Expert voicesVol 22 No. 1 - January 2017

Role of oceans and seas for our future

In June 2017, the international community will come together at the Ocean Conference to find ways to conserve and protect our oceans and seas for future generations. Why are they so crucial for our survival? We asked expert Dr. Marjo Vierros, who works as a consultant for UN DESA on issues related to Sustainable Development Goal 14. She is also the Director of Coastal Policy and Humanities Research, which undertakes interdisciplinary research on priority oceans issues.

What is the state of oceans and seas around the world today?

“Over the past decades human activities in the oceans have increased exponentially and this has had serious negative consequences on the state of the oceans. Scientists are seeing greater change, happening faster, with more rapid declines in ocean health than had been previously anticipated. Today we live in the age of a changing climate, and no part of the ocean is unaffected by human influence. Some areas, particularly near large population centres are strongly impacted by multiple pressures.

The threats facing the oceans are many and include unsustainable and destructive fishing practices, illegal and unreported fishing, pollution from both land-based and ship-based sources, habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, ocean noise, ship strikes, mining of minerals and extraction of oil and gas. These adverse impacts act cumulatively with global impacts from ocean acidification, ocean warming, shifting currents, reduced mixing and decreasing oxygen levels. While marine ecosystems and species might be able to withstand one type or intensity of impact, they are much more severely affected by a combination of impacts. The total impact can often be greater than the sum of its parts. The declining health of the ocean has dire consequences for people, their livelihoods and entire economies, with the poorest communities that rely on ocean resources often being the most impacted.

Cumulative impacts cannot effectively be managed individually and in isolation. Multiple stressors call for integrated management, which means that we need to urgently develop a more holistic approach to ocean governance. The sectoral management of old will not be enough to address the escalating degradation of the oceans. The need to understand and manage the interactions and cumulative effects of multiple stressors has been identified as one of the most important questions in marine ecology today.”

Why are oceans crucial for our survival?

“Two thirds of the Earth’s surface is ocean, and the oceans not only provide home to an enormous wealth plants and animals, from the largest animal in the world (the blue whales) to microscopic bacteria and viruses, but they also support life on Earth. Oceans produce half the oxygen we breathe, absorb about 95% of the sun’s radiation, and are by far the largest carbon sink in the world. So even if you happen to live far away from the coast, you still depend on the oceans for your survival.

Fish from the oceans is a major source of animal protein for a large portion of the world’s population. This is particularly true in developing countries and Small Island Developing States, where fisheries, particularly small-scale fisheries, is an important component of food security.

And because we know so little about the oceans, with vast remote areas like the deep sea still poorly explored, the potential for discovery of new species is vast. We also know very little about the microbial ocean, though it has been estimated that 95% of ocean life by weight is microscopic. All this biological diversity has proven to be an important source of novel genes and natural products with potential applications for the development of pharmaceuticals, enzymes, cosmetics and other products. Several anti-cancer and other medications, as well as the HIV drug AZT were originally sourced from marine organisms. So it is possible that the next life-saving drug will come from the sea, too. We don’t want to destroy that biodiversity before we even discover it.

And finally, the oceans have values that are intangible, but no less crucial for humans. By this I mean aesthetic, spiritual and recreational values, for example. The oceans inspire us and make us happier. You only have to look at kids playing on the beach or an artist painting a stormy sea to know that the values provided by the oceans go beyond just our survival to enriching and nourishing our lives.”

How do they contribute to the global economy?

“I would argue that oceans are a key component of sustainable development.  Approximately 80 per cent of the volume of world trade is carried by sea, meaning that international shipping and ports are an essential component of global supply-chains. Submarine cables crossing the ocean floor carry 90 per cent of our electronic communications. Marine fisheries contribute more than US$270 billion to global GDP. Fisheries are also major component of the economies of many coastal and island countries, and a provider of livelihoods for the 300 million people who work in the sector. Approximately 3 billion people globally rely on fish as an important source of animal protein, essential micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids. Other industries, such as oceans-related tourism, and, increasingly, aquaculture are also important for many countries’ economies.

There is also a potential for countries to benefit from many new oceans-related industries. For example, ocean energy, such as offshore wind, wave, ocean thermal conversion and tidal power has the potential to increasingly provide us with a renewable energy in the future.  This is particularly important for Small Island Developing States, which are currently very dependent on fuel imports. The rich biological diversity in the oceans, and the potential for discovery of new, commercially-important compounds to be used in medicines and other products, means that bioprospecting and biotechnology could become an important part of a many countries’ sustainable ocean economies. With capacity building, technology transfer and research collaborations, developing countries could become active participants in this sector, giving them options that are more environmentally and socially sustainable than deep-sea mining, for example.

All these ecosystem services that the oceans provide humankind have considerable economic value. While there is much debate about valuation methods and exact figures, marine ecosystem services have been found to be on the order of trillions of US dollars annually. The economic value of mangroves globally for coastal protection, fisheries, tourism and other human uses are of the order of US$186 million each year. And the value of coral reefs to humankind has been estimated to be between US$130,000 and $1.2 million per hectare, per year. These calculations take into account the services provided by coral reefs in relation to food, raw materials, ornamental resources, climate regulation, moderation of extreme events, waste treatment, water purification, biological control, cultural services (including tourism), and maintenance of genetic diversity. Understanding the magnitude of the value of these ecosystem services helps us make the case for their conservation.”

How will Sustainable Development Goal 14 help address current challenges?

“We know that the oceans are vital for our survival, and that they are facing multiple and rapidly accelerating human pressures that are hugely reducing ocean health, resilience and ability to support human lives and livelihoods. The oceans are nearing the limit of their carrying capacity, if they haven’t reached it already. Yet, the oceans have often been ignored in international policy, and in the public perception they are commonly “out of sight and out of mind”.

So SDG 14, with its set of comprehensive and interlinked targets, provides an opportunity to put a spotlight on the oceans, and to accelerate the actions that need to be taken to restore and maintain their resilience. Trying to prioritize these actions will also provide us with an opportunity to have a global dialogue about what we can collectively do to move towards a more sustainable life. What solutions have worked and could be scaled up? What can different cultures and knowledge systems teach us about intergenerational responsibility and stewardship for ocean resources? How can developing countries build capacities to fully benefit from sustainable ocean economies? These are some of the questions that SDG 14 will force us to examine, and perhaps together we can come up with a roadmap for action that can reverse the current trend of biodiversity loss in the oceans. Inaction is much more costly than action and can lead to greater and likely irreversible losses.”

What do you hope the upcoming UN Oceans Conference in June 2017 will accomplish?

“Achieving SDG 14 and its targets will require collective, global and urgent action. We need to mobilize and learn from each other’s experiences, from the latest science and the wisdom of traditional knowledge. We need to link scales in ocean conservation from local community-based management to large-scale conservation in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. We need to build trust amongst all ocean stakeholders, which essentially encompasses all of humanity, and form partnerships that include governments, civil society, scientists, Indigenous Peoples and coastal communities. We need to mobilize a substantial amount of funding that is sustainable in the long term. We also need to pay close attention to equity and make sure we empower those whose voices are not always heard in intergovernmental processes. I hope that the UN Oceans Conference in June 2017 will help us get started with all of these things, and that its focus on strengthening and building the partnerships will help us develop a common vision for a way forward. I also hope that there will be concrete commitments from governments towards ocean conservation. No country of group can do this alone, but if we manage to collaborate effectively and inclusively we can make progress. We already have tools and methodologies for ocean conservation, and can learn more as we apply them. We now we need strong leadership and commitment to move towards a more sustainable relationship with the oceans.”

For more information:

United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14

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