Why Humans Should Care About Ocean Health

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Did you know that over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, and yet we have more scientific data about the surface of Mars and the Moon than we do about our own planet’s seafloors? How can that be?

As evidenced by the estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution our species dumps into the ocean each year, it seems that we humans have a history of taking this mysterious aquatic environment for granted. Maybe that’s simply because we lack adequate knowledge and understanding of the myriad ways in which we depend on our oceans for survival. Therefore, let’s examine the primary ways in which we benefit from having healthy oceans.

Surfer entering the ocean

An anthropocentric approach to ocean health

According to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), here are some of the major ways in which humans benefit from oceans:

  • Climate regulation
  • Economy and transportation
  • Food and medicine
  • Recreation

Now let’s take some time to dive a little deeper into each category.

Ocean health is tied to climate regulation

If I asked you to imagine the Earth’s lungs, an image of the Amazon rainforest might come to mind. However, although forests play a vital role in turning carbon dioxide into breathable air (thus mitigating climate change), it is actually our oceans that produce the majority of the Earth’s oxygen.

In fact, as noted by author David Wallace-Wells in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, more than a quarter of the carbon emitted by humans is sucked up by the ocean, making it the largest carbon sink in the world. “By absorbing increased carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” says Wallace-Wells, “the ocean reduces the warming impact of these emissions were they to remain in the atmosphere.”

Carbon dioxide is sequestered in the ocean primarily by plankton that use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into food in much the same way that plants and trees do on land. Phytoplankton are then consumed by other sea organisms further up the food chain that ultimately transport carbon to the seafloor in the form of marine sediment when they die. Astoundingly, the oceans have absorbed 90 percent of global warming’s excess heat over the past 50 years.

Not only does the ocean absorb heat, but it plays a major role in transporting heat as well. The ocean circulates energy by transporting heat from equatorial regions toward the poles through a number of major ocean currents, thus regulating our climate and weather patterns.

Ocean Health and Climate

The effects of economy and transportation on ocean health

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines the world ocean economy as “the sum of the economic activities of ocean-based industries, and the assets, goods and services of marine ecosystems.” Ocean-based economies are bolstered by major industries worldwide such as shipping, offshore oil and gas, seafood processing, marine aquaculture, maritime and coastal tourism, and many more.

It is estimated that the ocean economy produces over $280 billion in goods and services and employs about 3 million people in the United States alone. What’s more, over 75 percent of all U.S. trade involves some form of marine transportation. OECD predicts the gross value of global ocean-based industries — currently valued at USD 1.5 trillion — could double in size by 2030.

However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of stunted growth rates to ocean economies in the coming decades due to increases in tropical cyclone winds and rainfall, and increases in extreme waves, combined with relative sea level rise as a result of excess latent heat in the atmosphere (aka global warming). Moreover, the international shipping industry, which is responsible for roughly 90 percent of world trade, will likely become more dangerous (and more costly) due to stormier seas and bigger waves.

Ocean effect on food and medicine

The need for our oceans for food and medicine

You might be surprised to learn that seafood accounts for nearly a fifth of all animal protein consumed by humans worldwide. In just the past 50 years, global production of fish and seafood has quadrupled as the world population has more than doubled over this period, and the average person now eats almost twice as much seafood as half a century ago. Additionally, a variety of medicinal products are sourced from the ocean, and many compounds from marine sources hold promise as possible cancer treatments in the future.

However, like ocean economies, this percentage is surely to decline in the coming decades as a result of human activity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits due to overfishing.

What is more, ocean acidification — the ongoing decrease in ocean pH caused by the uptake of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide — will further threaten already struggling global fish stocks according to NOAA. “Carbon dioxide dissolved into the ocean causes seawater to acidify, threatening the ability of shellfish and corals to build their skeletons and affecting the health of other fish and marine species—many that are important to coastal economies and food security.”

Importance of ocean health

The benefits of ocean recreation for humans

From sailing to whale watching to scuba diving and surfing, the ocean provides humans with a multitude of different pleasurable activities that keep us healthy and inspired. Considering that 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, coastal economies depend heavily on the profitability of marine recreational activities, which in turn depend on the health of coastal ecosystems.

As a matter of fact, the ocean plays such a beneficial role in human health that scientists around the world are now trying to further their understanding surrounding the positive effects of water recreation on the human psyche.

In his best-selling book Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols makes the case that being in and around water has therapeutic benefits that can make humans happier, healthier, and more connected. Nichols believes that water is medicine, and the more people playing in, on, and around water the better.

“What happens when you’re at the water, is your brain is getting a break,” says Nichols. “Getting to the water forces us to disconnect from the stream of auditory and visual information, and switches your brain to Blue Mind, which helps us relax, reconnect with nature, reconnect with others, and reconnect with ourselves.”

Through his Live Blue Foundation, Nichols main focus is to further public understanding of the human-water connection through neuroscientific research. His ultimate goal is to create an entire new field of health and wellness practice using water recreation as a medium for positive pro-environmental behavior change, called neuro-conservation.

Bodhi Surf + Yoga’s Ocean Guardians

Throughout the course of this writing, we have briefly examined the many ways in which the world’s oceans act as a life-support system for our species. From moderating our climate and sequestering excess carbon dioxide in seafloor sediments, to supplying us with protein and peace of mind, the ocean is truly a remarkable feature of our blue planet.

It cannot be overstated that the health of our oceans is intimately tied to the health of our species. However, with an ever-increasing human population and the looming threat of human-driven climate change, ocean health is on the rapid decline. If we wish to ensure human thrivability now and into the future, then safeguarding Mother Ocean is a great place to start.

Take action by signing the Ocean Guardian Pledge today!

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About the author

Spencer Dunlap