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If I had known the last time I went to the beach, breathed in the sea air, and felt the water lapping at my feet, that it would be many months until I would have that experience again due to the COVID-19 crisis, I might have taken a few extra minutes to really appreciate the great expanse of ocean in front of me. And to contemplate how critical the ocean is for all life on Earth.
We are responsible for keeping the ocean healthy. Today, our blue planet faces more threats than ever before, and so it is more important than ever to protect marine animals and the place they call home.
This World Oceans Day 2020 will be historical - there will be no public gatherings to mark the day and no large events highlighting the beauty of, and threats facing, our blue planet, as has been the case since the United Nations officially recognized the day back in 2008.
Despite this, the 2020 World Oceans Day is calling on leaders around the world to protect 30% of our blue planet by 2030. A network of highly protected areas that covers at least 30% of our ocean will help safeguard the largest habitat on the planet for generations to come. This could not come at a more critical time - these are some of the big threats facing our oceans right now that IFAW is working to address:
1. Ocean noise
This is a form of pollution you can’t see – but for whales and dolphins, who hunt and communicate using sound, the noise caused by shipping, seismic exploration by the oil and gas industry, and military sonar is hugely disruptive. It can prevent animals from finding food, meeting a mate, and detecting predators - ultimately threatening their very survival.
2. Ship strikes
Whales may be huge, but they’re not huge enough to survive collisions with massive container ships. As the number of ships on our oceans increases, there are more and more of these accidents, which often leave whales with horrific injuries that can cause a slow and painful death. At IFAW, we’re working hard to tackle this problem by lobbying to move shipping lanes away from critical whale habitat and encouraging vessels to travel more slowly.
3. Climate change
Increasing global temperatures are already having a huge impact on our oceans. Coral reefs, for example, are extremely sensitive to warming oceans, which cause them to bleach and eventually die. It’s estimated that 75% of the world’s reefs are threatened. Ocean acidification, caused by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is dissolving the shells of animals such as oysters, shrimp, and lobsters and is having other widespread effects on marine life.
4. Entanglement in fishing gear
Marine animals, from whales, dolphins, and seals to turtles and seabirds, often become caught and trapped in the nets and lines used by commercial fisheries. Whales have been known to drag lobster traps for thousands of miles during their annual migrations, adding extra weight and slowing them down, making it harder for them to feed, which can eventually lead to starvation and death.
5. Plastics and ocean debris
An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year. Our discarded bottles, plastic bags, and packaging are choking and entangling animals, or breaking up into tiny pieces that can be swallowed, releasing toxic chemicals along the way. Over 90% of seabirds are now thought to have plastic pieces in their stomachs.
The good news is that all of these threats can be mitigated.
Our work to encourage the shipping industry to travel at slower speeds will help reduce underwater noise, ship strike risk to whales, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and so help address climate change.
There are also solutions out there to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled, such as switching to ropeless fishing gear, and IFAW is working in the US and Canada to embrace whale-safe practices throughout the range of the endangered North Atlantic right whale to do just that. In Europe we advocate to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the number of marine animals caught in fishing gear by increasing awareness and promoting measures to decrease bycatch in these waters.
To solve the plastic pollution problem, we all need to embrace plastic-reducing measures, and put pressure on companies to change their manufacturing methods.
So as long as we act, and act quickly, we can make a difference. This World Ocean Day, please stand with us to defend our oceans, and all the fascinating, unique life contained within them.
-Sharon Livermore, Programs Officer, Marine Conservation