Humanity threatens every aspect of ocean life

Illustration of polluted ocean
Olivia Staser/Staff

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I remember traveling as a family during our summer vacations to our local beaches in Northern California. I would hold my sister’s hand and run toward the ocean, but as soon as the water touched our toes, we would run back to shore. On days when the water was not too cold to touch, my sister and I would stand ankle-deep in the water and watch the waves crash onto the shore. The summer days at the beach gave my family time to step away from our hectic lives and spend quality time with each other.

As time progressed, our family started to see more people who sought to experience the same joy our family felt, and unfortunately, more people means more food; more food means more trash; more trash means more pollution in the oceans. There are about 8 million metric tons of plastic products, such as grocery bags, bottles, straws and containers dumped into oceans every year. Not only are there millions of plastic particles floating around our beautiful beaches, but humans are causing the oceans to become more acidic by burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a fuel source formed by burning coal, oil and natural gases for power. If we do not stop our current actions and make more eco-friendly changes, the world as we know it will not exist.

So how does ocean acidification work? Fossil fuels are an enormous problem not only for the air conditions we breathe, but it also causes issues within our oceans. The oceans absorb a quarter of all the carbon dioxide emissions produced, resulting in a decrease in pH that leads to acidification. Acidification is when carbon dioxide combines with ocean water and creates more acidic conditions due to more hydrogen atoms being separated from the carbon. The decrease in pH causes many issues within the structures in the oceans, such as coral, because the lower pH creates less abundant carbonate ions to build these structures. The decrease in pH also threatens aquatic life and the availability of necessary habitats.

The smaller organisms are more directly affected by the pH differences than the larger animals. Animals that rely on creating shells or the structures of coral have difficulty building their calcium carbonate, leading to smaller and weaker shells due to the increase of acidic conditions. But if the smaller organisms start to disappear, the larger animals will not be far behind. About 2 billion people rely on the ocean for their source of protein in their diets. If these facts do not concern you, the increase of carbon dioxide causes the planet to warm, which leads glaciers and ice caps to melt and results in the flooding of coastal areas that people call home.

As humans, we have created the problem of climate change due to burning fossil fuels, industrial agriculture and deforestation, which all release carbon dioxide and thus raise the temperature of the Earth. Overall, ocean acidification is threatening biodiversity, fisheries, food security, tourism and the global economy. Not only will these issues affect animals living in the ocean, but it will eventually affect humans. We are part of the food chain, and a decreasing biodiversity and food security in the oceans will profoundly impact our lives. 

There are, however, ways you can help keep our oceans healthy. First off, we have to reduce our carbon footprint. You can do this by driving less, conserving water, eating less meat and switching to clean energy resources, such as solar panels or energy-saving lightbulbs. Next, one of the most critical steps is to buy fewer things. It is essential to strive for zero waste, including items you can reuse, compost and recycle — crucially, this also includes refusing single-use products. The essential part of going zero waste is to recognize simple changes in your life that can benefit the Earth. It is up to the people who created the problem to fix it. Are you up for the challenge?

Gabriella Schulz is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at San José State University and working as a teacher’s assistant in biostatistics.