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Our Oceans' Future: WHO CARES?

By Alex Brylske

As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Few divers, or anyone who ventures from a beach or harbor, would dispute the conclusion that our oceans are in trouble. And befitting the vast size of the sea, bringing them back to a reasonable state of health is an enormous undertaking. But what many fail to understand about marine conservation is that it involves more than technical know-how. In fact, all of the science and technology in existence are worthless without the public's support and political will to address the problem. It's the nature of any democracy.

Furthermore, discussing marine conservation with divers is preaching to the choir. Almost no other group has more to lose by the continued decline of the oceans, or more to gain in their reversal of fortune. But divers are only a very tiny segment of the general population; and, like it or not, unless we're able to marshal the support of a sizable number of voters, little is likely to happen except a few feel-good beach cleanups and a plethora of banners with ocean-friendly slogans.

Moreover, any effective action to change the state of the oceans must be preceded with a complete analysis of the problem. Such an analysis involves a close examination of the causes and potential solutions. But in a battle as massive and complex as protecting 70-plus percent of our planet, part of the analysis must include public opinion. Exactly what does John Q. Public understand and feel about the ocean? And I don't mean just divers, people who live in coastal states or those who own boats. I'm talking about everyone from Oshkosh to Orlando and Lincoln to Long Beach. For without an answer to this fundamental question, any attempt at broad-based, long-term solutions regarding marine conservation is doomed to failure.

Fortunately, there are some who are exploring the public's perception of the ocean and its plight. One such entity is The Ocean Project, a collaborative initiative among the nation's aquaria, zoos, science, technology and natural history museums. Together these institutions reach more than 100 million people each year. Recognizing that the single greatest impediment to healthy marine and coastal regions is the public's lack of awareness, the Ocean Project's goal is simple yet ambitious: To create a lasting, measurable, top-of-mind awareness of the importance, value and sensitivity of the oceans.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the Ocean Project was commissioning the most comprehensive national poll ever conducted on ocean awareness. The goal was to better understand what the public knows about the marine environment, why they think about the oceans the way they do, and, most importantly, to identify gaps in public awareness about ocean conservation.

And the Survey Says…

One conclusion of the report wasn't at all surprising, and that's the role aquaria, zoos and museums can play in educating the public about the importance of oceans. Each year, one in three Americans visit these institutions. But just because the potential exists to increase public awareness doesn't mean that it's happening. An equally telling conclusion from the survey is that Americans are generally unaware of the threats to the ocean, and, what's more, they greatly underestimate their own role in the declining health of the
marine realm.

Furthermore, while the public values the ocean for its recreational and emotional aspects, its understanding of exactly why we need the ocean is superficial. Consequently, while many expressed an emotional connection to the sea, when the rubber meets the road, awareness and concerns about ocean health are low. Let's take a look at some of the details.

The Knowledge Gap

At best, Americans possess a superficial knowledge of the oceans. On the surface, the public understands at some basic level that the oceans are vital to life on earth, and that we need to protect them. Three-fourths of Americans strongly agree that the health of the oceans is essential to human survival. But that's about as far as their knowledge goes. There's little understanding of exactly why the oceans are important. In fact, when asked five basic questions about the function of the oceans, 69 percent could answer no more than two of the questions correctly. For example, many are unaware of the specific functions of the oceans. Only six in 10 (60 percent) of Americans know that the climate, and amount of rainfall on earth, are regulated more by the oceans than by the rotation of the earth. Only about four in 10 (39 percent) know that more plant and animal life are found in the oceans than on land. And only about two in 10 (21 percent) know that oceans produce more of earth's oxygen than forests. Finally, 54 percent believe that the extinction of plant and animal life in the oceans is caused mainly by humans, rather than, as is the case, by a combination of human and natural causes.

Of perhaps even greater concern is that so few recognize their own part in damaging the health of the oceans. When asked to choose the main source of ocean pollution among three sources, only 14 percent of Americans selected the correct answer, "runoff from yards, pavement, and farms." Most (66 percent) chose "waste dumped by industry," and 16 percent believe most pollution is from trash and litter washed into the oceans from beaches.

While Americans may not have a full understanding of the functions of the oceans, the majority at least believes that they're vulnerable and can be damaged by humans. Few people buy into the old fallacy that the sea is too vast to be harmed. A full 80 percent of Americans reject the idea that the oceans are so large, it is unlikely that humans will cause lasting damage to them. In fact, a majority (56 percent) disagrees strongly with this idea. Equally encouraging is that 81 percent reject the idea that we don't need to worry about the health of the oceans because we'll develop new technologies to keep them clean (55 percent disagree strongly). And more than seven in 10 (72 percent) disagree that the oceans are able to clean themselves. But here's the rub: Almost half of all Americans (45 percent) believe that "what I do in my life doesn't impact ocean health much at all." Thus, it's clear that, to the public, industry is the reason for the decline of the oceans, not what individuals do. The reality is that almost 80 percent of all marine pollution is caused by runoff or discharge from land and airborne emissions. And the major cause of that pollution is what you and I, not industry, dump into sewers and storm drains, and emissions from the cars we drive. As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

