The largest place on the planet is in trouble.
Oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, and ocean ecosystems generate at least US$ 21 trillion in economic benefits each year.
But a perfect storm of massive challenges, from collapsing fisheries to plastic pollution to ocean acidification, is threatening the integrity of marine ecosystems. These threats put at risk the essential benefits people receive from healthy oceans: sustainable fisheries, coastal protection, carbon sequestration, coastal economies and livelihoods, tourism and recreation and many others.
This week, I was one of 700 leaders from governments, business, civil society and communities attending the Global Oceans Action Summit in The Hague, Netherlands. I am encouraged by the fact that many countries and businesses attending the summit have moved beyond the point of talking about problems to taking immediate action for ocean health and begin the transition toward a more sustainable society.
More than 27 years ago, I founded the organization Conservation International (CI) to take on the most urgent and important issues of our time. Today, I believe ocean health is one of those issues. We simply cannot survive — let alone prosper — if we do not reverse the destruction of the ocean’s natural capital.
Ocean health is a complex challenge. In order to achieve sustainable solutions, all sectors of society must come together and contribute their unique skills and perspectives. Governments and financial institutions need to accelerate efforts to bring stakeholders together to develop shared vision, goals and measures of ocean health and provide the financing necessary to deliver on these ambitious plans. It is also essential that this is done rapidly in effective and practical ways.
We need to be impatient. We cannot wait for everybody around the world to sign on to one consensus plan. Instead, we must partner with those who are committed to immediate action to improve ocean health.
Here’s some good news: Some of the groundwork is already done. Tools like the Ocean Health Index are already allowing scientists to define the baseline for ocean health against which to evaluate the success of future actions and interventions. We need to recognize that our measures are only as good as the accuracy and resolution of the data they are based upon. Therefore, countries need to adopt the Ocean Health Index and compile the necessary data to guide the identification of priorities and tracking of progress.
While the initial cost (in time and money) of creating tools like the Ocean Health Index and the required data may seem high, they should not be viewed as “costs” per se; in fact, they represent sound investments. The true cost would be if we continued to mismanage our most valuable global resources.
For example, the World Bank estimates the losses from poor fisheries management to total US$50 billion worldwide.
We cannot afford to ignore the management of our oceans. The well-being of our society — indeed, our very survival — depends on their health. This is particularly true for the 40 percent of countries that have larger ocean areas than land, and even more so for the 18% of nations that have 10 times more ocean than land. Clearly, the path for the development aspirations of these countries goes through ocean health.
From the Global Oceans Action Summit, it is clear to me that businesses are increasingly aware of their supply chains’ dependence on healthy oceans. Companies present at the summit emphasized their commitment to innovation and best practices, including finding ways to reduce the need for feed in aquaculture and to eliminate illegally caught fish from their supply chains.
Throughout the last couple of years, I have seen a growing number of businesses begin to measure their carbon and freshwater footprints and to use the information to improve their performance. Next, we need companies to report on their impacts on ocean health — positive and negative — and demonstrate that performance can improve and will ensure continued return on investments, both economically and ecologically.
Non-governmental organizations, including CI, play a key role in innovating and developing new ocean sustainability tools and solutions. These organizations can often take greater risks to develop new innovations than what governments and businesses are willing to accept, thereby accelerating new approaches and action.
The most immediate opportunity for action and results that I saw at the summit is the importance of rewarding the governments, companies and organizations who are already leading the way to improve marine health. All sectors of society need to stand behind leaders who have demonstrated political will and courage by embracing ambitious ocean initiatives and targets.
A perfect example is the Pacific Oceanscape, an initiative led by 15 nations in the Western and Central Pacific who aim to accelerate collaboration for ocean health.
At the summit, Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands spoke of his country’s contribution to the Pacific Oceanscape by creating the Cook Islands Marine Park, the largest marine managed area in the world extending a staggering 1.1 million square kilometers (about 425,000 square miles — an area almost as large as Ethiopia).
The rest of the world should support these nations — technically, financially and politically — to deliver on their bold vision and aspirations for a healthy ocean that can continue to benefit people economically, nutritionally, socially and environmentally. I invite the international community to work with us in partnering with these nations to demonstrate to the world that action and progress are possible, and that ocean health really is human health.
Peter Seligmann is chairman and former CEO of Conservation International.