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"The ocean takes care of that for us"

‘When the tide is out the table is set’ – an expression of gratitude toward the ocean’s provision of food and life from many coastal First Nations and communities


‘The ocean is a perfect example of a tragedy of the commons’ – my grade 10 economics teacher.

Relationships between humans and the ocean are diverse and context-dependent, yet most coastal communities share a deep appreciation for the bountiful life and energy that thrives in the marine realm. We feel childlike glee and fascination for the squishy and slippery creatures that are revealed on beaches and rocky shores when the tide drops, or triumph and celebration when we draw up fish and invertebrates from the sea’s opaque depths. For so long, we have interacted with these life forms in a state of abundance and plenty. Each season, the sea seems to coat shorelines and the seafloor with baby invertebrates and protists that, over time, grow to create complex habitat and food for fishes, birds and mammals. And so, we have come to understand the ocean as a perpetually self-replenishing and ever bountiful provider of life.


But of course, this is a gross oversimplification and potentially dangerous perception.

An aerial view of False Creek. Image credit Wpcpey - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71758286

Last week, I journeyed along False Creek's seawall in Vancouver, BC with my Ocean Conservation and Sustainability class. Twice during our walk, I heard the phrase "the ocean takes care of that for us". The first time it was spoken by Fraser, a commercial fisherman we met up with, as he pondered differences between terrestrial and ocean-based food systems. On land, he explained, farming and agriculture involves direct manipulation of soil, water, and nutrient cycles. Fields are tilled and plowed, water is redirected through complex irrigation networks, and immense quantities of fertilizers and pesticides are sprayed – all in an attempt to create the perfect cultivation conditions for the crops that we consume and rely upon.


In contrast, harvesting life from the ocean requires relatively minimal to no manipulation. While Fraser reminded us that commercial fisheries exist along a spectrum from small boats with a crew size of two to three people to massive, technologized vessels that stay offshore for months at a time, most fishers extract life from the sea without directly manipulating water and nutrient cycles. Simply put, they take what exists and is provided. Even ocean-based farming, aquaculture, involves less manipulative effort than on land.

A commercial fishing vessel is surrounded by seagulls. Image from Encyclopaedica Britannica.

The explanation for this difference between land and ocean-based food harvesting practices is the simple fact that the ocean, being comprised of water, does a better job than air at carrying nutrients and food to rejuvenate and connect ecosystems. That is, the ocean takes care of maintaining the physical, chemical, and biological processes that support human (and non-human) food security and food systems.


This sentiment was echoed when Mark Adams, a professional biologist we met with who conducts ecological restoration projects, described the process of designing and constructing Habitat Island – an artificial island that protrudes from False Creek’s otherwise heavily armored shoreline. While describing the process of designing the habitat, he alluded to a ‘build it and they shall come’ philosophy, where so long as the restoration team provided the foundational structures for life (i.e. the boulders, cobble, and gravel that surround Habitat Island), the ocean would take care of seeding and populating the island with life. And he was largely correct. With the exception of a few well-trodden pathways or rocks that were disturbed by people sitting on or throwing them, Habitat Island’s intertidal zone teamed with the slippery green slime, floppy brown rockweed, and crusty barnacles and mussels that characterize much of the Salish Sea’s shorelines.

A blade of seaweed lies a top a barnacle encrusted rock. Photo credit Fiona Beaty.

And so, I am left to ponder: what does this expectation that the ocean will take care of replenishing its nutrients and biodiversity mean for how us humans treat and relate to the sea? Do we respect this incredible gift-giving and service? Or do we take advantage of it.


Already, I see multiple realities playing out simultaneously in the world around us.


As my grade 10 economics teacher emphatically (almost enthusiastically) described, the ocean is a tragedy of the commons. With most sea life being out of sight and difficult to monitor, we take and take and take until nothing is left. People motivated by systems of scarcity and competition pillage and extract life from the ocean as we have done on land. The large sea creatures are vanishing, and the marine physio-chemical processes are becoming so intensely impacted in certain places that they can no longer support the needs of coastal communities.


Elsewhere, people are motivated by systems of abundance and collaboration. Reciprocity, respect, and relationality drive and shape the interactions between humans and life in the ocean (and on land). Harvesters are guided by principles of sustainability, such as only taking what you need and ensuring that enough remains to sustain future generations. In this reality, the health and abundance of marine life fluctuates, yet remains resilient to the myriad pressures and challenges and humans continue to create.


Obviously, life is not so clear and simple as this dichotomy, but I feel it is important to remember that there exist multiple ways of being. We have the agency to choose the narratives that depict what humanity can and cannot do, how we can live in relation to the ocean.


Fraser keenly stated that the magic of the ocean is that if we leave it be and practice sustainable harvesting, we will be able to continue benefitting from the food and energy that the ocean provides us. Being an optimist at heart, I too am keen on this vision, despite the fact that there is a part of me that is skeptical sometimes of human behaviour and intentions.


Our journey around the seawall provided ample food for thought, and I am left with the core realization that the ocean takes care of and provides many incredible things for humans so that we can nourish our bodies and souls. In turn, we must remember our privilege in benefitting from the ocean’s generosity, and subsequent responsibility to practice reciprocity, sustainability, and respect toward the sea and the life-forms that thrive within it.

Pondering the ocean. Photo credit Fiona Beaty.

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