/ 9 October 2021

Having fun while saving the oceans

Against the trash tide: GreenKayak is a European NGO and people can paddle for free as long as they collect waste

This year marks the start of the United Nations OceanDecade, which aims to safeguard 30% of oceans by 2030. With only eight years to go, the race is on to restore and protect marine life. 

“The United Nations has attempted to protect the ocean before, by setting Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 in 2010 that aimed to conserve 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Sadly, this target was not achieved,” the UN said. 

Only 7.68% of the ocean is either a designated or proposed marine protected area, with only 2.7% benefiting from efficient protection measures.

Expanding marine protected areas are part of the solution but restoration and a “great ocean clean-up” are necessary to avoid further destruction to ecosystems. 

Although large industrial scale solutions are in the pipeline, individual action is becoming a recreational and educational experience. 

Volunteer organisations have popped up around the world’s coastal areas with the aim of getting people to participate in conservation and restoration efforts. 

In the same way that people were previously oblivious to the problem of single-use plastic polluting the ocean, it is not common knowledge that sunscreen may be unfriendly to coral reefs. The product can contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, which harm coral reefs and fish.

This has also contributed to coral bleaching, which depletes food supplies for other ocean life. These chemicals are outlawed in protected ocean coral sites in the United States as well as Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. 

Italian researchers have now added sunscreens to the list of ocean-damaging agents

“Coral reefs are among the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world. These ecosystems directly sustain half a billion people, but around 60% are currently threatened. Over the past 20 years, coral bleaching has increased dramatically,” the researchers said in a study where tests were conducted in Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand and Egypt.  

“This has been blamed on a range of causes including temperature change, excess UV radiation, pollution and bacterial pathogens.” 

Now there are heightened calls for the use of “reef friendly” sunscreens. Campaigns such as ‘Save the Reef’ have focused on consumer education about sunscreens.

“The term ‘reef safe’ typically means that the sunscreen contains only mineral UV-blocking ingredients like oxide and titanium dioxide,” said Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist in New York City. 

“Both nanoparticles—a smaller particle size—and traditional zinc oxide sunscreens are safe and effective, and will be considered safe for reefs. The only difference is the cosmetic feel on the skin,” he told the organisation in an interview

Trawler nets from fishing are also a focus for ocean volunteers working in pollution hotspots. Volunteer “ghost divers” have become a solution for recovering “ghost nets” harming marine life. The waste includes crab cages, lines and abandoned diver gear. Ghost Diving, a global network of volunteer organisations, said it had so far recovered about 5 000kg of waste in 2021. 

Elsewhere, volunteer organisation GreenKayak says since 2017, tens of thousands of people have paddled their kayaks in the harbours, rivers and lakes of five European countries, collecting more than 50 tonnes of trash.

In South Africa, the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town will begin a volunteer induction course on 1 November. Volunteers are expected to improve their knowledge of plants and animals along the country’s coastline. The volunteers care for the animals and assist in running the Two Oceans tourism facility, in addition to participating in beach clean-ups.

The Shark & Marine Research Institute’s Shark Conservation Programme also offers volunteers the opportunity to shark cage dive as part of conservation efforts.

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa