The world oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface area. They are home to far more species than terrestrial environments, and still, it is estimated that 90% of the species in the sea are yet to be identified. However, due to major anthropogenic threats to biodiversity, such as global climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and littering, life in the sea is teetering on the brink of extinction. Human activities are creating an enormous ecological footprint, and we are pushing the Earth’s carrying capacity to the limit.
The plastic threat
Trash in the ocean is a huge problem for its inhabitants; every year, numerous fish, seabirds, marine mammals, including dolphins, sea turtles, whales, seals and polar bears, and other marine organisms are killed or severely injured due to human litter - primarily plastics - dumped or accidentally released in the sea. WWF reports that ⅓ of leatherback sea turtles have balls of plastic in their stomach. This winter, a goose-beaked whale had to be euthanized after being found with 30 plastic bags in its stomach on a beach in Sotra, outside of Bergen. Contrary to common perception, only 20% of the plastic released to the ocean is caused by at-sea activities such as fisheries and shipping; the remaining 80% comes from land based sources, including plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic packaging and microplastics in household products. Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in size - almost transparent -, and these accumulate in animal tissues, making their way up in the food chains. From tiny zooplankton, which form a crucial base of the oceanic food web, all the way to larger fish, seabirds and sea mammals. 95% of the northern fulmar bird found in the North sea have microplastics in their digestive systems. The microplast from our toothpaste or cosmetic products may end up on our dinner plate. While floating around in the sea, plastic also absorbs toxic chemicals, increasing the threat to marine life. Every minute, 15 tons of plastic ends up in the ocean, and according to a report from World Economic Forum, a fourfold increase is estimated by 2050. The amount of plastic in the sea will exceed the amount of fish.
The ocean plays a vital role in sustaining human life; it regulates our climate, it supplies us with fresh water, oxygen, food and medicines, it creates jobs and transportation possibilities, and it is a great source of inspiration and recreational activities such as surfing, scuba diving and swimming. So- what can be done to deal with the increasing issue of garbage disposal in the oceans, putting an immense strain on marine environments? The WWF Living Planet report (2016) states that human consumption of natural resources and services in a year requires the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to meet our demands. It seems only we can fix what we have destroyed. Simen Knudsen, surfer and leader of the environment collective Nordic Ocean Watch is one of the many people who have stepped up to take care of the ocean- giving the ocean a voice. Maybe he has some advice to help us all onto the right path?
Hi! Who are you?
Simen Knudsen, 32 years old from Stavanger. Leader of Nordic Ocean Watch, a voluntary organization working to take care of the ocean. Studied Marine Technology in Trondheim, focusing on sustainability and environmental technology.
What is Nordic Ocean Watch and how did it start?
We were a couple of surfers who felt that the ocean wasn’t getting enough attention in the environmental debate in 2013. Mainly Vilma Havas and I, but a bunch of other people have also participated. We all wanted to make the ocean cool again, and at the same time create a culture for taking care of the ocean- tavaha. We and our friends had a desire to contribute in taking care of the ocean environment, but there was no organization to really identify with back then. It seems we have filled in a gap. However, we did not want to become yet another membership organization; NOW is a collective, which means you can’t pay to become a member. The only way to be a part of it is to actually take action in taking care of the ocean. We believe that people need to engage personally and form new habits in order to achieve the goal of creating a more sustainable world. Today, the collective consists of a variety of people along the coasts in Norway, Sweden and Finland who love the sea and want to preserve it.
What are the biggest threats to the ocean today?
The most obvious threats are plastic, overfishing, emissions of greenhouse gases, and environmental toxins. However, the more general threat is that humans still wrongly consider the ocean inexhaustible, and able to withstand anything. The government’s decision of dumping waste from mining in the sea is an example. In addition, there is a general lack of knowledge of everything the ocean does for us here on Earth. People are not aware - or forget - that the ocean sustains human life.
What does tavaha mean?
Tavaha is a word we made up to describe the culture we want to create- a culture in which we don’t only use the ocean, but also give something back. A culture to “ta vare på havet”. Now that the ocean is on the verge of collapse, there is no time not to contribute. We want Tavaha to be a positive background noise to trigger action and a culture of caring for the ocean. Tavaha is about unity, understanding and solidarity across borders, generations and cultures. The sea is what ties the world together. It has always taken care of us and we can not live without it. It's time to give something back.
What does the Nordic Ocean Watch collective do to take care of the ocean?
We mainly focus our work in 3 areas: dissemination of knowledge, put a spotlight on people we believe are good ocean ambassadors to create role models, and to open the door for people to help take care of the ocean whenever they want to.
What can we do on an individual level to take care of the ocean?
The best thing you can do is to take personal action. We display what kind of world we want through the choices we make. By making some small adjustments in everyday life, we can make a big difference for the ocean and the planet. We have made concrete tavaha tips everyone can adapt to get started. Good for the sea, good for you!
Lastly- what does the ocean mean to you?
I grew up by the sea, and there is something always pulling me back to it. Most of the pleasures in my life are given by the ocean. I met several of my best friends through the ocean, and it has always been there as therapy when things in my life have taken the wrong turn. I would say that just about all the events I appreciate the most in life have something to do with the sea. There is a lot of life philosophy in the ocean, the waves and surfing. But it quickly becomes a bit of a cliché talking about it;-) Havet er fett, get wet.
Nordic Ocean Watch’s tavaha-tips:
1. Eat more greens and less meat
CO2 emissions are a big threat to the ocean, and the meat industry is one of the main sources to these emissions. Meatless monday is a good way to start.
2. Avoid unnecessary plastic
Do you really need that plastic bag? Pick up some plastic every time you are by the sea- everything we can get removed helps.
3. Choose eco-friendly
Microplastics are found in everyday products such as toothpaste, sunscreen and shampoo- choose the right products without additional microplastics. In Norway, these products are marked with a swan (svanemerket). Choose sunscreen without oxybenzone, which is harmful to coral reefs.
4. Fly less, enjoy more
Flights are our biggest personal contribution to emissions of CO2- try enjoying life without flying to far destinations.
More than 10 million plastic bottles are lost out in the world somewhere, and many of these end up in the ocean. Recycle plastic, and pant if you live in Norway.
6. Invest in durable products
Stay away from disposable plastic products, such as plates, cutlery and cups. Choose durable products that last for years.
7. Support those who support the environment
Oil drilling and mining are destroying nature, beaches (and great surfing waves), coral reefs, and life in and around the fjords. Give your support to those who work against these activities.
Written by Ingrid Holtan Søbstad