No, really, take a breath in. And then another. And then one more. At least one of those three breaths was supplied by the ocean.
About half of the air we breathe comes from phytoplankton in the ocean.
Just in case you weren’t convinced that what’s in our water matters, think about that — all our waterways are connected, and our water and our air are connected. And think about the plastic bottles that you’ve tossed in the trash ending up in the ocean, where they collect in gyres and slowly break down to microparticles that can no longer be separated from the phytoplankton around them. That stuff making the air we breathe? It’s fighting for real estate with plastic we threw away. And then the plastic gets eaten by the little fish, which are eaten by bigger fish, which are eaten by us. The mercury and the PCBs all those organisms up the food chain have eaten — that ends up in us.
That’s stressful, right? So just think about the ocean. The waves, the lapping water, the endless blue. Feeling calmer? More creative? There’s some science on that connection, too.
Even landlocked Colorado residents are connected to the ocean — but making people here more aware of how we’re connected to the watery 70 percent of our planet and what we can do to protect the ocean from here, on land, is the mission of Vicki Goldstein, founder of the Colorado Ocean Coalition. It’s the only ocean conservation organization in a land-locked state in the country, she says. And she looked.
Before Goldstein moved inland, she spent a career teaching people about the oceans on either coast, working for the College of the Atlantic and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and running Save Our Shores, an ocean conservation organization in California. Then she took some time off to raise her kids before her husband’s career brought the family to Boulder.
“By the time I got here, I honestly felt like a crustacean ready to molt, bursting with the need to get back to my career,” she says.
So Goldstein went back to it — ocean or no ocean.
“I launched the Colorado Ocean Coalition a year and a half ago with the idea that you don’t have to see oceans to take care of them,” she says.
Oceans don’t just belong to coastal nations. And neither is it possible to care for them only from the states around the edges of the continent.
“No matter where you live on this planet, it all flows to the ocean and the animals there consume it,” she says.
Raising awareness and political will leads to more of both of the methods oceans need to protect them: Day-today choices by consumers that keep our waters in mind, and legislation to better protect them.
Three main issues compromise the health of our oceans, and all of them can come from anywhere in the country: problems with fish, plastics and ocean acidification.
“We’ve depleted about 90 percent of big fish species since about 1950,” says Synte Peacock, an ocean and climate research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The question is, can we preserve those, or are those going to go the way of the dinosaur and become extinct?” What’s left of these fish are becoming increasingly toxic, Peacock says. Fish are bioaccumulating toxins like mercury that have run into the ocean, and the bigger the fish, like a mackerel, marlin or orange roughy, the bigger the dose of mercury.
“If we put toxins into the ocean, it comes back into us if we eat fish,” Peacock says.
There’s also the issue of garbage, and most of the garbage in the ocean is plastic. Plastics don’t biodegrade, they only break down to pieces small enough to be consumed by fish and other organisms — and can eventually end up being consumed by humans as they eat fish.
“If we throw our plastic into the ocean, it’s not gone forever,” Peacock says. “It’s a cycle. It doesn’t go away, so as we pollute the ocean with plastic it comes back to haunt us.”
An estimated 90 percent of the trash in the ocean is plastic, which collects in gyres, where there are six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton, Peacock says. The most well known of these, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to be the size of Texas.
It sounds like the job for a big net and some garbage barges, but it’s not that easy.
“Much of it you can’t even see because plastic breaks into little pieces. … It’s this soup of plastic and plankton that you cannot separate,” Goldstein says. “You can never really clean up these gyres. You have to stop it at the source, and the source in all of this is on land.”
A ban on single-use plastic bags shouldn’t even be a question.
Another issue facing the ocean is acidification. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — emissions from cars and coal power plants — also ends up in the ocean. Though the ocean has often been viewed as endless, the chemical composition of the ocean shifts as it intakes more carbon dioxide, and the water becomes more corrosive.
“It’s bad news for anything with a shell,” Peacock says. More acidic waters can dissolve shells and corals, which has implications that work their way up the food chain.
