The ocean is not just huge, but also hugely important

The ocean is all stirred up with what we’re doing to it. NASA, CC BY

Carl Sagan’s description of our planet as a “pale blue dot” captured two important elements about the Earth: its loneliness in the enormity of space, and the ocean’s overwhelming dominance of the planet. But what it doesn’t quite capture is just how important the ocean is.

A description of the ocean by numbers is impressive: a mass of water covering 71% of the planet’s surface with a volume of around 1.3 billion km3. Around two thirds of its volume is below 1,000 metres deep, while its deepest point is 11 km beneath the surface. This vast volume of water exerts a profound influence on the atmosphere, on land, and on the frozen cryosphere. It stabilises planetary temperature, determines our weather, and regulates the content of our atmosphere. The ocean is the heart and lungs of the planet, and without it life would be very difficult or impossible.

At a human scale, the ocean’s importance lies in terms of its capacity to provide food, support livelihoods, culture and economies. Coastal populations have been estimated at 1.2 billion people, with population densities along coasts three times higher than the global average. More than 1.5 billion people receive 20% of their protein from fisheries. More than 350 million people are employed due to the ocean, and many see the ocean is the way to meet the future food needs of a growing global population.

So while the case for the ocean’s importance goes on and on, the message is straightforward – it is more than a day at the beach, it is critical to life as we know it.

But despite its importance to humanity, the ocean and its ecosystems are in decline across many of its regions. Over half the world’s fisheries are fully exploited and at least a third are over-exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Many ecosystems such as coral reefs, oyster beds and kelp forests are declining at rates of 1-2% per year. Marine pollution is spreading rapidly, with both plastic and chemical pollutants found in most parts of the ocean. And oxygen levels in large areas of the deep ocean are plummeting, creating so-called dead zones where life cannot be supported. The list of changes goes on and on.

No one in particular is to blame: we all are.

Life in the deep. Joi Ito, CC BY

Taking responsibility

Putting blame aside, however, travelling farther down this path the negative consequences become very significant. With so much at stake, the President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, stood up at the first World Ocean Summit in Singapore in 2012 and announced the Global Partnership for Oceans. This “new deal” for the Ocean currently includes over 150 governments, organisations and industry partners including participants from multibillion-dollar companies, non-government organisations, small island states, and leading research institutions.

The idea behind the partnership is to bring everyone to the table to solve what are otherwise complex, multidisciplinary, and by nature, wicked problems. The path forward requires complex solutions that benefit all involved parties and do not result in perverse outcomes of winners and losers. That is, matters of conservation should go hand in hand with improvements to food security, economic benefits and commercial incentives.

The Blue Ribbon Panel of the partnership – involving leading conservationists, seafood company CEOs, entrepreneurs, government leaders, and NGOs – envisaged the ocean as a single system, with the solutions involving all actors as beneficiaries.

Inspiring words. But isn’t this vision a little impractical. After all, how could seafood companies really live in harmony with environmentalists? Don’t they have opposing motives – one to catch fish, one to protect fish? And how could poverty be eliminated in communities while companies made profits and ecosystems were protected?

The devil is clearly in the detail. However, what was fascinating about participating in this group was the fact that everybody was of the opinion that working towards a sustainable use of the ocean was an absolute must. Everyone also recognised that current approaches have failed and that doing more of the same was unlikely to have much of an effect.

This week hundreds of leaders will converge on The Hague in the Netherlands for the Global Oceans Action Summit, to discuss how to bring about new partnerships and actions globally. US Secretary of State John Kerry announced at the second World Ocean Summit in February that the US would host an International Oceans Conference on June 16-17 at the US Department of State. Indonesia will host the World Coral Reef Conference in May. The signs are that the world might just be waking up in time to the threat that it faces from its declining oceans.