Between man-made climate change, overfishing and pollution, we have done a significant amount of damage to the world’s oceans. In the past 500 years, we have seen 15 different marine species go extinct (this is a minimum estimate) and the rise in the number of marine animals on the IUCN’s list of threatened and endangered species is telling us that we need to start doing something differently.

Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently published a study in journal Science that only solidifies this fact. “We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” McCauley tell the New York Times.

In the past 40 years alone we have seen 52 percent of the world’s wildlife disappear, mainly due to human actions. While McCauley’s statement falls in line with the belief that the world is experiencing its sixth period of mass extinction, it seems that there is still hope yet for ocean life.

Why? Plainly because humans haven’t really had that much influence on the oceans until modern times. On land, humans have been altering the ecosystem for tens of thousands of years, but the oceans have largely remained untouched.

This is not to say that we are in the clear though, McCauley’s study shows that if we don’t take action soon that this hopeful message will be lost for good. Humans have begun to industrialize our use of the ocean’s resources and as the result we have seen a great decrease in the number of large marine species – like whales and sharks – as well as declines in small marine animals. This causes a significant imbalance in ocean ecosystems.

McCauley points to bottom trawling as an example of how humans have industrialized the process of fishing. In bottom trawling, long, heavy nets are dropped to the depths of the ocean and dragged along the ocean floor, catching anything and everything in its path. This practice wipes out fish stocks and lowers the number of fish available to commercial fisheries. To make up for this lack of fish, we’ve created the equivalent of factory fish farms. Seabed mining is also gaining popularity and the amount of plastic pollution dumped into the oceans is increasing. The more carbon we emit into the atmosphere, the more acidic the oceans get.

McCauley stresses that the oceans are vast, but marine species are not impervious to extinction. We have seen the impact of species extinction on terrestrial ecosystems … and it isn’t pretty. In the long run, the health of the oceans and the land environment is important to our own health.

The signs that we failed to learn from in the extinction of land species are being seen in the oceans and it is up to us to take them seriously. There are many things you can do to help protect the oceans.

  • First and foremost, cutting your own carbon footprint is the place to start. A great way to do this is to leave meat out of your diet. By doing this one simple thing, you can half your carbon footprint.
  • Second, seeing the damage commercial fisheries are causing to the oceans, the logical solution is to limit or completely eliminate your consumption of fish. If you don’t eat fish for a year, you can save 225 fish and 125 shellfish!
  • And finally, being mindful of the plastic pollution and other waste you produce in your everyday life is key to keeping the oceans trash-free. Replace all your disposables with reusable alternatives and check out this guide to grocery shop, waste-free.

We can all make minor changes to benefit the world’s oceans. There is still time to change the tide for the future of marine species, but this time shouldn’t be wasted!

Image source: Andrew K/Flickr