Individually, people can only change so much. Consumers always have the option to make smarter choices when buying seafood, and can look to the apps and pocket guides available to help. Single-use plastics are also a daily decision.
Acidification is where legislation, and international cooperation, come into play. The U.S. isn’t even the top emitter for carbon dioxide anymore, and while every little reduction from a new bike or bus rider helps, global changes can only come through changes to industry, likely mandated by legislation here and in other countries around the world.
“It’s truly global,” Peacock says.
“The plastics is too, but that’s something that we can really be conscious, you can really start making a difference instantly, like, today. … The CO2 problem, the acidification problem, that’s going to require international policy to make difference.”
Because everything eventually washes downstream, many of the choices we make for a healthier planet have repercussions in our oceans.
“People don’t often think you are protecting the environment by going to the farmers’ market,” Goldstein says.
But what’s on our farms and lawns makes a huge affect. Nitrogen-based fertilizers pouring into the oceans create dead zones. Phytoplankton bloom in response to the fertilizer, but then die in massive quanities, and when they decompose, they remove oxygen from the water, creating low oxygen or zero oxygen areas. Anything that swims into one of those areas can suffocate. Divers who pass through a zero oxygen area might see belly up dead crabs, schools of dead fish and water thick with sediment.
The dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River is 3,000 to 5,000 square miles. At 3,000 square miles, both Delaware and Rhode Island could fit inside it. There are an estimated 400 dead zones in the world, and they’re expected to increase in count and size as population and subsequently food production increase. But dead zones often depend on that supply of fertilizer.
“If you stopped putting the fertilizer in … you’d see an immediate response in the ocean,” Peacock says. As soon as those waters are reoxygenated, they come back to life.
It’s not impossible. It’s not even unlikely that, once people understand these issues, they’ll take action. The documentary Ocean Frontiers tells stories of collaborations among fishermen and conservationists, shipping lanes and whale researchers, to work toward greater ocean health. One of the stories they tell is of a group of Iowa farmers who went to the Gulf of Mexico. They boarded the boats of local fishermen. They fished. They talked with those fishermen about their shared dependency on the whims of Mother Nature to provide. They heard about those dead zones. And they went home and created wetlands near their fields, natural water filters that would remove almost half the nitrogen from the water they sent downstream.
“For many of them it was the first time they’d been to the Gulf of Mexico, and they really were just blown away by what they saw, and they realized immediately how important of a resource it was and how important the fishing economy was to the area,” says Karen Meyer, producer of Ocean Frontiers. “They felt an enormous sense of responsibility to do whatever they could to help out their counterparts, basically, in the Gulf.”
The consistent doses of news that show our oceans are in trouble and facing increasing demands caused Meyer to look for what answers people were coming up with to handle the issues. She and co-producer Ralf Meyer spent two years working to record those stories of collaboration among biologists, global shipping companies and energy executives, fishermen and conservationists. Their film will be shown at the Dairy Center on June 21 in an event hosted by the Colorado Ocean Coalition.
The stories in Ocean Frontiers illustrate the point that Goldstein and Peacock have argued.
“What we do, wherever we are in the country, makes a huge difference and is of huge importance as we work to turn the tide of ocean health,” Meyer says. “Whether you’re a farmer in Iowa or in Colorado or you’re just a homeowner, there’s concerns about over-fertilizing our lawns and the runoff that comes from our parking lots and our cities. All of that makes its way into our oceans.”
Connecting the pieces to collaborate and apply an ecosystem-based approach is key to protecting oceans and the life they support, including us.
“It doesn’t matter what the state of Mississippi does in terms of cleaning up the runoff and what goes into the river — it does help, but they have 36 other states that are draining into the Mississippi as well,” Meyer says. “That’s why they realized all of the Gulf states need to work together because we all depend on this same body of water, the Gulf of Mexico. Then they took it a step further and said we need to bring the Mississippi River basin states into this. … In terms of how all of this relates back in to Colorado and the Midwest, the Mississippi River basin, what that example shows clearly is that there are issues that are so big that not one state can address them.”
