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Sink or Swim

An illustration of a brilliant blue ocean. The text reads "Sink or Swim?".

Written by Alexandra Nitoiu
Illustrated by Prima Zhao

When you think of climate change, you likely think of glaciers melting, stranded polar bears, or ocean levels rising. It’s pretty clear that rising sea levels threaten to plunge us all underwater, but why should we care about the other stuff, like ocean acidification?

You might scoff at the idea of straws hurting turtles, or be tempted to think that you don’t depend on the ocean very much—but you’d be very wrong. If you enjoy breathing on a daily basis, then you’re partly relying on phytoplankton, microscopic marine algae. Through photosynthesis they produce at least half of the world’s oxygen, and they convert carbon dioxide to sugar. Phytoplankton levels are already on the decline, meaning that they can absorb less carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change and as a results they’re killed off faster. Additionally, many other organisms depend on phytoplankton as a food source, so eventually animals higher up on the food chain will also be affected. If this notion brings to mind seafood, you’re not alone.

Global consumption of seafood varies greatly, although Asian and Pacific countries tend to rely more on seafood as a food source. For example, Canada’s consumption of seafood in 2013 was about average at 22.52 kg per capita, while Japan’s was 48.6 kg and Iceland’s was a whopping 91.92 kg! Obviously, it would be a great loss to us all if the oceans warmed and became so toxic that seafood became an expensive luxury. But water is much harder to regulate than land is, so overfishing and pollution are much too easy to get away with, even on coastlines where they are forbidden. And while the oceans are certainly vast, they are also interconnected, so once trash or toxins are released, there’s no way of knowing where they might end up.

Chances are that your interactions with these vast bodies of water don’t stop with occasionally eating sushi: many people’s careers and identities are tightly intertwined with that of the oceans. Look no farther than home – as populations rise, so too does the demand for seafood, and as the world’s 8th largest fish and seafood exporter in 2015, it would be an understatement that Canada is invested in the well-being of the ocean. 80,000 jobs and $6.0 billion of exports are on the line! That’s just for one market in one country, so imagine how much the global economy depends on the success of the oceans. Science also has to thank the biodiversity in oceans for the discovery of certain substances, like those isolated from Tectitethya crypta (a sponge) that contributed to the development of medicines to treat HIV, herpes, and even leukemia. Even GFP—a fluorescent protein used very often in labs—was isolated from a jellyfish.

Oceans are also incredibly important in regulating climate patterns: the heating and cooling of water as it circulates all over the globe is responsible for the weather differences between the Northern and Southern hemisphere and coastal vs inland areas. It also feeds climate patterns such as El Nino and the Gulf stream, and controls extreme weather phenomena such as hurricanes. The cold meltwater from the poles may affect these patterns by slowing down the circulation of water and consequently minimizing the equalizing effect that the ocean has on climate.

There is clearly no shortage of reasons for why you should care about the oceans, and why protecting them should be a global priority. Taking care of what we’ve already got is much easier than trying to fix everything once it’s broken. That being said, the oceans can only help us combat global warming if we fight for them as much as they fight for us.