How can I help save our seas?Science Communicator, PhD Conservation Science
Oceans are in trouble. Every week, new research emerges that reveals the true extent of the threats to marine ecosystems, from drastic declines in oceanic shark species to the severe degradation of vital marine habitats. And the reason for these changes? Us. Across the globe, human activity is placing undue stress on marine systems; plastic waste, pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction and human-induced climate change all threaten the future of the oceans and the life within them. If we continue on this trajectory, then the consequences for both people and planet are dire. Humans are dependent on the very ecosystem we are destroying – for nutrition, resources, the economy and our own well-being and safety. These are big problems and they can leave us feeling a little overwhelmed and asking ‘what on earth can I, as an individual, do to help save our seas?’
But there is hope. The apparent enormity of the challenges we face can make us feel small, but our individual actions are incredibly powerful, especially when we act together. Whether you pick up rubbish from your local beach as you walk the dog, share a petition on social media or swap that plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one – every little bit helps. And we are already seeing just how powerful those changes can be. ‘Single-use’ has become a major part of our vocabulary as more and more people become conscious of their plastic habits. Many cities and countries around the world have banned the use of single-use plastics, from Kenya to New Delhi to the UK. Thanks to some serious public campaigning and heroic efforts from scientists, charities and NGOs, we saw a critical breakthrough for the conservation of shortfin mako sharks at the end of 2021, as a coalition of more than 50 countries – including some of the world’s largest fishing nations – agreed on a full retention ban (meaning shortfin makos cannot be landed, even if caught accidentally) to protect the species and allow for populations to recover after decades of overfishing. Increasing numbers of the next generation are getting involved in ocean conservation through events like the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit and the Young Marine Biologist Summit.
So – how can YOU help save our seas? We’ve put together a list of 10 easy ways that you can help safeguard our oceans.
Top 10 ways to help save our seas
- Choose sustainable seafood
- Reduce, re-use, recycle
- Watch out for microplastics
- Minimise your carbon footprint
- Always read the label
- Make sure your sunscreen is ocean-friendly
- Be a responsible tourist
- Take part in a beach clean-up
- Become a citizen scientist
- Use your voice!
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10 ways to help save our seas
1. Choose sustainable seafood
To put it simply, we are taking fish out of the ocean faster than they can reproduce. This means that the population cannot replenish itself; the fish we are taking are not replaced. Therefore, the population declines. This is known as overfishing and it’s a huge problem. Overfishing has caused global declines in many species, including sharks and rays, and indirectly impacts other species through bycatch (where non-target species are caught accidentally) and habitat destruction via methods such as bottom trawling and dredging.
There are two options to help here. The first is to reduce your intake, or avoid eating seafood altogether. Some scientists, including Dr Sylvia Earle, advocate for the latter – at least until we’ve worked out how to manage fisheries more sustainably. However, this isn’t a choice everyone can make. The second option is to make conscious choices about where your seafood comes from and to ensure that it is responsibly and sustainably sourced. We’ve written a much more detailed article on sustainable seafood which you can read here, but the general rule of thumb is to ask these main questions: What species is it? Where did it come from? How was it fished? If possible, it’s best to buy locally and seasonally and to avoid seafood that has been caught using longlines, gill nets, bottom trawling, explosives (e.g. blast fishing) and poisons, such as cyanide. In supermarkets, look for the MSC blue label, which indicates that the product has achieved a set of requirements for sustainable fishing.
2. Reduce, re-use, recycle
Did you know that scientists predict that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish? The human population produces vast quantities of plastic every year, a lot of which ends up in the ocean. Here, it causes harm to marine life – we’ve all seen the images of beached whales with stomachs full of plastic bags or turtles with straws sticking out of their noses. One big way to help save our seas is to make sure no more plastic ends up in our already clogged marine ecosystems. You can do this by:
- Reducing the amount of plastic you buy. Take canvas bags to the shops, invest in a metal water-bottle, buy bamboo cutlery for those beach picnics and take your own travel mug for that morning latte. Think carefully about packaging, too – choose online stores that have minimised or eliminated plastic packaging and try to select groceries that come without plastic wrapping.
- Re-use what you already have. If you have a stash of plastic bags leftover from the years when we weren’t so ocean-savvy, take them on your next supermarket trip. Re-purpose old containers as plant pots or use them to re-fill on cupboard staples at your local waste-free store (if there’s one accessible to you). There are even tutorials online on how to turn old water bottles into bird feeders!
