21 February 2017 - Life as we know it could not be sustained without the Earth’s oceans. They cover approximately 70 percent of our planet’s total surface area, produce 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and absorb approximately 30 percent of the greenhouse gasses we generate. In this way, they help to regulate the temperature, rainfall, and climatic conditions of our planet as a whole. Marine habitats host an unquantifiable amount of wild animals, birds, fish and crustaceous species. These habitats include both sandy and stony beaches, coastal rock features, the open sea, and coral reef systems, right up to the deepest ocean trenches where no light can be found, to name just a few! All of these species, in turn, play a pivotal role in managing the particular oceanic ecosystem to which they are adapted.
However, the continued health and stability of the oceans are being seriously threatened by the way we humans have treated them in recent decades. One of the most pressing issues of concern is the human-generated phenomenon of climate change. Since the later years of the eighteenth century (when the Industrial Revolution began), planetary emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide have steadily risen. Thanks to accelerated industrial activity, the Earth’s average yearly temperature has increased by one degree Fahrenheit since 1950. When the oceans absorb high amounts of greenhouse gases, they gradually become warmer and more acidic (due to the excess carbon dioxide being converted into carbonic acid). This shift in the oceans’ temperature and acid/alkaline balance is helping to fuel the loss of many marine species who cannot adapt to the new conditions. Oceanic acidification is also destroying coral reef systems throughout the world (which serve as a habitat for an incredible 25 percent of the Earth’s marine species).
Marine pollution, overfishing, the illegal poaching of endangered marine animals, and humans’ high usage of plastic have all taken their toll on the Earth’s oceans too. It has been estimated that 8.8 million tons of plastic waste find their way into the oceans every single year, placing the continued existence of over 700 marine species at risk. However, the dedicated people who are standing up for the oceans’ future – campaigning, raising awareness, and encouraging others to play their part in saving marine environments from destruction – offer us a ray of hope. Marine activists all over the world are showing us that we need not despair over the bleak outlook that seems to be facing our planet and its inhabitants. Working collectively, we can make a difference. Here are some incredible campaigners and activists who are doing just that!
Dana Beach is a long-term campaigner for oceanic conservation. He was moved to quit his job as an investment banker at the age of 28, when he visited South Africa with his wife and the couple had an amazing encounter with a wild gorilla. This convinced Beach that he had to fight to save the Earth’s wildlife, in whatever way he could. He founded South Carolina’s Coastal Conservation League in 1989, and has been on the frontlines of many environmental battles in the state ever since. This has included halting the development of factory farm operations in the state, tackling marine and air pollution, and preventing acres of vital coastal land being destroyed by commercial interests. His work has earned him a huge array of awards over the years, including the Order of Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest honor. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, the South Carolina General Assembly, the American Institute of Architects, and Time Magazine have all acknowledged his efforts too. Beach’s work is driven by his belief that “the health of the oceans, the health of the land and the health of our communities is inextricably intertwined.”
Norlan Pagal has paid a heavy price for his determination to protect the wildlife of Tañon Strait in the Central Philippines from criminal interests. Tañon Strait has been recognized as the Philippines’ largest ocean sanctuary, home to an incredible variety of marine animal species, but criminals carrying illegally caught seafood and marine animals, together with drugs, often operate in this area with little fear of the law. Pagan, who lives in the village of San Remigio close to the strait, observed the devastating effect that these activities were having on the region’s wildlife, and decided to take action. He spent more than ten years leading a local sea ranger patrol in the Strait, apprehending illegal fishers and cleaning up marine pollution in the area. In 2010, he caught an illegal fisherman using dynamite to kill animals. The man threw an explosive device into Pagal’s boat, intending to kill him, but luckily the device did not detonate.
However, on October 24, 2015, Pagal was shot by a hitman. The bullet tore through his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Although he now has to use a wheelchair to get around, Pagal has remained as committed to protecting his community’s waters as he ever was. He constantly asks his daughter to push his wheelchair out to the shore so he can keep watch for any signs of criminal activity in the Strait. Last year, marine conservation organization Oceana acknowledged his courage with an Ocean Heroes Award, with Oceana Philippines vice president Gloria Ramos stating that “Norlan’s life story should be made into a movie to galvanize action from both enforcers and citizens.” Pagal described the honor as a great surprise, and said, “Oceana recognising me as a hero makes me, my family, my neighbors and my ancestors proud.” He expressed his hope that Tañon Strait will always have “abundant fish, abundant shellfish, and abundant seaweed,” and also said, “I’m not afraid to continue my advocacy. Even if I lose my life, what’s important is that our children will see that it’s not a lost cause.”
Riki Ott is a marine biologist and toxicologist with extensive experience in raising awareness about the dangers of oil spills. In 1989, Ott was working in Cordova, Alaska, as part of a commercial fishing operation, when she witnessed the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in the nearby Prince William Sound. The spill ruined Cordova’s economy, destroyed vast areas of the region’s marine habitats, and caused serious health problems for many local people. She said, “I recall with stark clarity the shock of flying over the tanker wreck on March 24, 1989, and seeing the black inky stain of some 11 to 33 million gallons of oil on the water. I made a personal vow that day to work upstream of oil spills to help our nation transition off fossil fuels.”