The Ocean Has Issues: 7 Biggest Problems Facing Our Seas, and How to Fix Them

major problems facing oceans

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

The oceans are among the biggest resources for life on earth, but they're also our biggest dumping grounds. That kind of paradox could give anyone an identity crisis. We seem to think we can take all the goodies out, put all our garbage in, and the oceans will happily tick away indefinitely. However, while it's true the oceans can provide us with some amazing eco-solutions like alternative energy, our activities place undue stress on these vast bodies of water. Here are the seven biggest problems, plus some light at the end of the tunnel.

1. Overfishing Is Draining the Life From the Water

Bluefin tuna cage being towed by a tawler
Gavin Parsons / Getty Images

Overfishing is negatively impacting our oceans. It can cause the extinction of certain species while threatening the survivability of any predators that depend on those species as a source of food. By depleting food sources in such large quantities, we leave less for others, to the point where some marine animals actually starve. Reduction of fishing to ensure sustainable levels is necessary if at risk species are to recover at all.

There is much to be desired in the ways we fish. First, we humans use some pretty destructive methods in how we pull catches, including bottom trawling, which destroys sea floor habitat and scoops up many unwanted fish and animals that end up being tossed aside. We also pull far too many fish to be sustainable, pushing many species to the point of being listed as threatened and endangered.

Of course, we know why we overfish: There are a lot of people who like to eat fish, and a lot of it! Simply put, the more fish, the more money fishermen make. However, there are also less obvious reasons explaining why we overfish, including but not limited to our promotion of certain marine species over others for their purported health benefits.

In order keep the oceans' fisheries healthy, we not only have to know which species can be sustainably eaten, but also how best to catch them. It's our job as eaters to question restaurant servers, sushi chefs, and seafood purveyors about the sources of their fish, and read labels when we buy from store shelves.

2. The Oceans' Most Important Predators Being Killed...But Just for the Fins

Two sharks swimming in the ocean
Jonathan Bird / Getty Images 

Overfishing is an issue that extends beyond familiar species like bluefin tuna and orange roughy. It's also a serious issue with sharks. At least 100 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. It is a common practice to catch sharks, cut off their fins, and toss them back into the ocean where they are left to die. The fins are sold as an ingredient for soup. And the waste is extraordinary.

Sharks are top-of-the-food-chain predators, which means their reproduction rate is slow. Their numbers don't bounce back easily from overfishing. On top of that, their predator status also helps regulate the numbers of other species. When a major predator is taken out of the loop, it's usually the case that species lower on the food chain start to overpopulate their habitat, creating a destructive downward spiral of the ecosystem.

Shark finning is a practice that needs to end if our oceans are to maintain some semblance of balance. Luckily, a growing awareness around the unsustainability of the practice is helping to lower the popularity of shark fin soup.

3. Ocean Acidification Sending Us Back 17 Million Years

Ocean acidification is no small issue. The basic science behind acidification is that the ocean absorbs CO2 through natural processes, but at the rate at which we're pumping it into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, the ocean's pH balance is dropping to the point where some life within the oceans are having trouble coping.

According to NOAA, it is estimated that by the end of this century, surface levels of the oceans could have a pH of about 7.8 (in 2020 the pH level is 8.1). "The last time the ocean pH was this low was during the middle Miocene, 14-17 million years ago. The Earth was several degrees warmer and a major extinction event was occurring."

Freaky, right? At some point in time, there is a tipping point where the oceans become too acidic to support life that can't quickly adjust. In other words, many species are going to be wiped out, from shellfish to corals and the fish that depend on them.

4. Dying Coral Reefs and A Scary Downward Spiral

Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef
Brett Monroe Garner / Getty Images

Keeping the coral reefs healthy is another major buzz topic right now. A focus on how to protect the coral reefs is important considering coral reefs support a huge amount of small sea life, which in turn supports both larger sea life and people, not only for immediate food needs but also economically.

