by Michelle Mech (Nereida Marine Education), January 26, 2015
The oceans are a huge part of my life and I care for them deeply. For over four decades, I have spent substantial time on the oceans, cruising in 28-40 ft. sailboats with my husband and, for many years, also with our daughter. I’ve travelled 30,000 nautical miles at sea as well as countless miles off the southwest coast of British Columbia in local waters nearer to our home on Salt Spring Island.
Offshore cruising has enabled me to experience the magic of sailing downwind on gentle ocean swells under a starry night; witness the bountiful beauty and diversity of healthy coral reefs; and watch gray whales and sea turtles mating just off our boat, dolphins swim over to zigzag back and forth off our bow, and sea lions outlined by phosphorescence as they break the surface at night. I have also witnessed bleached and dying coral reefs; unsustainable fishing practices, including fishing of endangered species like sea turtles and vital, reef-maintaining parrot fish and longlines at sea stretching in either direction beyond our visual horizons; and beaches strewn with plastic debris.
Such cruising experiences have provided me with a perspective somewhat analogous to astronauts who have looked down at the Earth from outer space and seen how beautiful it is and how mankind is devastating it. This has led me to work on many environmental issues over the years, extensively on climate change. However, my love of the ocean and visits in recent years to Melaque, Mexico, where every day, the beaches were littered with plastic debris, has drawn me to focus my efforts on the oceans.
Learning that a large percentage of plastic debris ends up in the oceans and is entangling many marine animals or is being ingested by marine life at every trophic level, along with images of albatross carcasses full of plastic debris, sea lions with necks embedded with fishing line or bands, and whales and sea turtles dead from ingestion of plastic, inspired me to want to educate people about the impacts of plastic debris. Knowing also that many marine organisms are being threatened by other forms of marine pollution as well as ocean acidification and warming from climate change; unstainable fishing practices are decimating fish stocks and impacting other marine life; and marine scientists predict that on our current trajectory most reefs will be lost as effective, productive systems within a few decades, I felt that education on the other major threats to life in our oceans is also important.
Our oceans make up 95% of all the space available to life. They provide many earth system functions including regulation of climate and the hydrological cycle, habitat for an immense diversity of organisms, transportation, abundant food, and half of our oxygen. It is crucial that people understand that the oceans are our life support system and if we don’t protect them, we will not only engender the loss of substantial marine life, but also the loss of substantial human life. As the latest International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) report states, “the future of humanity and the future of the ocean are intertwined”.
One of the biggest challenges in tackling environmental issues is overcoming the lack of education and awareness and, in turn, the apathy that accompanies this. I feel that it is vitally important that our youth in particular learn about these issues as it is their future that is primarily being threatened.
Thus the Nereida project was born. Its purpose is to provide an educational approach to healthier oceans for high school students, and also adults, and hopefully inspire actions towards oceans conservation. The educational material on the Nereida website was developed in consultation with a very supportive high school superintendent and science teacher, as well as students from a variety of classes in both academic and technical high schools in Melaque. Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, also contributed to the material on plastics in the ocean.
The educational material consists of a series of PowerPoint presentations (available as PDF files), which have been set up so that they contain all the information necessary to be presented by a teacher, or read by an individual, without prior knowledge of the subjects. The presentations can be utilized individually or as a series. They are available in both Spanish and English and are also currently being utilized in science classes at the high school on Salt Spring Island. The presentation on plastics in the oceans is also being utilized by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and has inspired the mayor of Melaque to initiate a comprehensive awareness and cleanup campaign in this seaside fishing/tourist community.
One follow-up project, undertaken by Melaque students, was to write essays for local distribution. Excerpts from these essays can be found on the Nereida website and some are included below. They demonstrate clearly that knowledge does lead to understanding, caring, and concern.
As Diana Esmeralda Flores Bivian states, “I wonder how is it possible that we human beings are capable of destroying things so nice and beautiful as are the oceans? I say ‘we’ because it is not necessarily a large factory or company that contaminates with waste, or a grand hotel that empties its drainage into the sea, but also the simple act of throwing rubbish at sea, a plastic bottle, or debris that you and I throw into the sea, that is sufficient to contribute to the great harm that we do to the oceans and beaches. . . It is difficult to recognize that we ourselves are ending the things that bring us life.”
I personally feel that it is so wrong that I have been able to witness so many wonders of the oceans, while these opportunities are waning for our children. The majority of my generation fails to understand or be concerned that we are in an emergency situation. As IPSO reports, human activities are making devastating changes to the oceans at a scale and rate unprecedented in Earth’s known history, exposing organism to “intolerable and unpredictable evolutionary pressure”. As Mora Reyes Ramo del Rocío describes it, “It is amazing the rapid way with which we are ending our oceans, as if we had the task with a time limit to finish with all the good things that the oceans give us.”
Education provides youth with the tools to not feel helpless; to be able to take appropriate actions and to demand that our generation, the generation most responsible, implement the changes and policies necessary to reverse the anthropogenic degradation of our oceans. It is our youth and the lives of their children that will be most affected and they deserve access to up-to-date, science-based education so they can act while there is still time to ensure quality of life for themselves, future generations, and other living beings.
“One of the major concerns is how we will leave the environment to our descendants. I am sure that anyone would like to leave their children a planet on which they could live with tranquility and health. It is only fair that our descendants will be able to enjoy the world as we have done until today.” - Dulce María Rivera Ortega
“Let’s take care of the oceans since we need them simply to be able to survive. If we take care of them, we will be able to take advantage of everything we are offered.” - Pedro Rogelio García Méndez
Footnote: I am hoping to spread awareness of the Nereida project, so that more schools will be interested in incorporating this oceans educational material into their curriculum, and so that others may learn more about the oceans. Nereida’s educational material and other information can be found at http://nereida.org/.