Few people are immune to the mesmerizing spell of the ocean. Its rhythmic ebbs and flows draw you in, and keep you enthralled with otherworldly landscapes.
Coral reefs dot the seafloor like brushstrokes in impressionist paintings with millions of free-floating microorganisms building shells and limestone skeletons. The delicate ecological balance at the core of these ecosystems rivals even the most beautiful Monets.
The dynamic community includes everything from single-celled organisms to the world’s largest animals, whales and sharks.
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to experience the underwater world, scuba diving and snorkeling frequently off the shores of Florida and Barbados. I have been able to see wonderful arrays of marine colors and life. Yet as I watch turtles and rays gliding through the water, I notice that the reef below them is dying.
It becomes clearer each day that these wonderful undersea landscapes are in danger. I see that most large predators are gone and there is little in the reefs where I dive that resembles a pristine ecosystem.
I am reminded every time I walk on a beach that the Caribbean Monk Seal was driven to extinction before I even had the chance to see one.
Although it remains foreign to some, the sea is the origin of life on earth. It served as a nursery for all life on this planet, and now continues to work as this planet’s life support system.
It provides half the oxygen we breathe, absorbs much of the carbon dioxide we produce, regulates the global climate and more. In short, the ocean makes life possible. Yet we treat it with contempt.
We have become too efficient at taking fish out of it; so much so that ecologist Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 work “The Tragedy of the Commons.” noted overfishing to the point of near-extinction to illustrate overexploitation.
Only 10 percent of the life that once roamed the ocean is left. Seawater is becoming more acidic than it has been in millions of years, and there are huge expanses of the sea that are devoid of oxygen due to nutrient pollution and eutrophication (the enrichment of an ecosystem by chemical nutrients).
It is time for us to take responsibility for our ocean — one of the last frontiers of our planet where there is still no governance. Not only to keep it healthy, but because everything from our climate to the world economy, and even the survival of the human race, depends on it.
It is the main source of protein for over 1 billion people and a source of livelihood for many more. It literally produces the air we breathe.
Beyond that, any effective mitigating action against climate change must heavily rely on the ocean. Coral reefs, producing limestone skeletons, provide far more permanent carbon storage than forests. They also shelter shores from heavy storms and provide a base (as nursery or feeding grounds) for 25 percent of all ocean life.
The ocean’s importance to humans — economic, nutritional and meteorological — is impossible to ignore. It requires immediate recognition and a drastic change in the way we treat the sea.
We want to educate and inspire our generation to take the lead and make a change. We can each make a difference with small scale projects and changes in our lifestyles (using less plastic, for example), and history has shown that with proper stewardship, ecosystems can be incredibly resilient.
Although 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish are gone and 75 percent of coral reefs dead, what’s left gives me hope, because protected areas and good regulation have restored abundance to many places.
Feeding the world and protecting coastal communities from rising sea levels — two great challenges of our century — will be far easier if we take care of our oceans first.
We should take action because we can protect some of the most beautiful ecosystems on earth, and while we’re at it, improve the lives of millions as well.

Sebastian Nicholls is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and chief of staff of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance.

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