The Greatest Threat to the Ocean is Ignorance

Ocean literacy is defined as an understanding of the ocean’s influence on you and your influence on the ocean. The idea of creating a more “ocean-literate” society is, in many ways, the central theme that runs throughout the entire Ocean Connect website. Indeed, all the snapshots we have created to help you find your own unique way to connect to the ocean are also designed to drive home the fact that no matter what you choose to do in life, it will in some way be connected to the ocean. We have certainly said it more than once – whether we live near the coast or far from the ocean’s shores, the ocean impacts the health and well-being of each and every one of us. Therefore, understanding the ocean – and our connection to it – is absolutely essential to protecting Earth and all its varied forms of life.

The Challenge

The campaign to improve ocean literacy was a reaction to the fact that ocean-related topics were almost completely absent from the 1996 version of the National Science Education Standards. The absence of ocean sciences in school curricula resulted in a generation of the American public being almost totally ignorant as to the importance of the ocean in their lives. Unfortunately, that uninformed generation of students are now the adults in our school systems that we must convince to introduce ocean concepts into future science education standards.   

The Response

As a result of the prevailing situation, a group of nongovernmental organizations, professional associations, national university-based programs, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and individual scientists and educators came together to build a consensus on ocean-related science education standards. The main problem they needed to solve was if you want students to understand the fundamental concepts of ocean literacy by Grade 12, what would you teach in all the prior years of school? So, in addition to creating a short list of Essential Principles and drafting a simple definition of the term “ocean literacy,” the group also developed the Ocean Literacy Framework, a coherent learning roadmap for ocean science.

Essential Principles of Ocean Literacy

There are seven Essential Principles of ocean literacy comprising 45 Fundamental Concepts that serve to support and add detail to the Essential Principles. Listed below are the seven Essential Principles (together with one representative Fundamental Concept for each Essential Principle):

1.  Earth has one big ocean with many features.

  • The ocean is the defining physical feature on our planet Earth—covering approximately 70% of the planet’s surface. There is one ocean with many ocean basins, such as the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic.

2.  The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.

  • Many earth materials and biogeochemical cycles originate in the ocean. Many of the sedimentary rocks now exposed on land were formed in the ocean. Ocean life laid down the vast volume of siliceous and carbonate rocks.

3.  The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.

  • The interaction of oceanic and atmospheric processes controls weather and climate by dominating the Earth’s energy, water, and carbon systems.

4.  The ocean makes Earth habitable.

  • Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere originally came from the activities of photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. This accumulation of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was necessary for life to develop and be sustained on land.

5.  The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

  • Ocean life ranges in size from the smallest living things, microbes, to the largest animal on Earth, blue whales.

6.  The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.

  • The ocean affects every human life. It supplies freshwater (most rain comes from the ocean) and nearly all Earth’s oxygen. The ocean moderates the Earth’s climate, influences our weather, and affects human health.

7.  The ocean is largely unexplored.

  • The ocean is the largest unexplored place on Earth—less than 5% of it has been explored. The next generation of explorers and researchers will find great opportunities for discovery, innovation, and investigation.

An Ocean-Literate Person

But ocean literacy must be about more than just gaining an understanding of the ocean’s importance to our lives. It must also result in a change of behavior. Ocean literacy must be the catalyst – through programs and activities in both formal and informal education – that encourages people to act in positive ways for the ocean. Accordingly, ocean literacy initiatives must provide a way to advance sustainable practices, develop policy, promote responsible citizenship, and encourage young people to be involved in the ocean’s future.

So what does it mean to be an ocean-literate person? The consensus is that an ocean-literate person: 

  • Understands the Essential Principles of ocean literacy;
  • Can communicate about the ocean in a meaningful way; and
  • Is able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding the ocean and its resources.

The overriding belief is that as an ocean-literate person, you are more likely to care for and protect the ocean. The great hope is that an ocean-literate generation will be more engaged with, and connected to, the ocean and therefore, be able to meet the threats confronting the ocean head-on.

Marine Science Educator

Because there are so many different ways to educate others about the ocean, a “career” fostering ocean literacy can take many different forms. You could, for example, start your own blog or YouTube channel and delve into issues involving various ocean-related topics. You could also go the “pure” science route and undertake research and write papers that are then used by others to inform and educate. You could write children’s books and influence young minds or create films that will further ocean literacy. For purposes of this snapshot, however, we are focusing on the marine science education aspects of ocean literacy. This will allow you to influence learning and teaching about the ocean in both formal (e.g., schools) and informal (e.g., museums, aquariums, science centers, zoos, ecotourism companies, marine stations, and aquatic parks) institutions.