Its majestic and inspiring beauty, its importance in the regulation of the Earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems, and the countless species that call it home — these are just some of the many reasons why the ocean remains a tremendous gift of creation. The ocean is also a source of food, medicine, and livelihood for many across the globe. 

Yet our ocean is in grave danger. Rising temperatures, ocean acidification, land-based pollution, increased offshore drilling, and overfishing have wreaked tremendous havoc on the ocean and the marine life within it. As is often the case, poor communities that depend on ocean-based food are likely to suffer the most if changes are not made to protect our ocean.

There are things we can do now to turn the tide when it comes to the future of the ocean. Individuals, government leaders, and businesses and organizations are taking inspiring steps to ensure that future generations are able to benefit from a world with the ocean as we know it. As we continue to learn more about what we can do, both individually and in collaboration with others, there are reasons to hope that our ocean will continue to inspire and enrich humanity for generations to come.

THE OCEAN UNDER THREAT

It’s estimated that around eight million metric tons of waste are deposited into the ocean every year. This is a number that is likely to increase over the next few decades without substantial changes to the way countries around the globe manage their waste and pollution. While some of our waste is renewable or biodegradable, much of it isn’t. Further, since we don’t have the technology to cost effectively recycle this waste into new products, much of it ends up in our ocean. And while there isn’t some continent-sized mass of floating trash out at sea — as some might think — there are nonetheless stretches of waste and trash in the ocean.

It's estimated that around eight million metric tons of waste are deposited into the ocean every year.

In fact, in the 1990s, Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation journeyed through an area between Hawaii and the continental U.S. According to an article from the Smithsonian, “over the course of a week, despite being hundreds of miles from land, Moore watched a continuous stream of plastic trash float by.”

While this certainly isn’t a good look for our ocean, the deeper problem is that all of this debris can become toxic due to the combination of sun and salt water. This debris can then be mistaken for food by nearby animals, not only contaminating the species that consume it, but all others — including us — who later consume them. 

Further, larger animals, such as whales, porpoises, sharks, turtles, and others can become tangled in the debris, causing harm and even death. 

Related Story: The work of PLNU scientists who are studying the sea.

Microplastics are a growing part of the problem. They are so small that they are impossible to contain. Microplastics in the ocean come from both the breaking down of larger plastics as well as plastics that start out microscopic, such as fibers from washing machines, dust from tires, and the like. 

But pollution of this sort is only one of the several factors threatening the ocean today. Major oil spills due to offshore oil drilling are another major threat. The Deepwater Horizon spill (also known as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) in April of 2010 is considered the largest spill in the oil industry’s history. It is estimated that 53,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico every day for over three months. The effect was downright catastrophic. According to an article from Marin Insight, the spill resulted in the killing of “over 82,000 birds, 25,900 marine mammals, 6,000 sea turtles, and tens of thousands of fish, among others.”

Overfishing also continues to be a massive problem, depleting marine life and various species of fish due to lack of regulation and immoderate fishing practices. According to findings from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “70% of world fish populations are unsustainably exploited, of which 30% have biomass collapsed to less than 10% of un-fished levels.” 

Human activity on a global scale continues to affect the ocean as well, which has led to an increase in average water temperatures, ocean acidification due to high levels of CO2 emissions, and ocean deoxygenation — all changes to the ocean that have caused serious and harmful effects on marine life. 

The negative effect on marine life and the ocean, naturally, affects us all on a societal and economic level. Infected marine life can create major health concerns for consumers of seafood and devastate the businesses of coastal industries. An oil spill, for example, not only irrevocably harms marine life, but devalues nearby beach properties, harms leisure and tourism (upon which many coastal businesses rely), and increases the risk for severe illnesses. 

Alum Vipe Desai speaks on stage on the state of our oceans at a conference.
Alum Vipe Desai has committed himself towards leading the conversation on ocean conservation.

WORKING TO TURN THE TIDE

Vipe Desai (91) is one of many at the forefront of the movement to conserve the ocean for future generations. Desai fell in love with the ocean at a young age, eventually opting to attend PLNU (largely due to its proximity to the Pacific), where he was president of the surf club and team, and graduated with a degree in business writing. After graduating, Desai entered the surf industry. He bought a surf shop and years later started his own youth marketing agency. Although his love for the ocean was closely tied to his love for surfing, it wasn’t until his late 20s that Desai started to commit himself actively to protecting something that for much of his life he had taken for granted.