More bad news is that, while the problem is recognized, it's not perceived as urgent. According to the survey, the oceans simply are not viewed to be in immediate danger, and the need for protective action is not readily
apparent. To a great degree, this is
because of one of the biggest impediments to ocean conservation. On land, it's easy to see signs of decline; in the ocean, unless you're a diver, it's almost impossible for most to tell that something's wrong until it's a serious and immediate concern. So, as few of us have an intimate relationship with the sea, what's out of sight is also out of mind. As the survey showed, the public even admits this. When asked about the health of the open, deep oceans and of coastal waters and beaches, close to half the public (46 percent) reported that they did not know enough about the open oceans to give an opinion, and slightly more than a quarter (27 percent) said so for coastal waters. Overall, nearly four in 10 Americans (39 percent) rated the health of coastal waters and ocean beaches as "only fair," a quarter (25 percent) said they are good or excellent, and only about one in 10 (11 percent) said poor.

The upshot from this lack of awareness is that most Americans believe that damage to the oceans is a second-tier environmental problem when compared with other concerns. Only about two in 10 (19 percent) report that damage being done to the open, deep oceans is an extremely serious problem, a number that raises to only 24 percent when asked about coastal waters. Exactly what's seen as more serious threats to our environment? Thirty-one percent cite air pollution, while 36 percent say it's water pollution and toxic waste. Americans prioritize ocean conservation at the same level as overconsumption of resources. Of the issues they were asked to consider, only species extinction (23 percent) and global climate change (21 percent) ranked lower than problems facing the oceans.

The Good News

In all the recent focus on public awareness, there are also some hopeful signs. Another marine advocacy and information group affiliated with the Pew Charitable Trust, Seaweb, studied attitudes toward establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). A growing consensus among marine experts is that the most important and effective step that we can take in marine conservation is setting aside 10-20 percent of the sea as fully protected, no-take reserves (or what many are now calling "marine wilderness areas"). Clearly, to make this ambitious goal a reality will require public support. Perhaps the best news of all is that there appears to be widespread support for such a policy. Here's what Seaweb found out. First, 87 percent of those surveyed considered the health of the ocean "somewhat to very important" (almost 60 percent said "very"). And almost six in 10 viewed the health of the oceans as negative (although, alarmingly, more than one-fourth responded that ocean health was good to excellent).

Again, the Seaweb survey pointed out the lack of understanding of marine pollution. For example, while 83 percent rated the relatively inconsequential problem of oil spills as a "very serious" threat to the oceans, fewer than half (48 percent) felt that the enormous problem of commercial overfishing was as serious. Similarly, less than half rated the serious decline of coral reefs as "very serious." As might be expected, more rated as "very serious" contaminated seafood and trash on beaches than destructive fishing practices. (A primary reason for the rapid disappearance of coral reefs is fishing with explosives; and an area more than twice the size of the United States is dredged each year, often destroying enormous expanses of sensitive sea bottom.)

Yet the most important message from Seaweb's effort is the public's resounding support for ocean protection. More than nine out of 10 agreed that because "no one owns the sea, we have the responsibility to preserve it and it is appropriate to restrict the activities of individuals and companies in the ocean." The sad news is that only half of the respondents knew that the United States even has marine sanctuaries. But when they were informed that such protected areas exist, 75 percent supported an increase on restrictions within them. Specifically, respondents supporting outlawing activities that result in pollution, deplete marine life or damage important habitat (although more than 70 percent thought that diving and snorkeling should be allowed). More than 60 percent believe more sanctuaries should be established, while only 3 percent thought that we have too many.

What Divers Can Do

It seems that the take-home message is quite clear: While Americans lack a fundamental understanding of how the oceans operate, and exactly why they're so important, they nonetheless recognize and support ocean conservation. Therefore, divers can serve an important role as ambassadors of the ocean, and as conduits for information. First, encourage your family and friends to try diving or snorkeling. The best way to create an ocean advocate is to get someone to put on a mask. But realistically, not everyone, and not even a majority, will go to that length. Fortunately, increasing one's knowledge and appreciation of the ocean doesn't require getting wet. There are lots of resources available to help you do
an effective job at getting the message out to the uninformed, but supportive, masses whose only association with the marine life might be their next visit to a seafood restaurant.

Every diver can, and should, become an ocean educator. You don't even need to be a diving instructor, because you're not teaching folks how to dive; only informing them about what they need and want to know about. All you need are some resources (many of which are contained in the sidebar) and a desire to help spread the word. Volunteer to talk at your kid's school, contact civic organizations, or just be prepared to add some factual insight to the next discussion you're involved in about the plight of the oceans. As these recent public opinion polls have shown, people are receptive to the message of ocean conservation, they just don't understand why. A Chinese proverb tells us that a trip of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. It also begins with justone word.