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Seventy percent of our planet is covered by oceans.  They provide food and livelihood to billions of people and homes to a glorious array of marine life; they also regulate Earth’s climate.  In short, they are vital to the health of the planet and its living things.  Yet, vast though they may be, the planet’s oceans, and the life they sustain, are confronting unprecedented threats because of human activity.  "The State of the Planet’s Oceans" takes us on a journey, exploring the impact over-fishing, habitat destruction, and global climate change are having on our oceans.  The threats are serious, to say the least, but the film also shows how people are successfully protecting marine resources.  These actions give us hope that, with sufficient commitment, we have the ingenuity and resources needed to protect the oceans and its life.

National Science Education Standards: Grades 5-8

  1. Content Standard C—Life Science
    • Structure and Function in Living Systems
    • Populations and Ecosystems
    • Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
  2. Content Standard D—Earth and Space Science
    • Structure of the Earth System
    • Earth’s History
  3. Content Standard F—Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
    • Populations, Resources, and Environments
    • Science and Technology in Society
  4. Learning Objectives
    Students will be able to:
    • Explain the ecological and economic impact of over-fishing, notably in the North Atlantic Ocean;
    • Describe several likely consequences affecting oceans from global climate change;
    • Describe several creative measures that people are implementing to protect marine life.

Previewing Activities

If students do not know the following locations, use a wall map, desk map, or atlas to familiarize them with the geographical areas profiled in the video:

A.   North America

  • New Bedford, Massachusetts
  • The Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
  • Newfoundland, Canada

B.   Central America

  • Belize

C.   South America

  • Peru and its capital city, Lima
  • The Andes Mountains

D.   Greenland

E.    Europe

  • Portugal

F.    Asia

  • Bangladesh and its capital city, Dhaka
  • Calcutta, India

G.   Antarctica

The following terms are used in the video and may need to be introduced to students:

  • Carbon Dioxide: A naturally-occurring gas that is also created as a by-product of burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil.  Plants draw in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make their food.  Because we burn so many fossil fuels, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising significantly.  This is thought to be a primary cause of global climate change.
  • Coral Reef:  Corals are invertebrate animals (without backbones) that manufacture homes made of calcium carbonate.  Together, these homes create huge living structures called reefs that provide vital habitat for a splendid array of marine creatures.
  • Delta:  When rivers empty into standing bodies of water, such as lakes and the ocean, the soil they have been transporting accumulates at the river mouths and builds up over time.  This newly-created land is called a delta.
  • Eco-tourism:  When tourists visit natural areas, such as forests, mountains, wildlife reserves, and coral reefs.  Interest in such activities is growing, and eco-tourists often supply substantial income to communities situated near these natural sites, thus providing important incentive to maintain their preservation.
  • Fossil Fuels: Fuels such as coal and petroleum that are derived from the fossilized remains of plants and other living things. 
  • Glacier: A river of ice that typically flows so slowly that it does not appear to be moving at all.
  • GPS sensor:  GPS stands for Global Positioning System.  GPS is a technology that employs satellites for navigation.  With GPS, you can pinpoint the exact location (latitude and longitude) of where you happen to be.  In the film, scientists are shown using GPS technology to measure the flow of Greenland glaciers.
  • Incas: Native Americans, whose ancestral language is Quechua, who chiefly live in the South American Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
  • Renewable Fuels:  Fuels that can renewed indefinitely, unlike fossil fuels which exist in fixed amounts.  An example is ethanol, which comes from corn.
  • Sewage:  Human waste (the kind you would flush down the toilet) that is a major water pollutant worldwide.
  • Spawning: The act of fish depositing and fertilizing their eggs.

Previewing Discussion

To help students put the video in perspective, ask them the following questions:

  1. What do you know about the health of the oceans and marine creatures?  What is polluting the water?  What marine creatures are disappearing?  What are coral reefs, where are they found, and what is happening to them?
  2. What have you heard about global climate change?  Do you know what human activities are thought to be causing it and what the consequences might be?  Do you think it is actually happening?  Do you think it’s important to find out?
  3. Do you know how global climate change might be affecting the oceans?
  4. How important do you think healthy oceans will be for your future? What do you think the conditions of the oceans will be twenty or thirty years from now? 


