A healthy ocean is essential to our existence. But it is no secret that the ocean is under tremendous threat. It has never been hotter or more acidic. It is losing oxygen at an alarming rate. And pollution, especially plastic waste, is negatively impacting almost every aspect of marine life. In fact, habitats are being destroyed, and species are becoming endangered on a daily basis. While there are a lot of great organizations out there dedicated to protecting the ocean, clearly, it has not been enough. As a result, our generation not only needs to take charge, but we also need to get more creative. We have no choice but to provide the leadership needed to find new and innovative ways to engage with our greatest resource in a more meaningful and responsible manner. And in providing that leadership, we need to ensure that we connect with people from all communities – especially those that have been historically underrepresented. Not only can we no longer afford to exclude the intellectual and creative might that resides in these communities, but it is also these communities that are most at risk from the environmental, economic, and societal harms caused by rising sea levels, intensified storms, and other catastrophic effects of climate change.
Health & Well-Being
Whether you live near the coast or far from the ocean’s shores, the ocean impacts the health and well-being of every one of us. Consider these facts:
- The ocean generates over half the oxygen we breathe.
- The ocean is the largest biosphere on Earth.
- The ocean contains 97% of Earth’s water.
- The ocean is home to 50 – 80% of all life on Earth.
- The ocean plays a crucial role in regulating our climate and weather.
- The ocean provides nearly 3 billion people with their primary source of protein.
The ocean also has an enormous impact on both the U.S. domestic economy and the global economy. While the value of the ocean and its resources is incalculable, snapshots of different areas of the ocean economy show that:
- Over 3 billion people’s livelihoods depend directly on coastal and marine ecosystems.
- The market value of ocean resources and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year, or about 5 percent of global GDP.
- Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people.
- About 80% of all tourism takes place in coastal areas.
- 90% of international freight involves marine transportation.
An Ocean at Risk
But with less than 3% of the ocean protected, the ocean is at grave risk. Specifically:
- By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
- The ocean has absorbed over 90% of the excess heat trapped by man-made greenhouse gases.
- Ocean heat is now at record levels, causing widespread marine heat waves.
- The sea level has risen over 8 inches since 1880 (with about 3 of those inches gained in the last 25 years).
- Every year, an estimated 5 to 12 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean.
- The ocean has become more acidic due to the absorption of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
- Global fish stocks are being depleted, and marine life decimated by overfishing.
Life Under Water
In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. The adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals was a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.
Sustainable Development Goal 14 is “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” or, more colloquially, “Life Under Water.” As set forth in the preamble to Life Under Water:
“The ocean drives global systems that make the Earth habitable for humankind. Our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe, are all ultimately provided and regulated by the sea. Careful management of this essential global resource is a key feature of a sustainable future. However, at the current time, there is a continuous deterioration of coastal waters owing to pollution, and ocean acidification is having an adversarial effect on the functioning of ecosystems and biodiversity. This is also negatively impacting small scale fisheries. Saving our ocean must remain a priority. Marine biodiversity is critical to the health of people and our planet. Marine protected areas need to be effectively managed and well-resourced, and regulations need to be put in place to reduce overfishing, marine pollution and ocean acidification.”
Goal 14 sets forth ten specific targets to be reached:
14.1 Reduce Marine Pollution. By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution
14.2 Protect and Restore Ecosystems. By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans
14.3 Reduce ocean acidification. Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels
14.4 Fish stocks within sustainable levels. By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics
14.5 Protected Marine Areas. By 2020, conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on the best available scientific information
14.6 Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation
14.7 Income from Sustainable Fisheries. By 2030, increase the economic benefits to Small Island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism
14.A Research Resources for Marine Technology. Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology, taking into account the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology, in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries, in particular small island developing States and least developed countries
14.B Support Small Scale Fishers. Provide access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets
14.C Implementing International Sea Law. Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS, which provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources, as recalled in paragraph 158 of The Future We Want
But the most recent Sustainable Development Goals Report, released in July 2022, states that “cascading and interlinked crises are putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in grave danger, along with humanity’s very own survival.” The Report highlights the severity and magnitude of the challenges before us:
“Human activity is endangering the planet’s largest ecosystem – its oceans and seas – and affecting the livelihoods of billions of people. Continuing ocean acidification and rising ocean temperatures are threatening marine species and negatively affecting marine ecosystem services. Between 2009 and 2018, for example, the world lost about 14 per cent of coral reefs, often called the “rainforests of the sea” because of the extraordinary biodiversity they support. The oceans are also under increasing stress from multiple sources of pollution, which is harmful to marine life and eventually makes its way into the food chain. The rapidly growing consumption of fish (an increase of 122 per cent between 1990 and 2018), along with inadequate public policies for managing the sector, have led to depleting fish stocks.”
We all have a responsibility to live and work in ways that protect and preserve the ocean for the sake of our generation, future generations, and the ultimate survival of this planet.