8 June is the United Nations day for World Oceans. The theme for this year’s celebration is ‘healthy oceans, healthy planet’, yet developments during 2016 have shown just how much more needs to be done to preserve our seas from the effects of human activity. 

The Problems

Stories this week have highlighted the severe damage now being wrought on the Great Barrier Reef –where increasing temperatures and ocean acidification are resulting in coral bleaching and massive dead zones in areas where marine life had previously been abundant. The plight of one of the oceans’ most impressive wonders should serve as a warning message that our current attitude towards ocean health is severely misguided.

International shipping is increasing dramatically, and with it greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. We are opening up new routes through the increasingly ice-free Arctic Sea, while depositing black carbon and other pollutants that actually increase the global warming that created these new passages.

Fisheries management in the EU continues to suffer from political intervention and a lack of ambition to maintain stocks above a level from which they can recover. The deep sea can be especially prone to long-term damage. The drive for aquaculture threatens to spread disease and actually increase the damage done to stocks and marine environments, if it does not do more to ensure sustainability.

Marine litter is pouring into our seas from both land and ship sources, whether it be plastic microbeads, or larger items like plastics bags, and works its way into marine ecosystems after being ingested by marine animals.

All of these problems can be exasperated by a worldwide drive for ‘Blue Growth’, a desire to take more and more from the world’s marine environments and use them as a driver for greater economic growth. Deep sea mining is the latest manifestation, as the desire for resources moves pollution and ecosystem disruption offshore.

The solutions

All this bad news can leave one feeling rather despondent, as the challenges seems more than we are able to tackle. Yet there is hope. Just today, the French senate ratified the Paris agreement, at the same time as the US and India agreed to ratify it together, creating a pathway to significant cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions. At the International Maritime Organisation, there is a rapidly growing consensus on the need for shipping to play its part. The USA has banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and the EU seems likely soon to follow. The prospect of a truly Circular Economy could lower the need for more resource exploitation, such as deep sea mining, and can limit the flow of waste into the sea. Marine protected areas are growing (albeit too slowly, and in an insufficiently connected fashion) and fish stocks have shown they can and do bounce back, when managed properly.

One of the leading drivers of these changes is the increasing knowledge and awareness of our marine world. To date we have only explored less than 5% of the world’s seas, yet there has never been so great a focus on better understanding them. Ocean literacy is increasing and politicians and their electorates are increasingly aware and concerned of the effects of our economic actions on the often delicate and complex environments. We better understand how ocean systems work, how the climate and oceans interact, and how we can better protect these areas through multinational, ambitious, binding agreements, carefully designed and rigorously enforced.

What is needed now is a faith in the power of collective action, be it at the local level (by initiatives that help us choose sustainable fish, or work to protect our coasts) and at the regional and international level (at the EU, IMO, the UNFCCC, the International Seabed Authority and elsewhere). Together we can and must work to protect this blue earth.