The importance of ocean literacy: why it matters to us all

By CarolAnne Black

publishedFebruary 27, 2023
View from above of five dolphins swimming in the ocean.

Ocean literacy means knowing and understanding our connection to the ocean. For some, the connection is daily and visceral. For others it may be only an afterthought. What is key, is to know that ocean literacy is important to everyone on the planet: every individual's actions affect the ocean, and in turn it affects us, no matter where we live.

Says Ocean School scientific director, Boris Worm: “Only when we fully appreciate the depth of our connection to the ocean can we take meaningful action in our personal life, and in our society, with respect to ocean health and sustainability”.

For people like the Inuit, a connection to the ocean is direct and immediate. Arctic communities have always depended on the sea and the food it provides, for survival and as a mode of transportation. The Arctic environment for the Inuit holds deep cultural and spiritual value.

Yet, and unknown to many, the Arctic Ocean has an impact on all of us, even if we live far away. For example, the annual cycle of Arctic sea-ice growth in the dark winter, and its melting in the summer’s continuous daylight profoundly affects the stability of weather patterns in North America and Europe.

But it’s not just the Arctic Ocean we are connected to – it is the ocean as a whole. Half of the global oxygen produced by plants and algae originates in the ocean. The ocean’s enormous capacity to store heat and release it slowly back to the atmosphere means it moderates temperatures around the world so we can live comfortably. About 90% of the excess heat produced by all greenhouse gases is being held in the ocean, making it our most important defence against climate change. Molecule by molecule the ocean also absorbs about one third of the CO2 we emit into the atmosphere. No matter where we live on the planet, even if we aren’t aware of it, the ocean has an impact on all life on Earth.

Take a moment to consider: What is your personal connection to the ocean?

In the last several years, ocean literacy has taken centre stage internationally and in Canada. In 2018, the Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition (COLC) was formed. COLC conducted a study from coast to coast to coast to understand the connections between the people who live in this country and the ocean that surrounds us.

For the study, artists developed interactive opportunities to reflect on our connections to the ocean. In the prairies and mountains of western Canada, artist Karen Tamminga-Paton painted a humpback whale on one canvas and human hands on another. She reported people standing in front of the images for long moments of personal reflection. These experiences generated conversations that helped people better understand their connections to (and impacts on) the ocean in a more personal way: "One individual shared that she and her friends had an animated discussion ranging from plastics to politics, mixed with memories of clam digs and surfing."

For the same study, a survey of more than a thousand adults found over 75% of Canadians feel the ocean is important to Canada's economy. Over 80% feel Canada should be a leader in ocean protection. Although we are not all faced with the ocean each day, many of us sense its importance in our lives.

Ocean literacy broadens how we think about the ocean and its role in our lives. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle says of the importance of knowing our ocean and the growing pressures it faces from human impacts, such as climate change: "You can know and not care, but you cannot care if you don't know."

Ultimately, knowledge and connection bring equity and justice to the fight against climate change. According to Tre' Packard, founder of PangeaSeed Foundation, which works to connect society and environmentalism: “Unfortunately, the discourse around marine conservation oftentimes takes place in privileged circles, conference rooms, and the world of academia. Much of the population is left out from these very important conversations that everyone should be part of.” Greater ocean literacy ensures that everyone appreciates the full extent of human impacts on the ocean, and what we need to do to address them.

Youth across Canada see our relationship with the ocean as critical to Canadians’ environmental, cultural, and spiritual health. Strengthening this connection, they say, would improve our “awareness of ocean injustices, advance reconciliation with Indigenous people, and [help us] become stewards of the ocean.” In these ways, ocean literacy provides hope for a healthier, more sustainable human relationship with the ocean.

About CarolAnne Black

CarolAnne Black tells ocean stories. She writes on all topics related to the ocean, and especially loves to work on writing projects that help empower girls and women in ocean science. In her work, CarolAnne gets to talk with ocean experts from around the world and write about how they’re working to understand and protect our global ocean. She likes to swim with her three kids in the Ottawa River by their home and talk about how the water is making its way back to the ocean.

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