Some Key Oceans Issues
Oceans sustain us. They give living things, like humans and wildlife, what we need to survive: food to eat, water to drink, oxygen to breathe, medicines to fight disease, and beauty to nourish our spirits. Just as our seas sustain us, we must sustain our seas. We must take care of them, so they’ll continue to benefit us long into the future. Activities that harm our seas or use their resources too heavily or too quickly — at the expense of future generations and healthy wildlife — are unsustainable. Sustainable activities, on the other hand, conserve ocean resources and allow them to endlessly renew themselves. Whether you’re a landlubber from Lethbridge or a sea dog from St. John’s, oceans are as important to you as the land upon which you stand. The ocean issues below illustrate why sustaining our seas is vital to everyone.
- Coastal zones at risk: The most productive parts of our oceans also happen to be the most threatened by human activities. Rocky shorelines, kelp forests, deltas, estuaries, and salt-marshes are just a few examples of imperilled coastal ecosystems. Sewage, marine debris, overfishing, and the alteration of ecosystems with dykes and dams have all had huge ecological impacts on Canada’s coasts. Salt-marshes and other coastal areas have been especially hard hit since we began transforming our shores hundreds of years ago. Countless birds, from black ducks to spotted sandpipers, from killdeers to great blue herons, depend on these coastal wetlands for food and nesting areas. Vast portions of salt-marshes have been converted to agricultural uses or dammed to protect roads and properties. Many salt-marshes continue to be affected by encroaching human activities.
- Ocean biodiversity: Any human activity that has a negative impact on oceans has a negative effect on biodiversity, or biological diversity. That means the variety of animals, plants, and microorganisms on our lands and in our seas, the genetic variety within these species, and the variety of ecosystems they inhabit. Ocean biodiversity is threatened by unsustainable actions, such as the destruction of coastal wildlife habitat, modern agricultural practices, the discharge of raw sewage and other sources of pollution, and the overharvesting of animals and plants. We must sustain ocean biodiversity because it is essential to life on Earth. And we have a moral responsibility to conserve the amazing array of species with which we share our salty seas.
- Unsolved ocean mysteries: We’ve scarcely begun to appreciate the biodiversity hidden in our oceans, the complex dynamics of marine ecosystems, or their importance to sustaining life. Ocean ecosystems are not only the least understood but also, perhaps, the most threatened by our unsustainable deeds. We can no longer afford to use ignorance as an excuse for mistreating our seas and the wildlife living in them. Some marine species lost forever due to overexploitation are the sea mink, Labrador duck, Atlantic grey whale, and great auk. We’ll never fully understand the ecological effects of their disappearances, because all living things are linked together in mysterious ways. If we lose another species — say the leatherback turtle, St. Lawrence beluga, or seaside centipede lichen — the whole web of life will somehow be affected, including humans.
- Marine debris: Plastic bags, helium balloons, stray fishing gear . . . you name it, and it’s in our seas. More and more debris builds up in our oceans every year. Some materials, such as nylon rope, glass bottles, and wire cables, remain in the environment for years, killing or injuring right whales, harbour porpoises, leatherback turtles, and many other ocean species that become entangled in the litter or mistake it for food. Marine debris also harms people when it clogs water intakes, blocks pumping systems, and fouls boat propellers, leaving fishers and recreational boaters stranded — sometimes far out to sea. Divers entangled in marine debris find their lives in danger. “Ghost fishing” by lost nets not only kills countless ocean creatures but also diminishes fishers’ catches.
- Marine pollution from land-based activities: Over 80 per cent of marine pollution results from human activities on land. Sources can include billions of litres of raw sewage containing human waste, litter, motor oil, solvents, and a miscellany of toxic chemicals dumped into rivers and coastal waters; inadequately treated waste water from industries; nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates, discharged from municipal and agricultural sources; pesticides sprayed on crops and gardens; and emissions of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. In particular, marine pollution affects estuaries and near shore coastal waters — the areas richest in biodiversity and ocean resources we depend on most.