Viewing Activities

Segment One Topic: Over-fishing

Segment one focuses on the collapse of the cod fishery of the North Atlantic Ocean and its effect on the communities of Aveiro, Portugal, and New Bedford, Massachusetts.  The economies and even cultural identities of these communities have been intertwined with the cod for generations, so the impact has been severe.

Finding Segment One (Length: 13 minutes and 30 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you see ships moored in a harbor and hear Matt Damon say, “We begin our story in a small town...” Stop when you see New Bedford in the background and Andrew Light says, “We certainly don’t want to lose the forms of knowledge that we have gained over hundreds and thousands of years of having some kind of relationship with the oceans and with the seas.”)

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. If people have been fishing for North Atlantic cod for at least 400 years, why has the fishery collapsed so recently? (Answer:  As long as people did not catch too many fish, enough cod would survive to reproduce and replenish the population.  Unfortunately, the numbers of people fishing for cod, using ever-more efficient equipment, increased to the point where the fish populations became too depleted to recover.  The harvest could not be sustained.)
  2. Why didn’t people just agree to catch less fish to preserve the resource upon which their livelihood depended? (Answer:  There are several reasons for this.  First, the over-harvest of the cod was difficult to detect.  Since it was going on under water, people didn’t see it happening the way they would have if the animals disappearing were living on dry land in plain view.  Secondly, the fisher persons confronted real economic pressures that encouraged them to catch as many fish as they could to make as much money as they could.  Cutting back on the numbers of fish caught would have reduced their income.  But, what was also highly significant was that no one owned the cod; the fish were available for anyone to catch.  This meant that there was no incentive for individuals to reduce their catch.  If someone had, what would have prevented someone else from catching the fish that the first person had left alone?  The first person would have lost money, but the cod population would not have benefited.  And so, without everyone working together to catch less fish, it was in everyone’s best interests to catch as many fish as he or she could.)
  3. If towns like Aveiro and New Bedford lose their identity as fishing communities, and people stop fishing, does it matter?  How important is it to preserve the special traditions and knowledge that these towns have accumulated?  How important is it to you to preserve places that are different than everywhere else? (Opinions will vary, but students might mention that we need fishing expertise to endure if we are to continue to enjoy seafood, and that the world would be a less interesting place if we allow places with unique personalities to become like everywhere else.)

Segment Two: Marine Habitat Protection: The Dry Tortugas, Florida
The preceding segment discussed a serious issue – the depletion of the North Atlantic cod fishery – that is proving to be a difficult challenge to solve.  In contrast, this segment illustrates what people can accomplish with creativity and commitment.  To combat coral reef destruction and the overharvesting of the reefs’ denizens, the United States established a 200 square mile marine sanctuary around the Dry Tortugas Islands in the Florida Keys.  The results: coral, fish, and other marine creatures have rebounded in spectacular fashion.  Key to the reserve’s success are the efforts of committed law enforcement officials, and the film takes viewers along as these officials patrol the sanctuary and ensure its continued protection.

Finding Segment Two (Length: 9 minutes and 55 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you observe an aerial view of a Florida coastline and hear Matt Damon say “About 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, surrounding a chain of small islands…”  Stop when you see Joe Scarpa in his boat saying “…by enforcing the laws that are there, they are learning their lessons from that, they’re learning from that, and we’re gaining voluntary compliance.”)

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. Do you think establishing marine reserves like the Dry Tortugas is a good idea?  If so, why do you think we don’t have more of them?  What’s standing in our way?  (Answers will vary, but might include pressure from commercial and sport fishers to keep places open for fishing, and the difficulty and cost of enforcing reserve laws and restrictions.)

Segment Three: Global Climate Change: Greenland
Threatening the future of our oceans, along with over-fishing and habitat destruction, is the looming specter of global climate change.  The following three segments explore this critical environmental issue.  Segment Three travels to Greenland, where scientists are investigating how fast glaciers are flowing into the sea.  The findings of these scientists are of great interest, because as glaciers disappear into the ocean sea level rises.  This is expected to be disastrous to people living in coastal communities worldwide. 

Finding Segment Three (Length: 6 minutes and 13 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you see a smoke stack spewing forth a cloud of dark smoke and hear Matt Damon say, “The scientific community now reports that the level of carbon dioxide… “   Stop when you see glacial ice crashing into the sea and hear Matt Damon say, “If the entire ice sheet should melt, the oceans of the world would rise by a catastrophic 23 feet.”)

