Valuable — but vulnerable: why sustainability must be at the heart of the marine economy

By John Tanzer, Oceans Practice leader, WWF International

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The excitement around the Blue Economy is palpable. Governments and industry see enormous potential for marine industries old and new — from fishing to sea-bed mining, energy extraction to bio-prospecting. The ocean economy, conservatively valued at over US$2.5 trillion each year, is predicted to double in size by 2030. Innovation and technology, its evangelists say, will ensure that all this growth is sustainable, and that the Blue Economy will also be a green economy.

We would urge caution. We recognise the potential for the Blue Economy to provide jobs and growth, especially for developing countries in desperate need of both. But we must also acknowledge just how precarious the state of the ocean is, and we must ensure that plans to expand the Blue Economy are truly sustainable and based on a sober, rigorous assessment of its ecological capacity.

Indeed, we would go further: unless ocean conservation moves rapidly up the international agenda, resulting in corresponding actions and investments to restore and rebuild its resilience, the science is clear: the current level of economic exploitation is unsustainable.

The themes of the responsible management of marine resources and the development of a sustainable Blue Economy will be front and centre of the sixth Our Oceans conference, held in Oslo on 23–24 October. This annual conference has become an important forum for building political will in support of action on ocean conservation. In this regard, we are at a critical juncture: political will must urgently be translated into action if we are to avert ecological, social and economic disaster for our seas and the people who depend upon them.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the oceans and cryosphere vividly explained the threat posed to the world’s ocean habitats by temperature rise and acidification. Over the last three decades, the world has lost half its coral reefs. Much of what remains is struggling, including the world’s largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef. Warming oceans will change the distribution of fish stocks and drive many species to extinction. The climate crisis is an oceans crisis.

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Climate change is exacerbating the pressures that the oceans face from existing over-exploitation. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 30% of global fisheries are being exploited at unsustainable levels, and another 60% are being fished at maximum capacity. Decades of overfishing have taken a significant toll on ocean health, human livelihoods and global food security, while demand for fish continues to increase.

Meanwhile, the world’s oceans have become a global rubbish dump. Marine plastic pollution has reached crisis levels, poisoning and snaring aquatic life and threatening human health and livelihoods. It is estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters the oceans every year — a figure that is projected to increase four-fold by 2050.

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The world’s oceans have never been so degraded, nor have the pressures on them been so great. And, as is always the case with environmental degradation, the impacts are being disproportionately faced by the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

We know the solutions and we know that nature can bounce back strongly if given a fighting chance. So, what is to be done? First, we need to recognise the urgency of the threat. We need to move from warm words and expressions of concern to concrete, measurable action to protect the world’s oceans and the communities whose well-being is dependent on their health. We must collectively close the gap between elegant rhetoric and real, measurable action — the Sustainable Development Goals offer us a pathway to do this.

We need to ensure that discussions around increasing the size of the Blue Economy are grounded in the scientific reality of what damage has been done and what the oceans can sustain. WWF has worked to define a sustainable and equitable Blue Economy, and, together with partners, we have set out principles to guide finance and investment in ocean-based industries to ensure future investments in the Blue Economy will support rather than undermine its sustainability.

We need to act on plastic pollution. Through WWF’s No Plastics in Nature and Plastic Free Oceans Initiatives, we are working with our partners to realise our vision to ensure that, by 2030, there is no plastic leakage into the natural environment. At this year’s conference, we’ll be committing to advance the development of a global treaty to curb marine plastic pollution, a call that more than 1.5 million people across the world have joined via our global petition.

On sustainable fisheries, we are working with partners to arrest the overexploitation of fisheries, improve fisheries governance and management, and conserve critical habitats, especially those that are crucial for maintaining recruitment and rebuilding populations.

We are working with governments, business and communities to build networks of representative and well-managed areas of marine protection that will help protect biodiversity, support resilience and sustain many of the goods and services that the ocean provides.

In addition, we are partnering with some of the world’s leading coral reef conservation and development organizations, using our collective impact to take on the coral reef crisis based on rigorous science and community knowledge and engagement.

Technology and innovation have an important role to play in supporting conservation and also in ensuring that future growth in the Blue Economy is sustainable. But we must also recognise that increasing the resilience of existing natural resources and local communities, building on their traditional knowledge, can help protect vulnerable ecosystems and more effectively deliver the sound and equitable use of coastal resources.

Crucially, a move to the sustainable management of our oceans is essential to safeguarding the well-being and prosperity of future generations. Without urgent action to halt the decline of nature and protect our oceans, we risk undermining the natural resources we depend upon for our survival. WWF has identified protection of 30% of our oceans and coastal seas, alongside a halving of the ecological footprint of economic production and consumption, as essential to restoring nature by 2030.

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Next year brings a momentous opportunity at the international level to secure a New Deal for Nature and People that places us on the path to restoring nature by 2030. In what will be a critical year for the planet, in 2020 an agreement on a new global biodiversity framework, redoubled action on climate change, a treaty for the oceans and a renewed commitment to the environment under the Sustainable Development Goals are to be negotiated.

This concerted international effort — if it is backed by political will, engaged local communities, mobilised civil society and a responsible private sector — provides an unmissable chance to turn the tide on the unsustainable exploitation of our oceans, and to begin to bring them back to health.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Eco-Business —

Building a #future in which #humans live in harmony with #nature.

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