2015 may be remembered as the year of climate, but the ocean came a close second. After being used, abused and taken for granted, I am relieved to see signs that we are finally taking notice of the ocean. However, from the vantage of a boardroom or house of parliament, too often the ocean is still “out of sight, out of mind.” Through neglect and mismanagement, we are putting at risk the extraordinary resource that covers 70 per cent of the planet and makes Earth a living planet.
The blame lies at our feet
We dump plastic and toxic chemicals into the ocean, ultimately poisoning our food. We catch fish wastefully and unsustainably; 90 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are overfished or fished to capacity and for one kilogram of seafood served on your table, up to 10 kilograms of sea creatures are thrown back into the sea. We have lost 50 per cent of the world’s coral reefs in the last 30 years and carbon emissions since the last industrial revolution have acidified the ocean faster than in any period in the past 65 million years. In a generation, the world has lost nearly half of its marine species populations.
For all these reasons, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, will need to pay particular attention to the ocean. This era is defined by the convergence of the physical and digital worlds that will fundamentally alter the way we produce, consume and relate to one another.
We are already seeing how technology can transform the ocean from vast and far away, to understood, measured, monitored and, hopefully, well managed. WWF and our partners have launched platforms that enable you to see what industrial fishing vessels are doing at the click of button. At the climate talks in Paris, we enabled people all over the world to use virtual reality apps to see reefs turning white and dying as the planet endures a mass coral bleaching event from heated seas. We have worked with industry to establish systems of certification and traceability for seafood so consumers can be assured of its origin, legality and sustainability. These are just early examples of new, powerful technologies that allow anyone with a mobile device to bear witness to what’s going on under the water and in supply chains.
Of course, it’s going to take more than new technology to restore the ocean’s health. It’s going to take a fundamental shift in mindset. For too long, we have treated nature as if it exists only to serve humanity, and indeed has an unlimited capacity to do so. Now we are starting to recognize how healthy ecosystems underpin all economic enterprises.
An economic powerhouse
To support and accelerate that shift in mindset, WWF worked with BCG to put a value on the ocean economy, confirming the ocean is an economic powerhouse generating at least US$2.5 trillion annually. We call it Gross Marine Product, the sum of goods and services comparable to a nation’s GDP. If the ocean were a country, this output would make it the world’s seventh biggest economy.
Too big to fail, we could say. The ocean provides considerable capital for industries from fishing to tourism, supporting millions of jobs worldwide. Hundreds of millions of people, often in poor coastal communities, depend on the sea for food and income. For the much of the world, a healthy, productive ocean is a matter of survival, health and security.
But the facts above show the ocean is in trouble and trending into the red, so I am alarmed when I hear talk about it as the new frontier, lending itself to a new wave of exploitation. The evidence does not support that view. It is clear that the ocean is already heavily and often unsustainably exploited.
The world is running down ocean assets in a way no responsible business would allow, and an investor would be right to ask some hard questions about these balance sheets. Each of us is, in fact, an ocean shareholder. We share dividends such as a stable climate, and if we’d like to continue to do so, we must insist on a better management plan.
The inclusion of the ocean in the UN sustainable development agenda and its mention in the Paris climate agreement are hopeful signs that we are building the foundation of such a plan. One of the most effective solutions for restoring ocean health is to create protected areas. When we take the pressure off habitats, and reduce fishing and other impacts, ocean ecosystems can bounce back. Economic analysis has also shown substantial return on investment for expanding protected areas. With less than 5 per cent of the ocean currently protected, this is a strategy with incredible growth potential!
Now is the time to scale up protection of the ocean’s most important places and secure its productive capacity so we can sustain the ocean economy and feed a hungry world.
Marco Lambertini is Director General of WWF International.