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6 Simple Ways to Help Our Oceans

Whether you’re a regular beachgoer or live hundreds of miles inland, the health of Earth’s oceans affects us all. More than offering sparkling views to gaze upon, oceans cover 72% of the planet and produce half of the globe’s oxygen. They also regulate weather and absorb carbon dioxide, not to mention provide us with food, medicine, transportation, and relaxing beach days. World Oceans Day, celebrated June 8, is a reminder of how essential oceans are and how — at a time when ocean pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction loom large — even small habit changes can have a big impact on our planet’s briney waterways.

Cut Back on Electricity and Fuel Use

A white bicycle leaning against a blue wall.
Credit: Carl Nenzen Loven/ Unsplash

Turning down the thermostat and using public transportation can help lower electric and gas bills, but these habits also combat ocean acidification, a side effect of the fossil fuels we burn to power our homes and vehicles. Oceans naturally decrease the carbon dioxide we create by absorbing and dissolving about 30% of what’s released into the atmosphere. But when carbon dioxide levels are higher than what the seas can handle, water pH levels shift, causing ocean water to become more acidic.

Changes in water pH have a lasting impact on underwater ecosystems; coral reefs struggle to grow, certain creatures — like clams and mussels — have a harder time producing shells, and some fish become disoriented. Do your part to reduce ocean acidification by walking or biking when possible, lowering your energy use at home and work, and purchasing local foods and products that aren’t shipped long distances.

Swap Your Sunscreen for Reef-Friendly Brands

Close up of a woman in workout clothes rubbing sunscreen into her arm.
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When picking out sunscreen for a trip to the beach or lake, you may have noticed “beach safe” or “reef safe” brands — but what do those designations mean? Ocean researchers have found that some ingredients in traditional sunscreens, particularly oxybenzone and octinoxate, cause extensive damage to coral reefs. Popular swimming destinations often experience a build up of sunscreen in the water around reefs, bleaching coral and causing it to die off en masse. Reef-safe sunscreens might substitute zinc oxide or simply remove the oxybenzone and octinoxate to reduce this risk, though you should know there’s no federal regulations for “reef safe” or “beach safe” standards or branding. If you’re interested in ocean-friendly options, look for brands that don’t use these chemicals; rash guards and sun-protective clothing can also reduce your need for sunscreen.

Toss Old Medications Responsibly

Bottles of prescription medicine in a pile.
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It’s easy to toss old pills and medications down the toilet, but not everything we flush can be filtered out of wastewater that returns to rivers and reaches the seas. Once there, prescription medications disrupt habitat health and sealife behavior, especially along coastlines where water is often trapped for days before fully mixing with deeper seawater. Some of the most commonly used medications have negative impacts on sealife: Antibiotics slow the growth of beneficial algae, antidepressants cause crabs to become more bold and defiant, and diabetes medications make it difficult for some fish to reproduce.

The good news is that you can safely get rid of unused medications by locating a drop-off site — some pharmacies and doctor’s offices have drop-off kiosks, and police departments commonly host take-back events (law enforcement has gotten involved because many drugs are controlled substances). As a last resort, you can seal old medication containers with tape or in a bag before tossing them in the trash.

Limit Single-Use Plastics (and Tiny Ones You Can’t See)

Green backpack open to show a mesh market bag, bamboo cutlery and reusable coffee mug inside.
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Ditching plastics, especially single-use items such as bottles and sandwich bags, is one of the best habit switches you can make to protect ocean ecosystems. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic trash wind up in oceans each year, much of it floating at the surface. Patches of floating plastic aren’t just unsightly; they also harm marine wildlife. And while plastic trash isn’t biodegradable, it does break down into smaller pieces called microplastics that litter the ocean at all depths. Not every microplastic comes from improperly disposed trash — some are plastic fibers from synthetic clothes that escape washing machine filters while others are byproducts of cleaning products and more.

Reducing plastic waste can be hard when almost every product imaginable comes with plastic packaging, but you can start small by swapping out one-use items for reusables (think forks, cling wrap, and teabags) or selecting foods and personal care products that come in recyclable containers. And reducing how frequently you wash synthetic clothes can help your clothes last longer without leaching so many microfibers.

Forgo Fish Dinners From Over-Harvested Species

A raw salmon steak on a cutting board surrounded by cutlery, a salad bowl, and a lemon wedge.
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Decades of overfishing, paired with ocean pollution, have greatly reduced fish populations such as cod and orange roughy. So while seafood is considered a healthy, lean source of nutrients, making a meal out of endangered species isn’t helpful to ocean ecosystems. Luckily, finding alternatives to over-harvested dinner options can be easy with so many types of fish in the sea. Seafood guides (like this one from the Monterey Bay Aquarium) can help you understand the impact of your fish selection, explaining how it’s caught or raised, where it comes from, and if you should consider another filet. And if you’re near a seaport or fishing community, you can take sustainable seafood one step further by buying locally caught fish, which helps reduce the carbon emissions caused during importing and delivery.

Sign Up for a Waterway Cleanup

A person cleaning up the beach by placing a plastic bottle in a garbage bag.
Credit: Zbynek Pospisil/ iStock

You don’t have to be a coast-dweller to help slow the flow of plastic and trash into the ocean. Water (and trash) makes its way to the seas from small streams, which feed into rivers that flow to ocean deltas. You can reduce the surge of trash by participating in or hosting a waterway or beach cleanup. Organized events with a handful of volunteers can tackle problem areas quickly, though it doesn’t take a large group to make a positive impact. Even picking up a bag of trash during a relaxing beach walk can help you honor the importance of our oceans and inspire others to join in, too.

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