EcoOcean and why we should care about our seas and oceans

January 15, 2007

EcoOcean is an environmental organisation dedicated to marine research and education with the primary vision to create a healthy, non-polluted environment in the Eastern Mediterranean. Proventus is the co-founder of EcoOcean and is committed to its long-term financing needs, i.e. by running the research vessel Mediterranean Explorer.The Eastern Mediterranean is surrounded by countries in conflict, and much of Israel's financial resources are diverted towards defence expenditures; there is thus not much government funding available for taking care of and protecting the environment, including the sea. There is, however, an increasing awareness in the Eastern Mediterranean region of the need to keep the sea healthy.

EcoOcean was formed in Israel four years ago with the primary vision to help saving the Eastern Mediterranean from its ongoing deterioration. By supporting marine research and education EcoOcean contributes to a higher level of scientific knowledge as well as an increase in general awareness about the importance of caring about the sea.

In addition, EcoOcean assists other environmental organisations (e.g. the Israeli NGOs Zalul and Adam, Teva v'Din), as well as governmental instances (e.g. the Israel Ministry for Environmental Protection), in creating a healthy, non-polluted, environment in the Eastern Mediterranean.

For this purpose, the research vessel the R/V Mediterranean Explorer, has been made available for EcoOcean's activities. Other activities centre around marine ecological education at school level. One of EcoOcean's goals is that every school child around the Eastern Mediterranean should become aware of the importance of a healthy and pollution-free sea.

EcoOcean explains why we should care about our seas and oceans in the following way:

“Our planet is in a state of extreme change. The world's population, which grew linearly until the Industrial Revolution (there were 1.6 billion of us in the year 1900), is now growing exponentially – we are today over 6.6 billion people on earth, and are expected to reach the 10 billion mark during the 2050s.

With such a raise in population, pollution and the degradation of our environments have increased too. Interestingly, it is the prosperity of many developing countries that has caused the largest amounts of garbage and pollutants, and especially those waste products that are emitted by the non-sustainable burning of fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) resources. An example in focus is the exponential accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere that lead to global warming, and the alarming scenarios associated with it.

While the increasing atmospheric CO2 level is undetectable by the naked eye, its potential effects have been well documented. There is no doubt that global temperatures are rising, driven by the increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. Such global warming will bring about a rise in the seawater level (both by expanding the seawater volume and adding melting-water from the polar ice caps), as well as changes in weather patterns causing storm events in some areas of earth and desertification in others.

On the other hand, CO2 is an essential substrate for a fundamentally important process: plant photosynthesis – the only process on earth by which the high-energy organic compounds that feed us can be formed, and where oxygen is produced at the same time. Thus, in addition to efforts of reducing CO2 emissions, plants can be used to absorb surplus atmospheric CO2.

However, with today's deforestations and burning of biomass, together with an increased scarcity of fresh water for irrigation, there is a bleak chance that atmospheric CO2 will be reduced by increased growth of land plants. Fortunately, there is an environment on earth that contains photosynthetic organisms and where water is not lacking: the seas and oceans. It has been estimated that up to half of earth's primary production stems from photosynthesis by algae in the seas. Consequently, the oceans are not only a passive sink for atmospheric CO2, but algae may actively absorb huge amounts of CO2 by photosynthesis – provided that the oceans are kept at a healthy state that support algal growth.

The sea is our cradle of life; this is where the first organisms were formed some 3.7 billion years ago. Not until much later, about 300 million years ago, did marine organisms emerge from the seas to invade land. Today, the oceans cover over 70% of earth's surface, and with life existing to their deepest depths, they constitute a volume for plant and animal life that is orders of magnitude larger than that of all continents together. Indeed, given those facts, it is strange that we call our world “Planet Earth” and not “Planet Ocean”.

It is important to keep our seas and oceans healthy for several reasons beyond aesthetics. For example, since plant photosynthesis is the only source of the oxygen that we breathe, and since some 50% of earth's photosynthetic primary production occurs in the oceans, it follows that our planet would be severely deprived of oxygen should the photosynthesis of seagrasses and algae, and especially the microscopic algae known as phytoplankton, cease. This could be the case if we keep on poisoning the marine environment such that primary plant production would stop.

Also, organisms higher up in the marine food web such as zooplankton and, ultimately, fish are very sensitive to changes in the water chemistry caused by man's dumping of wastes into the oceans. For example, the fish of many seas have accumulated toxins to such high levels that they are either dying, or are not suitable for consumption by humans.

Thus, even if we don't use the algae directly as food, or if we don't eat the fish for which algae are the basis of their food chain, the sea would stop to act as an efficient CO2 absorber or oxygen producer should the algae cease to grow. Yes, the seas are indeed a sink for atmospheric CO2 since phytoplankton will gladly absorb it and, when they sink to the bottom, will deposit it as organic material in the abysses of the oceans. In fact, one could say that lush and healthy phytoplankton growth would effectively re-deposit to the sea floor the CO2 that we release in the form of organic compounds that would eventually re-form the oil that we so wastefully burn. This is only one, not often thought of, reason to keep our oceans healthy.

Another direct effect of increasing atmospheric CO2, as it dissolves in seawater, is acidification. A decrease in the seawater pH from the present value of 8.2 by only a few tenths of units would hinder calcification processes of many marine invertebrates such as corals – this notion has recently gained experimental support. Thus, in addition to global warming which already causes many of the world's reefs to bleach, increased dissolved CO2 levels may further prevent reefs to form and would, in this way, drive one of our world's lushest and most diversified ecosystems to extinction.

So, again, while we should strive towards reduced emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, we need to keep our seas healthy so that their phytoplankton can efficiently absorb any surplus CO2 by photosynthesis and re-deposit it back to the depths of the oceans.”

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