Why are our oceans so important, and what can we do to keep them safe?

Macdara Ó Cuaig of the Marine Institute tells Liz O'Brien why we need to protect our waters if we want our planet to thrive
Why are our oceans so important, and what can we do to keep them safe?
Macdara Ó Cuaig of Marine Institute says: "We have a maritime heritage that we should be proud of."

MACDARA Ó Cuaig’s life has always been influenced by the ocean — reared amongst a family of fishermen, he grew up living in a home by the sea and spent his childhood fishing.

The fisheries scientist and TV presenter knows well how valuable the ocean is to us, and says that no matter how far any of us live from the shore, the tide - one of the most powerful forces on earth - affects us every day, in ways we may not even realise.

“Even the air we breathe... a big percentage of that actually comes from the sea because there's plants - plankton and algae - and they photosynthesise in the sea. Seventy percent of the world is covered by the sea so there's a lot of oxygen being produced that we don't think of; we think of trees (when we think of oxygen production). 

"So, every time you take a breath you're taking some product from the sea into your lungs,” Ó Cuaig says.

As well as the ocean providing us with resources, transport and natural, sustainable food, he says it influences our climate.

“If you go stand outside and there's a shower of rain or a bit of a breeze, that has been transferred across the globe by the energetic movement that's associated with the transfer of energy and the tides, you know yourself if you're standing on the west coast, you see the rain coming from the sea towards you, coming from the west.

“Take Ireland - if you consider how far north we are in latitude; we’re as far north as Labrador, on the other side of the Atlantic, but our climate is quite benign compared to Labrador and that's because the sea brings heat across from the Gulf stream …. that’s what brings us our weather.

“It produces our climate for us, so every day when you step outside the sea is affecting you.” The flipside of that, he says, is how humans affect the sea, particularly as modern consumers using plastics that eventually end up in the oceans; be it through littering, use of unnecessary plastics like straws, or microplastics in cosmetics and toothpaste.

“The sea is so good to us and I feel we should be good to it,” says O'Cuaig.

“We live on this island, we have a great maritime heritage that we should be proud of and we have inherited a really useful resource - for pleasure, economics and wellbeing.

it's up to us now to ensure that we leave it as a legacy and in a good state for the next generation

“Anything that any of us can do to ensure that we should - whether that's getting our children to learn about the sea or just to go for a walk on the shore and take it all in.”

Recently the Connemara native took up a new role with the Fisheries Ecosystems Advisory Services of the Marine Institute. 

He’s the fisheries liaison team leader and his main job is collating data for fish stock assessment - or as his wife, Aoife, explains it to their two kids, Oscar and Ailbhe: “he counts fish!” “That’s it in a nutshell,” Ó Cuaig laughs.

The new position builds on his skills and experience working with fishermen.

The fishing industry facilitates at-sea data collection. Scientists head out to sea with vessels and fishermen share their own knowledge and data to help scientific programmes that assess fish stocks' status. 

Data is then assessed, along with data from different nations at ICES (International Council of the Exploration of the Sea) - an intergovernmental marine science organisation, meeting societal needs for impartial evidence on the state and sustainable use of our seas and oceans - and an assessment of the state of the stock is made. 

That, in turn, helps inform managers about what the appropriate allowable catch should be; they then use that information and make socio-economic and biological decisions.

It’s partly the reason Ó Cuaig got into marine science and he says it’s like a dream job - “to be able to use fishermen's knowledge and expertise to strengthen the science that underpins the sustainable exploitation of our resources and ensure a decent living and environment for Ireland’s coastal communities”.

The native Irish speaker, recently presented the links for Taoide - a three-part TV series about the tide, broadcast on TG4 as well as BBC Alba, S4C, BBC1 Northern Ireland and on stations in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The series showcased some of the world's most stunning beaches, marshlands, swamps and estuarine mudflats from locations across the globe; Norway, China, Wales, Canada, Scotland, Netherlands, the Arctic Circle and England. 

Highlights included places like Canada's Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides on earth and the Corryvreckan Whirlpool off the coast of Scotland and West Cork’s Lough Hyne, near Skibbereen - Ireland's first marine nature conservation reserve and is one of the most important marine habitats in Europe.

"It's very unique from a science point-of-view,” Ó Cuaig said.

"It was once a freshwater lake but now is fully marine."

It is believed that rising sea levels flooded the lake with saline ocean water about 4,000 years ago and it's connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow tidal channel known as the rapids - so-called because the lake empties there with a rush twice a day.

Taoide also filmed at Omey Island, near Clifden in Galway, where horse races are held along the beach at low-tide in the summer and out at sea with the Galway Hookers and on Fínis Island, Connemara - an area Ó Cuaig spent a lot of time fishing as a commercial fisherman.

Ó Cuaig recommends marine.ie.ie for anyone interested in learning more about our seas and he says you can still catch Taoide, which was supported by the Marine Institute, on TG4’s player.

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