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People sunbathe on the packed Gandia Beach in Valencia, Spain. Credit: Ruben Frances, EPA

With over 70% of the world covered by water, understanding the interaction between humans and the ocean is vital to the health of both.  The world’s ocean helps to feed communities, regulate climate, support tourism and economies, and generate oxygen that humans breathe, and provides innumerable benefits to the livelihood and health of the humans who interact with it.

Changing climate and swelling populations create conditions that increase stress on the ocean and coasts. With about 40% of the global population living near the coast (within 62 miles/100 km), there is a direct and intertwined relationship between humans and the coast, that needs to be balanced in order to support both. Communities living near the coast are dealing with challenges in the ocean and coastal environment, such as contaminated seafood consumption, waterborne diseases, harmful algal blooms, and pollution. All of which require continued research and advanced knowledge to help us understand public health concerns and strategies for ensuring a sustainable and healthy relationship between humans and the ocean.

In recent research, proximity to the coast was positively associated with good health, with a slightly but significantly greater percentage of people reporting good health among populations residing closer to the sea (Wheeler et al., 2012).  So how does society balance the benefits of living near the coast with the effects that growing populations have on the health of the ocean, which in turn can impact public health? Lora Fleming at the University of Exeter Medical School has been researching the health and well-being of communities who live near and interact with coastal environments. During the Wednesday, 26 June session on The Changing Ocean and Impacts on Human Health at the AGU Science Policy Conference, she and experts in the field of oceans and human health will gather to discuss some of the latest research underway and look for positive solutions to this long-standing challenge.

Shellfish harvest and beach closures are widespread throughout the U.S. due to presence of harmful pathogens (disease- causing organisms) and HAB toxins. Credit:: L. Younglove

Shellfish harvest and beach closures are widespread throughout the U.S. due to presence of harmful pathogens (disease- causing organisms) and HAB toxins. Credit:: L. Younglove

Other experts involved in the discussion include Paul Sandifer, chief science advisor at the National Ocean Service for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fred Tyson, scientific program director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for the National Institutes of Health, Jeff Watters, associate director for government relations at the Ocean Conservancy, and Margaret Leinen, associate provost of marine and environment issues and executive director of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, who will serve as the moderator for the discussion.

Building upon years of research to understand human health, ocean health, and the effects of each on the other, the scientific community and policymakers should look for opportunities to develop plans to mitigate and adapt for new challenges from increasing pressures on the ocean and coasts.  How we maintain the quality of life that the ocean has provided to humans while protecting and strengthening the ocean itself is a challenge in how to manage resources, uses, and pressures with competing demands and a changing environment.

-Kristan Uhlenbrock, AGU Public Affairs Coordinator