are already planning our next escape to the sun and the sea. But what would you think if you were to find out that our seas and oceans are suffering from serious ill health? If our oceans were a person then they would be “anaemic and feverish, their arteries clogged and blood chemistry out of whack” ¹. And this because climate change is driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet. What is more, overfishing is likely much worse than we thought and by 2050, plastics in the ocean could outweigh fish¹,².
Conservation International and partners have worked to develop a tool for measuring ocean health, the Ocean Health Index (OHI). While a perfect bill of health is a score of 100, in 2015 the OHI gave the oceans an overall global score of 70 ¹.
With our oceans being critical for maintaining the Earth’s carbon balance, for sustaining key ecosystems, and for providing for people whose livelihoods depend on fishing or marine tourism, it is imperative that we find a way to boost ocean health. Luckily, we know how this could be achieved and here are five ways to boosting ocean health.
#1 Preserving the oceans’ wealth
Our oceans offer a bounty of benefits and a plethora of natural wealth. The most well-known of those is our fish stocks and sea food industry. These industries play a critical role in many economies as a source of food, nutrition and livelihoods; their importance is critical in poorer communities and developing countries but it is also an engine for economic growth: according to the World Economic Forum, the global trade in wild-caught fish is valued at around $90 billion while the catch sector directly employs around 40 million people².
It is therefore imperative that we fish at sustainable levels to ensure stocks are replenished so that we continue to benefit from our oceans in the long term. Given that today 20% of marine catches are illegal, there is still some way to go before we have full product traceability and transparency in fish supply chains to help address this³.
- So, next time you are at a super market or the fishmongers, take care to ensure you are buying fish or seafood that has been verified as sustainably sources. If your local shops don’t offer such a choice, ask for it and help drive more sustainable consumer choices! The Marine Conservation Society offers a helpful guide with its Good Fish Guide.
- But our ocean’s wealth is not just the fish and seafood we can eat. Oceans are home to a myriad of unique species and ecosystems, such as coral reefs. But there is still exploitation, often illegal, of these resources. It is therefore also important to avoid purchasing items such as coral jewellery, tortoiseshell hair accessories (made from hawksbill turtles), and shark productsM/em>.
#2 Keeping our oceans clean
It is true of our planet in general, but currently our ocean is suffering a lot from pollution. It is not only the impact of fossil fuel extraction, fishing activities or transport which are causing pollution as well as disturbance of fish and mammals such as dolphins; marine litter and in particular plastic is becoming a key threat.
So to keep our oceans clean we need to work beyond our seas. We need to decarbonise our energy system, so that we no longer need to deploy floating rigs and we need to optimise marine transport to cause minimal disturbance. It is also important to note that when it comes to the deployment of offshore renewable energy, we need to be equally careful to ensure that seabird populations and other marine animals are not impacted by their presence.
But beyond those actions, we need to urgently address plastic litter. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is cautioning that if plastic pollution is not addressed, there will be more plastic than fish in the seas by 2050⁵! Tonnes of used plastic ends up in the sea where it damages ocean life. The only way to stop this from happening is to ensure all plastic – across the world! – is properly disposed of in recycling facilities. This is a rather tall ask and we cannot afford to wait for this to become a reality.
- You can instead help ocean life right away by eliminating plastic from your life as much as you can. The reality is that a lot of plastic pollution comes from single-use items (plastic cutlery and cups) and plastic bags – all items we could easily live without.
#3 Improving our coastal environments
As is the case with marine litter, most of the damage comes from activities that happen on the land. There is also a link between healthy coastal environments and oceans. To preserve the latter, we need to ensure we keep the former in a good state too!
This means we need careful planning when it comes to developing, for tourism or otherwise, our coastal areas. This is important to ensure that our marine environment remains pristine and its functions largely uninterrupted by our activities. For example, effective measures to treat sewage, manage industrial waste and limit agricultural run-off are key to a healthy ocean³.
#4 Increasing ocean productivity sustainably
While a lot of emphasis is rightly placed on conservation of our marine wealth, the potential of “blue growth” cannot be ignored. There are many who believe that our oceans can provide for more of our food, for example through aquaculture. These opportunities need to be carefully looked at particularly as global demand for fish is increasing and catches from wild-capture fisheries is levelling off. But we must not forget that efforts to increase marine farming will only be successful if the demands they make on the environment are managed.
Although freshwater aquaculture is currently the dominant source of farmed fish (about 70%) and is likely to remain so, mariculture has the potential to grow in many developing countries. Seaweed and shellfish culture have particular promise given their small environmental footprint³.
#5 Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
It goes without saying but this list would not be complete without a reference to the importance of limiting greenhouse emissions, and therefore addressing climate change, as a way of restoring ocean health. Oceans and climate are inextricably linked in a two-way manner: oceans play a fundamental role in mitigating climate change as they are a major heat and carbon sink. But they also bear the brunt of climate change which is leading to growing acidification, sea level increase, and changes in temperature and currents⁶. So when you are choosing low carbon technologies such as hybrid or fully electric vehicles, public transport or cycling; when you are purchasing high energy efficiency white goods; and when you are opting for electricity operators that utilise renewables, you are helping mitigate the impacts of climate change on our oceans too!