8 June 2020

World Oceans Day is celebrated on 8 June, usually with gatherings of experts and decision makers dedicated to protecting marine ecosystems. This year, many of us planned to spend the preceding days at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, assessing progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 on “Life below water”. Instead, the conference halls and corridors have fallen silent, as have United Nations buildings all over the world. World Oceans Day 2020 has gone virtual, but the threats to ocean health become more real every day.

As countries battle the COVID-19 pandemic and begin to chart their courses out of the crisis, we must learn a crucial lesson: human health does not exist in a bubble. Our lives depend and have an impact on the Earth’s natural systems, and on other species sharing the planet with us. With 99 per cent of Earth’s living space under water, those systems very much include the ocean. The interconnected global crises of climate change, species extinction, ocean decline, and now COVID-19—on top of pre-pandemic health challenges—can feel overwhelming. But they all demand the same essential response: transformational change through solidarity, science and a commitment to a sustainable, fair future.

We may not be able to gather to celebrate the ocean right now, but the global health crisis should sharpen our resolve to protect our blue planet.

The ocean’s ability to support human health is at risk

A healthy ocean is a prerequisite for a healthy planet and healthy human communities. Eighty per cent of all life on Earth is found in the ocean. It is the world’s biggest biosphere and home to great biological and carbon pumps and food webs that control our climate and sustain us all. Some of the ways the ocean supports human health are highly visible. Fish provide 3.2 billion people with almost 20 per cent of their animal protein, a proportion that rises to 50 per cent in some small island developing States, and countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.1 Over-exploited fish stocks and the migration of key species due to climate change can mean loss of livelihoods, food insecurity and instability. The ocean is also a source of lifesaving biomedical breakthroughs. Tests currently being used to diagnose the novel coronavirus were developed using enzymes found in deep-sea microorganisms, which could also be key to identifying new agents to combat antibiotic drug resistance. 2, 3

Other ways that we rely on the ocean are invisible and too easily taken for granted. The ocean provides 50 per cent of our oxygen and has absorbed 93 per cent of excess heat,4 as well as 20-30 per cent of the carbon emissions5 humanity has produced in the last 50 years. This is shielding us from even worse impacts of global warming, but at what cost to the ocean? How long will the ocean be able to protect us in the face of unprecedented changes to its own physical and chemical state?

In addition to asset-stripping its fish, humanity is now responsible for the ocean becoming warmer, more acidic and devoid of oxygen. A new ocean heat record was set in 2019.6 Marine heatwaves are more frequent; ocean acidification is dissolving the shells and skeletons of corals and shellfish; and oxygen minimum zones have expanded by 4.5 million km2 since the 1960s.7 At this rate, rather than supporting life, the ocean itself will need to be put on life support. But the prognosis is not hopeless. A new study predicts that our ocean could be restored to health in a single generation if we combat climate change, address unsustainable fishing, and protect huge expanses of the ocean to allow biodiversity to recover.8 Achieving this goal demands urgent, international interventions to strengthen ocean governance.

#RiseUp4TheOcean | riseupfortheocean.org

Multilateral action for ocean governance and protection

To meet the targets for the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean set out in SDG 14—several of which have a 2020 deadline—we need bold, multilateral action on multiple fronts. Fortunately, the coming months offer key opportunities to make a healthy ocean a central pillar of a more sustainable, healthy post-COVID-19 world. SDG target 14.6 calls on States to prohibit fisheries subsidies, which contribute to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, by 2020. The arena for agreeing on the terms of this ban are the World Trade Organization (WTO)  negotiations on fisheries subsidies, now the only active multilateral negotiations at WTO.9 Governments spend $22.2 billion a year on these harmful subsidies that threaten food security and undermine ocean health.10 After years of talks, a deal could still be reached even without more face-to-face meetings, provided that Member States have the will.

Another global commitment scheduled to be met in 2020 is the negotiation of a new, legally binding international instrument on marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, as agreed by the General Assembly in 2015. A strong High Seas Treaty would make the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea fit for purpose in the 21st century, reflecting the reality that there is virtually no place beyond the reach of industrial fishing fleets or safe from the impacts of climate change and pollution. The coronavirus pandemic has postponed the final negotiation session, but there is a draft treaty text on the table. Governments can use this extra time to resolve remaining disputes, craft solutions and raise ambitions. Crucially, the treaty must include mechanisms for creating marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas to build a global network of marine reserves to help restore fish stocks and build resistance to climate change.

Today, just 5.3 per cent of the global ocean—and 1.2 per cent of the high seas—are protected in actively managed MPAs.11 This is well short of SDG target 14.5, to conserve 10 per cent of marine areas by 2020, and shows the need to accelerate action if we are to protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030—a science-led target attracting widespread calls that it be enshrined in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The Framework itself is being negotiated by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

No other area would benefit more from strong marine protection than the icy international waters surrounding Antarctica, which are so essential to the entire planetary system. The 25 States plus the European Union that are members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources must agree to expanding the protection of the Southern Ocean to cover 7 million km2 at their annual meeting in October. That would be a truly historic milestone for multilateralism in a year when temperatures on the frozen continent spiked to a record 18.3 degrees Celsius.12

RISE UP for a healthy future

We need to demand visionary multilateral actions like these on World Oceans Day. That’s the goal of a unique new collaboration between non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and scientists calling for governments and other stakeholders to RISE UP for the ocean as a prescription for its urgent restoration. Everything is in place for transformative change. SDG 14 gives us a framework, the science clearly backs marine protection, and there is a rising wave of citizen engagement. The risks of ignoring the acceleration of ocean decline are too great. It’s time to choose health, for the ocean and for ourselves.

A spider boat on a beach in Denpasar, Bali, June 2018.. ©Ajit Rana


1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018:Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (Rome, 2018), p. p. 2, 70. Available at http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/i9540en.pdf.

2 Elise Hugus, "Finding answers in the ocean: in times of uncertainty, the deep sea provides solutions", Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 19 March 2020. Available at https://www.whoi.edu/news-insights/content/finding-answers-in-the-ocean/.

3 Florida Atlantic University, "Deep-sea marine sponges may hold key to antibiotic drug resistance", ScienceDaily, 19 June 2018. Available at www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180619123013.htm.

Dan Laffoley and John M. Baxter, eds., Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Scale, Effects and Consequences (Gland, Switzerland, International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2016), p. 61. Available at https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2016-046_0.pdf.

5 Hans-Otto Pörtner and others, eds., "Summary for Policymakers", Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019), p. 9. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/3/2019/11/03_SROCC_SPM_FINAL.pdf

6 World Meteorological Organization, WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019 (Geneva, 2020), p.10. Available at  https://library.wmo.int/index.php?lvl=notice_display&id=21700#.XsVfEmhKg2x.

7 Denis Breitburg and others, "Declining oxygen in the global ocean and coastal waters, Science, vol. 359, No. 6371 (5 Jan 2018). Available at https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6371/eaam7240?intcmp=trendmd-sci.

8 Carlos M. Duarte and others, "Rebuilding marine life", Nature, vol. 580 (April 2020). Available at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2146-7

9 World Trade Organization, "Negotiations on fisheries subsidies". Trade topics. Available at https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/rulesneg_e/fish_e/fish_e.htm.

10 Ussif Rashid Sumaila and others, "Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies, Marine Policy, vol. 109 (November 2019). Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103695.

11 Atlas of Marine Protection, Global MPAs. Available at http://www.mpatlas.org/map/mpas/ (accessed on 16 May 2020).

12 United Nations, "Climate crisis: Antarctic continent posts record temperature reading of 18.3°C", UN News, 7 February 2020. Available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/02/1056902.