Water

4 Reasons to Give Thanks to Our Oceans (Without Them We're Screwed)

Oceans are essential to our lives, but the evidence strongly suggests we take them for granted way too much.

Thanksgiving is a good thing. I'm not talking about the more dubious aspects of the holiday, what with the industrial turkey farms, and the genetically engineered corn, and the stories of martyric pilgrims and murderous Indians (or, more likely, the other way around) coming together to share a feast before they slaughtered one another. That stuff is messed up.

At the core, it's the simple eponymous value of Thanksgiving that is important: the giving of thanks. Our world moves quickly these days, and the distance between our day-to-day existence and the processes that support our elevated lifestyles have never been greater. It's important to take some time now and again to reconnect and to identify the foundations and sacrifices involved in the simple things, like the food on our table, the air in our lungs, the snow on the mountaintops, and soft, warm breezes on our shoulders.

In honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, I'd like to offer acknowledgement and gratitude for the essential role that the ocean has plays in the core components of our lives and our comfort.

1. We give thanks for the air we breathe.

The yin-and-yang balance of plant and animal life on Earth is manifest in many ways, but perhaps none quite as poetically as it is in our breath. As we all learned in elementary school, while animals absorb oxygen and emit carbon dioxide as waste, plants do the opposite, soaking up CO2 and enriching our atmosphere with oxygen. Together, we perpetuate a balanced system that allows for the coexistence and further evolution of all of Earth's organisms.

What is somewhat less well-known is that the army of plants we assume to be doing the work of scrubbing our exhaled CO2 out of our breathing space -- the trees in our towns and cities, the grass in our fields, even the vast forests of the boreal and the equatorial regions -- are really more like the ceremonial guard than the actual workhorse infantry. In actuality, between 70 and 80 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced not by our neighborly terrestrial trees, ferns and grasses, but rather by algae, phytoplankton and other marine plants in our oceans.

It's interesting to think about what could happen to our atmosphere and to our ability to exist as human beings if our oceans continue to sicken. Current trends indicate a general decrease in large, complex organisms in favor of what certain doom-and-gloom (albeit seemingly quite accurate) scientific papers are referring to as "the rise of slime" -- an ocean picked clean of predators, where the dominant populations are simple organisms such as jellyfish and worms. The marine plants of today have evolved in a balanced kinship with co-habiting marine animals, just as the animals of the land have evolved alongside terrestrial plants. Without bees, for example, there would be no need for flowers... and without flowers, no sustenance for bees. Surely there are similar symbiotic bonds among oceanic plants and animals. What might the decline of complex aquatic life mean for the ocean's ability to cleanse the air of carbon dioxide and to provide oxygen for us to breathe?

2. We give thanks for the food that sustains us.

The productive nature of the ocean is, while not exactly boundless, bountiful in the extreme. We catch, capture and harvest millions of tons of food from our oceans every year. While some of this is taken in a sustainable and responsible manner, a dangerously large portion is not. This is a significant challenge to our future as a global society, as illegal and unsustainable fishing practices threaten the ocean's ability to sustain us.

Estimates suggest that fish provide roughly 40 percent of the total protein for as much as two-thirds of the world's population, and that between one and two billion people -- primarily in coastal areas of Asia -- rely on fish as their primary protein source. Unfortunately, problems like overfishing, hazardous aquaculture operations, and unacceptable bycatch levels continue to compromise the ocean's ability to provide sustenance for these vulnerable demographics. The ocean's resources are tremendous, to be sure, but if we do not address the manner in which we manage fish populations, fishing practices and other critical issues, we run the risk of condemning millions of people to lives dominated by hunger and scarcity.

3. We give thanks for support in times of trouble.

There are still a few people out there denying that anthropogenic factors affect our climate. These individuals, known as climate change skeptics, maintain that there are no definitive links between human influences (pollution, deforestation, etc.) and the worrying climactic shift we are witnessing on a global scale. I don't really know how else to put this, so I'm just going to say it bluntly. These people are wrong.

Human beings are powerful creatures. We have built enormous, interconnected mechanized societies, replete with steel-shod metropolises and thousand-mile freeways lain from billions of tons of concrete. Every day, we create millions of lights in the darkness and generate cool air in countless sun-stroked homes. For better or for worse, we have learned to alter our environment and to shape this planet to our will. There is, however, a price to pay for our industriousness -- the fossil fuels that we've burnt to power our dreams of progress are now choking our atmosphere, restricting sunlight and playing hell with the ice caps. Our world is changing, to be sure -- but it would be changing a lot faster and we would be in a great deal more trouble if the ocean didn't have our back.

A great deal of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere is absorbed by what are known as "carbon sinks" -- natural repositories that, through various intrinsic processes and features, strip carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it. While there are numerous examples of active carbon sinks, the ocean is the largest carbon sink on Earth. It is estimated that somewhere around one-third of all human-based carbon emissions are absorbed by the ocean. We're in dire straits when it comes to climate change and the ongoing production of greenhouse gases, but the ocean is a mighty and indispensable ally in our struggle to overcome our fossil fuel addiction.

4. We give thanks for mercy and forgiveness.

In spite of all the gifts the ocean bestows upon us, we tend to treat it pretty shabbily. Up until the 1970s, it was legal to dump industrial, nuclear and other toxic wastes into the oceans, and we happily did so to the tune of millions of tons every year. Although this practice is now technically illegal, ocean dumping still occurs.

Beyond the intentional disposal of waste, we also barrage the ocean with countless pounds of littered plastics, discarded on roadsides across the planet. Rains lift and carry plastics with them as they congregate in drains and gutters, flowing down to rejoin the oceans that spawned them. Our dependency on plastics (and associated our tendency to discard them the instant they have performed their use) has led to vast swathes of litter choking our oceans. Horrors like the "garbage patch" in the North Pacific Gyre -- a vast area seething with plastic bags, six-pack rings and trillions upon trillions of nurdles -- continue to spread every day. Birds and aquatic mammals literally starve to death with full bellies, their distended guts thick with indigestible plastic waste. Chemical run-off from farms triggers hypoxia in deep water, giving rise to dead zones that extinguish life from enormous tracts of previously productive seabed. Our abuse of the ocean is staggering in scope.

Yet in the face of it all, the ocean manages to struggle on, providing us with food and oxygen, and doing its part to stabilize the climate. Perhaps this is the most important reason to give thanks to the ocean -- for forgiving us our human foibles and soldiering on alongside us as we grow and learn. It is critical, though, that we do not allow these lessons to escape us unheeded -- the ocean's capacity is not limitless, and every day that we do not work to repair the damage we have done is a day that we push closer to the brink of real disaster.

So today we celebrate. Eat, drink, be merry. Watch football. Enjoy (and endure) family. But let's not forget what this is really all about, because when it's over, we have work to do.

Casson Trenor is senior markets campaigner with Greenpeace USA, where he spearheads efforts to hold restaurants and supermarkets accountable for their seafood sustainability practices and to help educate the public about the global fisheries crisis. He is the author of Sustainable Sushi.