As a child growing up on the Mediterranean coast, I spent hours looking out over the sea. I was dazzled by the changing hues of the water and fascinated by the wildlife washed ashore – and when I finally managed to plunge beneath the waves, my sense of fascination only grew, as it continues to do today. The marine environment is uniquely humbling and inspiring, and has shaped my lifelong commitment to conservation.
Yet, on World Oceans Day, I am not thinking just of marine creatures with fins, flippers or feathers. I am thinking about people, and how each of us is dependent on a healthy ocean for our well-being. Fish accounts for almost 17 per cent of the global population’s intake of protein – and in some coastal and island states, it can top 70 per cent.
For people living far from a coast, that dependence might seem tenuous. But like so many services nature provides, one doesn’t need to see the ecosystem to benefit from it. Oceans provide most of the oxygen we breathe, they sequester carbon to help keep the climate in balance and, crucially, they are a vital source of food and jobs for hundreds of millions of people across the world. In fact, the estimated value of all the goods and services provided by oceans is US$27 trillion a year. Yes, trillion.
The vastness of the oceans is deceptive. Far from endless and bottomless as they seem to be, oceans are a thin wet layer over the Earth’s crust – and very, very fragile. A little like the atmosphere above our heads.
WWF works with communities around the world, and we know how threats to ocean health hit home.
I was recently told the story of Ishmael, a fisherman and farmer in Mozambique, who tells us how most people today have to farm to make ends meet, when before fishing alone was sufficient to feed the family and pay the bills. Ishmael fishes in Primeiras e Segundas, a newly created marine protected area where WWF, the government and our partner organization CARE are working with fishing communities to create a management plan that works for people and nature, today and tomorrow.
Similarly, across the Indian Ocean in Malaysia, Nafsah has improved her weaving skills with help from a WWF programme, like many others across the world. Her fishing community was feeling the pinch as catches declined year after year. With this alternative source of income, Nafsah’s family can actually reduce its dependency on fishing, instead of resorting to less sustainable methods. Easing the pressure now gives fish stocks a chance to recover, so fishing can be part of the local economy over the long term.
Far from these warm tropical waters, WWF also works in the northern and southern cold seas with commercial fishermen and indigenous communities to protect some of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. The Bering Sea, for example, is home to pollock and salmon that feed people around the globe. In the Arctic, as in many other seas, WWF and our community and business partners are not only tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, but also rewarding sustainable fisheries through certification schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council, and helping responsible companies to adopt sustainable practices..
There are common threads across these stories. One is that the ocean’s resources – once seen as vast and inexhaustible – are under pressure as never before. Another is that these pressures are cumulative, each one compounding the others. Finally, the changes happening out of sight, below the waves, touch every person on the planet.
While these changes are cause for grave concern, they aren’t necessarily irreversible. Marine ecosystems can be very resilient. In areas where marine habitat can be maintained or restored – where extraction is eased– fish and other marine life can rebound. Our ocean is one global system, so while problems can spread, so can solutions. Scientists bring evidence from across the world that shows how taking the pressure off marine and coastal habitats delivers enormous dividends – not in one geography, but across boundaries and up and down the food chain.
What we need now is to ramp up what we know works, with all the urgency and resolve that comes from also knowing that we’re running out of time. This is the moment to forge a development pathway for our oceans that protects the natural capital that will generate sustenance and wealth for our children, and to stand up to short-sighted plans that rob the future of this potential.
I am still dazzled when I look from shore across the sea to a blue horizon. Let’s seize this World Oceans Day as a reminder that we have the power today to ensure that healthy oceans always support human well-being and the fascinating, incredibly diverse and still largely mysterious marine wilderness.
By Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International