The message contained in the declarations made at the opening of the United Nations Ocean Conference, held June 27 to July 1 in Lisbon, could not have been clearer. In his address, UN Secretary-General António Guterres regretted how “we have taken the ocean for granted and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency.” “We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean,” he said, urging us to “turn the tide”. A communiqué issued by G7 leaders on June 28 added to this chorus of voices: “A clean, healthy and productive ocean, with resilient marine ecosystems, is essential for all life on Earth. We commit to leading the global effort on the protection, conservation, restoration, and sustainable and equitable use of the global ocean.”
Yet as Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, warned, “most of the work remains to be done. The ocean is still too often in the blind spot of public awareness and public policies. We do not understand it and we do not protect it sufficiently. It is urgent that we reverse this trend.” In his statement, the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, reminded the conference that “no conversation about the ocean is about the ocean alone. It’s about climate. The climate crisis is an ocean crisis. Harmful emissions are making our ocean warmer, more acidic, less productive and are driving rising sea levels. We cannot solve the ocean crisis without dealing with emissions.”
This small selection shows that if we are to continue to live well on Earth – and we are going the wrong way about it –, we need to start taking care of the ocean. Here’s why:
The ocean, a home for biodiversity
The ocean, which covers almost three-quarters of Earth’s surface, is rich in biodiversity and supports numerous species whose existence is as yet unknown to mankind. Eighty percent of life on Earth is contained in the ocean, yet it’s often said we know more about space than we do the ocean’s depths. Currently, barely a quarter of the ocean floor has been mapped yet scientific knowledge is vital if we are to guarantee its sustainable future.
- At a rate of 8 million tonnes per year, the ocean is choking on 150 million tonnes of plastic, not including microplastics. This plastic pollution kills millions of birds and marine mammals through ingestion or entanglement. When plastic breaks down into microplastics it contaminates the food chain. Some studies predict there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
- Chemical pollution – oil slicks, toxic discharge, untreated wastewater, etc. – comes from industry that uses the ocean as a dumping ground. The 6,000 offshore drilling platforms worldwide, a number that continues to rise, are another cause. The ocean is saturated not just with hydrocarbons but also toxic metals and even nitrates, which find their way into the fish we eat. In certain regions, increased concentrations of chemicals promote the growth of algal blooms which destroy marine life.
- As demand for rare earth metals remains high, mining these metals from the ocean floor, using robots, endangers valuable and fragile ecosystems, many of which are found only in the deepest ocean.
The ocean, a climate regulator
More than half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. That’s more than the amount produced by all the forests on Earth. The ocean also plays a crucial role in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as it captures close to a third of CO₂ emissions. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton (unicellular organisms) consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The ocean therefore acts as a climate regulator as it absorbs the excess heat produced by global warming. More heat is contained in the three metres below the ocean’s surface than in the entire atmosphere.
- The ocean is unable to keep up with rising greenhouse gas emissions (+50% over the past 60 years) with the result that its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide is decreasing. Another consequence of these increased emissions is ocean acidification which directly impacts the marine food chain.
- As Earth gets hotter, the ocean gets hotter. Rising ocean temperatures lead to marine heatwaves, up by 50% in number of days over the past 30 years, which threaten the very existence of subaquatic species. These heatwaves kill corals which can no longer support the species that depend on them.
- The combination of warming and acidification gives rise to dead zones: an expanse of water that does not contain sufficient oxygen for marine plant or animal life to survive.
- Rising ocean temperature has also been linked to the increased frequency of cyclones and extreme storms.
The ocean, a source of food
The ocean provides food and a livelihood for communities across the globe. The WWF estimates that 10% to 12% of the global population depend on fishing and aquaculture for a living. Also, three billion people rely on the ocean as their primary source of protein. Almost 10% of animal protein eaten worldwide comes from seafood, which has a smaller carbon footprint than meat.
- Global wild fish catch has not increased since the early 1990s, at a relatively constant 90 million tonnes per year. Overfishing has resulted in a decline in productivity. Boats bring back 80% less fish than in the 1950s.
- Fish stocks in the majority of the ocean and great lakes are unable to replenish due to overfishing. Despite the fact that almost one third of species are overfished or close to being overfished, intensive fishing continues.
- Illegal fishing exacerbates overfishing. It’s estimated that one fifth of the global catch is illegal, unreported or unregulated.
- A growing proportion of the fish we consume comes from aquaculture. Farmed salmon and tuna, which are carnivorous species, are fed wild-caught fish. It takes 15 kilos of wild-caught fish to produce 1 kilo of farmed tuna.
Four key recommendations
In his address to the conference, António Guterres outlined four key recommendations, calling on all stakeholders’ willingness to take action. The Climate Change and Biodiversity Conferences of the Parties (COP) in November and December will give an indication of whether his message has been heard.
- Invest in sustainable ocean economies
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 – Life Below Water – has received the least funding of all the SDGs. Stakeholders must invest in sustainable ocean economies for food, renewable energy and livelihoods through long-term funding. Sustainable ocean management could help produce six times more food and generate 40 times more renewable energy than is currently the case.
- Replicate ocean success
The ocean can become a model for how we manage the global commons for the greater good. This means preventing marine pollution and scaling-up conservation measures.
- Address climate change
Addressing climate change and investing in climate-resilient coastal infrastructure will help protect the ocean and the people who depend on it. The shipping sector should commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
- More science and innovation
Science and innovation can drive a new chapter of global ocean action, with the ambition to map 80% of the ocean floor by 2030. The private sector is encouraged to join partnerships that support ocean research and sustainable management.