Rapid warming of the ocean surface is a primary cause of coral bleaching, during which corals lose the algae that keep them alive. Figuring out ways to protect this "life support system" is a must for the overall health of the oceans.

5. Ocean Dead Zones Are Everywhere, and Growing

Dead zones are swaths of ocean that don't support life due to hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen. Global warming is a prime suspect for what's behind the shifts in ocean behavior that cause dead zones. The number of dead zones is growing at an alarming rate, with over 500 known to exist, and the number is expected to grow.

Dead zone research underscores the interconnectedness of our planet. It appears that crop biodiversity on land could help prevent dead zones in the ocean by reducing or eliminating the use of fertilizers and pesticides that run off into the open ocean and are part of the cause of dead zones. Knowing what we dump into the oceans is important in being aware of our role in creating areas of lifelessness in an ecosystem upon which we depend.

6. Mercury Pollution Going from Coal to Oceans to Fish to Our Dinner Table

Pollution is running rampant in the oceans but one of the scariest pollutants is mercury because, well, it ends up on the dinner table. The worst part is mercury levels in the oceans are predicted to rise. So where does the mercury come from? You can probably guess. Mainly coal plants. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal and oil- fired power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury pollution in the country. And, mercury has already contaminated water bodies in all 50 states, let alone our oceans. The mercury is absorbed by organisms on the bottom of the food chain and as bigger fish eat bigger fish, it works its way back up the food chain right to us, most notably in the form of tuna.

You can calculate how much tuna you can safely eat, and while the though that calculating your fish intake to avoid poisoning is really depressing, at least we're aware of the dangers so that we can, hopefully, straighten up our act.

7. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch a Swirling Plastic Soup You Can See from Space

Plastic bottles and other garbage floating in the ocean
Rosemary Calvert / Getty Images

One more depressing one before we move on to something fun and exciting. We certainly can't ignore the giant patches of plastic soup the size of Texas sitting smack dab in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

Taking a look at the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" (which is actually several areas of debris in the North Pacific) is a sobering way to realize there is no "away" when it comes to trash, especially trash that lacks the ability to decompose. The patch was discovered by Captain Charles Moore, who has been actively vocal about it ever since.

Luckily, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has gotten a lot of attention from eco-organizations, including Project Kaisei, which launched the first clean-up effort and experimentation, and David de Rothschild who sailed a boat made of plastic out to the patch to bring awareness to it.

Geoengineering Our Oceans: What We Do and Don't Know About New Technologies

Now for that light at the end of the tunnel, though some may call it a very dim light, the issue of geoengineering. Ideas have been floated such as dumping limestone in the water to balance out the pH levels of the ocean and to counter the effects of all that CO2 we pump into the air. Back in 2012 we watched as iron filings were dumped into the ocean to see if that'd help spur a large algae bloom and suck up some CO2. It didn't. Or rather, it didn't do what we expected it to do.

This is a really controversial area, mainly because we don't know what we don't know. Though that doesn't stop many scientists from saying we have to give it a try.

Research has helped to lay out what some of the risks are in terms of consequences, and in terms of what's just a plain old dumb idea. There are quite a few ideas floating around that claim will save us from ourselves - from ocean iron fertilization to fertilizing trees with nitrogen, from biochar to carbon sinks. But while these ideas hold a seed of promise, they also each hold a sizable nugget of controversy that may or may not keep them from coming seeing the light of day.

Sticking To What We Do Know - Conservation

Of course, good old fashioned conservation efforts will also help us out. Though, looking at the big picture and the extent of the effort required, it might take a lot of gumption to stay optimistic. But optimistic we should be!

It's true that conservation efforts are lagging, but that doesn't mean they're non-existent. Records are even being set for how much marine area is being conserved. It's all just a head nod if we don't implement and enforce the regulations we create, and get even more creative with them. But when we look at what can happen for our oceans when conservation efforts are taken to the max, it's well worth the energy.

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