An Ocean of Change

This World Oceans Day on June 8, here’s why things are looking up.

When John Duncan noticed how many bars and restaurants were beginning to ban plastic straws from their drinks and other single-use plastics from their operations over the past 12 months, he was elated. As the Senior Manager for the World Wildlife Fund South Africa’s Marine Programme, he knows better than anyone the impact plastic has on the country’s -- and the world’s -- oceans. He also recognises what a big impact that sort of positive shift in human behaviour can have on the planet.

“The biggest change we’ve seen over the last year has been that the awareness of our plastic problem has grown exponentially,” said Duncan. “We undervalue the fact that people want to see the world work in a different way -- and that’s what I find incredibly encouraging.”

“[Banning straws] seems like a small thing, but it’s not. The change is out there. It’s happening,” he said.

Given that South Africa was ranked 11th on the list of the world’s worst plastic polluters in 2015, the No Straws campaign heralds a positive step in the right direction. Like many developing countries with first world tendencies, South Africa uses -- and throws away -- a lot of plastic and other waste. According to a report by the World Bank, the country disposes of 54 425 tonnes of trash -- roughly two kilograms per person -- per day.

“We undervalue the fact that people want to see the world work in a different way -- and that’s what I find incredibly encouraging.”

But it also runs a waste management system that is constantly under strain. Up to 26% of communities in South Africa have no waste management services whatsoever, according to Duncan.

The result is that a lot of that waste, generated on land, ends up in our oceans -- and that has major ramifications. South Africa has more ocean territory than land, boasting one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on the planet. Thirteen thousand species live off the almost 3000 kilometres of pristine coastline that hug our shores. Our waters support many industries collectively worth billions of rands, and our small-scale fishing communities are already some of the most vulnerable in the country.

These are some of the many reasons why, this World Ocean Day, awareness and support of private initiatives to safeguard one of the world’s most precious resources is more crucial than ever.

“We all need to be passionate about the ocean as the lifeblood -- and at La Mer, we think about it as one ocean,” said the company's Head of Skincare Artistry, Clyde Johnson.

“We created our Blue Heart Oceans Fund to help protect oceans for generations to come, because it needs to be preserved, understood and respected,” he said.

In fact, La Mer itself would not exist without the ocean. The key ingredient in the recipe for La Mer -- the “Miracle Broth™,” as it’s called -- is extracted from kelp, sustainably harvested off the coast of Vancouver Island in Canada.

Human access is limited, meaning these natural ecosystems are in considerably better shape than those parts of the ocean still unprotected.

The kelp, also known as Giant Kelp, is the largest marine plant known to man -- it can grow by up to two feet in a single day in healthy waters. It creates crucial ecosystems for other marine species around the world, but in Vancouver it is also farmed for human consumption. These areas are protected by the Canadian government, and they extend all the way up the country’s west coast, towards Alaska. This section of the ocean’s protected status means that it is sheltered from activities like commercial fishing. Human access is limited, meaning these natural ecosystems are in considerably better shape than those parts of the ocean still unprotected.

Human development and interference have had an unconscionable impact on our oceans. According to the United States’ former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Carol Browner, even if the 2015 Paris Agreement was enacted and we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the ocean would not return to its natural state for hundreds of years.

The best hope we have to restore the health of the ocean and mitigate climate change for the time being is to buy time by boosting the capacity of the ocean and giving marine life in the biggest possible areas -- in the form of large ocean reserves -- a chance to regenerate and restock.

In 2014, 6000 experts at the IUCN World Parks Congress recommended that at least 30% of the ocean be sheltered from any and all extractive or human-driven activities, by creating a network of Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. This was recognised as one of the Sustainable Development Goals tabled in 2015, which included a global commitment to protect at least 10% of the oceans by 2020.

La Mer
La Mer

“It’s our goal to support efforts to make sure 30% of the oceans become protected marine areas by 2030,” said Johnson. “There’s a misconception that, because the ocean is so vast, it can absorb anything. But the inverse of that is true,” he said.

Marine Protected Areas adhere to strict protocols that are often administered through collaborative effort between governments, private initiatives and non-governmental organisations. La Mer supports these efforts in Canada, but also in Grenada, the Azores and the South China Sea.

In Grenada, the company is working with Nature Conservancy to help regenerate mangrove plantations across the islands. These remarkable trees remove as much as six times the amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than ordinary trees, helping to slow down the effects of global warming greatly.

In the Azores, Oceano de Azul provides scientific research using remote operated vehicles to assess vulnerable areas within the ecosystem of the Azores deep sea, for possible inclusion within the network of marine protected areas.

In the South China Sea, an area of the ocean that supports one third to one half of the world’s marine shipping traffic and up to 1.6 million fishing vessels, ADM Capital Foundation seeks to support sustainable fishing practices.

“By supporting private initiatives as well as ongoing education, advocating for small changes with big impact, creating awareness and helping people understand their impact, we want to make a difference to our ocean in every way we can,” said Johnson.

While there is plenty of work to be done to build on the progress made by a growing number of individuals and entities around the world to conserve the ocean, it’s incredible ecosystem and resources, the current wave of action has many feeling positive this World Oceans Day.

“Humans act when we understand that there’s a problem and we’re presented with solutions,” said Duncan.

“We can change things.”