He recalls running into volunteers years ago who were committed to conserving the ocean through grassroots methods. Desai explained that, back then, most people considered those with a zealous passion for the ocean — the types spending their Saturday mornings combing beaches for stray trash — as a bit weird and unconventional. However, eventually a few members of the Surfrider Foundation, an organization committed to protecting our ocean, asked him if he would be willing to have his agency do some pro bono work for them.

“As I immersed myself in understanding their organization and mission, I had an awakening,” Desai shared. “I thought, ‘Wow, these people have been working to protect the ocean for my benefit.’ I really got fired up and just put my creative thinking to work and started creating campaigns for them and connected them to businesses and other leaders through my agency.”

Eventually the foundation asked him to become a member of their board, which he accepted.

“When that happened, I realized ocean conservation was going to be part of my personal and professional life,” Desai shared.

Today, he is heavily involved with organizations and initiatives committed to ocean conservation like Ocean Champions, Lonely Whale Foundation, AltaSea, and The Rising Tide Summit. He recently was appointed the chairman of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, Calif. He has spoken against offshore drilling before members of Congress and works tirelessly with business leaders and entrepreneurs to form solutions aimed at conserving the ocean.

Desai understands that businesses have tremendous power when it comes to the future of our ocean. The truth is that much of the excessive plastic waste that ultimately ends up in the ocean occurs because businesses don’t make it a priority to limit single-use plastic waste. Desai’s point is that many businesses are guilty of over-packaging. Consumers often have no choice but to purchase certain products that yield excessive plastic waste.

However, as a business leader and entrepreneur himself, Desai understands that making large-scale packaging changes involves a tremendous amount of effort and, sometimes, losses in revenue, at least in the short term. And losses in revenue often means losses in jobs, which all organizations want to avoid. Further, it’s substantially more difficult for a multinational corporation like Coca-Cola, for example, to make large scale changes than it is for a small local company.

Related Story: Why San Diego’s recent banning of styrofoam matters.

But that’s why the more businesses can come together to work on sustainable solutions and learn from each other, the more they will be willing to make these changes, he says. This is what Desai is trying to do through The Rising Tide Summit, which brings business leaders, ocean conservation groups, and entrepreneurs together to find innovative and pragmatic ways to protect our ocean.

“I knew there were businesses out there that had taken these steps to be more sustainable and had gained valuable insights,” Desai explained. “With The Rising Tide Summit, I wanted to create a place for business leaders and entrepreneurs to hear the stories and struggles of what other companies have gone through, giving them a peek into how to overcome challenges, which would hopefully inspire them to take more action. My hope was that  these companies would reach out to each other and other nonprofits organizations to collaborate and find solutions.”

"I knew there were businesses out there that had taken steps to be more sustainable and had gained valuable insights."

Desai is hopeful, since he has already seen thousands of businesses unite to protect the ocean all over the country, especially when it comes to standing against offshore oil drilling.

“We now have 7,400 businesses in California, Washington, and Oregon that oppose off-shore drilling,” Desai said. “And we have around 60,000 more when you take into account businesses from the Gulf and Atlantic that oppose it. This concerted effort has brought businesses and ocean conservation groups along with local, state, and federal officials together to work closely on this issue to protect the U.S. economy and our coastal ecosystems.”

Desai is also inspired by innovative entrepreneurs and businesses that are striving to be sustainable from the get-go. Some examples include the company reCUP, which produces cups that are completely biodegradable, as well as entrepreneurs like Ryan Harris, who has created the world’s first zero-waste surfboard factory (where surfboard waste is fed to mealworms and beetles that convert it into soil). Companies like these provide inspiration to other companies, helping them realize that it’s possible to be innovative and make a profitable product that protects the environment and ocean. 

Business collaboration is only one of the three legs necessary to keep the “stool” of ocean conservation from toppling over. The second includes government legislation, and the third includes grassroots efforts and consumer awareness. Despite his initial reservations about getting involved in politics, Desai’s involvement with Ocean Champions eventually helped him see that in order for the ocean to last well into the future, government regulation is a must.

“I immersed myself in how being part of the political process can help save our ocean, and we have to work at the local, state, and federal level,” he said. “If the people we elect align with our values, then they will put forth policies that will further protect our ocean and coastal economies. And if we don’t elect people with those values, then grassroots efforts alone won’t help with it. Through our work at Ocean Champions, we’ve elected over 100 people into the House and Senate who have worked to create good ocean policies.”

WHAT CAN THE REST OF US DO?

What if we’re not business owners, entrepreneurs, or government elected officials, though? While we can certainly vote to enact certain policies or elect individuals who will make protecting the ocean a priority, what else can we do today to protect our ocean for future generations?

There are a number of things we can do personally to limit waste that will, ultimately, end up in the ocean. For example, we can limit our use of plastics by relying on reusable coffee containers and mugs (in fact, some coffee shops even reward customers with a discount for supplying their own reusable cup or container). We can bring reusable bags to the grocery store. We can opt not to use plastic straws when we eat out at restaurants. We can use reusable plates and utensils (instead of plastic) when hosting parties or dinners, even if it means we might have to spend more time cleaning up at the end of the night. We can walk or bike more (instead of driving) in order to limit CO2 emissions. We might also consider adopting a heavily plant-based diet, installing solar panels on our homes, or purchasing energy-efficient vehicles.

Desai and his son looking out at the water.

Desai does his best to ensure that he and his family limit their waste every way they can.

“The biggest challenge is making behavioral changes. We’re humans and we’re programmed from day one that this is how things work and anything outside of that becomes uncomfortable,” Desai said about our reservations to adopting new habits, especially when it comes to being more eco-friendly. “When I learned about plastic pollution, I remember thinking that using a reusable bottle just seemed cumbersome and weird. I thought, ‘Why would I take a reusable bag to the grocery store?’ But doing small things like that are a big deal and lead to incremental change. That’s why the earlier on we can change our behavior, the better.”

This is precisely why Desai has educated his son about the importance and beauty of the ocean from a young age, in order to instill lifelong habits aimed at taking care of our ocean and the world as a whole. In fact, Desai is currently working on a children’s book about ocean conservation. While it’s critical that we are willing to make changes no matter our age, Desai realizes that it’s incredibly important that we are helping our children understand what good stewardship of our ocean looks like. If they grow up with an appreciation and love for our ocean — and adopt behaviors that reflect it — they will likely carry that into adulthood. 

Another way to actively help conserve the ocean is by becoming more critical of our buying habits.

“We have to become conscious consumers, and we really have to look at what we’re buying, and whether or not these companies align with our values,” Desai shared. “That is how we vote with our wallets.”

While it’s encouraging that many companies are willing to make sustainable practices a priority, the quickest way — other than government regulation — to get more companies to care about ocean conservation is to make it clear that they will suffer losses in profit unless they take actions to be sustainable. Voting with our wallets, as Desai highlights, is an extremely powerful way to encourage — even demand — that companies start caring for the ocean in the way they conduct their business.

Lastly, it’s an act of love — for God’s creation and for current and future generations — to do what we can to help conserve the ocean. It aligns with fulfilling our call to be good stewards of creation. We can only affirm what God created — and saw was good — by taking concrete steps to preserve and protect it. Therefore, we are each called to protect the ocean: some of us might be called to enter into politics or work toward sustainable business practices while others might be called to educate our children about sustainable living and become committed to making eco-friendly consumer decisions.

Desai sitting at the water's edge on a rock.

Desai remains hopeful that we are progressing in the right direction, and that as more and more people become educated about our need to care for the ocean, the more we’ll be able to do so.

“I’ve been involved for more than 30 years in ocean conservation efforts, and [it used to be that] when you talked about a beach cleanup, people looked at you like you were weird,” Desai said. “But now, 30 years later, it’s a badge of honor to do something environmentally sound. There are so many more people taking action and talking about doing the right thing and voting with their wallets and supporting grassroots organizations. We are at the tip of the iceberg of this movement blowing up. I am extremely hopeful of where we are headed. I wish it was faster, and it needs to be faster, but more people are talking about it and engaging with these issues, and that is what gives me hope.”

Ultimately, turning the tide will depend on all of us uniting in a mission to save the ocean.

“When it comes to saving the ocean, no one else is going to do it,” Desai said. “We have to be the heroes that we have been waiting for.”

Related story: Jeff Hester’s passion for ocean conversation has taken him around the world to film for the Netflix documentary Our Planet and other projects.