- Recycle what you can’t re-purpose. It would be amazing if we could all turn plastic-free – and in the future that may be possible. For now, though, we’re so reliant on plastics, it’s inevitable there will be some in your household. Make sure to check the packaging and the advice of your local authority to see how it can be recycled effectively.
3. Watch out for microplastics…
Okay, so we’ve talked about plastic bottles, bags and cutlery … but what about microplastics? Microplastics are very small particles of plastic, less than 5mm in diameter. They are so tiny that, when mixed with sand and sediment, they simply become invisible. Microplastics can be easily forgotten, but they have made their way into almost every aspect of our lives, including the marine environment. They are used in everyday products, such as facial exfoliants and toothpaste, and found in the fibres of synthetic clothing. Microplastics are literally washed down the drain as we brush our teeth and wash our clothes, eventually winding up in the ocean. And this is a big issue. The particles may be small, but as they accumulate they can act as major pollutants. They’ve even been found in us! Avoid cosmetics that contain ‘microbeads’ – a common plastic exfoliant – and seek out clothes made from natural materials rather than cheaper, synthetic options such as nylon and polyester.
4. Minimise your carbon footprint
Doing your part to reduce carbon emissions will also help save our seas. Climate change will impact, and already is impacting, our oceans in many ways. Using greener alternative options to a car, choosing renewable energy providers where possible, making home improvements to increase energy efficiency, reducing air travel and being aware of what you eat are all some of the actions you can take.
5. Always read the label
Be a conscious consumer and make sure you know exactly what’s in the products you are buying. As shark scientist, Dr Diego Cardeñosa explains, shark products are often mislabeled and can appear in everyday products without us knowing – even cat and dog food! Squalene, or shark liver oil, is also a popular ingredient in cosmetics. Sharks aside, many household cleaning products and pesticides contain chemicals that are harmful to marine life and pollute the ocean. Swap to non-toxic naturally-derived brands.
6. Make sure your sunscreen is ocean-friendly
Protecting your skin against the sun is important, but did you know about the damage sunscreen can cause when it washes off into the sea? Chemicals used in some sunscreens can have negative effects on marine life, including coral reefs, where they can induce bleaching and even damage the DNA of the coral. Some of these chemicals are octinoxate, oxybenzone and nanoparticles (for a longer record, check out the HEL list). Check the active ingredients in your sunscreen and make sure it does not include harmful substances. Instead, look for a mineral-based sunscreen – typically zinc oxide or titanium oxide – that acts as a physical barrier to the sun’s rays.
7. Be a responsible tourist
Our oceans are wonderful places and tourism offers a way to connect people with them, as well as offering stable income for coastal communities around the world. However, there are some negative sides to tourism. Before taking a trip, do your research and make sure that the company you hope to travel with has the best interests of the sea at heart. Any organisation offering a trip out into the blue should have strong messages of safety and marine conservation. They should follow specific codes of conduct to protect wildlife (and you) and use our seas in a sustainable way.
8. Take part in a beach clean-up
Plastics and other debris litter coastlines all over the world. If you have access to a beach, why not take a bin bag with you and pick up whatever rubbish you find? Or join an organised beach clean-up. Lots of marine conservation charities and local groups host group beach clean-ups, where you can get out in the fresh air, meet new people and help save our seas at the same time.
9. Become a citizen scientist
Citizen science for our oceans has boomed in the past few years – there are numerous initiatives out there that you can take part in, regardless of your background. You don’t have to be a trained scientist to join in – citizen science programmes are specifically designed for the general public to collect data on subjects such as shark egg-cases , shark observations and marine pollution (so you can combine points 8 and 9!). Not only is this a great way to participate in conservation efforts, but you also learn new skills and contribute to world-leading science in the process.
10. Use your voice!
One big positive of social media is the capacity it has given us, as individuals, to generate change. You can spread the word about the threats our oceans face, sharing content and helping campaigns get more reach. You can also sign petitions for stronger ocean protection and get behind organisations that are fighting to conserve and restore our marine systems.
That being said, online isn’t the only arena where your voice matters. You can write to local members of government, asking them to put measures in place to ban single-use plastics, combat climate change or support marine conservation. When it comes to elections, vote for those who advocate for the environment and have policies that will safeguard our oceans for future generations. And have conversations with family and friends. Don’t underestimate how much good it can do to simply talk to loved ones; even if you change just one person’s mind, that person might go on to change someone else’s, and so on – like a snowball effect.
Remember that wherever you are, whatever your background, you are connected to the sea and you can make a difference. These are just some small actions you can take – even if you can only commit to one, you’re still contributing to the protection of our oceans. Together we can bring about real change.