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  • The world’s ocean has faced unprecedented challenges due to human actions.
  • A new report argues that ocean health is “intricately linked” to human health.
  • The report demonstrates these links and sets out strategies for restoring the damage done to the ocean.

In a new report, a team of researchers argues that the world’s ocean is “intricately linked” to human health. As a consequence, repairing the human-influenced damage done to the ocean will also benefit human health.

In the paper, which appears in the American Journal of Public Health, the authors say that restoring the health of oceans should not just be the priority of marine scientists but also the medical community and the public more broadly.

The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and is crucial not only for environmental health but also for the health of humans.

However, human actions have significantly damaged the health of the world’s ocean. The issues that it currently faces include:

According to the researchers behind the present article, as well as damaging the health of the world’s ocean, these issues also negatively impact human health.

The team highlights that the United Nations (UN) have announced the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, covering 2021–2030. They argue that this is an ideal time for humanity to rethink its relationship to the world’s ocean.

According to Prof. Sheila J. J. Heymans of the European Marine Board and a co-author of the article, “the UN Ocean Decade is a chance to transform the way we interact with the global ocean. Given how critical the link is between the health of people and the health of the ocean and how important the ocean is for humans, achieving the aims of the Ocean Decade should not be left to just the ocean community.”

“By working together with communities, policymakers, business[es], and other stakeholders, we add impetus to finding powerful, effective, new ways to foster a step-change in public health.”

The researchers highlight that around the world, swimming in polluted seas is linked with over 250 million cases of respiratory illness and gastroenteritis each year.

Furthermore, Arctic indigenous peoples have become exposed to a build-up of organic pollutants. Coastal communities are exposed to indirect damage to their health when fish stocks collapse, restricting access to food and severely reducing livelihoods.

The researchers argue that responding to this damage to ocean health will also improve people’s health. However, oceans can also promote human health in their own right.

The scientists point out that seafood provides a key source of omega-3 fatty acids, while extracts from marine organisms can play a role in medical treatments. Additionally, “blue spaces” — locations near water — also have links with improvements in people’s physical and mental health.

The researchers argue that because of this relationship between ocean health and human health, concern for the health of the ocean should extend beyond marine scientists.

As part of the research initiative, the Seas, Oceans & Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE) Project, which receives European Union funding, has identified three areas that different stakeholders can collaborate. These are:

  • sustainable seafood for healthy people
  • biodiversity, biotechnology, and medicine
  • blue spaces, tourism, and well-being

Importantly, the authors highlight the need to address social injustices related to ocean health.

According to Prof. Lora Fleming of the University of Exeter and first author of the report, “the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, climate, and other environmental change and the perilous state of our seas have made clear that we share a single planet with a single global ocean.

“Our moral compass points to addressing the myriad threats and potential opportunities we encounter by protecting and providing for everyone — both rich and poor — while learning to sustain all ecosystems.”

If a collaboration between the multiple communities of people with a relationship to the oceans is possible, then the researchers believe meaningful positive change could occur.

These identified approaches include replacing plastics with natural marine products, using marine renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, ensuring the restocking of fisheries, and restoring biodiversity by promoting marine protected areas (MPAs).

Collaboration with local communities may also help ensure MPAs are effective at limiting overfishing.

According to co-author Dr. Easkey Britton, a marine social scientist and member of the SOPHIE Project, “the failure of certain MPAs, in Europe and elsewhere, is often the consequence of exclusionary conservation with inadequate inclusion and lack of meaningful engagement with local communities with traditional ecological knowledge in the decision making processes — from the initial planning stages and throughout the ongoing management of MPAs.”

For the researchers, the UN Ocean Decade is a chance to instill pro-environmental behavior in individuals and communities and realign the governance of the oceans around local concerns.

As Prof. Fleming and her co-authors argue, “the personal meaning of the challenges that communities face and the sense of personal vulnerability can generate greater awareness and create engagement.

“Providing [local] practical solutions can empower sustainable actions, especially when supported by national and international higher-level policies and regulatory frameworks.”

While the team makes clear that holistic, systemic change is necessary to restore ocean health and consequently human health, they also suggest actions individuals can take.

According to Dr. Britton, “understanding how and why ocean and human health are intricately interdependent means recognizing that all our actions have an impact on the future health of the planet and our communities.”

She told MNT: “Building community around the challenges we face and the solutions we need is the most important thing. For anyone wishing to take action, we are stronger together. Find your people — join an existing cause, campaign, or ocean organization addressing the issue you care most about and commit your own skills and strengths to the work we need to do to restore our global ocean.”

“There are many amazing citizen science opportunities where you can be at the frontline of monitoring ocean health while deepening your connection with the ocean at the same time. And use your power as a citizen, making the ocean your number one voting issue.”

– Dr. Easkey Britton

For Prof. Heymans, people can also make everyday choices that make a difference.

These include:

  • reducing plastic consumption and recycling more
  • cleaning up local streets to avoid plastic washing into stormwater drains and out to the ocean
  • reducing ocean acidification by taking public transport and avoiding eating meat, both of which lower a person’s carbon footprint

For co-author Dr. Sam Dupont, a marine expert with the SOPHIE Project, lowering our carbon footprint is key in preventing damage to the oceans from happening in the first place.

“For the ocean as for our own health, prevention is always better than treatment. Impacts of climate change and ocean acidification are increasingly important, and as a society, we should work toward decreasing CO2 emissions (as well as other environmental pressures) to avoid more pressures in the near future.

“This means adapting the way we live, consume, eat, but also vote. We need to be the change but also accept the changes to come.”