Tuesday, June 8 — the United Nations’ World Ocean Day — is forecast to be a scorcher in Ottawa. And I have to admit, thoughts of “ocean” send my mind to the beaches of New Jersey, where I’ve spent many happy days with my family: playing in the waves, relaxing on the fine sand, and watching the dolphins parade by, out beyond the swimmers.
Our relationship with the ocean is as varied as our individual circumstances.
For coastal Canadians, it is a constant presence — the source of their livelihood, sustenance, and recreation; a reminder of nature’s beauty, mystery, and power, and a cultural touchstone for stories, films, and songs.
For inlanders, the ocean is a distant reality, perhaps a place of holidays and memories, and a source of seafood for our supper table. Most of us live on rivers or lakes that feed the great oceans like arteries bringing blood to the heart.
However, we also have a more intimate connection that we tend to ignore. As humans, we survive through the constant work of the Earth’s oceans, which supply nearly half the oxygen we breathe and absorb nearly a quarter of the carbon dioxide we produce, while also regulating the water cycle and other climatic conditions.
Like the rest of our natural world, the oceans are sorely stressed. Acidification, plastics and other pollution, overfishing, and destruction of marine habitats are having deleterious impacts on their complex ecosystems.
In 2017, the United Nations declared the 2020s to be the decade of ocean science for sustainable development, with a call to all nations to work together to halt and reverse the decline in the health and productivity of the oceans.
As part of that effort, the Canadian government is committed to promoting ocean literacy among its citizens — that is, the understanding of the ocean’s influence on you, and your influence on it.
The Liberal government is also pursuing a suite of policies, including a pledge to conserve 25 per cent of Canada’s ocean area as marine protected areas and to work with Indigenous and other coastal populations to ensure ocean-based industries are sustainable.
With a possible election on the horizon this fall, all federal parties should make similar commitments to protect Canada’s ocean ecosystems. For Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole in particular, a clear pledge to conserve and protect the ocean could be a significant element in a credible environment policy that the party needs to broaden its appeal to voters.
Canada is often described as an ocean nation, with the world’s longest coastline. However, unlike many countries, our coastlines are the least populous parts of the country. Ocean issues tend to be “out of sight, out of mind” for the public and politicians from central Canada and the Prairies.
It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to recognize the importance of the oceans. Only some knowledge and mindfulness.
Problems are mounting, to the detriment of the world’s population — and, of course, to the detriment of the many species that make the oceans their home.
In the past 200 years, acidification has increased by 30 per cent due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Higher acidity threatens marine life — especially shellfish — while reducing the oceans’ capacity to absorb CO2.
At current rates, the tonnage of plastics in the oceans will by 2050 outweigh the amount of fish. Toxic plastics in the food chain pose added risks for marine life that is already struggling to survive human impacts.
Overfishing threatens important species and the balance of ocean life. The number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today fully one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
These challenges are complex and solutions will require sustained, international efforts with key countries asserting leadership. Canada should be such a leader, but can only play such a role if we have our own house in order.
Each of the discrete challenges starts with respect for the Earth.
We can take a cue from coastal Indigenous peoples whose cultural and spiritual practices are based on a close relationship with the ocean. Relationships in which one party only takes and never gives back are clearly dysfunctional.
We will remain on a destructive path so long as we treat the Earth and its lands and oceans as a source of infinite bounty to be harvested and an unlimited capacity to absorb our waste.
Sustainable oceans policies balance the needs for livelihoods, sustenance, and commerce with the long-term health of the ecosystem itself, the Canadian Coalition for Ocean Literacy said in a 2020 paper which was published by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
“Better understanding of the ocean by all Canadians is at the centre of future human — and planetary — well-being,” the authors concluded.
Canadians from across the country need to demand sustainable ocean policies that will allow this country to play a key role in protecting the Earth’s great heart.
Shawn McCarthy writes on energy and climate change, and is senior counsel at Sussex Strategy Group. He is also the president of the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.
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