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. How is global warming thought to be increasing the melting of Greenland glaciers? (Answer: Warming temperatures are creating meltwater lakes on the glacier surfaces.  This water drains through cracks in the glaciers until they reach the bottom where the glaciers are in contact with rock.  The water lubricates the glaciers, causing them to flow more rapidly into the ocean.)
  2. How does glacial melting lead to sea level rise?  (Answer: When the glaciers flow into the sea, they break up and produce icebergs.  These float away and eventually melt into the ocean.  In addition, any water produced by melting glaciers on land will ultimately flow into the sea.  Because of global warming, glaciers are melting and flowing more rapidly than before.)

Segment Four: Global Climate Change: Bangladesh
Segment Four discusses the impact sea level rise will have on one country: the crowded and impoverished nation of Bangladesh.  Roughly the size of Wisconsin, Bangladesh has a population of 151 million people, or roughly half the population of the United States.  It is estimated that a sea level rise of three feet will drown half the country, forcing tens of millions of people into ever-smaller amounts of land and creating increased poverty, disease, and social tension. 

Finding Segment Four (Length: 5 minutes and 35 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you see people in Bangladesh paddling around in small boats and hear Matt Damon say, “Bangladesh is a place defined by water.”  Stop when you see a man carrying a load of baskets on his bicycle and hear V. Ramaswamy in Calcutta, India say, “They will go over them, through them, or under them because poverty does not recognize boundaries.”

Post –viewing Discussion

  1. How are Greenland glaciers connected with the tropical country of Bangladesh? (Answer:  The melting Greenland glaciers are contributing to sea level rise worldwide.  A sea level rise of a few feet will inundate much of Bangladesh, even though it lies halfway around the world.)
  2. How will Bangladesh flooding affect the country’s citizens? (Answer:  Bangladesh is among the poorest and most crowded countries on the planet.  Roughly 151 million people live there, in a country the size of Wisconsin.  This is about half the population of the entire United States.  Most of them depend upon subsistence farming for their living.  With a projected sea level rise of three feet, over half the agricultural land will be underwater, and a huge number of people will lose their livelihood and even the land on which to live.  They will have to move, most likely to the already crowded capital city of Dhaka or even to India, which has 1.1 billion people of its own.  These places will not have the space, homes, schools, jobs, and health services to cope with this migration.  Poverty, disease, and social unrest will be the likely result.  A massive humanitarian catastrophe will likely occur.

Segment Five: Global Climate Change: Peru
Segment Five begins high in the Peruvian Andes, an odd locale for a film about the planet’s oceans.  Soon, however, the connection becomes clear.  Global climate change is causing Andean glaciers to melt at such a pace that some scientists believe they will be gone entirely in a matter of decades.  If this happens, the water supply for people living in the Andes will be threatened, so many of them will move to the coast.  The vast majority of these migrants will end up in impoverished shantytowns, without running water or sewage facilities.  Their wastes will end up polluting the ocean along the coast, and their need for food and employment will force many of them to take up fishing, thus threatening existing fish populations with over-harvesting, similar to that which has befallen the North Atlantic cod.

Finding Segment Five (Length: 8 minutes and 55 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you see a high Andean meadow, or puna, and hear Matt Damon say, “These are the highlands of South America’s Andes, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world.”  Stop when you see a power plant in the background and Scott Doney says, “I don’t really think it’s our choice to destroy something that they are never going to get to see.”

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. Why is the melting of glaciers in the Peruvian Andes expected to force people living in the mountains to move to the coast? (Answer:  People living in the Andes depend on the water that the glaciers provide.  They are accustomed to glaciers large enough to produce a steady stream of meltwater for drinking and irrigation, even during dry periods.  The concern, however, is that global climate change will shrink the glaciers to the point that they no longer contain enough water to sustain mountain communities.  They may even disappear altogether.  When that happens, people will not be able to farm and will have to move.)
  2. If large numbers of Andean people move to the coast, what will be the living conditions awaiting most of them? (Answer:  Most of the migrants will end up in shantytowns without running water, sewage facilities, electricity, or employment.)
  3. How would they be expected to affect the ocean? (Answer: The increased number of people needing to eat would likely lead to increased fishing pressure on coastal fish populations.  As we have seen, people often tend to catch too many fish, leading to the crash of fish populations around the world.  This might very well happen in Peru.  In addition, without basic sewage facilities, the communities where these people settle will be dumping increased amounts of human waste into the ocean.)

