Five threats to the ocean and how you can help

Erin O'Neill By: Erin O'Neill
Date posted: 7 June 2019

It’s World Oceans Day!


Our oceans give us so much – food, energy, oxygen, a place of work and a place of adventure - without them we couldn’t survive, but they are also being pushed to the point of catastrophe by human activity.

Our seas are under threat all around the world, and if we don’t act now there’s a chance that soon we will be past the point of recovery.

It might sound hopeless, but with action and hard work we can turn the tide on the health of our seas and help them to recover. You can make a difference in all sorts of ways. Read on to find out more about the threats that are facing our oceans and the actions you can take to help.


David Attenborough’s inspirational 2017 television series, Blue Planet II, brought the ocean plastic issue to the forefront of cultural conversation. After seeing the devastating effects of our throwaway plastic habit on marine life, people have started to pay attention to the unnecessary and damaging nature of items like plastic cotton buds, plastic straws and plastic bottles. You can do your part by reducing your plastic usage and encouraging others to do the same.

But ocean pollution runs deeper than plastic alone. Factories and industrial plants discharge sewage and other run-off into the oceans, and pesticides and other chemicals from agriculture seep into our waters, harming the delicate ecosystems below the surface. We need change at a legislative level and for decision-makers to commit to laws and enforcement to protect our oceans from industrial threats. Support officials with green policies and environmental goals and make your vote matter.

Poly cup on beach Polyester cup and many plastic pieces are a typical scene for our beach cleans

Climate change

Human activities are causing high levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere. The ocean is absorbing these harmful emissions and as a result, its temperatures are rising. Marine ecosystems are sensitive to even modest changes to their environment – it’s causing coral reefs to bleach and die, changing the migration routes of many species of fish, and leading to acidification of species that have calcium carbonate skeletons and shells like mussels and lobsters.

Reduce your carbon emissions by making small changes in your daily routine; take public transport or cycle instead of driving, decrease energy consumption at home or at work by using less electricity, and reduce your meat intake to help cut down on harmful environmental impacts caused by the industrialised agriculture industry.
Coral tips bleaching Coral tips beginning to bleach due to warming temperatures

Wildlife trade

The trafficking of marine life is one of the largest drivers in loss of biodiversity, as species like seahorses, sharks and eels are caught for their value in the traditional medicine market, as seaside souvenirs and delicacies like shark fin soup.

The critically endangered European eel is the centre of the largest wildlife crime in Europe, with the illegal trafficking of those fish to Asia becoming a multibillion-euro industry. Every year, an estimated 150 million seahorses are caught for the souvenir and medicine trades. As a species, seahorses could be extinct by 2050. Never purchase products exploiting marine life.

Whale Shark Victims of illegal wildlife trade include Whale sharks

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

IUU fishing has a calamitous effect on the marine environment – depleting fish stocks, destroying marine habitats and harming the livelihood of honest fishers. For fisheries management plans to work effectively towards sustainability, it is essential that fish stocks aren’t put under these additional pressures. IUU fishing includes operating illegally in marine protected areas, with often long-term consequences for the habitats and species which are supposed to be protected. It only takes one illegal boat to undo years of protection!

After lengthy campaigning from MCS and other conservation organisations, it was recently announced that 41 new Marine Conservation Zones are to be created around the English and Northern Irish coast, and four long-awaited Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being consulted on in Scotland – but these sites mustn’t become protected in name only. Thanks to advances in technology, it’s possible to monitor fishing activities with devices like Vessel Monitoring Systems, but it takes legislation to make these rules obligatory. MCS and other organisations are working for a better managed MPA system; you can read about our work in this area here.

Scallop dredging Unregulated scallop dredging can devastate seabed habitats

Unsustainable seafood

Billions of people all over the world rely on seafood for income and as a food source – and 90% of the world’s fish stocks are fully or over-exploited. It’s essential that we know where the fish we eat comes from and to use our enormous collective consumer power to encourage the most sustainable production of seafood. We need to make responsible seafood choices.

Reduce demand for unsustainable seafood and promote the best by only eating fish that comes from sustainably managed stocks and is caught and farmed in a way that causes the least damage to the marine environment. It might sound complicated, but there are tools available that can help. Look for credible eco-labels like MSC, ASC and Organic, and check out our Good Fish Guide website or app and start making the best decisions for sustainable seafood.

Spiny Dogfish / Spurdog

Actions you can take

  1. Report your wildlife sightings
  2. Join a beach clean
  3. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  4. Visit the beachwatch website
  5. Browse Marine Protected Areas
  6. Organise a beach clean

Did you know?…

MCS launched its Beachwatch programme in 1994

To date, our beach cleans have removed over 11 million pieces of litter

It’s estimated that one rubbish truck load of plastic litter enters the ocean every minute


Single-use Plastics Donate Your Guilt

Donate Your Guilt