The Ocean Isn't Full of Plastic

The next time you feel a certain malaise that often accompanies being environmentally aware these days, shut off the device, step outside, find the biggest blue or green expanse around, and jump, hike, or climb in.
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If you're reading this you likely know that the ocean--the flowing, living, deep, and inspiring thing that covers most of our blue planet--is in some trouble. Big trouble.

You probably know about all that terrible plastic pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification, and oil spillage.

There are times when I read the same stuff you read and feel like the jig is up, the deal is done, we are toast. That the ocean is full of plastic, the fish and sea turtles are all gone, oil covers everything that moves, and that any critter that's somehow slipped by will be dissolved by the acidic sea water by the week's end.

It all makes me feel very sad, a bit hopeless, angry, and confused.

Then I take a walk down the coast, and it blows my mind.

A young sea otter hops on the longboard while waiting on a wave.

A 300 pound sea turtle is released back into the bay.

A whale shark slowly and gracefully swims by, filtering plankton.

A favorite restaurant serves up local seafood carefully caught by someone the chef knows by his first name.

The 2013 Sea Stewards class graduates, ready to begin a lifetime volunteering for Save Our Shores.

Kids dive into waves, making memories that will last forever.

I'm reminded what we are fighting for and that the ocean is still alive, still powerful, still life-giving, still the most inspiring thing I know.

The deathbed ocean we sometimes read about can seem very different from these personal experiences. There seem to be some misconceptions about where we are, where we are headed, and what each of us can do.

~ The ocean is not full of plastic. Although we do have a global problem with our addiction to this relatively new "wonder" substance and it can be found increasingly on beaches, floating around in every ocean, and with regularity inside wild animals, it doesn't fill the ocean yet and there is no giant plastic island in the middle of the Pacific. Nor is there an easy techno-fix to clean up the existing mess, despite the latest science-contest winning proposals suggesting the contrary.

~ All the fish and sea turtles are not gone yet. Many, many species and populations have declined sharply. Some have become commercially and ecologically extinct. But thanks to the work of scientists, managers, advocates, and fishermen there are a growing number of comeback stories. Some sea turtle populations can even be described as "abundant". Our success stories should be celebrated and duplicated.

~ All of the animals, even in the Gulf of Mexico, are not covered in oil. I saw some of the birds, the turtles, and the hermit crabs that were. And I know the suffering continues. But fortunately most of the ocean remains free of oil spills and oil exploration. It's a good idea to support the organizations who work to make that increasingly so.

~ The ocean isn't a giant acid bath (yet). Climate change is beginning to wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems and will continue to do so into the future. As a result the ocean is becoming incrementally warmer and more acidic. But you can and should still get in it as often as possible. It's that intimate, physical connection with sea water that motivates its most passionate protectors.

The task ahead of fixing what we've broken in nature is daunting and urgent. But when we use language that makes it seem like the ocean is already a lifeless cesspool of plastic and oil, we aren't doing the blue movement any favors. We are un-inspiring the next generation of ocean warriors.

In recent years I've listened to more than one lecture or film about the ocean and felt more like hiding in a cave than joining a movement. But instead I took myself to the sea, where I was once again met by that cold, roiling force that always puts me back up on two feet.

The next time you feel a certain malaise that often accompanies being environmentally aware these days, shut off the device, step outside, find the biggest blue or green expanse around, and jump, hike, or climb in.

Then come back to work, we need you. If you don't the ocean just may fill up with plastic.

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