Nearly all human beings live on land. This leads to a tendency to forget about the oceans. Out of sight, out of mind. But when we stand before them or float upon them they seem vast and limitless and invincible. We have sayings that highlight this feeling, such as “just a drop in the ocean.”
In relation to the land, God’s oceans are indeed vast. Oceans occupy 70 percent of the earth’s surface and are home to over 90 percent of all life on earth. Psalm 104:25 states, “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small.” As the Discovery Channel’s excellent series “Blue Planet” vividly reminds us, it is a wondrous world.
Yet much of this life we know little or nothing about. Scientists hope to identify many of the estimated million-plus species of life in the oceans (only a small fraction of which have been identified to date) through a comprehensive global study called the Census of Marine Life. This includes the expected identification of at least 5,000 new species of fish. One recent discovery–and an example of the wonders of God’s creatures that will be discovered–includes a yet-to-be-named squid nearly 30 feet long with arms that resemble jellyfish tentacles. This creature has been filmed on deep sea dives around the world, but a specimen has not been captured for study because it swims too fast.
This reminds of the teaching of Genesis: “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures …’ So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds…. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas…'” (Gen. 1:20-22).
Even with all this vastness and teeming life, and even with such passages of Scripture, when we talk about the earth, we usually are referring to just that 30 percent of the earth’s surface we call land. And when we think about life, our thoughts focus on the 10 percent of land-based life.
So we forget about God’s oceans or feel overwhelmed by them, thinking of them as invincible.
They may be vast, but the 90 percent of all life on earth that lives in the oceans is not invincible to our behavior. For instance, populations of large predatory fish (such as tuna, swordfish, cod and flounder) have been reduced to 10 percent of pre-industrial levels. Industrialized fisheries typically reduced fish populations by 80 percent within 15 years. Nearly one third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed or are near collapse, and about half of the world’s fisheries are being fished at their maximum level. Many fish are caught before they are old enough to reproduce.
Such overfishing also has an impact upon the poor. Fish is the primary source of protein for coastal communities and is especially important for the poorest ones. Fish makes up about 19 percent of the total animal protein consumption of developing countries as a whole. In many instances overfishing occurs for luxury foods or to produce livestock feed for animals in developed countries.
Current estimates are that 10 percent of all coral reefs are degraded beyond recovery. Thirty percent are in critical condition and may die within 10 to 20 years. If current pressures are allowed to continue unabated, 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs may die completely by 2050.
This destruction of coral reefs is indeed unfortunate, because they harbor more than 25 percent of all known marine fish, as well as a total species diversity containing more phyla than rainforests.
God’s oceans are vast, but not invincible–indeed in many ways they are fragile and delicate.
The little fish Nemo reminds us that “All drains lead to the ocean.” That’s not really a good thing, considering what we dump into them. Sewage is the largest source of contamination by volume of God’s oceans. Over 3.2 million human “life-years” (a year of productive life lost through death or disability) are lost each year due to contaminated coastal waters, creating a health problem of global proportions. The resulting economic costs are approximately $13 billion a year.
The oceans are one of God’s masterpieces and home to an outstanding array of life. They are also God’s provision for all of us. Globally, the gap between those who will be able to withstand environmental change and those who will not is widening. The poor and disadvantaged will be hurt most by depletion and degradation of our oceans. However, we will all suffer as God’s oceans are diminished. And God’s other creatures, also vulnerable, are suffering and will continue to. As Christians we need to pray and act for the conservation of the earth’s oceans and have faith that God will answer our prayers and honor our faithfulness to his will, revealing us to be his children (Romans 8).
The current state of God’s oceans is a call to action. However, it could tempt us to despair. As Christians we must remember that the One who walked upon the water is ultimately the Lord of Lords. As followers of Christ, the Creator and Reconciler of all things (Col. 1:15-20), the Sustainer of all life (Heb. 1:3). We cannot forget his oceans, nor can we think of them as invincible and not in need of our care and protection. That he has reconciled all things is our hope–and what we are called to participate in.
Jim Ball is Executive Vice President for Policy and Climate Change at the Evangelical Environmental Network and author of the award-winning book, “Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change.”