June 8th is World Oceans Day. And so, you’re likely to hear a lot about ocean conservation and sustainability. You’re not so likely to hear much about sex. And that’s a problem. Here are the top five reasons why sex and sustainability go hand in hand.
#1. Sex brings bounty
Sex, or reproduction is exactly that: the production of more individuals. And in the sea, lots of sex creates a whole lot of life. Consider sex among tiny copepods: these little crustaceans are the size of a pencil tip, and sex it up enough to build populations so large that they can sustain the appetites of giant whales. Or ponder the group spawns by thousands of sardines—they generate swirling, silver masses that feed enormous schools of tuna. Countless discrete acts of sex between free-floating eggs and sperm of corals produce the millions of tiny larvae that transform into thousands of juveniles that settle to the seafloor and build enormous underwater reefs. These giant walls buffer our shorelines from storms and protect our homes from rising sea levels. All of this magnificent abundance provides food for billions of people, livelihoods for hundreds of millions, and protection for countless coastal residents—and it all comes from successful sex.
#2. Sex drives diversity
When the sperm from one individual meets and meshes with the egg from another, it forms a whole new genetic blueprint. Like snowflakes, each act of sex creates a unique combination of DNA. This constant reshuffling and recombining of genes, has led to the remarkable diversity of life we observe—and nowhere has sex been active longer than in the sea. Sex was first evolved in the sea, and the sea is where diversity reigns on high. From immobile sea fans to ocean-roaming sperm whales, from shrimp smaller than your fingertip to whale sharks the size of tractor-trailers, this diversity serves a purpose. Nature’s own insurance policy against an unpredictable environment, diversity allows some individuals in a population to resist a new disease, or adapt to changing conditions. This same diversity also generates new compounds that are just now being tapped by pharmaceutical companies for their medicinal qualities—chemicals that are healing human disease and ailments while still defending and protecting their original sea-born hosts.
#3. We’re squashing the sex drive in the sea
Surprising as it may seem, people—yes, that’s you and me—are screwing up the sex lives of marine life, from wooing whales to horny horseshoe crabs. How is this possible? Well, for one thing, we are making the seas noisier, which can make it harder for serenading cetaceans to call to potential mates, or for a female to follow the sexy grunts of a crooning male cod to his briny boudoir. For marine species that like to get it on in groups, we often break up oceanic orgies by catching individuals right as they’re trying to get busy. Fishing “spawning aggregations” makes for easy pickings for fishers as all the adult (and biggest) fish are gathered together in one place at one time. But fishing activity disrupts courtship, and removes potential mates, reducing the odds of getting lucky for the fish. And then there’s climate change, which alters water chemistry and temperature—important elements in coordinating sex in the sea. Take lobsters for instance—females rely on the specially concocted scent of their pee to cast a spell over normally aggressive males. Only through fine-tuned chemical receptors do the males succumb to this intoxicating aroma and turn into gentle lovers. Change the pH of the seawater, as with ocean acidification, and this age-old love potion may lose its potency—and the female, her life (along with her virginity).
#4. Sex in the sea is simply staggering
The sheer variety of seduction tactics, mating rituals, and physical apparatus that exist in the sea—all evolved for the purpose of successfully uniting egg and sperm—is truly mind-blowing. Internal fertilization, like we mammals have, takes on a dizzying diversity of forms, with whales sporting maze-like vaginas and sharks shooting sperm through hydro-powered water sacs that function like giant water guns. There are hit-it-and-quit-it encounters and marathon sex sessions, out-of-body experiences and more-intimate-than-you-may-want-to-know explorations. And we are just scratching the surface. Just last summer scientists discovered virgin birth in at least one endangered ray population, and we still have no idea where blue whales—the largest animals to ever live—go to get down to business. What we do know is that anything and everything is possible in the sea, and the more we learn, the better we can manage wild resources for the future.
#5. Sex-friendly seas are within reach
Sex is the heart of sustainability. If we want to preserve the health of our oceans, we’ve got to ensure the fish, whales, lobsters, and oysters of today can generate the species of tomorrow. The good news is that here on land, we can start helping to lift the libidos of ocean life. Here’s how:
First, we can support sex-friendly seafood. This means buying species that have high reproductive rates and can withstand a bit of fishing pressure. Think low on the food chain, such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, oysters, and other shellfish. Follow #sexfriendlyseafood to join a twitter chat with seafood “sexperts” on June 8 at 12pm PT to find out more.
Second, skip the plastic—plastic bags, plastic microbeads in toothpaste and cosmetics, plastic water bottles, and so on. Broken down bits of plastic concentrate toxic chemicals and synthetic hormones, disrupting healthy sexual development in species from shrimp to whales.
Finally, scale back your carbon footprint. Try turning out the lights, using public transportation, and turning down the thermostat even one degree this summer as your way to help maintain the perfect atmosphere for successful sex.
Horny fish, their future offspring, and our own, will thank you.