Empowering Education for Sustainable Oceans | Written by Shane Smith

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The founders of Education Perfect, Shane and Craig Smith have always sought to influence positive change. Their new focus has become the ocean, with Craig qualifying as a scuba diving instructor, and Shane developing an interest in underwater photography – experiences that have opened their eyes to the importance of sustainability in our oceans, and just how crucial it is to act before the damages are irreversible. In this article, Shane discusses the pressures on the oceans, and what we can all do to contribute to making positive changes.

Our oceans are beautiful, magical places. From the vibrant colours of warm water coral reefs to the gracefully swaying underwater cathedrals of cold water kelp forests, our oceans are teeming with life. All these creatures are connected in an intricate web of interdependence, where the actions of one can have complex consequences for the rest of the ecosystem.

It’s easy to forget, but we too are a part of this ecosystem. This means both that our actions have far-reaching consequences for our oceans, and also that what happens in our oceans has significant consequences for humanity.

Over the last 50 years we have put increasing pressure on the oceans from a number of fronts:

  • Our release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has raised ocean temperatures and made our seas more acidic, causing numerous mass coral bleaching events and large-scale die-offs of kelp forests.
  • We have discarded an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic into the oceans, which have broken down and entered the food chain, with dire results for ocean inhabitants -, particularly seabirds.
  • Our increasingly sophisticated fishing technology has allowed us to seek out and harvest fish stocks from every corner of the planet. It’s estimated that we’ve fished out 90% of the large predatory fish in the ocean and that 80% of global fish stocks are either fully exploited or over-exploited.
  • As well as harvesting these fish, we have degraded or destroyed significant tracts of their habitat, reducing their ability to recover. The primary culprits here are the clearing of mangrove forests, destructive fishing techniques such as bottom trawling and dredging, and runoff from cleared land and agriculture.

We’re at a crucial juncture with our oceans. At the dawn of the industrial revolution 150 years ago, the oceans were seen as boundless resources – anything we did was “but a drop in the ocean”. Our technological advances since then mean that this no longer holds true, and we need to act rapidly to avoid doing permanent harm. The United Nations has realised this urgency and has declared 2021-2030 to be ‘The Ocean Decade’.

 


This shot looks up through one of the deck port-holes of the SS Yongala towards the surface. The Yongala is considered a sacred site because of the crew and passengers on board who went down with the ship, so penetration of the wreck is not permitted.

 

So what’s to be done, and in particular what can I do?

This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves for a number of years. While many of these issues will require a component of government policy change, we’ve identified a number of simple behaviour changes that we can all make to get the ball rolling.

Here are six simple changes we can all make:

  • Take an interest in what’s happening down at your local beach, or even better, put on a snorkel or some scuba gear and see what’s going on underwater in your neighbourhood
  • Eat seafood responsibly. Take an interest in what you’re eating and look up how it’s harvested. Try to only eat sustainably fished or grown seafood. Australians have a sustainable seafood guide published on https://goodfish.org.au/, while New Zealanders have one published by Forest and Bird (https://bestfishguide.org.nz/)
  • Reduce our consumption of red meat. Cows and sheep are unfortunately very inefficient ways to feed ourselves due to the methane they produce, the amount of land and water they require, and the use of supplementary feed to hasten their growth. New Zealand and Australia have a long heritage as dairy and sheep farmers, so this is going to be a gradual transition for many of us, but we can each make a start. Try starting off by finding one meal a week where you can swap red meat for a vegetarian protein source such as beans or lentils.
  • Optimise how we get around. Compared to each of us driving our own vehicles, car pooling, taking public transport, or cycling all produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

 


The waters of the Poor Knights Island reserve are teeming with life – which is what happens when we protect it rather than systematically pulling every living creature out of the ocean.

 

Does it really need to be wrapped in plastic?

Where possible, avoid plastic packaging, particularly for single-use items. Thanks to our consumer demand, businesses are waking up and switching to more sustainable packaging options.

This is no “holier than thou” preaching. I have to admit that I’m far from perfect when it comes to always remembering to action these ideas, but I am trying to integrate these changes into my life too.

Empowering the next generation

School-age students today are acutely aware that the world they’re inheriting is not the world that their parents grew up in. This has led to a range of reactions, from the palpable anger expressed during the 2018 climate change protests to an ongoing background “climate anxiety”. We wanted to give students both the knowledge that they need to understand the range of issues facing our oceans, and also a set of proactive steps they can take to minimise their footprint on the oceans. To achieve this, we’ve partnered with Education Perfect along with teachers in Australia and New Zealand to deliver a set of lessons focused on Sustainable Oceans.

The lessons have three key messages:

  1. Our oceans are amazing, extremely important to humanity, and worthy of protecting.
  2. Our oceans are currently facing a number of specific threats.
  3. While we can’t individually solve these problems, there are a range of simple changes that we can make to our lives to minimise our impact on them.

 


This Humpback Whale calf is just a few weeks old and we would have been some of the first human beings that it had ever seen, so it stopped by to check us out. For scale, a humpback calf at birth is between 3 – 5 meters long and weighs in at almost a tonne. Her mother however, will be four times this size and can weigh as much as 30 tonnes. It’s the difference between a campervan driving past vs. a full sized bus. Humpback mothers migrate from the cold but nutrient-dense waters of antarctica up to the warm waters of Tonga to give birth to their young. During this migration they stop feeding and live entirely off stored fat, even while providing all the nutrients necessary to nourish their calves. By the time they return South they can have between 25 and 50% of their body mass. Talk about the sacrifices of parenting!

These lessons will be made freely available to all students in Australia and New Zealand. We will also be running a competition on Education Perfect coinciding with World Ocean Day to promote the lessons and encourage students to engage with them.

These lessons are our first attempt at engaging with these issues in the public domain. We’ve tried to focus on solutions rather than placing blame. We want students to walk away feeling empowered rather than thinking the situation is   hopeless (which it isn’t). As with everything, a first attempt is seldom perfect and we’re sure that there will be room for improvement and iteration, so we welcome feedback on how we can make these lessons a better resource for all of our kids.

Our Sustainable Oceans Competition (6-10 June, 2022) is a great way to try out this content with your students. This is free to take part in and there are lots of great prizes.

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