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How to Help the Ocean From Your Garden

You don’t have to be in the ocean — or even near it — to have an effect on marine life. Here are a few ways to make your impact a positive one.

Insights + Opinion
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I have worked in shark conservation for the last 20-plus years, and the most common comments and requests I receive are from people wanting to come and work directly with me to start helping sharks. Many people look at the act of removing hooks from the sharks I encounter during my dives as the only way to protect them. My response to these requests is that we don’t need to wait to be scuba divers or to come in direct contact with sharks to help them.

Our daily actions are the first step to the global change we hope to influence. No matter where we live, the consequences of our choices will find their way to the water and the oceans. Changing how we live today will affect our planet most in the long run.

I have worked in shark conservation for the last 20-plus years, and the most common comments and requests I receive are from people wanting to come and work directly with me to start helping sharks. Many people look at the act of removing hooks from the sharks I encounter during my dives as the only way to protect them. My response to these requests is that we don’t need to wait to be scuba divers or to come in direct contact with sharks to help them.

Our daily actions are the first step to the global change we hope to influence. No matter where we live, the consequences of our choices will find their way to the water and the oceans. Changing how we live today will affect our planet most in the long run.

So, how can you help the ocean from where you live? The following examples are taken from my daily life on a tiny island in the middle of the Bahamas, but they’ve become common practices by many people looking for immediate actions to better the environment. 

1. Reduce Sprinkler Use

While beautiful green gardens are pleasing to the eye, I cannot stop thinking about how very little drinking water there is on this planet (only 0.5% of the Earth’s water is available fresh water).1 

Much of this water is below us, in the ground. So, as we let more poisonous chemicals seep into the ground, we have a higher chance of them entering our bodies through our drinking water. The chemicals we don’t consume will find their way to the ocean, affecting marine life and causing cascading catastrophic effects, especially in coastal areas.

Let nature take its course. In tropical and rainy environments, there is no need for sprinklers. In dryer locations, consider building a garden full of native plants that can naturally thrive in your environment.

2. Don’t Rake Leaves

Many gardeners rake leaves out from under plants until there is nothing left but bare soil. But this actually hurts your garden more than helping it. When leaves fall to the ground, they decompose and become food for small creatures, act as a natural fertilizer and provide moisture to their surrounding area. 

Leaves also offer natural temperature control. During autumn, leaves fall to the ground in preparation for the winter, coating the soil from the frost to come and keeping the life underneath it protected to bloom with the coming of the next season.

Removing leaves impoverishes the ground, so in many places, mulch is used as a replenishment. In fact, I have noticed that raking and mulching are required by many homeowners associations.

While this may look like a “natural” solution, mulch comes with colorants and toxins, which leak into the ground through rain and sun exposure.2 Furthermore, mulch is typically delivered in plastic bags, adding to useless plastic pollution. In certain areas, mulch will also create a food source for termites. Spreading wood chips around a building to later gripe about the presence of termites is like complaining about pigeons flocking after you toss a handful of corn on the ground.

Letting your leaves fall where they may — and letting them be — can both keep your plants healthy and keep the pollutants associated with mulch from eventually entering our waterways.

3. Rethink ‘Pest’ Control

Humans tend to consider any creature that enters our gardens and crop beds as a pest; however, many of them are an essential part of the natural cycle. 

As soon as we see a foreign presence, whether a bug or simply grass that does not look the same, we tend to poison it. But having a variety of grass and natural flowers is fundamental for a garden’s health, as they attract pollinators and foster a healthy environment. 

Any poison we spread on the ground will affect much more than the “pests” we are trying to eliminate. For example, while killing what we consider invasive species, we also poison the healthy species we need. The adverse effects of this behavior are visible in the recent alarm raised over the disappearance of bees worldwide, which is partly due to a lack of habitat diversification.

Furthermore, these chemicals will eventually wash into the soil and reach our precious water table. Along with working with sharks, I am an experienced cave diver and cave-diving instructor. When I journey through these natural pathways that formed and flooded thousands of years ago, it’s easy to tell when I’m in an area that’s been polluted by human activity. Here’s what it looks like:

Although cave divers are the only people who will ever see these remote places for themselves, every human contributes to the health of these environments through our daily actions — and we all see the effects, whether we know it or not. 

Maybe the water (and chemicals) in the ground will be used for drinking. Or maybe it will simply enter the water cycle, eventually leading to the ocean and contaminating an already-strained marine environment. The adverse effects to both our health and the health of the planet are a high price to pay to meet an expectation of landscaping “beauty” that is no longer natural.


It’s worth mentioning that this is not an exhaustive list, and it is not my intention to point fingers at people who are not already taking these actions; sometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know. But it’s essential to let nature take its course rather than modify our environments.

