Our vast, global ocean is a constant reminder of humankind’s fragility and impermanence. A moment at the mercy of a crashing wave demands respect for nature’s strength. A glimpse of a 40-foot humpback whale makes us feel impossibly small on our big, blue planet. And an encounter with a white shark takes us to another time, long before humans began to upset the Earth’s natural processes.
Our shared ocean also provides countless services that we each enjoy every day. It captures massive amounts of carbon. It offers a much-needed source of protein, especially in coastal developing countries. And in some cases, it even ensures access to clean and consistent drinking water.
But the marine environment as we know it is changing. The ocean is getting warmer and more acidic. Our seas are rising. Coral reefs are dying and other important habitats have been destroyed. Our ocean is filled with plastic and some areas are too polluted for wildlife to thrive. The big fish are gone and we’re now working harder to fish the small ones.
In many ways, the ocean is nature’s great equalizer across nations; we all feel humbled in its presence, we all benefit from its health and we all contribute to its demise. Which is why U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 sets a shared global goal to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development,” calling for us to work together to chart a new path forward.
But while the power of the ocean is undeniably one of our planet’s profound unifiers—regardless of geography, race or class—the effects of our transforming ocean are not always felt equally. Women and girls are uniquely impacted by these changes in significant ways.
As water quality impacts cascade up the food chain, toxins such as mercury become more concentrated in larger fish, including tilefish, swordfish and tuna. Women of childbearing age need to think about fish consumption in a way men don’t, since these toxins are particularly damaging to developing fetuses and can linger in the human body.
As populations of wild ocean fish continue to dwindle as a result of overfishing, illegal fishing and loss of habitat, we lose a critical source of nutrient-rich protein, which is especially important in coastal developing countries. Since women and girls make up 43% of the agricultural labor force worldwide and up to 90% in some African countries, more weight falls on them to find other ways—additional grains, legumes or vegetables, for example—to make up for this nutritional shortfall in providing for their families. This is particularly difficult in places already impacted by climate change, drought and flooding.
Shrinking fish populations create yet another distinct challenge for pregnant women worldwide, where Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is critical to fetal brain and retina development—is primarily derived from seafood and algae.
And although half the world’s population lives within 60 km of the coast, sea level rise stands to disproportionately impact coastal developing countries, where projections forecast larger changes at lower latitudes. This is especially true since many of these communities lack the resources or infrastructure to plan for resiliency. Coastal flooding means women and girls must face additional farming challenges and travel greater distances to collect potable water and biomass fuels. Worse, they may be forced to migrate further inland with their families.
In many ways, women and girls stand to gain the most from a clean, thriving ocean and smart coastal adaptation strategies. Stricter air and water quality standards and alternatives to pesticides mean cleaner coastal waters. And that translates to fish that are safer for women and their families to eat. Marine protected areas and comprehensive fisheries management that prioritizes local, artisanal fishing can ensure access to wild fish–a critical protein for women–now and into the future. And proactive planning for our rising sea levels will protect local communities, including their homes, food and water supply, from coastal inundation.
With all these benefits to be gained, it stands to reason that women and girls can and should pioneer the marine conservation movement. And in some places, they already are: the United States is home to inspirational ocean champions like Julie Packard, Dr. Jane Lubchenco and “Her Deepness,” Dr. Sylvia Earle, who have already mentored generations of emerging women leaders.
Globally, there is every reason for women and girls to spearhead this movement, as well. As specialists in agriculture, water and forestry systems, women are well equipped to translate that knowledge to complex coastal ecosystems. Women and girls are also natural communicators who routinely hold together the fabric of families, communities and societies. With these skills, they’re especially suited to bring together diverse stakeholders, scientists and decision-makers to achieve forward-thinking and collaborative solutions for the challenges we face in the ocean. I’ve personally participated in countless ocean conservation meetings, symposia and conferences and felt the empowering strength of tens, even hundreds of women looking back at me as we tackle the most pressing marine issues together. And it’s extraordinary.
Samantha Murray is the Water Program Director at Oregon Environmental Council. Prior to that, she was the Pacific Program Director with Ocean Conservancy, where she spent nearly a decade working to protect some of the ocean’s most special places.
Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.