Segment Six: Marine Conservation in Belize
Segment Six focuses on another successful conservation story.  The small Central American country of Belize has, like the United States, established a marine sanctuary: the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve. This reserve is protecting a host of marine creatures and their habitat.  The success of this effort has created a new eco-tourism industry.  People from around the world are traveling to Belize to observe and even swim with the creatures of Gladden Spit, notably the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.  In so doing, they are providing Belize with a new source of income and new opportunities for employment.  The Gladden Spit reserve, like the Dry Tortugas Marine Reserve discussed earlier, illustrates that people do not have to stand by helplessly and witness the relentless deterioration of the oceans and their resources.  We can choose a different course and, like a great array of marine creatures, reap considerable benefits as a result of our good work.

Finding Segment Six (Length: 4 minutes and 13 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you see a fisherman in a small boat throwing a net and hear Matt Damon say, “ Forty miles off the coast of Belize, on a small Caribbean island…”  Stop when you see a swimming whale shark and hear Matt Damon say, “It’s joined Florida’s Dry Tortugas reserve as a model for marine communities around the world.”

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. How do you think eco-tourism benefits the people of Belize? (Answer: Tourists spend money for food, lodging, guide services, and souvenirs, thus providing an income to the country and employment to its citizens.  It also enables people from different countries to become acquainted with each other, thus contributing to mutual global understanding and fellowship.”
  2. On the other hand, can you think of ways in which international eco-tourism might hurt a country like Belize? (Answers will vary but may include the concern that the tourists themselves may damage the environment that they have come to see by doing such things as putting pressure on fish and other marine resources, increasing human wastes, littering, and creating crowded conditions in natural areas.  Students might also mention the possibility of upsetting local people by behaving rudely and being insensitive to local customs and traditions.  Eco-tourism must be carefully managed to protect both the environment and local cultures.)

Segment Seven: Summary with Sylvia Earle and Matt Damon
In the final segment of The State of the Planet’s Oceans, the noted marine biologist, Sylvia Earle, and Matt Damon wrap up the film with a final testimony to the beauty of the world’s oceans and the necessity to preserve them.

Finding Segment Seven (Length: 2 minutes and 45 seconds)
(Visual and audio cues:  Start when you see Sylvia Earle saying, “If I could, I would love to take anybody and everyone down into the sea, to see what I have come to know and love.”  End when Matt Damon says, “What we need now are the efforts of people everywhere, all those who are willing to find ways to strike the right balance, between what we want and what the oceans can provide.”


Special Projects

  1. Research the Changing Availability of Seafood in Your Area
    How are fish populations doing from the perspective of people in your community?  Have your students visit restaurants and food markets in your community and interview the proprietors about what they have observed regarding seafood.  What species seem to be scarcer, harder to obtain, and more expensive than formerly?  What species seem to be as, or more, abundant than before?  Perhaps your students can also find out how to contact the suppliers of the restaurants and food markets and ask them the same questions.  Once your students have gathered their information, ask them to share their findings.  Can your class draw any conclusions?  Are there any particular geographic locations or types of habitat that seem to be experiencing population decreases of commercial fish and other marine creatures?  What categories of fish, shellfish, crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, lobsters), and other types of seafood seem to be disappearing?  Considering present trends, do your students think that any species are especially at risk of disappearing, like the North Atlantic cod?

  2. Identify Best and Worst Seafood to Eat in Your Area
    Print or use a projector to display a Seafood Selector or Pocket Guide to seafood-friendly consumption (see resource section). Find out which seafood in your area is best and worst to consume from an environmental standpoint. Share the findings with the school using posters, assemblies, or communications with parents.

  3. Discover Environmental Laws Protecting Wildlife in Your Area and Local Wildlife Issues
    Who is responsible for enforcing the environmental laws protecting wildlife in your community?  Ask a wildlife officer or game warden to speak to your class.  What are the wildlife issues with which he or she is concerned?  Are there any species that are considered to be nuisances?  Are there any species considered to be at risk?  Is there anything students can do to help protect the wildlife in their community?

