2020 was supposed to be a super year for the ocean.
A packed calendar of international events should have presented opportunities to assess progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 14 to conserve and sustainably use ocean resources; renew expiring Aichi Targets to protect coastal and marine habitats; conclude negotiations on a legally binding international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the high seas; and reach agreement to prohibit fishing subsidies that drive overfishing and illegal practices. The coronavirus pandemic, however, brought a very different backdrop to 2020, delaying these important events at a time when improving ocean health has never been more paramount.
The ocean economy contributes upwards of $1.5 trillion in value to the global economy. It provides food to more than 3 billion people. And it supports hundreds of millions of jobs in tourism, fishing and transportation.
Yet the health of the ocean is off track. The ocean is under intense and growing pressure from pollution, overfishing, unsustainable development and climate change.
Millions of metric tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, entangling, harming and contaminating at least 700 species of marine life. Unsustainable development along coastlines is destroying coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves. The ocean is becoming warmer, more acidic and less oxygenated due to absorbing excess heat and 25-30% of annual CO2 emissions, which threatens biodiversity and fuels sea level rise.
COVID-19 has added yet another threat. Ocean industries face significant revenue losses due to lockdown measures and the global economic recession — international shipping carriers alone are projected to lose $1.9 billion. Hundreds of millions of jobs have been affected. The impacts fall disproportionately on developing and small island nations — many of whom were already struggling economically — and coastal communities, particularly those nations highly reliant on tourism.
At this unprecedented moment in time, one message has never been clearer: It is time to forge a new relationship with the ocean — one in which ocean protection and economic production and prosperity go hand-in-hand.
A Positive Signal for Change: The New Ocean Action Agenda
To that end, 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) are laying out a new ocean action agenda with the release of Transformations for a Sustainable Ocean Economy: A Vision for Protection, Production and Prosperity.
Leaders from 14 countries (Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal) have committed to sustainably manage 100% of ocean areas within their national waters by 2025, and to support global ocean protection targets. With this significant commitment, domestic waters covering an area of nearly 30 million km2 (equivalent to the national waters of all of North, South and Central America and the Caribbean combined) will no longer be open for business as usual. This unprecedented global collaboration is a key step on the road to effectively managing and governing the whole ocean.
Fishermen carry their catch in Weligama, Sri Lanka. Photo by iStock.com
Getting to 100%: Transformations in 5 Critical Areas
Each of the Ocean Panel countries will now develop and implement a Sustainable Ocean Plan for the holistic management of 100% of their national waters. They are also committing to transformations across five critical areas to secure the future ocean we need; actions informed by research commissioned by the Ocean Panel, Ocean Solutions that Benefit People, Nature and the Economy.
Countries will deliver a range of solutions to achieve the desired changes in these five areas by 2030 or sooner. These actions will not only improve the state of the ocean; they’ll help countries grow their economies while creating social, environmental and health benefits.
While each nation will need to prioritize solutions most relevant to their domestic and regional contexts, challenges and needs, here’s a look at the types of actions we can expect to see as part of the new ocean agenda:
1. Ocean Wealth
With sustainability at their core, ocean industries like fisheries, tourism, transport and energy production have the potential to outperform the growth of the global economy. However, rapid action is needed to improve the sustainability, transparency and inclusiveness of ocean industries.
This means investment in low-impact tourism that regenerates the marine and coastal ecosystems upon which it depends while providing economic opportunities, skills and employment for local communities. Specific solutions might include: accelerating financial incentives for coastal habitat restoration; using natural systems such as mangroves in tourism infrastructure to reduce erosion and protect coasts from storms; and investing in sewage and wastewater treatment to improve water quality and human health.
Ocean-based renewable energy — including wind, wave, tidal, thermal and solar — can provide clean energy for the world while generating jobs, boosting economies and providing a pathway to decarbonization.
For example, research shows that every $1 invested in offshore wind production generates $2-$17 in return, with benefits including reduced damages from climate change, job creation and more. Investments in research and technology must be paired with policies to address the environmental impacts of ocean-based renewable energy, enable co-existence and integration with other uses of the ocean, and remove market impediments to accelerate the sustainable deployment of ocean-based renewable energy at scale.
Research suggests that with better management and technological innovation, the ocean could produce as much as 6 times more nutritious protein for the growing global population.
To restore wild fish stocks, countries will need to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, incentivize technologies to improve transparency within global supply chains, prohibit harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing, and implement science-based plans to rebuild depleted fish stocks.
The sustainable development of mariculture — particularly community-led, non-fed mariculture such as shellfish or seaweed — could enhance livelihoods and open new economic opportunities, while also providing food and other benefits. This will, however, require clear policies and frameworks to minimize environmental impacts and ensure alignment with the needs of small-scale fishers and local communities.
2. Ocean Health
We cannot have healthy people and planet without a healthy ocean. A sustainable ocean economy can play an essential role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, protecting and restoring marine and coastal ecosystems, and reducing pollution.
Research shows that investments in key ocean-based solutions can deliver as much as 21% of the emissions reductions the world needs to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), a target scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.
In the short term, policies and investments must prevent further loss of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses, salt marshes and kelp beds, and ensure their effective protection. Expanding efforts to actively restore coastal and marine ecosystems can create jobs and enhance tourism and fisheries outcomes.
