Whether you live on the coast or hours from the closest beach, we all depend on the ocean. The ocean is critical to maintaining life on Earth, contributing to our livelihoods and our well-being. It regulates our climate and weather, it generates 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and it absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The ocean also plays a vital role in the global economy by providing food and a source of income for millions of people. More than one billion people worldwide rely on the ocean for their primary source of protein.
The ocean is just too important to ignore. Yet, the ocean is facing significant challenges, some stemming from a lack of awareness and some from a lack of will. Some of these challenges are well known – like unsustainable fishing practices and marine pollution – and some are new to us – like ocean acidification. The good news is that there are solutions – and we know where to find them.
In June, the Department of State will host the “Our Ocean” Conference. We will bring together individuals, experts, practitioners, advocates, lawmakers, and the international ocean and foreign policy communities to gather lessons learned, share the best science, offer unique perspectives, and demonstrate effective actions. We aim to chart a way forward, working individually and together, to protect “Our Ocean.”
Many of the world’s fish stocks are being fished at levels that are not sustainable in the long term. Of the world’s marine fisheries for which reasonable data exist, an estimated 30% are overexploited, while another 57 percent cannot support expanded harvest and require effective management to avoid decline.
Overfishing harms the ecology of the oceans, while also reducing the long-term potential of fish stocks to provide food and jobs for the future. Harmful fishing practices have unintended impacts on species of birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and non-target fish stocks. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing further undermines fisheries management worldwide, particularly in developing countries. The conference will explore these challenges and seek to identify solutions to address them.
It is estimated that 80 percent of ocean pollution originates on land. There has been significant progress in addressing marine pollution from land-based and ocean-based sources, by individuals and local communities; voluntary effort and regulatory action; and at the regional and global scale through agreement. But more needs to be done.
Nutrient pollution is caused by diverse sources including agricultural runoff and sewage and wastewater discharges. It overloads marine environments with high concentrations of nutrients, which can cause large algal blooms. Oxygen is consumed when these algae die and decay, creating “dead zones” where fish and other marine life cannot thrive. There are an estimated 600 dead zones in the world. Toxic algal blooms also harm economies as they can severely disrupt the fisheries and tourism upon which many communities depend. We need to raise awareness of the impacts from excess nutrients in the marine environment, and we need to take action to reduce the sources of these nutrients.
Marine debris is trash and other solid material that enters ocean and coastal waters. Marine debris threatens wildlife and presents health and safety concerns for humans. Plastics consistently make up a significant percent of all marine debris. There are many sources of marine debris, both on the ocean and on land, including beachgoers, improper disposal of trash on land, stormwater sewers and combined sewer overflow, ships and other vessels, industrial facilities, waste disposal activities, and offshore oil and gas platforms. Proper collection, handling, and recycling or disposal of trash, as well as reduction of consumption and packaging, can help to reduce the marine debris problem.
One of the most important ways to address these global challenges is to stop pollutants from entering the marine environment in the first place. There are many such efforts underway at the national, regional and international levels, but there is an urgent need to spur those efforts globally.
Oceans regulate our climate and our weather. They are essential for cycling water, carbon, and nutrients. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed nearly 30% of human generated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As carbon dioxide mixes with ocean water, the water becomes more acidic – today, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution. Even more troubling is that the chemistry of the oceans is changing 10 times faster than at any other time in the past 50 million years, making it challenging for organisms to adapt to these new conditions at the same rate.
More acidic oceans will have broad and significant impacts on marine ecosystems, the services they provide, and the coastal economies which depend on them. In addition to decreasing our carbon emissions, it is critical that we understand the process of ocean acidification and its impacts. A necessary first step toward developing a better understanding is to monitor and measure the ocean to learn what changes are occurring and when. This requires a network of scientists around the world collecting, organizing, and analyzing data on ocean acidification – a global ocean “vital signs” monitoring network focused specifically on ocean acidification and its effects on ocean health. A new and growing Global Monitoring Network for Ocean Acidification is starting to be developed and will require strategically placed monitoring equipment and trained personnel to be effective and help us to understand and respond to this growing problem.