  4. Identify Coastal Cities that Will Be Impacted by Sea Level Rise
    Divide the class by continent.  Locate coastal cities using an atlas or map.  Find their populations and altitude above sea level.  Now ask groups to determine what would happen to these cities with a six foot rise in sea level, an outcome that many climate scientists believe possible considering current climatic trends.  How many people would be displaced, and what will the environmental and social consequences be?  Ask the teams to share their results in class.   

  5. Check Out Your Local Drinking Water Supply
    Clean water is essential to our survival, but it’s often amazing how little people know about where their drinking water comes from.  Conduct a useful research project to find out more about drinking water in your community.  Visit your water treatment plant or ask a member of your community’s water department to visit your school.  Try to find out:

    1. The source of your community’s drinking water
    2. Whether the water supply is sufficient, or whether water shortages are a potential problem
    3. How many communities are upstream and whether they might be discharging contaminants into the water source. 
    4. How the water department determines the contaminants that are in the water.  What does the department test for (e.g. bacteria, nitrates and phosphates, sediment, toxic metals, pharmaceuticals), and what technology does it use to assess water quality?
    5. How the water department treats the community’s drinking water and whether the treatment methods match the known contaminants found in the water.  How the department ensures that its treatment efforts are adequate.
    6. Whether any water safety issues have arisen and what was done to address them.

    Once your class has learned about their drinking water, they can educate the rest of the school community through such means as assemblies, posters, and the school web site.  They can also determine for themselves if their drinking water is safe to drink, if it’s a good idea to filter it at home before drinking, or even if they should resort to bottled water.

  6. Design an Ecotourism Travel Poster
    As your class has seen, people from around the world are traveling to Belize to swim with whale sharks.  Have each of your students choose a type of natural wonder (e.g. mountain range, rain-forest, coral reef, glacier, wildlife spectacle) that he or she would like to see.  Each student would then identify and research a particular place with that chosen feature and prepare a travel poster that illustrates where this location is and what it offers the eco-tourist.  You can then put the posters up in the hallway and even poll the students to see which place is their favorite.

  7. Describe A Special Place Worth Protecting
    Sylvia Earle speaks passionately about her love for oceans and ocean life. Ask your students to think about a natural place that is very special to them. It could be a place in their neighborhood or community or a place to which they have visited or traveled. Invite them to write an essay about this special place, describing what makes it worth protecting. If desired, post the essays or have the students read them aloud.



Environmental Defense Fund
Through the oceans section of the home page, you will find a Seafood Selector that rates the best and worst choices in terms of eating fish and seafood, as well as a wide variety of information about fishing responsibly.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Saving Oceans section of this home page provides a pocket guide to buying ocean-friendly seafood in different regions of the U.S. You will also find information on a wide variety of marine issues such as by-catch, habitat damage, and over-fishing.

Overfishing: Guide to Good Fish
Visit the Guide to Good Fish section to find information about ocean friendly fish to eat in various countries around the world.

History of the Northern Cod Industry
This site details the history of the northern cod fishery since the 1800s. The Table of Contents allows you to quickly and easily find the sections of most interest to you.


Environmental News: “Melting Andean Glaciers Could Leave 30 Million High and Dry”
Find this excellent article, published April 28, 2008, at the Environmental News web site.

The New York Times: “In Greenland: Ice and Instability”
To learn more about the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, conduct a search for the January 8, 2009 article entitled “In Greenland: Ice and Instability.”

Reuter’s: “Bangladesh Faces Climate Change Refugee Nightmare”
Learn more about the refugee problems Bangladesh will face with rising sea levels in this April 14, 2008 article. Visit the web site and conduct a search for the article titled here.

Science News: “For Kids: Science Loses Out When Ice Caps Melt”
This kid-friendly article discusses the melting of ice caps, mentioning the Andes ice caps in particular. Visit this web site and conduct a search for the article titled above, which was published on January 30, 2009.


Environmental Defense Fund
The above site has information about the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve and a gallery of photographs of marine life found there

Friends of Nature Belize
This site provides information about the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, including research and policing of the reserve.

The Nature Conservancy
Visit the Where We Work section of this site to locate special Nature Conservancy projects in Belize. Tour the special section about whale sharks. Do a search for the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve in Belize to get more information about it.


Google Earth Ocean
Take a tour of this program that looks deep below the surface of the ocean and find downloads that will allow you to explore the Earth’s oceans.

Sylvia Earle
Books by Sylvia Earle are described and a list of media interviews that can be accessed by the internet are provided.

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