What Ocean Frontiers tries to do by film is what projects led by Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., like The Blue Marbles Project, have tried to do between people. BlueMarbles.org collects photos of people with blue marbles, a symbol of our blue planet, as a gesture of gratitude. Nichols, research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, has done the hard science and the research, and his questions have led back from sea turtles to people. Why do humans respond to the ocean the way they do? He’s come back to an emotional core, skipping the scare tactics, to get people talking about the blue portion of our planet.
“Getting people to care about the ocean when they’re in Los Angeles or Colorado, for that matter, is hard,” he says. “Just out of sight, out of mind, if you’re not a scuba diver you kind of go, what does it matter, and that’s the base state of most people in the world.”
People get loaded up with statistics, like that three-fourths of the planet is covered with water, 80 percent of the biodiversity in the world is in the oceans and more than 90 percent of the habitat on our planet is oceanic. Then they wander away with information overload and not a lot of thoughts about what to do with all those numbers. But tap into the personal and you start getting somewhere.
“When you explain something so personal as how you feel when you’re next to or in or on water and your memories of that, that grabs people and they remember, ‘Oh yeah, when I walk on the beach I feel good and relaxed and I think new thoughts,’” Nichols says. “And that’s a really good starting point for building empathy from more of an environmental point of view. Loading people up with facts and scary scenarios is a really terrible starting point. … But love and empathy are probably more powerful. That’s why Coca-Cola uses happiness as their tag line and McDonald’s uses love in their tagline.”
Coca-Cola has the benefit of a lab of neuroscientists to formulate that stuff, but the ocean will probably never have the marketing budget of the world’s biggest soft drink company. So a few lessons have to come by example.
What it boils down to is the need to have a URL and to get some people together. That was the advice Nichols gave Goldstein when she sat down with him and was just talking about starting the Colorado Ocean Coalition (the two knew each other from conservation work in California). Right then, he started a Facebook group page for her, and she set off getting people together with Blue Drinks, monthly gatherings at Boulder bars and restaurants of everyone from ocean scientists to divers to moms who just love the beach.
Even if the ocean isn’t accessible, rivers and lakes — or just your bathtub — can provide a sense of calm and comfort.
“It seems like water puts us in a mildly meditative state, but you don’t need to know how to practice meditation to do that,” Nichols says. As a scientist, he says, he’s curious about the basic questions that tie people to the ocean.
“Why are the favorite screen savers of people in the Midwest ocean scenes and why is the favorite sleep aid sound the sound of the ocean?” he says. “If you say the word ‘ocean’ in a crowded room, just the word changes every body’s mood, and it makes them feel generally good and generally relaxed.”
Neuroscientists, who have studied the human brain on red wine and chocolate, haven’t yet studied your brain on the water.
The Journal of Science did release a paper in 2009 that indicates that looking at the color blue doubles creativity.
“When you’re looking at water, you relax, your heart rate slows, your stress decreases and your creativity increases,” Nichols says. “People get insights when they’re walking on the shore or just resting in the bathtub. It’s really no surprise, you put your brain into an optimal state for creative insights, versus just kind of chaotic stress of the day.”
Trying to understand what happens physiologically to us when we look at the ocean connects to the overall conversation of the ocean, including how to protect it.
“Our planet is an ocean planet, so it doesn’t really matter where you are, you still live on an ocean planet,” Nichols says. “Everything we do impacts the ocean, and the ocean is downstream of our entire economy. It’s as simple as that.”
“Let’s get active, let’s try to save this ocean,” Goldstein says. Boulder’s enthusiasm for the outdoors and the environment may translate to increased awareness of these issues, and then other states could catch on.
“My fantasy would be to have a Kansas Ocean Coalition and an Iowa Ocean Coalition,” she says.
Her main event for the year, held Oct. 21-22, is “Making Waves,” which features TED Talks-style presentations from those with the ocean on their minds. This month, she’s hosting Blue Drinks at the Dairy Center and following it up with the screening of Ocean Frontiers, which Meyer will be attending. The screening will be followed by a Q&A panel discussion.
More information on the Colorado Ocean Coalition can be found at coloradoocean.org.