Our Impact: The cost of daily Ocean use

This is part of our Four Pillars work that highlights the importance of the Ocean, the human-made threats it faces, and the solutions our Ocean provides.

What is the cost of our daily Ocean activities

What’s there to love about the Ocean 

Many things come to mind: How vast it is, Ocean biodiversity, being able to swim, dive, snorkel, travel and so much more.  

This large body of water helps us stay connected with each other through global trade and passenger routes.

The Ocean also helps us learn about, explore, and enjoy its many offerings through touristic and recreational activities. But this daily Ocean use can also be harmful to the marine environment if we are not careful. 

Recreational boating in the Ocean. In the image, a speedboat cuts across Ocean waves leaving a trail in its wake.

The impacts of tourism on our Ocean  

The issue with “sun, sea, sand” tourism on Ocean biodiversity 

Touristic Ocean activities are mainly experienced through cruising or coastal tourism.

One of the major impacts on the Ocean comes from coastal infrastructure development dedicated to cultivating tourism hotspots: think airports, hotels, or retail shops.  

Effective planning and management are crucial in minimising the impacts on biodiversity. If foregone, the effects are dire: a 15-year unplanned development period at Vlora Bay, Albania resulted in the disappearance of over 50% of seagrass meadows and a huge reduction in macroalgae.  

People enjoying a beach and the blue Ocean waves.

Furthermore, studies continue to show that beaches with extensive tourism are less rich in nutrients and biodiversity, when compared to natural shorelines. This is often the case to appease tourists with what an “ideal” beach might look like.  

Our love for water-based recreational activities impacts marine life 

There is nothing quite like spending some time in the water, whether that may be a pool, a lagoon, a lake, or the mighty Ocean.  

Scuba diving and snorkeling are highly popular activities, and the prime locations are areas with coral reefs.  

Coral reefs  attract large numbers of tourists each year.

Around the world, coral reef tourism is valued at an estimated $36 billion annually.

In terms of visitor numbers, this equates to 70 million tourist trips that would not have happened without the presence of these magnificent reefs.  

Coral reef tourism is valued at $36 billion every year. A scuba diver is reaching out to touch a fish in a coral reef.

Studies have shown that diver interactions can be damaging to the reefs.

This mostly comes down to the risk of breaking or touching the fragile reefs. Better training for the divers and overall management techniques are needed to ensure coral reef tourism is sustainable.  

Other activities that attract visitors include birdwatching, whale watching and recreational boating.

Whale watching is a significant tourist activity, generating about $2.1billion per annum, globally. Millions of people engage in this activity which may benefit conservation efforts through change in attitudes towards marine life and natural environments. Yet, uncontrolled whale watching efforts can disrupt their natural behaviours.  

A whale tail image. The whale's tail is dipping into the Ocean waves.

What are the effects of marine traffic on the Ocean? 

Marine traffic mainly comprises of shipping cargoes and passenger movements. This traffic can impact the Ocean through various forms of pollution (air, water, noise, oil spills) as well as biodiversity losses.  

Passenger traffic has seen an increased interest in cruises – the number of passengers has increased by about 5% per year, with major hotspots being the Caribbean and Mediterranean.  

There is also an increased interest in Antarctic and Arctic tourism. With melting sea ice in the Arctic, new parts of the area open, which is likely to be subjected to more impacts.  

Cruise boat in the Ocean.

New innovations in marine fuels and strict adherence to the codes provided by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are necessary to limit the environmental impacts caused by marine traffic.  

But what if we just limited the traffic? 

Here is an insightful case study…  

Research Spotlight: What happens when we curb marine traffic? 

Chinese white dolphins are not limited to but can be found in the waters near Hong Kong.

Over the last 17 years, their population has decreased by 80% and one of the main culprits is marine traffic. A recent multi-year study found fascinating changes in behaviour of these mammals when left undisturbed.*

Due to COVID-19, cross border passenger ferries between Hong Kong, Macau and China ceased to operate in early 2020.

In the absence of the fast ferries, the dolphins began to actively use the fairways. Researchers at WWF Hong Kong found that dolphins occurred in larger groups and socialised much more. 

WWF HK is now working with other stakeholders to maintain the area as a ferry-free zone. A survey was conducted to document public support for this initiative and the results show that rerouting ferries when the maritime border reopens is the preferred option, even though this means increased fares and longer travelling times. 

Chinese dolphin in the Ocean. The dolphin is pink in colour.

We need to become responsible Ocean users 

It is clear that we can travel and enjoy everything the Ocean has to offer, provided we understand and limit our impacts when indulging in these activities.  

As we seek solutions to aid sustainable reforms within shipping and cruise ships, learning and appreciating the Ocean and marine life is a great start to being more careful tourists, internationally or domestically.  

We have one Ocean and we need to protect it every day. 

*We would like to thank Dr Lindsay Porter, Senior Research Scientist at SEAMAR Hong Kong SAR for providing these invaluable insights.  

Why is the Ocean so important?

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