By Deanna R. Pinkard-Meier
In recent decades there has been mounting evidence that humans are negatively affecting the marine environment on many levels. Although seemingly depressing to learn about, I find that many students are truly concerned about humans’ impacts on the Earth, and particularly the ocean. After learning about some of the changes occurring as a result of human activities, students often make insightful observations and ask important questions. Examples of students’ questions are the following: “What can I do?”, “What is our government doing?”, “How is ‘x’, ‘y’, or ‘z’ not illegal?!”, and in some cases “How has it come to this?”. (Figure 1: Students voluntarily participating in surveys to assess the biodiversity of the intertidal zone in La Jolla, California. No extra credit points necessary. Credit: Deanna Pinkard-Meier.).
In today’s political climate emotions can be highly charged, which can lead to sensitivity towards the answers to the aforementioned questions. Some students, even Biology majors, have trouble seeing beyond their political views when class discussions include information about regulations and laws to prevent the decline in health of marine or other ecosystems. What I try to relay to students is the message that preserving our Earth really is a bipartisan issue. No matter who you are, where you are from, or what your political affiliations are, the collective “you” wants a place to live that is free of pollution, food to eat and water to drink that are not contaminated with heavy metals or other toxins, ocean and fresh water to recreate in that is clean and free of excess waste matter and pesticides, and healthy soils to grow food in (Chapter 9: Estuaries).
Students who enroll in an introductory marine biology or environmental science course have taken the first step towards stewardship. They are open to learning about an environment that in most cases fascinates them, but at the least slightly interests them. As we teach marine biology, we are providing students with a large amount of detailed information. As students learn about the creatures living in the sea and the various habitats present in what I like to call the “big blue”, many begin to develop a sense of mankind’s place in this environment; as a species, humans have always relied on the sea for food, a source of water, travel, and entertainment, and more recently, for sources of marine biopharmaceuticals and wave-generated power. When students learn that the very first life forms most likely evolved in the sea and that the majority of the air we breathe is oxygenated by phytoplankton, they see a human connection to these tiny marine microbes (Chapter 4: Marine Microbes). Even students living large distances from the coast learn and understand that their daily actions and choices can affect the health of the oceans. With the option of seafood being flown in to our local towns from around the world, our choices really do affect the health of fish populations, and often in effect, entire ecosystems, in distant lands (Chapters 3: Patterns of Associations and 15: Harvesting Living Marine Resources). The connection between carbon emissions and declining sea ice in the polar seas reaches students everywhere, as changes to sea ice coverage are very visible, as are polar bears or penguins searching for habitat that is vanishing before our eyes (Chapter 14: Polar Seas; Figure 2: Arctic sea ice concentrations for the month of February 2018 are shown in white. The orange line indicates the 1981 to 2010 average concentrations for February each year. Daily values for the beginning of 2018 indicate the lowest year on record. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.). Emerging topics like ocean acidification and climate change become more tangible as students learn how some sea creatures’ survival rates are being directly affected by these phenomena (Chapter 11: The Coral Reef Ecosystem).
As instructors of marine biology we have an ideal platform to introduce students to pressing marine environmental issues and a voice to encourage them to take action. We can answer the big questions posed by students, especially the question, “What can we do?”. We can be mentors to students as they search for a career path, and we can provide them with data, information and contacts as they hone in on their career paths. In the book, Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life, Eleventh Edition, each chapter contains a Case Study highlighting a species in decline or of unknown population size (Figure 3: Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life, 11th ed. Credit: Jones and Bartlett Learning. ). Students learn about these species and are directed to websites with status reports and other species population information. Each chapter also contains Research in Progress features, highlighting research conducted around the world on marine organisms and marine physical processes. Students are introduced to the world of research and ideas for progressing the various marine science fields. Although a marine biology book, the text does focus on highlighting marine environmental issues and species in decline. For most students, being fascinated by something leads to the desire to learn more. Once one has learned more, he/she wants that “something” to remain for further inspection and to maintain the fascination. For many people, the ocean and its inhabitants are this “something”.
Deanna R. Pinkard-Meier, M.S. is a professor at University of San Diego where she especially enjoys teaching marine biology, organismal biology, and evolution and introducing students to field survey techniques used in the intertidal or from a boat. Before diving into teaching, she spent many years working as a research fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), studying the endangered white abalone and declining rockfish populations with a remotely operated vehicle. She resides in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, with her husband and two sons, where they can often be found jumping in the ocean for a surf session or snorkel. She is active in her local community where she participates in Surfrider Foundation events and volunteers as a visiting scientist at local schools.
For more information on polar sea ice, visit: https://nsidc.org/
For information on the state of fisheries, visit:
For information on sustainable fish choices, visit: http://www.seafoodwatch.org/