Dr Easkey Britton is a surfer and blue health researcher with the INCLUSEA project. Her work explores the relationship between people and sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. She currently resides in Donegal, Ireland. (www.inclusea.eu)
It’s been a tough year for the ocean.The Earth has surpassed one degree Celsius of warming, a trend which continues rise. The week before writing this the world learned that one of Antarctica’s most important ice shelfs that holds back the so-called ‘Doomsday Glacier’ is fracturing. If it breaks apart, the melting glacier could increase sea level rise by as much as 25%, potentially within the next decade.
Coming to the end of one of the most challenging years of multiple, interconnected crises for humanity and the planet, I don’t want to focus on all that went wrong. I want to celebrate. Dr. Nancy Knowlton, head of Marine Science at the Smithsonian, says it is time to ‘move beyond the obituaries in marine conservation’. Looking back over this last year, I’ve seen how a new narrative for the ocean is emerging, where the ocean has become the hero of the story. Climate policy expert and marine biologist Dr Ayana Johnson argues, ‘we need to flip the script from seeing the ocean as this victim of overfishing, pollution, and warming to seeing it also as the hero when it comes to climate solutions.
The following are some of the key successes and opportunities for the ocean that I want to celebrate.
- A new narrative for the ocean — The ocean is finally being recognised as the hero of the story, with 2021 kicking off the The United Nations (UN) ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’. The ocean took centre-stage as the life force of planet Earth during the COP26 climate talks. And this year saw an increase in coverage of ocean environmental issues in mainstream media. All of this is built on the momentum of global grassroots ocean activism, where the key message is the need to recognise our interdependence with the ocean, that we are ocean.
- 2021 was the year of ocean activism. Diverse groups coming together with a shared love for the ocean. There are too many hugely successful community-led campaigns to mention but here are just a few: #TeamSeas, a crowdfunding campaign with the goal to raise $30million to remove 30 million pounds of trash from rivers, beaches and oceans spearheaded by Youtubers and thousands of creators; Sea7 an ocean activist training camp initiated by B-Corp certified company Finisterre in Cornwall that culminated in a paddle-out protest to highlight the importance of ocean health during the G7 talks; Save the Waves #1000Waves campaign to protect 1000 surf ecosystems by 2030; Surfers Against Sewage #MillionMileClean saw ocean activists clean over a million miles of UK coastline and waterways, reconnecting communities with their blue spaces. We Are One Ocean, a campaign by the World Surfing League, the professional body of surfing, delivering one million signatures to the UN Biodiversity Convention, calling on world leaders to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030; Expedia responded to public pressure and confirmed they will no longer sell holiday packages that include activities involving captive whales and dolphins; Under pressure from the success of the Fight for the Bight campaign, Equinor pulled out of the Great Australia Bight, abandoning plans to drill.
- Polluters are Losing. It was a bad year for big oil. Friends of the Earth Netherlands won a landmark court case against oil giant Shell, who were ordered to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, sending shock waves through the big oil industry. The environmental campaign group released a D.I.Y manual titled, How We Defeated Shell. Shell also withdrew from the Cambo North Sea oilfield near the Shetland Islands, and in Aotearoa New-Zealand the Supreme Court put a stop to deep seabed mining in the South Taranaki Bight.
- The Reuse Revolution – Under mounting public pressure, governments are tackling the ocean pollution crisis and shifting towards circular systems based on reuse, refill and repair. Austria introduced binding and enforceable reuse targets in their Waste Management Act with many countries across Europe following suit with similar laws. The Global South is leading the way with Chile introducing a plastic regulation bill in 2021, and India, where traditional reuse systems such as the ‘Dabbawala’ system were hugely successful in plastic-free societies, is prohibiting single-use plastics from June 2022. We now need to ensure a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty that will set the framework to reduce plastic production and consumption into the future.
- We are one ocean – 2021 saw the unprecedented creation of a ‘mega’ marine protected area (MPA) in the Pacific with Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica agreeing to join and extend their marine reserves to form the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, covering an area of 500,000 square kilometres. This is the first time countries with connecting maritime borders joined up to create a public policy, hopefully encouraging other nations to follow their lead towards the global goal of protecting 30% of our ocean by 2030.
- Global Blue New Deal – I first heard about the ‘Blue New Deal’ from Ayana Johnson, who has successfully advocated for greater inclusion of ocean climate policy and ocean justice in the USA’s Green New Deal. The concept has gained global momentum and during the World Ocean Week last June, along with the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, the Youth Advisory Council shared the Global Blue New Deal emphasising the importance of intergenerational climate justice and the importance of the role of the ocean for a low carbon future.
- Restoration and regeneration – recognising the multiplicity of ecosystem benefits that come from restoring marine habitats and species. For example, the recovery of sea otters leads to the recovery of sea grasses, providing nursery grounds for marine species and ‘carbon sinks’; slowing vessels to reduce ship strikes with whales reduces greenhouse gas emissions and underwater noise pollution. Replanting mangroves and restoring coastal wetland habitats helps create ‘blue carbon ecosystems — Sea grasses, mangroves, tidal marshes might only cover only 0.2% of the ocean surface, but they store as much as 50% of all the carbon.
- New collaborations across science, policy and practice. To date, the UN Ocean Decade list over 360 endorsed ocean actions, inspiring examples of the importance of engaging in collective actions for innovative solutions. For example, Surfstainable Community and Citizens of Surf engage water sports communities for science-in-action; Save the Waves launched an app to crowdsource key data on the most pressing issues facing coastal communities; Blue Symbiosis is a project converting oil and gas infrastructure into multi-species restorative seaweed aquaculture sites; Animal-Borne Ocean Sensors is creating a vision for the ocean through new eyes, through the deployment of sensors on marine mammals that will contribute data to the Global Ocean Observing System in hard-to-reach parts of the ocean. Other ocean start-ups are innovating ocean solutions in creative and impactful ways, such as Sway — combatting plastic pollution by replacing single-use plastics with packaging made for seaweed.
- Blue Health – Redefining humanity’s relationship with the ocean by rethinking and renewing our ocean connection. Since the start of the pandemic the number of people participating in ocean related watersports and activities has exploded. In a study by Surfers Against Sewage in the UK it’s estimated that this brings physical and mental health benefits of up to £20.2 billion annually. A pan-European research study, Blue Health, concluded that water environments are the most psychologically restorative of all environments. We need a thriving ocean to thrive and be well.
- An ocean of love. What runs through all of these victories and opportunities is love. As Freediver and ocean activist Hanli Prinsloo says, ‘those who care, win.’ Now is the time to open our hearts. By celebrating these ocean solutions we remake the ocean as hero, we remember we are ocean and by learning from each other we can create a wave of change, all of us, together.
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