Ensconced in a clear blue sky, surrounded by a Goldilocks-temperature ocean, and spoiled by the comforts of travel in a foreign land, I tried to mirror my boyfriend’s glee. We were in Bali. Tomorrow, we would take a beginner’s surfing lesson. And, two thin plastic bags were simultaneously wrapping their way around my ankles—a kind of new-age, invincible jellyfish. 

I could not ignore the trash. 

It littered the beaches for miles along the coast. Despite the daily efforts of volunteers, who stuffed garbage trucks to their brims each morning, every day a new layer of plastic would arrive to replace the old, perpetually staining what was once an oasis. 

The trash that shows up in Bali derives from all around the world. Out of all the plastic you have personally used—the amassed candy wrappers, straws, and zip-lock bags—Green Peace estimates that 10 percent of it is currently swarming around the ocean. In fact, 10 percent of all plastic ever produced now lives in the ocean, filling the bellies of young and confused baby fish, and killing innocent sea turtles.

Our plastic—and, while we are on the topic, our overfishing, carbon emissions, and consumer choices—are killing our oceans. Species of fish are dying. Habitats are being destroyed. And, this one’s important, fish are having a hard time getting it on. 

Say What? 

You read correctly. Not only should you be concerned about overfishing and the rising acidity of the ocean, but you should also be concerned about whether, and how, fish are having sex. 

At the TEDxMileHigh Imagine event in November 2019, Marah Hardt gave a talk arguing exactly that. We rely on healthy oceans for a healthy life and our oceans rely on the healthy sex lives of marine life. So, without healthy fish sex, our oceans cannot recover.

We Rely on Good Fish Sex

We need marine life. According to Hardt, over two billion people rely on wild fish for nourishment. We are protected from storms thanks to the millions of oysters and corals that create reefs. We even rely on fish to cure certain diseases. All of this is contingent on fish making more fish, and well at that.

How Fish Have Sex Matters 

The way fish have sex looks nothing like the way humans do. As Hardt describes, marine life often has complex sex rituals that are reliant on a set of conditions. Without said conditions, sex becomes difficult and, in some cases, impossible.

Take the parrotfish, for example. Did you know they all begin life as females? Once the fish grows and its environment meets the right conditions, she undergoes a complete sex change. She absorbs her ovaries, generates testes, and replaces her egg production with sperm production. 

Or, take the female lobster. In order to seduce her male love interest, she will douse him daily with her love pee, which comes shooting out of her forehead, until he discovers he is interested. 

Hardt describes more incredulous sex rituals of other fish, but you’ll just have to watch her talk to learn more about them. However, the point is clear: fish have sex differently than humans. Because of this, we need to take special care to protect their sex rituals.

Climate Change Affects Fish Sex

Parrotfish, for example, are endangered by well-intended fishing laws that prohibit the fishing of small and young fish. When being fished, only male parrotfish are killed due to their larger size and age. But a society of parrotfish without males cannot effectively reproduce. 

For the female lobster, her love pee carries a “critical chemical signal” that only works because it can be carried through the ocean and received by the male lobster’s smell receptors. Because climate change is increasing the acidity of our oceans, this communication channel is compromised. 

How to Help Save the Ocean (and Help Fish Have More Sex)

So, fish sex matters. If you still aren’t convinced, you can read Hardt’s book on the same subject, Sex in the Sea. What can you do to help?

1. Pay Attention to the Products in Your Home

Does your face wash contain microplastics? Do your hair products contain harmful chemicals? What about your dishwashing detergent, or your deep bathroom cleaner? Don’t forget that the chemicals you use to remove those hard-to-clean stains end up in our oceans and impact the way fish can communicate and mate. Choose sustainable and harm-free products that pose no danger to marine life. Check beauty products in the SkinDeep Database.

2. Eat Local and Sustainable

According to Hardt, it’s not that we need to stop eating fish, it’s that we need to stop contributing to destructive and irresponsible fishing practices. Eat local, sustainable, or farmed species low on the food chain like oysters, sardines, mackerel, or mussels. Make smarter seafood choices using SeafoodWatch

3. Teach the Industry

Discoveries about the intricate sex lives of fish need to influence industry practices. That is, how we fish, how we regulate big companies, and how we implement climate change reform. There is still so much we do not know about the ocean. We need to support research that expands our understanding and comprehension of its depths—and learns from its wisdom.

4. Stop Using Plastic

It doesn’t end with the plastic straw. Stop using your plastic tupperware, your plastic bags, the plastic wrapping that goes around every head of your broccoli. Plastic surrounds us, but it is easily replaced by the more sustainable glass, cloth, and steel equivalents.

To start the new year off right, Thailand implemented a plastic bag ban in major cities, inspiring its citizens to come up with creative ways to carry their groceries home. In various photos circling the internet, you can find people using anything from a wheelbarrow to an empty flower pot to carry their purchases. Get creative with it! You likely don’t have to buy any more reusable bags to engage in reusable practices. Use your laundry basket! 

5. Properly Dispose of Hazardous Materials

It might be a pain, but it matters if you throw batteries in the regular trash or take the time to dispose of them correctly. The same goes for your oil paints, electronics, and old pills. Make a pile, pick a date, and bring it to the correct and safe disposal location. If you need assistance, contact your local public works, department of public health and environment, or the Environmental Protection Agency

6. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

For some, these words have become so common, they resemble a memorized history date or religious prayer that has lost its meaning. It is important to remember that these words are in order. First, reduce. Use less plastic, produce less trash. Next, if you must create waste, reuse the waste as much as you can. And finally, recycle. And recycle correctly

Going Forward

To overcome this immense climate issue, we need to be resilient. It will take hard work, determination, and lots of research. As long as we pay attention to science and dedicate time to improve the health of our oceans (and fish sex lives), there is hope for a clean ocean. One day in the future, perhaps the beaches of Bali will be crystalline, pure, and full of sexy fish.