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The ocean is the largest source of life on our planet. Covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, it provides food, water, employment, goods and services that are worth billions of dollars, relaxation, and even the air we breathe. Yet in return we have been abusing it, stripping it of fish, choking it with pollution and acidifying its waters. We now run the risk of destroying this most valuable natural capital asset – the very thing that makes Earth habitable.

The ocean impacts our lives on a daily basis, even for those of us living far away from its shores:

  • The UN estimates that worldwide, fish provides about 3 billion people with almost 20% of their intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with about 15% of such protein.
  • Recent research has shown the ocean ecosystem would rate as the world’s 7th largest economy in terms of GDP for “goods and services” such as food, tourism, and shipping.
  • The microscopic plants that live in the ocean are responsible for more than half the oxygen we breathe – every second breath that we take. As a natural carbon sink, the ocean absorbs approximately 25% of all the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.

But we are spending down this natural capital at an alarming rate.

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The ocean is the largest source of life on our planet. Covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, it provides food, water, employment, goods and services that are worth billions of dollars, relaxation, and even the air we breathe. Yet in return we have been abusing it, stripping it of fish, choking it with pollution and acidifying its waters. We now run the risk of destroying this most valuable natural capital asset – the very thing that makes Earth habitable.

The ocean impacts our lives on a daily basis, even for those of us living far away from its shores:

  • The UN estimates that worldwide, fish provides about 3 billion people with almost 20% of their intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with about 15% of such protein.
  • Recent research has shown the ocean ecosystem would rate as the world’s 7th largest economy in terms of GDP for “goods and services” such as food, tourism, and shipping.
  • The microscopic plants that live in the ocean are responsible for more than half the oxygen we breathe – every second breath that we take. As a natural carbon sink, the ocean absorbs approximately 25% of all the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.

But we are spending down this natural capital at an alarming rate.

According to a 2014 UN report, 90% of fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished, and this negative trajectory persists. Meanwhile, increased greenhouse gas emissions have boosted ocean acidity by 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, altering seawater chemistry so that the rate of change is many times faster than anything experienced over the last 250 million years. This means that any living organism with a calcium structure (such as shells and coral reefs), many of which are indispensable to functioning ocean ecosystems worldwide, will have an increasingly hard time surviving. Then consider that the ocean is estimated to have absorbed about 90% of the atmosphere’s excess heat and that coral reefs could be destroyed by 2050, according to current predictions. Add these factors together and the medium- and longer-term outlook for the health of this critical Earth system is grim.

A rising tide of science and greater understanding of the role the ocean plays, both ecologically and economically, point the way towards what needs to be done to restore and protect it. However, there is still an unacceptable level of degradation. Many of these negative impacts take place out of sight, and so out of mind.  A combination of individual action, government mandates and business leadership is now needed to reverse this sobering trend.

We need to stop stripping the ocean of all the fish we can grab, and start thinking about where and how that fishing is being done, and what kinds of fish we take. This means governments adopting and implementing measures to end overfishing by setting catch limits that are based on science, rather than economics. Fishing needs to be practiced sustainably, taking into account impacts on the entire ecosystem rather than just the targeted fish stocks. Governance and accountability measures need to be strengthened. And subsidies that fund economically unviable operations and that promote overfishing or unsustainable fishing practices should be eliminated.

We need retailers to take responsibility for the chain of custody of the fish and seafood they sell, to ensure they are not selling fish that has been caught illegally or unsustainably. That means knowing where their fish is caught, which ports it has been through and ensuring that international labor standards are upheld throughout. The consumer also plays a key role in promoting a healthy ocean by choosing sustainable seafood options and demanding their retailers stock such options.

Responsibility also means not sourcing or selling endangered or vulnerable species, or facilitating their trade. Recent studies estimate that at least 100 million sharks are caught and killed each year, mostly for their fins, in unregulated or illegal fisheries. Several airlines have committed not to ship shark fin as cargo; now we need the big commercial shipping companies who transport more than 80% of shark products to do the same.

We need to stop using as many plastics — particularly the single-use variety —and where it’s unavoidable, ensure they are re-used, recycled well without causing toxic emissions, and don’t end up in waterways and seas. We also need to reduce pollution runoff from agricultural and other activities on land before life in the ocean suffocates.

Replenishing ocean life by creating the equivalent of national parks at sea (marine reserves or marine parks) will also be critical for a vibrant ocean, poverty alleviation and food security. Today less than 2% of the ocean is fully protected. Emerging science estimates that more than 30% should be safeguarded.

The cost of protecting 30% of the ocean has been estimated at roughly
US$223-228 billion. This figure may sound high, but the financial returns are estimated to be far higher with benefits ranging from US$490 billion and 150,000 full-time jobs, to US$920 billion and over 180,000 jobs by 20501[1].

It is therefore essential that development models promote sustaining marine life, in particular the huge financial and environmental benefits that can be gained from long-term protection, rather than short-term extraction.

We can still restore the health of the ocean. We can rebuild and regenerate it. In fact, the ocean’s ability to replenish itself is amazing. Helping the ocean to regenerate is beneficial for marine life and creates benefits beyond borders and across economies.

We may be able to trade and travel over a dead ocean; but we need a living ocean to drive that trade and to provide food, employment, water, air, tourism and inspiration.

Failure is not an option when there is so much at stake.

CalltoResp_K.Sack 2 - Photo Credit - Wolcott Henry - Oceans Unite
©Wolcott Henry / Ocean Unite


[1]
http://ivm.vu.nl/en/news-and-agenda/news/2015/Benefits-of-expanding-marine-protected-areas.asp

 

Karen Sack has over 20 years of experience leading efforts by major international non-governmental organizations to conserve and protect ocean life around the world.  She was one of the initiators of the Global Ocean Commission.

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