Like the sea itself, the coast holds a fascination on people, especially on those who make a living on the edge of the sea. Awestruck and fragile, we stand powerless before an approaching storm that spreads steely-gray clouds across the ocean’s horizon. Slaves to the land, we are mesmerized by the sea when the opalescent moon brings waves from distant places to crash against the rocky shoreline. The pungent smell of saltwater, the roaring sound of the waves, the harsh grit of the sand; they all fascinate us.
Whether we know it or not, the sea is like a forgotten womb from which all life emerged, and maybe this is why our soul yearns for the sea. Maybe it is the reassuring predictability in the rhythms of the tides. Maybe it is how we marvel when the waves roll from the open sea with playful, operatic grace; sometimes thunderous and furious, others with a gentle lapping of blue-green foam. Maybe it is the smell of faraway underwater kingdoms, or the rumbling of the ocean that remains with us when the last grain of sand has been washed away from our feet. Since Earth saw its first oceans, the edge of the sea has been a place of drama and unrest, where the pounding surf has given shape to continents and character to the land. Under the tireless swing of the tides, the coast is constantly changing. For a few hours it belongs to the land, then it belongs back to the sea; it never, however, belongs to humans. There is an invisible blue line that separates what’s familiar and comforting from what is foreign and frightening; the mysterious water abyss where creatures with gills, scales and, fins are better suited to live.
For hundreds of thousands of years, venturing away from the shore was the domain of a courageous few: adventurers, pirates and fishermen were the only ones who dared leave the reassuring sight of the coast behind. Today, the human footprint on the seas is much heavier than it ever was and as our technology has evolved and changed, so has our relationship to the oceans. Over the past hundred years alone we have taken out more than our share of marine life, always pushing for deeper, further fishing grounds. We have already fished out over 90 percent of the large fish in the ocean, yet fishing fleets are still being subsidized by the world’s governments to go out and catch the last few. There is no place left on earth where fish can hide from our satellites or our greed. We also have dumped into the ocean’s depths, more of our waste than was safe or wise. Out of sight, out mind; we have recklessly allowed over half of our planet’s coral reefs to disappear, buried under sediments, destroyed with dynamite, parched by climate change, and we have allowed entire ecosystems to become anoxic wastelands where life is no longer possible.
Knowingly or not, we have overdrawn on the capital assets that we receive from the oceans: regardless of where on earth we live, every drop of water that rains, every breathe of air we take, comes and returns to the sea. Maybe we have forgotten that even though we are tied to the land, we too are sea creatures. The sea gives birth to the clouds that rain or snow over distant mountains and irrigates the fields that feed us – even hundreds of miles from the shore. And for millions of humans, there is the daily miracle of fish. Over half of the human population lives within a day’s travel from the sea, and one in every ten of the poorest people on the planet rely on fish for their daily protein. Employment in both fisheries and aquaculture is growing faster than in agriculture and provides over 55 million jobs around the globe.
For the entire history of people on Earth, our fate has been tied to the fate of fish, and therefore to the health of the ocean.
More than anything, the sea makes our climate the perfect balance of chemistry and temperature that has allowed our fragile human existence to not only survive, but to thrive. We forget that it is tiny ocean creatures, the almost invisible plankton, which produces over half of the oxygen we breathe — more than all the rainforests and woodlands on the planet. The ocean absorbs one-quarter of all the carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere, making it one of our planet’s largest and most important carbon sinks, but it does so at a terrible cost. The enormous infusion of carbon that we are still producing is quickly turning the water in the ocean into an acidic cocktail; one where life will soon no longer be possible. The fact that the ocean provides a home for 97% of all life on earth makes this a frightening reality.
We are at a crossroads and what we know or fail to learn from the ocean in the next ten years will determine our fate in the next one hundred years. The health of this largest of all ecosystems, will determine our ability to survive into the future. And yet, as important as the ocean is to our own well being we still know painfully little about it. Perhaps it is because it so vast, so deep and so unreachable that it is not until now that we are turning our gaze into serious ocean exploration. We must work harder and faster to understand the sea, and we must realize that understanding it doesn’t mean merely cataloguing the creatures that call it home. Understanding will come when we can sense the ancient rhythms of earth and sea that have sculpted the continents and have produced the rock and sand on which we stand. Understanding will come when we can see beyond the thin blue line and see the surge of life beating at its shores –trying always to find a new foothold on land. By understanding, we will be able to save ourselves and the future of life on Earth.
Cristina Mittermeier is one of the founders of SeaLegacy, a passionate global community dedicated to creating healthy and abundant oceans, for us and for the planet. The team is working with innovative marine material technology that is engineered to revitalize coral reefs. We need your support to help take this technology out of the science lab and into the ocean and you can help by joining The Tide.