10 Things You’d Miss If the Ocean Called It Quits

This is our third blog about Nature Is Speaking, our communications initiative that uses a series of short films narrated by major celebrities to spotlight the vital links between nature and human well-being. Read all blogs in the series.

Humans have taken a lot from the ocean — but what if the ocean decided to call it quits? What if the ocean, encapsulated in the film below by the booming voice of Harrison Ford, really did stop providing us with the generous benefits it’s given us for all of human history? What would happen then?

This possibility is something that more and more governments, businesses and organizations are waking up to, and they are starting to worry. Just consider the remarkable range of benefits we get from healthy oceans:

  1. Food provision through wild fisheries and fish farming. About 4.3 billion people get around 15% of their animal protein and essential nutrition from seafood.
  2. Natural products like shells, seaweed, fish oil and coral. Each year, people consume almost 23 million tons of seaweed alone, an amount valued at over US$ 6 billion.
  3. Coastal protection. Natural barriers like coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds mitigate impacts from major storms and tsunamis.
  4. Artisanal fishing opportunities for those who don’t have other options for employment or livelihoods and need to make their sustenance from oceans. There are over 12 million artisanal fishers worldwide.
  5. Economies and livelihoods for people along the coasts. Worldwide, an estimated 350 million jobs depend on the ocean.
  6. Biodiversity. Already the IUCN Red List categorizes 11.7% of the 8,459 marine species assessed to date as threatened with a high risk of extinction in the wild. The decline or extinction of species threatens the many direct and indirect benefits they provide to people, from being sources of new medicines to maintaining ecosystems in balance.
  7. Clean water, free from pollutants and plastic garbage, that people can swim and wash in without putting their health at risk. There are already more than 400 dead zones worldwide, where lack of oxygen prevents many forms of life. These areas cover an area larger than the entire state of Minnesota.
  8. A sense of place, including cultural, spiritual and aesthetic benefits. In the U.S. 39% of the population lives in coastal counties; these people are shaped by living by the ocean.
  9. Carbon storage. The ocean captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries it in sediments to mitigate climate change. Mangroves capture five times as much carbon per acre as tropical rainforests, but these “blue carbon” habitats are being lost at a rate 2–4 times faster.
  10. Tourism and recreation. In the U.S., over 40% of people visit the beach each year.

It is pretty obvious that we wouldn’t do well without the benefits provided by a healthy ocean. In fact, we most likely would not survive. The good news is that many people are realizing what is at stake; even global and national leaders are catching on.

2014 has been unprecedented in terms of global summits focusing on ocean health from the Economist World Ocean Summit in San Francisco to the Global Ocean Action Summit in The Hague and the “Our Ocean” Conference in Washington, D.C. convened by Secretary of State John Kerry. All of these initiatives brought together business, governments and civil society organizations to find solutions for people depending on and benefiting from oceans.

polluted beach in Haiti

Children play on a litter-strewn beach in Haiti. (© Robin Moore)

While these gatherings elevate the issue of ocean health to our societies’ top decision-makers, it is the actions that follow the talk and verbal commitments that make the real difference on the water.

Many organizations are making concrete contributions to improve ocean health and to generate continued benefits for people. At CI, we focus on:

  • Driving innovation and research needed to inform smart ocean management decisions through initiatives like the Ocean Health Index;
  • Protecting the ocean at the scale necessary by bringing together broad partnerships of organizations, government agencies, businesses and communities to put in place comprehensive ocean management, including marine protected areas, through initiatives like seascapes;
  • Improving fishing and seafood industry practices to recover the 30% of world fisheries that are overexploited or depleted; and
  • Creating new mechanisms to finance effective ocean management, including such as compensating communities or countries for protecting blue carbon coastal habitats — mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes — that sequester carbon and mitigate climate change.

Let’s make sure that between all of us — political leaders, business leaders, thought leaders, you and I — we keep the ocean healthy and don’t provoke it to stop giving us the essential things we’ve never been without. Not only our prosperity, but our very survival depends on it.

Sebastian Troëng is the senior vice president and managing director of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans. Learn more about CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign in our blog series, or find out how you can help spread the word.  

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