This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Ocean Views blog.
During this bruising presidential campaign, there was an eerie sense that we had moved into a post-truth world, with fake news circulating on Facebook and the veracity of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump continually called into question. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries just declared “post-truth” its 2016 international Word of the Year.
But for me personally, facts really matter. It’s why I’m a scientist.
This week Ocean Conservancy is releasing its yearly data report highlighting the efforts of the nearly 650,000 dedicated volunteers who removed over 12 million pounds of trash from beaches and waterways around the world during the recent International Coastal Cleanup. The release of these data is a great opportunity to celebrate the success of this event, but let’s also use this occasion to highlight the fact that much more needs to be done if society is ever going to rid the ocean of trash. It’s time to shift the emphasis from cleaning up to stopping trash from ever reaching our coasts and waterways in the first place.
Accomplishing trash free seas can’t be done by any one sector of society, but individuals must first embrace their responsibility to keep our ocean clean. Ocean Conservancy data show that personal behavior is behind much of the trash found on our coasts and in our oceans and waterways. Topping the list each September are cigarette butts, bottles, cans, caps, bags, food wrappers and cutlery, much of this left behind by careless beachgoers. Strange finds, like mattresses, car parts and even a loaded handgun, show that many still view the natural world as an acceptable place to dump unwanted possessions. The vast amount of trash we collect each year highlights the need for a much greater respect of our natural places and all that they provide to our communities and economies.
Smart fisheries management is a great place to start a conversation about putting the ocean at the center of the world’s biggest challenges. This is because the most profitable type of fishing is sustainable fishing – better management helps fishermen and the ocean at the same time.
Sustainable fishing means keeping enough fish in the water to reproduce and ensure a bountiful catch in the future. It’s a balancing act, but sustainable fisheries are in everyone’s best interest – from fishermen to distributors to gear manufacturers to retailers to consumers. If you’re a fisherman and you want to pass on your traditions to the next generation, or you want to be able to make good money 10 years from now, the most profitable way to fish is sustainably.
Unfortunately, overfishing due to poor fisheries management remains a global problem that threatens ecosystem health and human survival. For example, without enough forage fish—small fish like anchovies, sardines, and squid—the larger predators, like tuna, that feed on them will start to disappear as well.
That matters because we are facing a future with 9 billion people on the planet, and with that future comes huge concerns for food security.
I recently started writing about ocean views over at the National Geographic News Watch blog. My first post explores the trash we found during this year’s International Coastal Cleanup and what we learned during a subsequent research project dubbed “Trashlab.” As you might expect, the things we leave behind on the beach reveal a lot about our society as a whole. As I write in my post:
Bags from some of the beaches were bursting with bottles and cans of every variety. Beaches in the more rural northern portion of Santa Cruz County are well known by locals as “party beaches” and the trash left behind certainly confirms it. Beer is the clear beverage of choice but interestingly, brews range from the cheapest of swill to the finest of local microbrews. It appears that beer drinkers are equal-opportunity litterers. I expected beaches in the more populated areas, frequented by families and tourists might be cleaner, but only the nature of debris, not quantity, changed. Food wrappers of all types – from fast food takeout containers to every possible variety of potato chips, cracker, candy and other snack food were plentiful. It was clear – folks don’t come to the beach to eat health food.
After we removed and weighed these and the other obvious items, a mass of unidentifiable junk, including large amounts of plastic fragments, remained. The conclusion was apparent: pretty much anything you can imagine will, unfortunately, be found on the beach.
Today, Enric Sala, National Geographic explorer-in-residence and Ocean Conservancy board member, writes on the importance of these underwater parks to California’s ecology and economy. Writing in the National Geographic NewsWatch blog, Sala notes that protection in Cabo Pulmo National Park in Baja California, Mexico, resulted in increases in fish size and quantity “more than four-fold with a decade of protection.” These results bode well for California. He continues:
A June 6 decision to implement marine protected areas in northern California establishes the final piece of the state’s network of marine protected areas spanning the length of its 1,100-mile coast. This network includes ecological hot spots like the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes, Monterey Bay and La Jolla reef. A pilot system of ocean protected areas established at the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast in 2003 is already resulting in more and bigger lobsters and healthier kelp forests.
Over time, the rewards will continue to multiply. And not just for the fish. Marine protected areas are great for kayakers, divers, bird-watchers, surfers and for fishermen. By protecting areas that fish, sea otters, birds and other ocean wildlife need to feed and breed, sea life can recover. And because fish don’t understand boundary lines, fishermen working in nearby waters reap the benefits too. They are able to catch more and bigger fish than in areas that don’t neighbor reserves.
Let me put it into economic terms: We have historically treated the ocean like a debit account where we keep making withdrawals and never make a deposit. Marine protected areas convert key areas of the ocean into savings accounts. By safeguarding the principal, these areas provide returns for us in terms of social, economic and ecological benefits. And because bigger, older fish have more babies, providing refuge for some of these “big mommas” allows us to reap the benefits of compound interest.