Conservation groups, schools, businesses and governments across the globe are planning events and activities Tuesday to celebrate the world’s oceans, a day of tribute tinged by worry over the impact of a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The United Nations recognizes June 8 as World Oceans Day. The “holiday” was officially celebrated for the first time last year, though the concept of a day to pay homage to the world’s oceans was first proposed in 1992 by Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
This year, the Deep Horizon spill that has been gushing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf has raised concerns over how human activity can imperil the waters that people live and feed off. The Gulf of Mexico, the world’s 11th-largest body of water, connects to the Atlantic Ocean, the second-largest ocean that covers roughly one-fifth of the Earth's surface. Scientists and environmentalists fear the spill could affect the marine food chain for years, if not decades.
Wildlife officials have stated that hundreds of species of animals and dozens of parks and wildlife refuges in the Gulf region are threatened as oil spreads to coastal marshes and wetlands.
"It’s terrible disaster and it's raising awareness around the country and the world about the ocean's fragility to a large extent," said Bill Mott, director of The Ocean Project, a network of 1,200 organizations worldwide working to help promote World Oceans Day and to communicate with the public about conservation issues. "The Gulf disaster is creating a huge amount of concern from people who are wanting to do something to help."
“There is just huge concern about what this is going to mean,” said Sarah Chasis, director of the ocean initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We know that with the Exxon Valdez … the impacts are still being felt 20 years later.”
'Crisis' in the oceans?
Researchers have been sounding the alarm on the degrading health of the world’s oceans for years. In 2003, a report by the Pew Oceans Commission, an independent group created to chart a new course for U.S. ocean policy, warned that America’s oceans are “in crisis,” threatened by such activities as coastal development and sprawl, pollution and overfishing.
“Without reform, our daily actions will increasingly jeopardize a valuable natural resource and an invaluable aspect of our national heritage,” the report said.
Today, there are some bright spots, such as protected status for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a chain of tiny islands, atolls and shoals in the Pacific. But the health of the oceans remains "pretty dire" in many places, such as coastal Asia, where overfishing is endemic, Mott said.
Pollution, global warming and a growing number of "dead zones" — huge, oxygen-depleted patches of coastal waters where hardly any organism can survive — are also worrisome, Chasis and Mott said.
"The numbers of dead zones are increasing off this coast and in other countries," Mott said. "Overfishing remains a chronic problem and if we continue business as usual, most commercially valuable fish species are going to be wiped out in the next decades. That’s a pretty scary prognosis."
“One thing people should be aware of is that what happens in one area can contribute to degradation in another part of the world,” said Chasis. “We should be aware that there is an interconnection.”
And that, in part, is part of what World Oceans Day is all about — raising awareness. In the long run, the Gulf spill will likely help do that as well, observers said.
"It’s a great cloud over the whole celebratory event to some extent but we also have to make it empowering for people," Mott said.
"I think this disaster is going to create a whole new generation of people who are much more aware of the fragility of the ocean and how we are all connected to the ocean in so many ways."