Protecting And Preserving Our Oceans Is A Matter Of Public Health

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a wave of legislation in the United States to protect and sustain our oceans, coasts, and the Great Lakes. Included in this legislation is the Coastal Zone Management Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Clean Water Act.

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These landmark policies not only protect our environment, but also our health. For example, they act directly to reduce pollutants entering our waterways and indirectly by preserving critical habitats and species necessary for feeding ourselves.

This decade is also notable, because it is the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, a UN initiative that supports science and collective action to revitalize the world’s oceans.

The Ocean Decade is believed to provide a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to strengthen scientific research and innovation, as well as to enhance the political prioritization of efforts that improve the management of global oceans “for the benefit of humanity.”

For such a vision to be realized, science and policy must clearly articulate the connections to human health and well-being.

The national and international focus on the world’s oceans recognizes that they constitute the largest component of Earth’s system to stabilize the climate and support life on our planet. This surge of efforts to protect the ocean is also an acknowledgement that the planet’s marine environments are badly degraded from issues such as overfishing and pollution.

The degradation of our oceans has diverse impacts including emerging infectious diseases, negative effects on agriculture and housing, reduced opportunities for novel medicines and industrial substances, fewer places for recreation and cultural practices, increasingly unsafe coastlines, growing risks to boaters and fishers, and less sustainable fisheries.

a reef in Palau
A reef in Palau. Humans are heavily dependent on keeping our oceans clean and safe. Catherine Pirkle and David Delaney

For those who live on islands, and especially for those of us who reside on one of the most remote archipelagos in the world, the critical importance of a healthy ocean to our wellbeing is glaringly obvious. Nearly every facet of our life in Hawaii is affected by the waters surrounding us.

In fact, in the Kumulipo, Hawaiian creation story, the coral polyp emerges as the first creature. The story unfolds to explain the interconnection between the oceans, marine life, aina, and humans. Today, oceans continue to play a significant role in many cultural practices and ceremonies.

Our marine environment supports healthy behaviors, nutrition, and wellbeing. Research finds that people living near coastal areas and engaging with blue spaces report higher physical activity levels and better mental and general health.

Globally, 3.3 billion people rely on fish and other seafood as one of their main sources of protein in their diet. Many foods from the ocean are elevated in essential nutrients including zinc, iron, selenium, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Nearly every facet of our life in Hawaii is affected by the waters surrounding us.

Surprisingly, however, most health professionals, from doctors and nurses to mental health providers and public health workers, rarely attribute what is happening to the ocean to people’s health.

Even well-known dangers to human health that come from the marine environment, such as shellfish poisoning, ciguatera poisoning, jellyfish stings, and exposure to methylmercury, are considered specialty topics and are poorly understood by most health professionals.

One of the foundational concepts in the public health field is the socioecological model. This model is often depicted as an onion with the individual at the center, and layers of influence including the family, community, national and international policy surrounding the individual. An individual’s health is thus a reflection of these multiple intertwined factors. For example, national and international policies that allow overfishing may contribute to declines in local fisheries, which in turn compromise the food security and nutrition of families who depend on income and food from fishing.

This same model can be applied to examining oceans and human health. We can engage in efforts to represent a diversity of factors and the complex ways in which oceans affect people’s wellbeing.

Waikiki sunset
More than 3 billion people depending on the oceans for sustenance. Yet human-caused global warming is only growing as a threat. Catherine Pirkle and David Delaney

By doing so, we can propose activities, programs, and policies to encourage more positive relationships with the ocean that promote both our own health and that of the environment which surrounds us. These efforts are critical and timely in this moment of national and international prioritization of ocean science and conservation.

To improve our understanding of the complex linkages between oceans and human wellbeing, the Office of Public Health Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa launched an initiative last fall. To move beyond simply listing what is going wrong with our oceans, we seek to explore and publish research about the many benefits that people and communities derive from interacting with the ocean.

Over the summer, our team is holding numerous systems mapping workshops with a wide variety of community members across the state. A systems map is a visual depiction of how a system, in this case, oceans and humans, works together. Our goal is to:

  1. understand the relationship between oceans and humans;
  2. engage the community in our work;
  3. identify leverage points where we can create collective change; and
  4. develop new collaborative partnerships.

We believe listening to community voices is integral to this process. For many of us, the connections between the ocean and our wellbeing is intimate and these personal perspectives are vital for understanding ocean-health linkages.

If you hear from us, we hope you will be as excited about contributing to this important work as we are! In the meantime, we hope everyone will take a moment to enjoy and mālama our ocean.

Editor’s note: Co-authors for this Community Voices are Sara Maaria Saastamoinen, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the Political Science Department at UH Manoa focused on alternative futures and Indigenous politics; and Alena K. Shalaby, who received her undergraduate degree from the George Washington University in international affairs with a concentration on conflict resolution.

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