Marine Ecosystems Play a Critical Role in MA


Sarah Spires, Staff Writer

Marine ecosystems play a critical role in our lives. According to science writer Russell McLendon, about 200 million people live on the coast, and about 44% of humans live within 60 miles of the coast. Coral reefs provide a solution for these vulnerable homes, as they reduce a wave’s energy by up to 97%, according to a study conducted by Nature Conservancy. Not only do these natural buffers provide safety and comfort for the majority of those living on the coast, but they are also very cost-effective. According to a 2018 study, coral reefs save 4 billion dollars annually in worldwide flood protection.

Marine organisms within these beneficial ecosystems also contribute to the decrease of climate change. Like all organisms, marine organisms are part of the carbon cycle–contributing to carbon sequestration. Marine organisms eat aquatic plants and other species and store the carbon within their bodies. They then excrete this carbon-rich waste into the deep sea, where it slowly decomposes with other skeletons over thousands of years. This carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere for centuries, eventually transforming into limestone or oil, making the ocean the biggest carbon sink. Marine organisms and their ecosystems make the carbon cycle possible. Without the recycling of carbon in the ocean, the majority of carbon would be released into the atmosphere, causing an acceleration of climate change and the deterioration of our planet. 


Take Scituate as an example. During the winter, Scituate has a population of about 19,000 year-round residents; however, during the summer, this number increases to 30,000 people. Immediately, it can be concluded that this surge in the population will support local businesses, restaurants, and shops that will ultimately help Scituate improve its schools, roads, and more via taxes. While these tourists are critical to the sustainability of Scituate, how are they contributing to climate change? Undeniably, tourism speeds up the rate of climate change, but how?

Tourism and Climate Change

According to Sustainable Travel International, tourism is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. In Scituate, with roughly 11,000 people traveling from Scituate in the winter and to Scituate in the summer, significant amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere through travel alone: planes, cars, trains, etc. Additionally, as the population in Scituate increases, the waste emitted also increases. As one can guess, the trash brought to Scituate’s Transfer Station will increase, causing more waste to be added to the local landfill or incinerated–releasing increased levels of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. It may be hard to dispose of waste properly in response to the population increase. As a Scituate residents, most of us can say that we see more litter in the summer than in the winter. Local sailor instructor and sailboat charter Victor Bowker reported seeing “great amounts of pollutants washing up along the shore” during “high tides and storms.” Additionally, Bowker identified this litter as “plastic bottles, bags, and oil in the harbor.” 

Local Solutions

As a large tourism hub, Scituate continues to develop its sustainability and implement eco-friendly practices: recycling, Ship Shape Day, and more. Additionally, the Scituate Harbor Master has created a “Sustainability and Resilience Master Plan” to prevent the impacts of climate change on our beautiful home. The document includes improving economic vitality, building sustainable infrastructure, maintaining cost-effectiveness, and overall improving the lives of civilians by implementing additional safety measures–both human and environmental well-being.

In addition, the team at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary aims to educate the public about marine ecosystems and how we can avoid inflicting negative impacts throughout our daily lives–on or off the water. Stellwagen Bank is a federally protected 842-square-mile marine sanctuary located off the coast of Massachusetts. According to NOAA, Their mission is to “conserve, protect, and enhance the biological diversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy of the sanctuary while facilitating compatible use.” Research Marine Scientist Tammy Silva works at Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary in Massachusetts, “studying whales, seabirds and forage fish.” She also ” analyzes data, writes scientific papers, and collaborates on other projects related to outreach, management, and conservation.” Stellwagen works diligently to sustain biodiversity and protect several marine ecosystems. In addition to prohibited activities and other regulations within the Sanctuary, Silva and the team participate in “a lot of conservation work” to increase marine biodiversity and give as much back to the earth as possible. 

In 2007, Silva and the Sanctuary “led the movement of the international shipping lanes to reduce ship strike risk to whales.” In doing so, they “implemented acoustic buoys along the shipping lanes to detect the presence of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and alert mariners to their presence with the Whale Alert App.” In addition, they “send out report cards to mariners and grade them on how well they adhere to the Seasonal Management Area speed restrictions to protect Right Whales.” Protecting keystone species such as the Right Whale is crucial to the survivorship of an ecosystem. Not only do Right Whales encourage the overall health of their ecosystem, but they also function as a carbon sink. Throughout their lives, Right Whales sequester about 30 tons of carbon. When these great creatures die, the carbon goes with them to the ocean floor, and it is removed from the atmosphere for centuries. This process is why Right Whales are so important to protect–they allow their ecosystems to thrive by recycling nutrients and keeping the atmosphere healthy.

Tourism has brought many positives to Stellwagen. Silva said, “Getting folks out into the sanctuary and showing them the incredible wildlife like whales is one hugely important way to inspire conservation and ocean stewardship.” Whale watches and other learning opportunities on Stellwagen publicize knowledge about aquatic creatures and how we can keep them safe. While tourism brings about curiosity, heaps of tourists can bring about problems. Silva stated, “The last few years since covid has seen an anecdotal increase in the number of recreational boaters. This has put lots of pressure on whales–increased noise and opportunities for vessel strikes” can lead to “potentially interrupted behaviors.” 

Tourism is important. Tourism exposes us to different cultures, immerses us in exotic locations, and broadens our view of the globe. While tourism is a stepping stone to experiencing life in different shoes, it can also inflict scars on our earth. Tourism is a leading cause of climate change and is accelerating the rate at which our planet can no longer sustain plants, animals, and our well-being; however, individuals worldwide have begun to hone in on ecotourism–bettering the planet while traveling. Much like these individuals, we can promote ecotourism by simply changing small things about our travel–erasing our ecological footprint and recentering the globe.