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26 Powerful Photos That Show Why Oceans Still Need Our Help

From plastics pollution to acidification, the world’s oceans are in serious trouble—and it’s a much bigger problem than you likely realize.

Buste di plastica sul fondale marino.Francesco Pacienza/Getty Images

Our oceans are under attack

World Oceans Day falls on June 8, and after sheltering in place for more than two months, we’re all ready for a reason—any reason—to celebrate. Unfortunately, the state of our planet’s largest bodies of water is not the place to start. A United Nations report from September found that oceans were “under such severe stress that the fallout could prove difficult for humans to contain without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” the New York Times reported. How bad is it? These photos offer the beginnings of a clue. Of course, these are only a few of the reasons that the earth, as a whole, desperately needs our help.

Jackass Penguins Covered in OilMartin Harvey/Getty Images

Oil spills

Pretty much everything that’s wrong with our oceans is due, on some level, to human interference, but the effects of oil-tanker spills on ocean wildlife are especially shaming. Yes, numbers are way down since 1978, a record-high year in which there were almost 120 spills worldwide. But in the last decade, there have been 62 spills classified as “large,” meaning that they dumped at least 7 tonnes (metric tons) of oil and which taken together are responsible for 164,000 tonnes of oil leaking into our oceans. Five hundred seabirds, including 350 endangered African penguins (shown here), were covered in oil following a 120-tonne spill in Cape Town’s harbor in 2015, according to the AP.

Harbor seal and plastic water bottleCliff Nietvelt/Getty Images

Plastics pollution

Eight million tons of single-use plastic makes its way into our oceans every year, where it ensnares and suffocates wildlife when it is ingested by birds, fish, and seals, according to the United Nations. It also floats around out there for hundreds of years. It’s the largest source of ocean pollution by far, making up about 80 percent of all the junk we toss in there. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) deems plastics pollution “the most widespread problem affecting the marine environment. It also threatens ocean health, food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.”

TOPSHOT-INDIA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMALSOREN ANDERSSON/Getty Images

Ghost fishing gear

One of the most insidious forms of ocean pollution, plastic or otherwise, is fishing gear that’s been discarded, lost, or abandoned. This so-called ghost gear, which includes things like nets, “continues to fish and trap animals, entangle and potentially kill marine life, smother habitat, and act as a hazard to navigation,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). An estimated 640,000 metric tons of it goes missing every year, notes Scientific American. The photo shown here was taken on a beach in Karnataka, India, in 2019; in it, a dead olive ridley sea turtle, most populations of which are threatened, is shown strangled by a piece of rope, likely from fishing equipment.

Shark finning campVW Pics/Getty Images

Shark finning

Sharks rarely get the love and respect they deserve, except, tragically, as an ingredient in certain traditional medicines. Rather than slaughtering these essential apex predators outright, however, fishermen hunting sharks for their supposedly curative properties, as well as for the delicacy shark-fin soup, cut off their fins and toss the animals back into the ocean, where they promptly drown. Approximately 100 million sharks are finned every year, according to Smithsonian Ocean.

Katsuura Tuna MarketLeisa Tyler/Getty Images

Smaller tuna

Revered as an ingredient in sushi in Japan, bluefin tuna has been steadily in decline, with its populations plummeting by 97 percent, reported The Mercury News in 2017. Regardless, the Trump administration refused to list the Pacific species as endangered, and Japanese fishing fleets have not limited the amounts they’re trying to catch. As a result of these factors and others, bluefins that make their way to market are less plentiful and a lot smaller than the 1,000-pound specimens that used to be the norm and once drew heavy bidding at Japan’s wholesale fish markets. Is the ocean actually running out of fish? Here’s what’s going on.

Coral Reefs And White DeathAlexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Coral bleaching

Coral reefs all over the world—75 percent of them between 2014 and 2017, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)—have been undergoing bleaching events caused by warming oceans. Living in symbiotic partnership with tiny algae called zooxanthellae, corals eject these necessary algae when stressed, which turns them white and makes them susceptible to death. This has a deleterious effect not only on the coral and the zooxanthellae but also on all manner of organisms for which a coral reef ecosystem provides a habitat, spawning grounds, and sources of food. Find out what else warmer oceans mean for the planet.

Fresh oyster harvest in Wellfleet...John Greim/Getty Images

Acidification

Our oceans aren’t just getting warmer—they’re also becoming increasingly acidic. This will have numerous deleterious effects on both the organisms that live in the water and humans, according to Smithsonian Ocean. In fact, some of the effects are being felt already in the fishing industry. Overly acidic water affects the ability of mollusks like oysters and mussels to grow their shells, especially when they are just forming. As a result, oyster fishermen on the West Coast of the United States have been seeing extensive larvae die-offs, reports the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.

Cordova, Alaska: Jim Aguiar works with his oysters on his oyster farming operation in the picturesRick Loomis/Getty Images

Increased disease

Increasingly warm oceans are also leading to preponderances of certain bacteria and other sources of illness in humans, according to NPR, including of the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, which is found in oysters and flourishes in ocean waters that are about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, climate change is driving all sorts of new diseases and pests, both on land and in the water. In case you were wondering, this is the difference between global warming and climate change.

