An interconnected body without beginning or end, the ocean is by far Earth’s largest water source. It is the source of the planet’s life. All life.
The same waters that allow life to exist are frequently abused by human activity. Sewage, agricultural runoff, and plastics pollute the ocean. Also, human-caused climate change is altering the ecosystems of the ocean making it more toxic for many of the species calling it home. But the harm done to the ocean environment is rarely limited just to it. As an interconnected system, the harm done ultimately hurts humans too.
Those negative impacts are often more on those in Black and brown communities throughout the world. All too often, plastics are improperly disposed of, causing much of the pollution in the ocean. Indigenous coastal-dwelling peoples eat 15 times more seafood than their non-Indigenous countrymen. The 2016 study created a database of 1,900 such communities in Africa, the Americas, the Arctic, Asia, and the South Pacific that includes 27 million people.
The study makes clear that marine resources are essential to the survival and way of life of Indigenous coastal peoples. This dependence on marine resources makes these communities vulnerable to overfishing, climate change, and ocean pollution. The detrimental effects inflicted on our ocean hurt humans generally but they can be especially harmful to Black and brown communities.
When shellfish populations crashed in the U.S. Pacific Northwest in the late 2000s it hit the local fishing industry hard. The crash hit the Quinault Indian Nation, who are indigenous to Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, even harder. Millennia before the building of the plants that polluted the local waters, the Quinault used the razor clam (Siliqua patula) for trade, subsistence, sustenance, and maintaining their way of life.
The Quinault are especially vulnerable to changes in the razor clam and other marine populations partially because their harvesting territory is limited by treaty restrictions, marine resources scientist and Quinault representative Joe Schumacker said in a NOAA article. “The tribe has to be very very careful and conservation-minded about their resources and how they manage them,” he said. “The treaty right doesn't exist anywhere else. This goes for all of their treaty resources including salmon, crab and many other species.”
The die offs were possibly linked to ocean acidification and deoxygenation, or some combination thereof. Ocean acidification is caused by the over absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean because of human industry. As the name says, ocean deoxygenation is the loss of dissolved oxygen in ocean waters. While this is a global problem with planetary oxygen levels falling about two percent since the middle of the 20th century, it is not uniform. There are two primary causes for this phenomenon, warming ocean temperatures and algae overgrowth, called eutrophication, from agricultural runoff and the burning of fossil fuels.
A joint study published in 2018 found racial wealth inequalities widened in the aftermath of U.S. natural disasters. University of Pittsburgh sociologist, Junia Howell, and Rice University sociologist, Jim Elliott, looked at natural disaster claims from 1999 to 2013. These claims were from wildfires, tornadoes, and floods, but were mainly from hurricanes.
“Whites living in counties with considerable damage from natural disasters accumulate more wealth than their white counterparts living in counties without major natural disaster damage,” Howell said. "Whites accumulate more wealth after natural disasters while residents of color accumulate less,” Elliott said. “What this means is wealth inequality is increasing in counties that are hit by more disasters.”