building.
- The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from the moon!