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Sea Education Association | SEA Currents

SEA Currents: News


Jun

08

On World Oceans Day, a rising tide of optimism

Dr. Jeff Wescott, Sea Education Association
SEA Semester

Dr. Jeff Wescott, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Sea Education Association (back row far left) with students from SEA Semester's Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures & Ecosystems (SPICE) program last fall in Tonga.

How often do you think about the ocean? As inhabitants of a coastal commonwealth and a historic maritime city, we do so perhaps more than the average American. The more compelling question is “how do we think about the ocean?” How would we describe it? Beautiful and mysterious? Likely. Awe-inspiring? Perhaps. How about imperiled? Damaged? Hopeless?

Thursday, June 8 marks the 26th annual World Oceans Day, an idea that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The World Oceans Day website describes the annual event as providing “a unique opportunity to honor, help protect, and conserve the world’s oceans.” It notes that our oceans provide much of the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, and help to maintain the climate that sustains us. Our oceans also inspire us. For one day in June, we are encouraged to acknowledge and celebrate these gifts, and to commit ourselves to improving ocean health through both activism and our choices as consumers.

But are we too late? Surely we have all heard the news that the ocean environment is in trouble, caught in an irreversible trend of diminishing fish stocks, coastal pollution, coral bleaching, rising and warming seas, ocean acidification, oil spills, and Texas-sized patches of plastic debris floating in the open ocean. Not to mention an emerging political agenda manifestly incompatible with maintaining our existing environmental safeguards and commitments to environmental justice. These issues are real and legitimate causes for concern. (Please note however that plastic debris in the open ocean is dispersed, not clumped together into giant floating islands of doll heads and Aquafina bottles).

Perhaps less evident are the real success stories of ocean conservation, and the efforts of marine scientists and ocean advocates to transform the relationship between people and roughly 70% of the earth’s surface. A new initiative called Ocean Optimism (oceanoptimism.org) is working to stem the tide of what one optimistic marine biologist calls the “doom and gloom” scenarios that have engendered a “culture of hopelessness” among those who care about the ocean. This World Oceans Day, Ocean Optimists urge us to strike a balance between dire warnings and hopeful progress, and to imagine a new way of consuming news about how the oceans of the world are faring.

We need reasons to feel optimistic. While science must take the lead, a change in public attitudes requires a media committed to acknowledging and reporting success stories. Media outlets must report the news of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the Central Pacific Ocean, where the protection of over 157,000 square miles of ocean has led to remarkable recoveries of marine and terrestrial biodiversity. They must keep readers, viewers and listeners updated on efforts in the US and elsewhere to ban tiny plastic microbeads used as an exfoliant in some toiletries and consumed by marine life. They must inform us of projects like Single-Use Plastics Reduction, or SUPR, where my colleagues at Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, MA work with students to inform and empower consumers as they make choices about the plastic bottles, straws, and other one-and-done items they encounter every day. And they must endeavor to connect our communities through news about coastal cleanups, local seafood sourcing efforts, and environmental education opportunities.

As a faculty member of a non-profit educational institution focused on environmental studies and the world’s oceans, I am frequently challenged and inspired by our students to reject the language and worldview so frequently found within the culture of hopelessness. Utopian visions of a pristine ocean are foolish and impractical, and will solve nothing. Doom and gloom scenarios, however, lead to resignation and despair. Worse, they tell an incomplete story. World Oceans Day provides an opportunity for all of us to help direct the arc of the ocean story as committed participants. Jump in and get involved. The water is beautiful.

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