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How aware are we of the ocean's impact on us, and our impact on it?JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Pascale Campagna-Slater is an Outreach Coordinator with the Youth and Volunteer Experience team at Let’s Talk Science.

Planet Earth is truly an ocean planet. In fact, the ocean covers over 70 per cent of the planet’s surface, it is the origin of life on Earth, and is home to some of the most diverse ecosystems. It is a source of wonder, curiosity and excitement. Yet how much do we truly know about our oceans? How aware are we of the ocean’s impact on us, and of our impact on it?

Understanding this connection is an important step in ensuring a sustainable future not just for our oceans, but for our own survival. The United Nations even added Life Below Water as one of the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 actionable goals aimed at creating a better future, and declared this to be the Ocean Decade in an effort to support research, education, and sustainable development of ocean resources.

And yet, ocean education is not widely found in schools, it is often absent in our conversations about sustainability and climate.

This knowledge gap in society is what led educators and scientists to develop the Ocean Literacy Framework. Developed to teach children and youth about the ocean in a meaningful and interdisciplinary way, the Framework’s goal is to increase understanding of the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean.

If we want to ensure a sustainable future for us, our youth and our planet, we need to become ocean literate to give people the tools needed to discuss ocean conservation in a meaningful way and have a positive impact on the ocean.

Why ocean literacy?

It is easy to forget that the ocean has a direct impact on our lives, and ocean literacy can help us bridge the gap between our daily lives and the ocean. Disconnectedness from nature and the ocean can stem from urbanisation, living far from the ocean or other bodies of water, and spending less time outdoors and more time online. This lack of connection and sense of stewardship can make it more difficult for us to identify threats to the ocean and their impact on us, and take action against them.

Ocean literacy can contribute to understanding our inextricable connection to the ocean, no matter who we are or where we live. From food, natural resources and even medicines, as well as jobs and economic opportunity, we depend on the ocean in many ways. But the ocean gives us so much more than physical or economic benefits. The ocean is crucial in providing us with a livable climate. It interacts with the atmosphere to absorb heat, which drives global circulation, and moderates our climate. The ocean is also a carbon sink, and produces half of the oxygen on Earth. It influences weather patterns, and has even physically shaped the land we live on.

All these benefits depend on a healthy ocean. Human activity such as pollution, overfishing and coastal development are changing our oceans at an unprecedented rate. And so is climate change. The ocean absorbs a third of the CO2 released by human activity and most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions. This absorption is causing ocean warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, and is threatening large-scale changes to global ocean circulation.

The cumulative negative impacts of human activities are also changing the ocean environments, degrading marine ecosystems and leading to loss of marine species. They also threaten our food security, risk displacing millions of people and might alter our global climate and weather patterns.

Engaging Youth

While hearing about the degradation of the ocean and the impacts of climate change can feel overwhelming, it’s not all doom and gloom. Becoming ocean literate isn’t just about knowledge of our connection to the ocean. It’s about being able to make meaningful decisions and take action towards the health and sustainability of our oceans.

If we want long-term ocean conservation action, we need to involve youth. Instilling an understanding of ocean science and fostering a sense of stewardship will help them take effective actions for ocean sustainability as adults.

We can encourage youth to get involved in citizen science projects, where they can contribute to data collection for research and conservation projects, or in-service learning programs, which are experiential education opportunities that can combine environmental and social projects within the community. Let’s get them outside and exploring nature, and participating in a shoreline cleanup. Making and demonstrating positive environmental actions, and involving youth in decision-making is a learning opportunity that can plant the seed for them to start making their own positive impact. From choosing sustainable seafood and opting for sustainable travel, to considering the impact of our clothing choices and finding solutions to reduce microplastic pollution, all can teach about the interconnectedness of waterways and how our actions can have an impact on the ocean, no matter where we live.

Marine and terrestrial ecosystems are all connected, and even for those who live far from the ocean, learning and taking action for ocean sustainability can start in our backyards and at any age. Kids have an incredible natural curiosity. They might already be fascinated by ocean monsters, or dream of becoming a marine biologist. Let’s use and build on that to shape the ocean leaders of tomorrow.

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