A Marine Biologist Gives Us the Real Deal on Ocean Health

National Geographic’s new show One Strange Earth, hosted by Will Smith, reveals the twists of fates that allow life to thrive on earth. One of the most important reasons our planet is so unique? Hint: it’s blue. Yup, you guessed it… water.

Dr. Kyle Morgan is a marine biologist and one of the expert scientists NatGeo consulted with for the show and he’s here to tell The Fullest readers about the dangerous threats to ocean life and why harmony in our seas is essential to a healthy planet.

Oceans make up more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, and the volume of the seas is even greater. 97 percent of the earth’s water can be found in our oceans. The tiny percentage that’s not in the ocean is found frozen in glaciers and ice caps — both of which are melting at an alarming rate.

“Climate change is a major threat facing our oceans,” says the New Zealand native. “This is a global issue as it can affect even the most well-managed marine protected areas.”

As a marine biologist, Morgan has been fortunate to explore sea life all over the world, from the Maldives to the Caribbean to the central Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Great Barrier Reef, and Western Australia. Specializing in coral reefs, he regularly dives with scientists as part of a global community of researchers that study to protect the planet.

He describes a recent eye opening experience during one of these dives: “During our research in the Maldives, we were diving on some of the nicest corals I have ever seen, but following a period of very hot water in 2016, approximately 90% of the corals died. These reefs are still breaking down and will take a long time (sometimes up to a thousand years) to recover.”

Coral reefs are not only beautiful, they are also a very important part of the marine ecosystem and have some of the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on earth. Corals themselves deposit calcium carbonate skeletons that build reefs over time and provide homes for reef-dwelling organisms.

However, their extreme sensitivity makes reefs an early detector to larger changes in the ocean. “In recent years we have observed massive global declines in corals on reefs due to coral bleaching, poor water quality, and outbreaks of coral disease,” Morgan explains. “This is particularly concerning because corals provide the structure on the reef that all other organisms live in and around. If we lose corals, then we lose the habitat for other reef animals.”

Coral reefs are crucial to planetary health because of their role in the ocean. They act like cities where diversity of life thrives, providing a rich variety of nutrients, ecosystems, and food supplies for species around the world. But, as corals bleach and die, so do the resources for maintaining a healthy balance of marine biodiversity.

While a few missing fishes deep in the sea might not seem that devastating, the importance of reef and ocean health isn’t only crucial for marine life, but also impactful for human life on land.

“Oceans are obviously ecologically very important, but they also provide a number of important socio-economic benefits to humans,” Morgan warns. “They are a huge food resource. Declining fish populations will directly affect the many communities that rely on these resources for food.”

Additionally, corals also function as natural breakwaters to wave energy, protecting coastal communities. If we continue to see declines to coral reefs in the future, the ability of reefs to block waves will be reduced, leading to greater coastal erosion.

Other regional threats such as overfishing, pollution, declining water quality, and localized habitat destruction are also concerning researchers in regards to our oceans and reefs.

So, what is the most important thing we can do to help?

“Cut down on plastic use!” Morgan says. “This is a simple thing that people can do in their every day life that can make a difference to our marine environments. Because the plastic takes so long to break down, and it floats, it can travel long distances in the ocean and, during that time, can be eaten by marine animals.”

Try bringing your own straw, mitigating single use packets, opting for tupperware, and ditching plastic bags to avoid single use plastics that often end up in the world’s oceans. A few simple tricks will make a huge difference in our marine environments, saving the rich colorful diversity that sustains all of us — on land and in the deep blue.

See Dr. Kyle Morgan in action in One Strange Rock, season one, available to watch on NationalGeographic.com.

Courtney Prather is a writer and ocean lover. When she’s not working as a marketing professional, you can find her in the surf in Orange County. Keep up to date on new writing at courtprather.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @courtpanther.

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