World Oceans Day, declared by the United Nations as a day to recognize the major role that oceans play in everyday life, passed us quietly on June 8 last year. More immediate needs dominated activists’ attention, and rightfully so.
But protecting the ocean doesn’t take place on a single day or a single year and it need not detract from our equity and justice efforts. Environmental quality and social and economic equity intersect and support each other in significant ways.
World Oceans Day
The United Nations creates international days of observance for important global issues as tools to educate people and accelerate activism. Canada first proposed World Oceans Day at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. Environmentalists began observing the unofficial holiday in 2002. The UN finally made the day official in 2008 when it designated June 8 as World Oceans Day.
The purpose of World Oceans Day is to draw attention to the shared resource that is the world’s oceans, to highlight our personal connections to the sea whether one lives near the coast or not, and to inform people of the important ways individuals can help protect our world’s oceans.
What the Ocean Does for Us
We talk about the seven seas, but really, one vast ocean covers 70% percent of the Earth’s surface. Only 7% of that ocean is protected.
As on land, the ocean contains myriad ecosystems, from shallow ocean pastures to coral reefs to deep ocean trenches and the seabed. Within those ecosystems, scientists have identified more than 400,000 species, but estimate that those species make up less than 10% of the total. Unfortunately, at current extinction rates, many of those species will likely go extinct before they are even discovered.
Oceans serve as the world’s largest food source, with more than 3 billion people depending on the ocean as their primary source of protein. As a result, one-third of global fish stocks are overfished. About 150 marine species are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Overharvesting is a significant factor threatening nearly all of them.
Aside from nutrition, a healthy ocean is critical to human life. Although we often hear rainforests called the planet’s lungs, oceans produce half of the world’s oxygen. The ocean also plays a huge role in climate stabilization, storing 50 times as much carbon as the atmosphere does. Oceanic carbon storage buffers up to a third of the carbon released by human activity.
Warming ocean temperatures caused by global climate change can release that captured carbon, increasing the pace of climate change and leading to more severe storms. Warmer waters are also a threat to coral reefs through bleaching, disease, and predators. Reefs protect coastal communities from beach erosion and storm effects and provide economic benefits.
Roughly 3 billion people depend on the ocean for their livelihood through fishing, tourism, or a combination of both. Without protection, 70% to 90% of tropical coral reefs could be lost by 2100. The impact of these extinctions, as well as ocean-level increases, will fall hardest on the poorest and most marginalized communities. Protecting the oceans protects these populations.
World Oceans Day 2021
The United Nations’ conservation goal for 2021 is to safeguard at least 30% of our planet in its natural state by 2030 “for a healthy ocean and climate.” This number was scientifically established as the minimum necessary to arrest climate change, prevent extinctions, and continue to reap the environmental services of a healthy global ecosystem.
Called 30×30, the movement to protect at least 30% of our planet by 2030 is shared by other organizations around the world that strive to ensure the health of the planet for future generations.
What We Can Do for the Ocean
It is not too late to sign the 30×30 petition that is collecting signatures from around the world for presentation at the Convention on Biodiversity COP15 Summit. Originally scheduled for October 2020, the summit was postponed due to the pandemic. It is currently planned for October 2021.
If you would like to plan an event for World Ocean Day 2021, download the toolkit for guidance, inspiration, and resources. You can also watch the online streaming virtual events celebrating World Oceans Day 2020 to learn more. Going forward, we can continue to support the establishment of marine protected areas to safeguard biodiversity and the many benefits we get from the natural world.
The threat of pollution from oil and plastics does not stop at the boundaries of protected areas. But it is a threat that individuals can help prevent by eliminating plastic waste and cleaning up beaches and waterways. These everyday actions are important for protecting the environmental quality of the ocean. In return, a healthy ocean benefits people everywhere in the world.
Originally published on June 29, 2020, this article was updated in May 2021.