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The ocean is one of the key pieces of Earth’s natural capital, providing “free” goods and services, including 50% of the oxygen we breathe, regulation of the global water cycle, and a significant portion of the food we eat.

Earlier this year, scientists at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with help from researchers at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute and the Boston Consulting Group, calculated the ocean’s economic value by quantifying the ocean’s assets — including goods and services like fisheries, tourism and coastal protections.  We arrived at a valuation of $24 trillion, producing an annual income of some $2.5 trillion.  When compared to the world’s top ten economies, the ocean ranks seventh.

But unlike any of the leading national economies, the ocean is a global commons, downstream from everywhere on the planet, and subject to the collective footprint of seven-plus billion people. As its shareholders, we have been making simultaneous and continuous withdrawals on this natural asset, with very little in the way of corresponding deposits.

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The ocean is one of the key pieces of Earth’s natural capital, providing “free” goods and services, including 50% of the oxygen we breathe, regulation of the global water cycle, and a significant portion of the food we eat.

Earlier this year, scientists at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with help from researchers at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute and the Boston Consulting Group, calculated the ocean’s economic value by quantifying the ocean’s assets — including goods and services like fisheries, tourism and coastal protections.  We arrived at a valuation of $24 trillion, producing an annual income of some $2.5 trillion.  When compared to the world’s top ten economies, the ocean ranks seventh.

But unlike any of the leading national economies, the ocean is a global commons, downstream from everywhere on the planet, and subject to the collective footprint of seven-plus billion people. As its shareholders, we have been making simultaneous and continuous withdrawals on this natural asset, with very little in the way of corresponding deposits.

So, like any trust fund or bank account, this incoherent management of our irreplaceable natural capital is leading us into the red — and toward bankruptcy. And the balance sheet is evidence of this.  According to WWF’s Living Blue Planet Report,[1] in the last four decades populations of marine mammals, birds, reptiles and fish have declined on average by half, with some dropping by nearly 75%.  The loss of mangroves — perhaps one of the most valuable habitats on the planet — is estimated to be occurring at a rate five to ten times that of the loss of rainforest. Sea grasses and coral reefs, also incredibly productive and valuable, have seen similar losses and all face continuing threats.

Conserving Ocean Capital 2 _ B.Ack - Laura Margison - WWF
©Laura Margison / WWF

The drivers of this degradation fall into three big categories:  the removal of living resources from the ocean; the conversion, loss, degradation and alteration of the physical habitats that make up the ocean ecosystem; and the plethora of pollutants entering the ocean from myriad sources.  At the same time, CO2 pollution also poses an overwhelming existential threat with the potential to alter the oceans almost beyond recognition.

With the planet’s population expected to rise to 9.6 billion by 2050, and with that the need for a 70% increase in food availability, the oceans face a future of continued pressure.

To reverse the decline of this asset, we need new, powerful, and rapidly scalable innovations that address the three big drivers of change, and to re-engineer these drivers to dramatically reduce their impacts, while simultaneously adding deposits into the account.  These deposits would include rebuilding global fish stocks and setting significant areas of the oceans off-limits to destructive and extractive activities.

Even though the challenges seem overwhelming and immense, there are solutions to secure a living ocean. At WWF, we are working across many partners to actively engage the fishing industry and national governments, increase financing to the fisheries sector, and develop more effective and lower-cost management tools and gear. We continue to extend the power of markets to support fisheries in transition towards sustainability, expanding the number and reach of corporate partnerships to support sustainable and traceable fisheries. We are working to develop and deploy technologies for achieving legally traceable fisheries, from bait to plate. In turn, this will deliver legal and sustainably sourced seafood to consumers who are increasingly concerned about their impact on the planet. We are also working with our partners throughout the WWF network and the rest of the conservation community to protect and manage significant areas of the oceans that provide multiple ecosystem services. We work with the Natural Capital Project to bring the tool of ecosystem services valuation to influence national and regional policies and practices in pursuit of restored and protected coastal and marine habitats.

Given the impacts of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases on oceans, we are working hard to ensure that the upcoming December UN climate conference in Paris finds agreement for the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas pollution — one of the most critical investments needed to help our global ocean begin to recover.

By working together we can find the ingenuity and secure the resources needed to advance conservation and sustainable development to safeguard the future health and resilience of marine and coastal habitats, and to ultimately balance the global ocean bank account.

[1] http://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/living-blue-planet-report-2015.

Brad Ack leads WWF’s US Oceans program, overseeing a talented team working on accelerating the movement to sustainable fishing and protecting resilient marine ecosystems around the world. Brad has worked on a wide range of conservation and sustainable development initiatives across many geographies, biomes and issues.

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