As the Ocean Dies, Black and Brown Communities Suffer

As the Ocean Dies, Black and Brown Communities Suffer

Indigenous coastal communities are more dependent on the ocean than other peoples, and also more vulnerable to the spoiling of the ocean.


9 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Conservation, Geography, Human Geography


Hurricane Delta Hits Gulf Coast

Climate change is likely increasing the frequency and intensity of storms. The Louisiana Gulf Coast in the southeastern United States has been especially hard hit. Category 2 Hurricane Delta hit the Gulf Coast on October 10, 2020, flooding the land.

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Climate change is likely increasing the frequency and intensity of storms. The Louisiana Gulf Coast in the southeastern United States has been especially hard hit. Category 2 Hurricane Delta hit the Gulf Coast on October 10, 2020, flooding the land.

An interconnected body without beginning or end, the ocean is by far Earth’s largest water source. It is the source of the planet’s life. All life.

Surrounded by water, islands don’t just house many species, but a diversity of human cultures as well. Island peoples include those living in places as far flung and different as Java, Zanzibar, Newfoundland, Ireland, and Oahu, to name a few. These places represent just a fraction of the 600 million people who live on an island, according to the UN.

The same waters that allow life to exist are frequently abused by human activity. Sewage, agricultural runoff, and plastics pollute the ocean. Further, human-caused climate change is altering the ecosystems of the ocean, making it more toxic for many of the species calling it home. But the harm done to the ocean environment is rarely limited just to it. As an interconnected system, the harm done ultimately hurts humans too.

Coral bleaching is an example of this negatively cascading effect. Coral reefs form diverse ecosystems within the ocean. Making up less than one percent of the ocean floor, they support an estimated 25 percent of known marine species. Coral reefs support a huge diversity of marine life, including many at the base of the ocean’s food web, like snails and marine worms. The reefs provide shelter, protection, and a place to breed.

The coral reefs losing their vivid colors is not just an eyesore but a potentially devastating environmental problem. The coral themselves are vulnerable to warming ocean temperatures, which result from global warming. The rise in temperatures can cause a coral reef to expel its symbiotic partner, the algae zooxanthellae. The two species live in a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship.

Benefits to Humans

Coral reefs also help protect nearby human communities by fortifying the coastlines they are built on. Studies have found coral-protected coastal communities experience at least half the yearly expected damage (by monetary cost) from flooding compared to similar coastal areas without coral reefs. “The countries with the most to gain from reef management are Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Mexico, and Cuba; annual expected flood savings exceed $400 [million] for each of these nations,” the Nature Communications paper found.

When reefs die and species lose their breeding grounds and places of protection, there are fewer fish available to catch, sell, and consume. The spectacle of viewing bright coral reefs also brings in tourist dollars and the jobs that support them. This costs those communities an estimated $30 billion a year.

Impact on Indigenous Community

The detrimental effects inflicted on our ocean hurt humans generally, but they can be especially harmful to Black and brown communities. This happened in the late 2000s when shellfish populations crashed in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This problem hit the local fishing industry hard. Among that fishing community is the Quinault Indian Nation. They are indigenous to Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and closely linked to the ocean. Millennia before the building of the fish-processing plants that polluted the local waters, the Quinault used the razor clam (Siliqua patula) for trade, subsistence, sustenance, and maintaining their way of life.

The Quinault are especially vulnerable to changes in the razor clam, and other marine species, populations because their harvesting territory is limited by treaty restrictions, marine resources scientist and Quinault representative Joe Schumacker said in a NOAA article. “The tribe has to be very very careful and conservation-minded about their resources and how they manage them,” he said. “The treaty right doesn't exist anywhere else. This goes for all of their treaty resources including salmon, crab and many other species.”

The die-offs were possibly linked to ocean acidification and deoxygenation, or some combination thereof. Ocean acidification is caused by the over absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean because of human industry. As the name says, ocean deoxygenation is the loss of dissolved oxygen in ocean waters. While this is a global problem with planetary oxygen levels falling about two percent since the middle of the 20th century, it is not uniform. There are two primary causes for this phenomenon, warming ocean temperatures and algae overgrowth, called eutrophication, from agricultural runoff and the burning of fossil fuels.

Greater Wealth Inequality

A joint study published in 2019 found racial wealth inequalities widened in the aftermath of U.S. natural disasters. University of Pittsburgh sociologist, Junia Howell, and Rice University sociologist, Jim Elliott, looked at natural disaster claims from 1999 to 2013. These claims were from wildfires, tornadoes, and floods, but were mainly from hurricanes. The study divided U.S. counties by how they were impacted by natural disasters in those 14 years, looking at counties with less than $100,000 in damages compared to those with more than $10 billion in damages.

Regardless of race, people who lived in counties with little damage from natural disasters all averaged gains in wealth during that time. Racial wealth outcomes differed when counties, however, were devastated by natural disasters. While white residents gained an average of about $126,000, people of other races all lost money. Black residents averaged losses of $27,000; Asian residents lost an average of $10,000; and Latinx residents averaged $29,000 of wealth loss.

The key factor is how disaster relief aid from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is given. FEMA aid worsens already unequal economic conditions, “especially along the lines of race, education, and homeownership,” according to the 2019 study.

This racism is systemic; it is embedded within society itself. This shows up in factors like higher housing prices in mostly white neighborhoods, and in the time and resources needed to address storm damage (more available to whites), and get help from the federal bureaucracy. “The bigger the disaster, the more federal aid flows, and the more wealth disparities by race grow,” Dave Kaufman, director of safety and security at the Center for Naval Analyses, said in a 2021 New York Times article.

“What this means is wealth inequality is increasing in counties that are hit by more disasters,” Elliott said.

Existing projects to learn more about how Black and brown communities are affected by ocean health:

  1. Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Melati Wijsen, Nat Geo grantee or Young Explorer
  2. Sea to Source

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 9, 2024

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