Cristina Zenato is a conservationist and diver specializing in shark diving and shark behavior. She is a proud member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and The Explorers Club, and she is an active volunteer and diver for the Bahamas National Trust. Cristina is also the founder of People of the Water, a nonprofit dedicated to training, education and research pertaining to the ocean and the environmental issues that affect both the people and animals that rely on this ecosystem.

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Cristina and the shark hook. Photo credit: Cristina Zenato

I woke up this morning to see two news articles, both involving animals but very different in tone.

One article highlighted how a man was convicted of animal cruelty in Australia for shooting an arrow through a cat's head. The other hailed the capture of a nearly 1,000-pound mako shark off the coast of New Jersey as an “incredible feat” and called the fishermen “winners.”

I woke up this morning to see two news articles, both involving animals but very different in tone.

One article highlighted how a man was convicted of animal cruelty in Australia for shooting an arrow through a cat’s head. The other hailed the capture of a nearly 1,000-pound mako shark off the coast of New Jersey as an “incredible feat” and called the fishermen “winners.”

Our perception of animal cruelty seems to be radically different for certain animals and, specifically, there’s a wide disparity in what’s acceptable for marine animals (other than marine mammals) and land animals.

Shooting a cat in the head is unacceptable and cruel behavior — a senseless act of violence. But why is it acceptable, then, to slaughter such an incredible animal as the mako shark, a top predator essential to the ocean ecosystem, and hang it in a brutal display of victory? Victory over what? A defenseless animal dragged around by the power of engines and high-technology gear until no fight is left in it?

How is our perception of animal cruelty so contadictory? What mechanism in our collective minds allows us to recognize one action as positive and the other unacceptable?

There’s a video circulating the internet that shows a father hooking a shark on fishing line and dragging the animal closer to his kayak for his young son to see. It is, in a way, a sweet action: The father pulls the shark’s head out of the water, takes the video and images, pauses, and talks to his son. After a while, he releases the shark, telling the child to say goodbye to it. The comments below the video reflect that many viewers see this as an understandable, endearing and ultimately joyous moment because the shark is released.

It’s a good lesson for the son: He encountered the shark, and the animal survived. The words expressed by the dad are positive. In the video, this is a win-win situation, both for the shark and the child. The story ends there. 

In an alternative scenario, the child arrives home, helps his dad put away the kayak, grabs the same fishing rod, walks down the street, and starts fishing for cats, dogs and birds in the neighborhood. He attracts them with morsels of food on a hook, fights to reel them in, and once he has them close, he takes pictures. He then cuts the line and lets them go back to their life with hooks still embedded in them.

The thought of said cruel and pointless action makes any person’s skin crawl. But ultimately, it’s the same behavior exhibited by the child’s father — society just condones the dad’s actions because they were targeting a sea creature, particularly a shark, rather than neighborhood pets.

It has become fashionable to hook and drag sharks across the shore for photo opportunities. Meanwhile, the sharks gasp for breath and gravity crushes their organs. Sharks don’t have a rib cage to keep their organs protected; they don’t need one. They live in a weightless world, not on the beach. But shore fishing for sharks is legal and socially accepted because the animals are released. The resulting images and videos don’t show that many of these sharks are traumatized, possibly injured, and, days later, end up dead down the coastline.

The core of the issue is that the perception of our actions and the general attitude toward marine life need to change.

A widespread misconception is that fish, especially sharks, are mindless creatures that lack emotion and are incapable of feeling pain. There is also still a belief that sharks are swimming nervous systems looking for a meal. It is not uncommon to read and hear opinions highlighting how sharks deserve this treatment as payback for being “man-eaters.”

But reality doesn’t line up with these popular beliefs. 

Simply look at the numbers: Hundreds of millions of people visit beaches every year, swimming in the ocean, yet the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File reported only 96 confirmed negative shark-human interactions worldwide in 2020. It is undeniable that humans are not part of sharks’ diets, and the few-and-far-between negative encounters are part of the risk we take when entering their world.

What’s more, sharks have survived five natural mass extinctions but have been depleted from our oceans faster than ever due to human activity. Studies show that since 1970, global populations of sharks and rays have declined by 71% due to an 18-fold increase in fishing pressure.

Sharks are no mindless eating machines. They are cleaners, vital to the balance of the ecosystems they belong to. We need to change our narrow-minded vision of such an evolved and complex creature, and restore sharks to the status of animals — of creatures of nature, not monsters. There are no shark-infested waters; the oceans are their world, not ours. It’s time for humans to rethink the concept of cruelty at all levels.

An arrow through a cat’s head is as bad as a gaff through a shark’s.

Cristina Zenato is a conservationist and diver specializing in shark diving and shark behavior. She is a proud member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and The Explorers Club, and she is an active volunteer and diver for the Bahamas National Trust. Cristina is also the founder of People of the Water, a nonprofit dedicated to training, education and research pertaining to the ocean and the environmental issues that affect both the people and animals that rely on this ecosystem.

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