“My soul is full of longing

for the secrets of the sea,

And the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.”

–H W Longfellow

The oceans have been variously referred to as the ‘lungs of the planet’ and a ‘global sink’, signifying their importance, though the latter description is also a testimonial to man’s indifference. It is regrettably a little known fact that the ocean’s phytoplankton, single-celled marine plants, generate about half of the oxygen that we humans and other lifeforms breathe. In stark contrast, fuelled by our quest for rapid technologically-inspired advancement, we have been releasing billions of tons of anthropogenic carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only reason its environmental impact has not been as deeply felt as it should have been, is because nearly half of it has been continually absorbed by the oceans, thereby slowing down the process of climate change.

The oceans have always been central to the sustenance of life on earth and it is perhaps apt that the first appearance of life on earth nearly two to three billion years ago originated in the ocean. It is a sad commentary on human callousness that such a huge reservoir of living and non-living resources is being systematically stripped of its life-generating functions. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and their subsequent absorption by the oceans is dramatically increasing their acidity levels, which in turn is adversely affecting fragile marine ecosystems and organisms. Excessive burning of coal in unregulated power plants, boilers, steel production incinerators and cement plants is resulting in mercury pollution, which is transported in the ocean currents and finds its way back to us along the food chain, duly amplified. Land generated pollution in the form of solid waste, industrial effluents and agricultural nutrients have resulted in creating dead zones and causing colossal damage to marine habitat and coral reefs, which forms the ocean’s, and in turn the land’s, life-support system. Destructive fishing practices have wrought havoc on marine life, resulting in the depletion of over 70% of the world’s fish species as well as their natural habitats.

Amidst this human-inflicted carnage, one nation (Canada) stood up at the monumental Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on 08 June, 1992 to propose that the day be celebrated as the World Oceans Day. The objective was to generate awareness of the vital role the sea is playing in our well-being and the ruthless way in which humankind was repaying this kindness. Since then, the day’s celebration was coordinated internationally by two NGOs, The Ocean Project and World Ocean Network, till the UN formally embraced the concept in 2008.

The World Oceans Day theme for 2015 – 2016 is “Healthy Oceans, healthy planet”. Our oceans face a rising tide of threats to their health, from climate change to pollution to overfishing. These threats imperil the oceans’ ability to sustain our lives – threats that we alone have the power to stop. Organisations and individuals around the world are promoting prevention of plastic oceans pollution with events in their communities, special announcements, seminars and activities. However, apart from the theme for this year, even the next is most appropriate: “Together we have the power to protect the ocean”. The emphasis is on togetherness, with both governmental bodies and NGOs, as well as individuals, all working in unison to attain a much desired objective. Apart from imposing and enforcing curbs on damage-inflicting activities, the primary thrust should be to create awareness at all levels to generate the much-needed momentum for change. As the noted American oceanographer Sylvia Earle once observed, “The oceans deserve our respect and care, but you have to know something before you can care about it”.

Since times immemorial, man’s interest in the oceans has been restricted to fishing and trading. Here is a brief sampling of what we should never lose track of. The ocean is an endless supply of food and medicine, if only we learn to harvest it with care, decrying all destructive fishing practices like overfishing, ghost fishing, intensive fishing, bottom trawling and the so-called high-grading. The ocean facilitates the transportation and trading of goods but it should not in turn be subjected to pollution through oil spills, waste discharges and excessive noise generation which disrupts marine life.

The ocean is an endless source of energy and non-living resources, if only we learn to tap into it with care. The ocean is a regulator of climate change and recycler of the world’s carbon dioxide, if only we learn not to stretch it beyond its limits. The ocean, by virtue of circulating its multi-layered waters, performs the vital function of dispensing heat energy around the globe, if only we learn to curb the sources of inordinate heat which it is forced to absorb. The ocean is a major producer of life-sustaining oxygen, if only we learn to treat the phytoplankton which generates it with the care it deserves. It seems that the oceans have a lot to give and we have a lot to learn, but learn we must, if we don’t wish to disturb the life-engendering stability that the oceans have come to embody. In the words of Sylvia Earle again, “I hope for your help to explore and protect the wild ocean in ways that will restore the health and, in so doing, secure hope for humankind. Health to the ocean means health for us”.