For example, research shows that every $1 invested in mangrove conservation and restoration yields $3 in return, including through benefits like increased fisheries productivity, avoided damages from storm surge and more. Investing in ocean health is good for business, people and planet.
Additionally, countries can identify optimal locations to establish marine protected areas and other effective area-based conservation tools.
Collaborating with all relevant actors, including local communities, in the effective design and implementation of these tools can ensure that marine and coastal ecosystems continue to provide goods and services vital for our health and well-being. This includes absorbing CO2, protecting coasts from storms and other climate impacts, and providing food, medicines and economic and recreation opportunities.
A fish farm in the Malaysia Sea. Mariculture development will need to happen sustainably to safeguard the ocean while providing food to growing populations. Photo by iStock.com
3. Ocean Equity
There must be a fair transition out of the COVID-19 pandemic and towards a sustainable ocean economy. This includes protecting the most vulnerable from further risks of harm and assuring that all are afforded basic human rights and equitable access to resources.
While the ocean is important for everyone, access to ocean resources and sectors is rarely equitably distributed, with the benefits flowing disproportionately to some actors. This results in negative consequences on the environment, challenges to nutritional and food security, loss of livelihoods and limited financial opportunities for vulnerable groups. For example, between 2004 and 2014, 25 countries were responsible for roughly 82% of all global catches. Exploration and development of new economic opportunities from the ocean — particularly in areas beyond national waters — is concentrated in a handful of high-income countries. In 2018, 10 countries owned 98% of all marine biotechnology patents for the development of novel compounds and products.
Access to information, promotion of environmental literacy, and engagement and collaboration across diverse actors with different visions for the sustainable ocean economy of the future will be key to redressing equity concerns.
Policies and investments will need to create the enabling conditions for the full engagement of women, communities and Indigenous Peoples in ocean activities and decision-making, while enhancing opportunities to access decent work.
Countries must work with industry on responsible business practices that engage and benefit coastal communities and small-scale fishers and protect the rights of all workers in ocean industries. Forced labor in the seafood sector was reported in 47 countries in 2016; today, children as young as 11 years old are working on fishing vessels hundreds of miles away from home. Greater transparency around ongoing or planned activities or the adoption of corporate ocean responsibility practices should be a prerequisite for being granted a license to operate.
4. Ocean Knowledge
Revolutionary data and technology combined with traditional and local knowledge have the potential to transform our understanding, use and management of the ocean. We’ll need to build ocean literacy; invest in knowledge, technology and training for ocean conservation and management; and increase cooperation and transfer of knowledge and technology to ensure that this information can be accessible for all. All of these will be important elements of the upcoming UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).
Innovative partnerships and investment could scale up ocean observation systems at the local and global levels, such as the Ocean Data Platform and Global Fishing Watch. These systems are essential for filling major data gaps on ocean ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses, kelp beds and deep ocean systems, and in bringing greater transparency to global fishing activity.
Policies must accelerate the transparent and open sharing of ocean data and ensure that research and knowledge can inform better and more equitable decision-making.
To date, our view of the value of the ocean has been overly focused on a single measure of contribution to GDP. To better reflect the true value of the ocean, and to track whether ocean-based investments are building ocean wealth for future generations, countries could accelerate the development of dedicated ocean accounts as part of their national accounting processes. These accounts can help decision makers understand the contributions of the ocean economy to wealth, how it benefits different groups of people, and the status of environmental assets that provide us with critical goods and services.
5. Ocean Finance
Capital to finance the transformation to a sustainable ocean economy will be essential to the successful delivery of the Ocean Panel’s new ocean action agenda.
Increased uptake of sustainable finance principles by a range of actors is a key opportunity for ensuring that mainstream finance is redirected towards sustainable ocean outcomes and that COVID-19 stimulus investments accelerate the great ocean reset.
Sustainable Ocean Plans are an important mechanism for drawing further investment into sustainable ocean industries. A global partnership comprised of institutions from the financial, intergovernmental and ocean research sectors is emerging to help countries overcome technical and financial barriers to developing and implementing these plans. The Ocean Panel countries will look to build momentum around this partnership during 2021.
Safeguarding Our Ocean for Economies, Communities and Environment
To ocean aficionados, many of the actions noted above may feel familiar. It is true that we have known for some time what we must do to fix the problems facing the ocean. What has been lacking – until now — is leadership from the highest decision-making offices to turn knowledge into action. A commitment to 100% sustainable ocean management from 14 global leaders is the kind of political will and bold action we need to start moving in the right direction.
The Ocean Panel will lead by example on this transformative agenda, working collaboratively to raise the profile of the ocean economy on the international stage; promoting the ocean as a smart investment with tremendous social, health, economic and environmental benefits; and encouraging recognition of the ocean as a critical ally for global economic and social recovery and future prosperity.
The peer-reviewed research commissioned by the Ocean Panel has already informed policy-making at the highest levels of government and spurred action across a growing network of leaders in business, finance and civil society.
To go further, faster, it is critical that other world leaders, businesses, investors and civil society join the Ocean Panel in their efforts. By accelerating bold and transformative action, the world can ensure that by 2030, all ocean areas under national jurisdiction are sustainably managed.