8 of the biggest threats to life in our oceans

8 of the biggest threats to our oceans

Who’s been enjoying Blue Planet 2 over the past few weeks? This epic BBC series is capturing the nation’s imagination with its stunning exploration of the weird and wonderful creatures who live in and around our oceans. It’s also showing us how much we have in common with many underwater animals – from whales who mourn for their babies, dolphins who love to surf and the tuskfish who uses tools to break into a delicious snack.

We’re delighted to see so many people getting inspired about the marine environment. And we hate to spoil the fun… but all this spectacular ocean life might not be there forever. These are some of the biggest threats facing our oceans right now:

1. Ocean noise

This is a form of pollution you can’t see – but for whales and dolphins, who hunt and communicate using subtle sonic signals, the noise caused by shipping, seismic exploration by the oil and gas industry and sonar from military vessels, is hugely disruptive. It can prevent animals from finding food, meeting a mate and detecting predators. It’s even led to mass strandings. Learn more.

2. Ship strikes

Whales may be huge, but they’re not huge enough to survive collisions with massive freighter ships. As the number of ships on our oceans increases, there are more and more of these accidents, which often leave marine mammals with horrific injuries that can cause a slow and painful death.

We’re working hard to tackle this problem; for example, lobbying to move shipping lanes away from whale habitat, and encouraging vessels to travel more slowly in areas with known whale populations.

Threats to our oceans - ship strikes harm whales

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 having other widespread effects on marine life.

4. Entanglement in fishing gear

Marine animals, from whales and dolphins to seals and turtles, often get tangled in the nets and lines used by commercial fishermen. Whales have been known to drag lobster traps for thousands of miles during their annual migrations, adding extra weight which slows them down, makes it harder for them to feed and can eventually lead to starvation. The good news is there are solutions out there – such as introducing fishing quotas and switching to different types of fishing line that are less prone to entangling.

5. Plastics and ocean debris

An estimated 12.7 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.

To solve this problem, we need to embrace plastic-reducing measures like bottle deposit schemes and put pressure on companies to change their manufacturing methods. But we can all play our part every day – cut down your own plastic use by investing in reusable bags, cups and bottles, and refuse unnecessary items such as plastic straws and balloons.

6. Coastal developments

Coastal areas are home to over 90% of all marine species, and these habitats are being lost at an alarming speed. The main threats from coastal development are increases in pollution, erosion and boat traffic, all of which put huge pressure on the marine life found closest to our shores. Unfortunately the development of coastlines often means the removal of mangrove forests, damage to coral reefs and disturbance of turtles, marine mammals and birds. Undeveloped coastlines actually play a key role in protecting the coastline from disasters such as floods and hurricanes, so they benefit both the environment and people.

7. Offshore oil and gas developments

Oil and gas exploration is taking place across the world’s oceans, with petroleum companies now searching in more remote and pristine environments than ever before. Unsurprisingly, our marine life is feeling the pressure from these industrial activities. Seismic air guns are blasting around the clock in search of oil and gas reserves, offshore drilling is creating more noise pollution and releasing toxic chemicals into the oceans, and of course the burning of fossil fuels themselves is making a huge contribution to climate change and global warming. Catastrophic oil spills and blowouts are also a threat from offshore drilling. You can help by switching to a green energy provider that is investing in renewable energy such as wind and solar.

8. Commercial whaling

It’s hard to believe that people are still hunting and killing whales in this day and age. Just a handful of countries allow this cruel slaughter: Japan, using the pretext of ‘scientific whaling’ to flout international regulations; Iceland, where only 1% of the population regularly eat the meat, but minke whales are still killed to feed curious tourists, and Norway, which currently kills more whales each year than the other two combined. Bleak as this slaughter seems, we are making progress in ending it, for example by promoting the growth of responsible whale watching as a far more profitable (and humane) alternative.

The good news is that all of these threats can be overcome – as long as we act, and act quickly. So if you’ve been even a tiny bit inspired by Blue Planet 2, please stand with us to defend our oceans, and all the fascinating, intelligent life contained within them.


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation