Recently I traveled “home” to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and found myself taking pictures of crabpots and enjoying the sulfide smell of the salt marshes. I laugh at myself for acting like a tourist (well, the picture-taking part anyway, I don’t think the tourists are going home and telling their friends “You have just got to smell the mud!”). In fact, said crabpots were around the corner from the house I lived in as a teenager and my nostalgia is tinged with a bit of sadness as now neither my mother nor my grandmother live in the same houses as when I was growing up. As a teenager, I could not wait to get away and see the world. And I certainly achieved that, as I have since lived in 3 different states and traveled to 10 different countries. Yet the slower pace of the Eastern Shore and the simple summer pleasures of swimming and boating in the Chesapeake Bay definitely have their appeal and certainly had an impact on who I am today.
I have lived in Gainesville, FL for two years now. This is in North Central Florida, or in other words, as far from the ocean as you can be in the state of Florida, which has more than 600 miles of beaches. It’s about a two-hour drive to the Atlantic coast beaches and at least three to the pretty sugar-sand Gulf coast beaches. After living on Cape Cod, my husband and I have both decided this is as far from the ocean as we ever want to be. Of course, many people around the world feel this way (about 44% of the world’s population nears within 150 km (93 miles) of the ocean). What draws us to the sea? Is it the salt in our cells (exactly proportioned as the salts in the ocean)? Or does the gentle and rhythmic sloshing remind us of our time in the womb? Whatever the reason, if we wish to pursue fulfilling lives on the coast, we have the responsibility to be excellent stewards of the ocean. While the news is often full of dire warnings, there is also reason for hope. As a coral microbiologist, how can I not be aware of all of the threats facing coral reefs? But rather than feeling overwhelmed and therefore helpless to create change, like Dr. Nancy Knowlton, I chose to be an Ocean Optimist.
How can you become a good steward of the ocean (whether you live near it or not, since the ocean impacts our global climate)? Personally, I’m striving to reduce the amount of one-time, disposable plastic that I use and make sure that when I do buy plastic I recycle it. It’s a daily struggle, as it is so easy to get plastic. However, small efforts, like using a stainless steel water bottle and cloth shopping bags, do add up. Why is plastic such a problem? First and foremost, it doesn’t go away. Every piece of plastic that has been manufactured by humans is still on the planet and will stick around for an incredibly long time. It’s cheaper to make new plastic than recycle it, so there is no incentive for businesses to do so. All of that plastic ends up somewhere, and too often it is in the ocean where it is eaten by shorebirds and turtles that subsequently starve to death. And as an explorer of the deep sea, I have personally seen plastic shopping bags at the bottom of the ocean. The persistence and pervasiveness of plastic can be astonishing. As a society we need to rethink plastic waste.
We need to think creatively in designing new products, not just for their lifespan in the hands of a consumer, but also for their fate after they are no longer useful. This is the concept behind the 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” and has recently been highlighted as inspiration to getting plastic out of the ocean. Looking for other simple ideas to protect the ocean? Here are some from National Geographic: 10 things you can do to save the ocean.