The great Pacific garbage patch, ghost fishing, microplastics, starved seabirds, and noisy shipping lanes that affect migration. Where do we begin? We pollute and take advantage of the ocean and its inhabitants in a number of ways, from plastic, light, noise and chemical pollution, to over-fishing, unethical animal welfare and rising sea temperatures.
You might feel at a loss as to what you can do to help. But you don’t need to be a marine biologist or an avid diver to play a part in protecting the reefs and oceans. Whether you love snorkelling, free-diving, floating… or just visiting the beach, there’s a great deal we can act on, whilst being on land and miles away from reefs and oceanic habitats.
After some thorough research, and hearing the opinions of marine biologists that I’ve met on dive boats or at talks, I’ve put together a comprehensive list of tips that we can all act on, to help in protecting reef systems and oceans.
This is a heavy one, so buckle in.
1. Sustainable Seafood or Vegetarianism
There are a number of issues unsustainable fishing can cause, from overfishing (hugely depleted fish stocks, extremely bad for us and for other food chains), uncontrollable bycatch (other marine animals being caught/injured/killed, including endangered species) and the destruction of marine habitats from trawling and dredging nets.
Whilst vegetarianism is ideally the best option (particularly if other sources of protein are available) the next best thing we can do is to make sure we choose fish and seafood that has been ethically and sustainably sourced.
Look out for labels on packaging, signs at markets and restaurants that display:
Products with these logos have come from fisheries, farms and fishing boats that should be independently assessed to guarantee their sustainable or ethical methods, and the fish can be traced back to their source. For farmed fish like salmon or trout, also look for animal welfare logos, like the RSPCA assured symbol.
It’s not always clear…
Labelling for sustainable or responsibly sourced fish is not always completely clear and there’s room for improvement. Text like “Responsibly Sourced”, or “Dolphin Friendly”, might be present on things like tuna labels etc. but there’s a lot of ambiguity there, and fisheries are not always held accountable. ‘Dolphin friendly’ for example, refers to the equipment and practices being used, which are supposedly less likely to catch and ultimately kill dolphins. However this not a guarantee that no dolphins will be harmed, it just means techniques have been altered to attempt to minimise it…
For those of us in the UK, the MCS (Marine Conservation Society) have put together this useful guide for checking the status of your favourite fish, and whether you might want to consider swapping. Other countries will have their own regulatory bodies/councils, and if they don’t have one yet, maybe you could start one!
2. Reduce your plastic usage/waste
Whether at home or reducing plastic waste whilst travelling, it’s important that we minimise what has the potential to be swept out to sea. Reduce the amount of products you buy that are contained in plastic (e.g. choose loose fruit and veg), reuse containers for planting vegetables in your garden or on your windowsill and ensure that you carefully recycle, and reuse plastic whenever possible.
3. Work towards lowering your carbon footprint
Whilst we can work hard to keep plastic away from oceanic habitats, it will all be a lost cause unless we can make meaningful steps to stop climate change. Reef systems in particular are very vulnerable to an increase in sea temperature.
So we must work towards lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Use public transport more often, favour trains over planes, try and use sustainable energy in your home or business, adopt a more plant-based diet and shop local. Shopping locally helps to reduce the amount of planes and ships traversing the skies and sea, adding to noise and carbon dioxide pollution levels.
To truly succeed we need the help and support of our governments to support these acts. So use your vote where you can, for those who support your sustainability values. Societal and governmental change is slow progress, so the action of every individual counts. It really does.
4. Don’t Litter (+ pick up other litter if you can)
This doesn’t just apply to littering on the beach. Litter from the top of a mountain or the centre of a forest can work its way into water systems from heavy rainfall and flooding. Not only will this endanger waterway ecosystems, it will inevitably find its way out into the open ocean, polluting marine life and food chains (including our food chain).
Plastic bottles, bags, a lonely flip-flop, fishing nets or plastic fragments. Some trash may be accidental… but the majority of it is unfortunately intentionally discarded. It’s important that we have the willpower to pick up any litter at the beach/in the ocean, whether it’s ours or not. At the beach, I now carry a spare cotton bag to hold any plastic that I find.
Not all countries have the same access to recycling or safe waste disposal, and not all individuals have the same knowledge of plastic pollution. The ocean seems like the only place to discard things, where they think it will easily and safely be washed away. But as we all know this just isn’t the case. Wildlife can become trapped, suffocated and cruelly starved as plastic fills their stomach, and microplastics pollute food chains.
Awareness and educational projects are on the rise, and they are helping to teach people about how to responsibly discard their rubbish. But until governments and companies reduce plastic products, and provide easy options for recycling, plastic will continue to enter the ocean.
5. Take note of chemicals that you use and what goes down the drain
From household cleaners and beauty products to medicines. Suncream is another concoction of chemicals (particularly oxybenzone and benzophenone-2) that doesn’t belong in the ocean, so when snorkelling and swimming, aside from (wearing long-length clothing and a hat/bandana), make sure to buy ‘reef safe’ sunscreen.
Try and use more natural and organic products for cleaning your home and clothes, instead of harsh chemical products. Even flushed medicines/hormones can pose a threat to our waterways. Many pharmacies have a ‘take back’ scheme, where you can safely hand over expired or unneeded medicines, to stop them from entering our waterways.
Speaking of waterways…
6. Support Organic farming
Not only household products contribute to chemical water pollution. Farming methods including pesticides and herbicides enter the waterways and find their way to the ocean too. Organically farmed products have utilised organic or natural pest control or nutrients to help their plants grow or to rear their animals.
Rains and flooding easily transport farming chemicals into waterways which can directly damage aquatic plants and animals, or indirectly cause algae ‘blooms’ which take over habitats and block sunlight for other native plants or animals.
7. Responsible leisure activities
From being a responsible diver, boat owner or beachgoer, we must be considerate and respectful of marine life whilst enjoying the ocean. Support ethical wildlife encounters and tours, don’t touch wildlife, and don’t stand on corals whilst snorkelling.
Being in and around the ocean is one of the most relaxing and grounding experiences, we seek it out for holidays and to destress. It is up to us to do all we can to keep it as the tranquil and pure place that it is.
8. Avoid fast fashion
Perhaps an unsuspecting tip, of course, fast fashion is bad for the planet in that it creates excess clothing that quickly makes its way to landfills. But there’s also another problem… Many factories that produce the cheap clothing that we wear are based in developing countries or areas.
Chemical dyes and bleaches are released into waterways that soon make their way to the ocean, polluting water sources for people and animals along the way. It’s up to us to hold the companies that actively use these factories to account, from asking them to be transparent about their processing methods or boycotting them.
9. Support conservation projects
One great way to help the ocean and show support is to donate or volunteer your time to conservation charities and research programmes. Whether you have a favourite marine animal that you would like to donate monthly to, holding a small event to raise awareness and money for a certain cause, donating a small portion of your business sales, or volunteering for beach clean ups or other conservation work.
10. Learn, Talk & Share
As with so many global issues. One of the best things we can do is to educate ourselves about ocean conservation, and talk and share what we learn with others. It needs to stay at the forefront of our minds, we shouldn’t shy away from the realities or the science.
Don’t be afraid to ask a restaurant how their fish was caught, don’t feel strange being that person at the beach picking up plastic. Until we normalise these behaviours, change will never occur.
Phew, this was a very comprehensive list, but I’m sure there’s lots more that we can do and still so much to discover and learn about. Start with increasing your awareness about the issues. Learning about the statistics and being exposed to the heartbreaking imagery and stories will increase your determination, and the motivation to act will come easily.