Common Guillemot or Murre, Uria aalge, washed up dead on beach after storm NorfolkEducation Images/Getty Images

Dying seabirds

The common murre has had generally strong populations in the northern hemisphere, but an ocean-warming event in 2015–2016 proved that even non-threatened species are susceptible to the vagaries of climate change. Called the Blob, this warming event led to massive shifts in the range of plankton, critically important to murre diets; as a result, murres washed up on beaches from California to Alaska, dead from starvation. In all, scientists estimate that one-quarter of the murre population was wiped out, reports ScienceNews. These warming events are expected to become more common in the coming years. Did you know that these wild animals became endangered in 2019?

Dead Gannet on beach, killed by being ensnared on fish hookEducation Images/Getty Images

Death by fishhook

The potential for injury to birds and other sea life comes from many quarters. Improperly discarded fish hooks can be very dangerous for birds. Some birds swallow fish hooks, which can lead to extremely painful deaths, according to the Humane Society of the United States. This sort of discarded fishing gear is the leading cause of injury to pelicans at one treatment facility in South Florida. But other birds fall prey to hooks, too, like the gannet pictured here.

Storm Ciara Hits Sandgate KentAndrew Aitchison/Getty Images

Effects of stronger storms

As long as the climate continues to warm due to human activity, writes Yale Climate Connections, storms such as hurricanes are on track to become stronger and more deadly. We’ve already seen the effects on coasts across the globe. Pictured here, just this past February, Storm Ciara sent rain and 90 mph winds across the United Kingdom and battered the Folkstone Harbour Arm.

Increasingly intense storms can harm ocean life, too. After a series of heavy Atlantic storms in 2014, more than 21,000 birds were killed on the French coast. Unable to fish due to gale-force winds, they died of exhaustion and/or starvation. Here’s what else can happen to birds in a hurricane.

US-ENVIRONMENT-FISHING-AGRICULTURE-ECOSYSTEMKERRY SHERIDAN/Getty Images

Dying seagrass

Biscayne National Park, our country’s only underwater national park, is a tidal estuary once known for its lush mangrove and freshwater and saltwater marsh habitats. But, reports Key News, it has seen the death of up to 93 percent of its important seagrasses in some parts of the Biscayne Bay. Discharge from man-dredged canals has, in large part, led to increased salinity in the Bay and a radical change to its ecosystem. South of Biscayne Bay, in Florida Bay (pictured here), these same freshwater diversions are similarly killing off seagrass and the biodiverse communities it supports, including redfish, snook, and mangrove snapper.

Damaged ecklonia kelp (Ecklonia radiata) after a storm. Tie-dye Arch. Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand. South Pacific Ocean. Date: 08/05/2008.Avalon/Getty Images

Disappearing kelp

From Tasmania to California, vibrant and important kelp beds are falling prey to warming oceans and collapsing, as a result, reports Yale e360. In some places, they’ve been replaced by warm-water-loving and “voracious” sea urchins, which devour all remaining vegetation and wipe out the habitat for all other living things. Pictured here: New Zealand’s Ecklonia kelp, damaged by another threat: increasingly intense storms. These are the 14 countries doing the most to protect the environment.

Los Angeles TimesBrian van der Brug/Getty Images

More negative effects from oil

The effects of oil spills are a lot more far-reaching than you probably realize and affect so much more than just a handful of marine species. A 2015 pipeline leak off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, released 100,000 gallons of oil across a nine-mile stretch of beaches, reports Wired: “The 14,000 acres of kelp sprawled around the coast captures big gobs of oil in the canopies, so it settles like a toxic cloud on the algal forests.” It not only kills the kelp—it also impacts 800 species that rely on it, including gray whales, otters, crabs, and snails.

FRANCE-NATURE-CLIMATE-ENVIRONMENTBORIS HORVAT/Getty Images

Algal blooms

Warming oceans are causing intensified and more frequent outbreaks of algal blooms—everything from red tides to filament algae called Thanatos, seen here in 2015 at France’s La Ciotat in the Mediterranean Sea. These blooms have the unfortunate ability to smother other flora, as well as produce dangerous toxins that can sicken people and animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Algal blooms are just one of the hidden beach dangers you need to take seriously.

Spending Time in Antarctica Before and After the Inauguration of the New Brazilian Research BaseAlessandro Dahan/Getty Images

Increasing Antarctic thaw

Although some spring thaw is normal in the Antarctic, what Reuters calls the “frozen continent” lost three trillion tonnes of ice from 1992 to 2017, which has led to almost a centimeter of sea-level rise. “Antarctica has enough ice to raise seas by [190 feet] if it ever all melted, dwarfing frozen stores in places from Greenland to the Himalayas and making its future the biggest uncertainty in understanding global warming and ocean levels,” Reuters reports. Rising sea levels could threaten both coastal cities and low-lying nations around the world. For example, these 13 islands will disappear in the next 80 years.

