Join Team Ocean
By Emily Skinner
Each day the news overflows with stories of damage to our oceans and their inhabitants, and the overwhelming number of these stories can make it difficult to see how the pieces connect to create a larger picture. This World Ocean Day – and Sea Turtle Week – let’s all take a moment to play a game: Jenga.
Nearly everyone has played this game at least once in their life, and the rules of play are simple. On your turn, you carefully remove one wood block from the tower without knocking it over. Once you have removed a block, you carefully stack it back on top of the tower. Each turn, you stack the odds against the next player as the tower grows more unstable, until eventually the entire tower collapses.
Now for World Ocean Day, let’s join this game together with our oceans. The rules remain simple: each player takes a turn removing a block and placing it back. However, the oceans also will be removing blocks from the top and trying to replace them into the main structure of the tower. Why? Because our game of Jenga is no longer a simple wood stacking game, it is a race against the collapse of our ocean systems.
Each time you take a piece out of the wood tower, you are taking a species out of the ecosystem. These pieces are our fisheries, marine species, and their habitats. Each time another fish species is overfished and on the brink of extinction; each time a sea turtle, dolphin or shark becomes bycatch; each time a coral reef bleaches and dies; and each time a habitat is lost to development, disease or pollution – a piece is taken out of the tower. Already it is estimated 13 percent of our fisheries have collapsed due to overfishing. Coral reefs are hubs of biodiversity and losing them means losing all the variety of life in and around them. The United Nations estimates that around 35 percent of our critical marine habitats globally already have been lost or destroyed; this includes mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds.1 In the United States alone since the 1600s, we have lost more than half of our wetland habitats and had significant losses in our seagrass habitats.2 Each piece we remove has been adding up for a long time, and it isn’t over yet.
To finish our turn, we have to stack our piece on top of the tower. When we add climate change, ocean warming and acidification, toxic spills, plastics, and pollutants in water runoff, the odds stack higher against our oceans. Ocean acidification is harming shellfish, as the higher acidity dissolves their shells, and the phytoplankton, which are responsible for 50 percent of our breathable oxygen.1 At our current development rate, we will have altered more than 25 percent of our coastal habitats in the next four years.2 Warming ocean temperatures and increased nutrient pollution create dead zones, or areas without oxygen where fish cannot survive. This pollution also makes it harder for coral reefs to survive and grow along with many other habitats.2 In addition to all of these, new technologies have allowed us to reach new depths of the ocean for mining and oil drilling, which puts more areas of the ocean under threat.1
At the rate we are pulling pieces and stacking the odds, more than 50 percent of our marine species will be critically endangered or going extinct by 2100. Now, the ocean still gets to take its turn, but if we all already took a turn, then we have taken and stacked hundreds of thousands of pieces already. The ocean can take a few of those pieces – like fisheries, bycatch and increased carbon dioxide – and attempt to replace them in the tower. However, if you have ever tried to replace a piece in a Jenga tower, it is extremely difficult. While the ocean could likely handle putting one or two pieces back into a still nearly fully built structure, it cannot replace those pieces when the tower is already swaying.
The way this game is going, the tower will eventually collapse on the ocean. But it won’t just be the ocean that loses. Many people and economies depend on our oceans. Everyone on this planet depends on the ocean for some part of their lives right down to the air we breathe. So, what can we do?
We support the tower. Each Jenga game comes with a cardboard sleeve to help rebuild the tower at the end of a game. It helps stabilize and line up the pieces to create a stable structure. So, we build the supports. Through conservation and education, each of us can change our role in the game. Instead of playing against the ocean, we can play on the ocean’s team. Sixty percent of the marine ecosystems that support the lives of people throughout the world have been degraded or are being used unsustainably.1 This doesn’t have to stay the case though.
It‘s easy to join Team Ocean. Supporting the development of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) gives fisheries a chance to recover by protecting critically important marine nursery habitats. Working with conservation groups to raise awareness, hosting or participating in cleanup events, volunteering to be part of citizen science projects, reducing plastic and fertilizer use, or making informed decisions about your seafood all earn you a spot on Team Ocean. With each step you take, you help build a support structure for the ocean. And if we stop taking those pieces out of the bottom, create some support and place a few pieces back into the tower, then we can all play a part in saving the beauty and resources of our oceans for generations to come.