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The oceans need our protection – and our lives depend on them

Ussif Rashid Sumaila is a professor at the University of British Columbia and research director of the SSHRC-funded OceanCanada partnership. Ian Mauro is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg and co-leader of the OceanCanada knowledge mobilization working group.

Framed by three oceans, Canada has the longest coastline of any country in the world, and yet we can easily forget this, in the context of our busy and increasingly urban lives. While the recent collapse of a fish farm off the Pacific coast may have caught your attention, it's important to reflect on the contributions that marine environments make to our daily lives.

For example, did you know that more than 50 per cent of the oxygen that we breathe on Earth is produced by marine plants such as phytoplankton, kelp and algae? Most people have no idea that oceans are the single greatest source of oxygen globally – the true lungs of the planet – followed by rain forests. Oceans also regulate the Earth's atmosphere and climate at a planetary scale, making them crucial for maintaining environmental balance and human survival.

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For much of humanity, oceans and coastlines also provide livelihood, well-being and sustenance. They are hearths of cultural and spiritual values providing transportation and recreational opportunities while supporting peoples' jobs and food security. Given this, it's perhaps not surprising that approximately 60 per cent of the world's population lives within 60 kilometres of a coast, with oceans providing three billion people up to 15 per cent to 20 per cent of their dietary animal protein, and more than 260 million people worldwide drawing some income from marine fisheries.

Global fisheries catch about 130 million tonnes of fish a year both legally and illegally, which at the dock generates about $180-billion annually. As you can imagine, various businesses such as food processors and restaurants benefit from the sale of these fish, and this amplifies the economic impact upward to about $500-billion a year. In Canada, the ocean economy generates more than 300,000 jobs, and contributes an estimated $40-billion to Canada's gross domestic product annually.

To say that our oceans are our lives is not an understatement: How we treat them will have a profound impact on current and future generations. Unfortunately, our oceans are undergoing significant and deleterious environmental change, and this requires our utmost attention.

Take the issue of ocean plastics. The New Plastics Economy, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, indicates that eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year, which is equivalent to a garbage truck's worth of plastics every minute. Remarkably, if this "business as usual scenario" continues, the report indicates that there will be more plastics than fish – by weight – in the oceans by 2050.

This is further exacerbated by climate change, which is altering the chemistry of the oceans, and making it more difficult for marine life to thrive. As carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, it is absorbed by the oceans, thus increasing the acidity of the water, and in turn adversely affecting sea creatures, especially shellfish. Canada's Pacific region has already been affected by this and recent research suggests that Arctic Ocean waters are increasing their acidity at an alarming rate. This will have tremendous impacts on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous coastal communities and our food supply throughout Canada.

The future of the oceans rests squarely on the individual and collective actions we take as a society to manage ourselves. We must reduce our consumptive lifestyles – curtailing both our greenhouse-gas emissions and use of plastics – while supporting community-based and ecologically responsible ocean food systems. This will help increase the resilience of our social and ecological relationships in the face of rapid changes to the oceans.

As you breathe in while reading this, consider the consequences of the release of thousands of farmed fish into the Pacific Ocean. And think about your connection to Canada's oceans, marine biodiversity and coastal communities and how we can collectively contribute to their – and by extension our – health and long-term sustainability.

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