Global Warming And Patagonia's Receding GlaciersDavid Silverman/Getty Images

Melting glaciers

The general warming of our planet is leading to the melting of our glaciers. Seen here just one year ago are pieces of ice broken off of the Perito Moreno glacier in Lake Argentina, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in Los Glaciares National Park. NASA reports that these ice fields, the largest southern hemisphere expanse outside Antarctica, are melting at some of the highest rates on the planet, according to Getty Images. Here’s more on what could happen if glaciers continue to melt.

TOPSHOT-RUSSIA-ARCTIC-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL-CLIMATEALEXANDER GRIR/Getty Images

Disappearing sea ice and its effects on wildlife

It’s been widely reported that loss of ice in our normally frigid regions has had massive impacts on wildlife that depend upon it for hunting. That includes polar bears, of course. In 2018, starving polar bears took over a remote village in northern Russia, breaking into houses and trash cans in search of food. Scientists predict that these sorts of unfortunate interactions between humans and animals will only increase as resources become even scarcer due to climate change. In case you were wondering, this is how many polar bears are left in the world.

Soulac-sur-MerAndia/Getty Images

Collapsing dunes

Sand dunes along coastlines naturally shift with tides and storms to prevent coastal erosion. But with humans intent on building houses and hotels in delicate areas that are not meant to support permanent structures, combined with the issue of intensifying storms, you get images like this one in Soulac-sur-Mer in western France. This building is holding onto a small but certain-to-collapse dune on an ever-dwindling coast.

Dune conservation by dune grass plantings at Nauset Beach...John Greim/Getty Images

Fortified dunes

In some areas, coastal towns have sought to conserve and protect their essential dunes by planting dune grasses. However, planting non-native dune grass has its own unintended negative effects on coastal communities. According to a paper in Ecosphere from 2010, these monocultures of introduced beach grasses have “converted open, low‐lying sand dunes with a sparse covering of native plants to tall, densely vegetated ridges dominated by…invaders,” resulting in a decline in populations of native birds and plant species.

Gaza's beaches were one of the only escapes from daily hardship but since a geopolitical dispute led to power cuts, the local sewerage plant has been down and raw sewage has been pouring into the sea.The Washington Post/Getty Images

Raw sewage

Sewage discharge and runoff from factories can make its way into oceans, leading to toxic environments for marine life and just general disgustingness on our beaches, reports National Geographic. In this image from the Washington Post, raw sewage-related discharge is shown washing up on a beach in Gaza in 2019. For more eye-opening images, check out what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like.

A protective mask for the mouth and nose thrown into the sea...KONTROLAB/Getty Images

The effects of coronavirus

Even with much of the world’s population sheltering in place since March, the oceans have still been adversely affected by the sloppy habits of humans. The gloves, masks, and other protective gear that so many of us have been wearing to keep ourselves and other people safe from the novel coronavirus has nevertheless made its way into the ocean, endangering habitats and creating a general mess for sea life. For more about how the pandemic is affecting our world, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

A shipwreck sits in the lagoon on November 28, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Shipwrecks

History may be filled with tales of adventure on the high seas. But shipwrecks are one of the largest sources of marine pollution. In fact, reports the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, “some 75 percent of sunken wrecks date back to the Second World War; their metal structures are aging and their metal plates are deteriorating, thus threatening to release their contents into the ocean due to the effects of corrosion.” These wrecks also leak oil into the ocean and often are too costly and/or inconveniently located to retrieve. Here are the creepiest (and potentially problematic) things you can find at the bottom of the ocean.

Removal of shallows in the sea channelpicture alliance/Getty Images

Dredging

Ocean dredging is undertaken throughout the world to enhance marine transportation. However, reports Marine Insight, this “alters the predisposed composition of the soil, leading to the destruction habitat of creatures and organisms.” The dredging of contaminated materials can also “result in the regrouping of harmful particles and contaminate large of areas of water bodies.” Here, a ship dredges the sea channel off Warnemünde in Pomerania to eliminate shallows in the fairway.

Dead fin whaleAlexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Whale collisions

As if whales weren’t facing enough threats in our oceans, they are also dying after colliding with ships—something that’s been happening with increasing frequency. The Washington Post reports that ten whales, five of them endangered or threatened fin, blue, and humpbacks, died in this way in California in 2018, amounting to the highest number of collision-related whale fatalities there. And regulations to prevent this from happening are all but nonexistent. This problem is not relegated only to California, of course. Here, a dead fin whale is shown in Marseille, France, after it was hit by a cargo ship.

Illegal cyanide fishing in the Philippinespicture alliance/Getty Images

Dynamite fishing

Fishing fleets pose many challenges to marine ecosystems. But there are other methods of catching fish that are cataclysmic to ocean environments: dynamiting and cyanide poisoning. Both are prevalent in the Philippines, and in the case of the former, reports the New York Times, “from microscopic plankton to sea horses, anemones, and sharks, little survives inside the 30- to 100-foot radius of an explosion.” This has led to the almost wholesale destruction of that island nation’s coral reefs. Cyanide fishing also kills coral and wreaks havoc on ocean life. Next, learn the 20 tiny everyday changes you can make to help the environment.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.