- The decline of coral reefs: Like rain forests, coral reefs are vital to all of us. They play a key part in maintaining biodiversity. They perform an important economic role by supporting fisheries and tourism, in addition to sheltering species with valuable medicinal properties and gracing us with their astonishing beauty. Today, coral reefs are under mounting pressure from threats like global warming, oil spills, overfishing, exploitation for the pet and souvenir trade, and pollution from urban centres, coastal villages, and tourism. The reefs most at risk are in the Caribbean, East Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. The United Nations has declared 1997 the International Year of the Reef in recognition of the urgent need to sustainably manage these vulnerable ecosystems.
- The decline of sea ducks: Many of Canada’s 13 species of sea ducks are in steep decline. Waterfowl biologists need to know more about their ecology, population dynamics, and the effects of human activities on sea ducks to deal effectively with this alarming trend. Species, such as king eiders, oldsquaws, buffleheads, hooded mergansers, and harlequin ducks, are so highly specialized for life in a salt-water environment that their natural history differs markedly from that of most waterfowl. Reversing their decline will require unique conservation approaches. Wildlife agencies across North America have identified the need for coordinated research, monitoring, and management action to maintain healthy sea duck populations.
- Marine protected areas: In view of the need for conservation and protection of ocean ecosystems, Canada is setting aside important parts of the sea as marine protected areas. These sites offer hope for the future and are meant to re p resent the diversity of our marine ecosystems; maintain life-sustaining processes; protect critical habitats, unique natural areas, and endangered species; conserve biodiversity; and ensure the long-term, sustainable use of marine species and ecosystems.
Blueprint for Ocean Action
The time to sustain our seas is now. Of all Canada’s provinces and territories, only Alberta and Saskatchewan lack marine coasts. But all rivers lead to the sea. No matter where you live, your daily actions affect oceans. Here are some suggestions to get you started on your blueprint for ocean action.
- Celebrate Oceans Day, June 8. Encourage your town council to proclaim this wet and wild event.
- Conserve marine ecosystems and biodiversity: Get involved in a school or community project to protect a marine ecosystem, such as a salt-marsh, estuary, or intertidal zone. Support a conservation organization, such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the Foundation for the World’s Oceans, or the North American Wetlands Conservation Council (Canada). Find out about their efforts to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems. And spread the word about the importance of conserving marine ecosystems and biodiversity.
- Encourage the establishment of marine protected areas: A key to the creation of marine protected areas is collaboration between those who have a stake in conserving ocean environments — coastal communities, resource users, and everyone else who cares about vulnerable marine ecosystems. So, voice your support for these important areas at all levels of government: municipal, provincial or territorial, and federal.
- Learn more about marine ecosystems and the problems facing them. Get to know an ocean ecosystem, such as a kelp forest, rocky shore, or sandy beach. We each need to recognize that we are interconnected with all ecosystems, no matter where we live.
- Cut marine debris off at its source. Participate in a beach or shoreline cleanup in your community. Encourage ports and marinas to provide convenient garbage disposal facilities. Whenever you go boating or visit a shoreline or other wild areas, stow your trash, instead of leaving it behind. Reduce waste by composting and recycling, using recycled products, buying foods in bulk, purchasing products with minimal packaging, and bringing your own reusable bags to the supermarket. Never release helium balloons into the environment; they are a serious threat to marine animals, such as leatherback turtles, which mistake them for prey and choke on them. Report sightings of marine animals that are beached or entangled in debris and find out how to participate in a stranding network by contacting your local office of Fisheries and Oceans Canada or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
- Help turn off the tap on land-based pollution. Use phosphate-free detergents and avoid using garden fertilizers. Phosphates and nitrates from these sources enter lakes and rivers, causing excessive algal growth, which deprives fish of oxygen. Declare your schoolyard a pesticide-free zone. Explore alternatives to insecticides, such as attracting toads and predatory insects and growing plants that repel pests among ones that are vulnerable. Dispose of hazardous wastes, such as old paint, motor oil, and turpentine, at proper waste disposal sites, rather than dumping them down the drain or into landfills.
- Let coral reefs be. Almost all marine fish, corals, and other salt-water animals sold for home aquariums come from the wild. For this reason, many reef species are in danger of extinction. Freshwater tropical fish are a much better choice because they are usually raised in captivity. Learn about reef creatures, such as giant clams and mushroom corals, which are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Never buy souvenirs or other products made from these animals.
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