Providing oxygen and food, controlling the weather, and absorbing excess carbon emissions, the ocean is our ally in the quest for a sustainable future. It is also an economic powerhouse that supports entire industries, generates millions of jobs, and helps drive the modern global economy.
Today, human activities are threatening the health of the ocean and putting enormous pressure on the marine ecosystems and services so fundamental to our well-being. Overfishing, marine pollution and climate change are together causing unprecedented changes in the ocean that could irreversibly jeopardise its environmental health and economic vitality – unless we make urgent, systemic changes in our actions and policies.
Building a sustainable ocean economy is one of the most important tasks and greatest opportunities of our time. Governments, industries, stakeholders and experts are joining forces to develop and implement ocean solutions around the world, but we need to go further, move faster, and ensure that our actions balance the needs of people, planet and prosperity.
About the ocean
The ocean is the life source of our planet and vital for healthy human societies and a thriving world economy – our ally in the quest for a sustainable future. It covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, is the planet's largest biosphere, and is home to 50-80% of all life on Earth. The ocean also:
Of the Earth's oxygen
Of all CO2 emissions
Of the additional heat generated from those emissions
Of the Earth's surface
Biosphere on the Planet
Home to 50-80%
Of all life on Earth
Life source of our planet
The ocean is the foundation for life and a healthy planet. It covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, is the planet’s largest biosphere, and is home to 50-80% of all life on Earth. The ocean also generates 50% of the Earth’s oxygen, absorbs 25% of all CO2 emissions, and captures 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions—making it the largest carbon sink on the planet and a vital buffer against the impacts of climate change.
Vital for people and economies
The ocean provides critical nutrition for over 3 billion people for whom seafood is a primary source of protein, while the fisheries and aquaculture sector supports the livelihoods of 10-12% of the world’s population.
The ocean is also the foundation for vibrant economies. Goods and services from the ocean generate about $2.5 trillion each year. This makes the ocean the seventh largest economy in the world today. It supports multiple industries that provide jobs and make the modern economy possible, including global transportation, tourism, fishing, energy generation, and more.
Challenges and threats
Our ocean is in trouble. Once considered vast and inexhaustible, today it faces threats and limits to growth that were not even imagined a decade ago.
Current trends threaten both the environmental health and the economic vitality of the ocean. Overfishing, marine pollution, acidification and rising ocean temperatures are negatively impacting important industries including fishing and tourism, as well as the ability of coastal communities to thrive, and small island and developing states to sustainably develop.
We cannot afford to continue along the current “business-as-usual” trajectory. New governance, policy and market approaches are required that allow profitability and sustainability to operate together for the benefit of people and the planet.
- About 30% of all fish stocks are overfished and about 60% are fully exploited.
- Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing costs $23 billion per year in lost income.
- Poor management reduces the value of global marine fisheries by $50 billion per year.
- Climate change could reduce the productivity of fisheries in the world's EEZs by up to 12% by 2050.
- Acidification and ocean warming are causing widespread death of coral reefs; if trends continue, all coral reefs could be unrecognizable by 2050, resulting in a devastating loss of food, jobs and storm protection for several hundred million people.
- The ocean is on course to contain an estimated 1kg of plastic for every 3kg of fish within 10 years.
Hope on the horizon?
Despite the threats, there is reason for optimism. The ocean has been rising rapidly up the international agenda, fuelled by growing recognition that major change is needed if we are to secure the ocean as a basis for sustainable development. Positive recent developments include:
In 2014, the Global Ocean Commission presented a set of recommendations for ocean recovery.
In 2015, the world agreed to Sustainable Development Goal 14, committing to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and marine resources.
2017, the first ever UN Ocean Conference resulted in more than 1,400 commitments aimed at meeting the targets of SDG14.
In 2018, the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance was launched to combat marine plastic pollution, an issue also highlighted at the G7 Summit in Canada.
In 2020, the next UN Ocean Conference will be held in Portugal, a chance to assess progress towards SDG14 (postponed due to COVID-19; date TBD)
2020-2030 has been proclaimed the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
These initiatives are helping to mobilise actions to protect the ocean and seize the myriad opportunities this brings. But they also present new challenges to ensure that all this activity adds up to real impact and to avoid duplication and disconnect. To meet these challenges, the growing ocean movement needs a shared understanding and action agenda to guide a positive new relationship between the ocean and the economy.