Save the ocean: how mankind destroyed an economic force

With illegal fishing and large-scale plastic deposits destroying one of the world’s largest economies, governments and businesses are being urged to protect Earth’s greatest asset

Washed-up waste on the Isle of Wight’s shore. Plastic deposits are one of the main reasons the ocean economy is under threat
Washed-up waste on the Isle of Wight’s shore. Plastic deposits are one of the main reasons the ocean economy is under threat 

The abundance of H20 on Earth is what distinguishes it from all the other planets in the cosmos. Covering more than two thirds of the planet’s surface, oceans are estimated to be home to close to a million different species, with two thirds of those still waiting to be discovered. The world and the billions of people that inhabit it rely on the wealth that the numerous oceans provide, but there are fears that fish stocks are being exploited to such an extreme that, without drastic action being taken soon, they could be depleted within a generation.

The global economies rely on the health of the oceans for much more than just nourishment: oceans play a critical role in producing half of the Earth’s oxygen. What’s more, the ocean is also responsible for absorbing nearly a third of harmful human-caused emissions, while also providing an abundance of the raw materials used in the creation of various goods ranging from cosmetics to medicines.Fig 1

All of this helps create a vast ocean economy, employing millions of people around the globe. However, despite the bounty that it affords, the stewardship over this most valuable of resources has been abysmal. The health of the oceans is failing, and fast. The level of destruction that mankind has wreaked on the world’s waters through overfishing and pollution is almost unfathomable, notwithstanding the effect that climate change – an issue exacerbated by human activity – is having on the temperature and acidity of the sea and the flora and fauna that call it home.

Oceanic revival
In an attempt to fix the problem, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its Reviving the Ocean Economy report, which outlines the key areas where change is required to not only provide a scientific case for why urgent action must be taken to save the environment and the global economies from collapse, but also an economic one.

“[The] WWF has brought together the research and conclusions of an expert community and marries this scientific evidence with a common-sense economic case for action to safeguard the value of our ocean,” explained the lead author, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guildberg, in the report. “The message is clear: we are running down our ocean assets and will push the ocean economy into the red if we do not respond to this crisis as an international community. A prudent treasurer or CEO would not wait until the next financial report to correct course. They would act now.”

By looking at the economic impact that will follow from the continued mismanagement of the world’s oceans, the WWF is hoping it will cause industry heads and global leaders to take more decisive action in order to address the issue of ocean degradation. With help from the Global Change Institute – an Australia-based research institute – and the Boston Consulting Group, the WWF has calculated that the array of goods and services derived from marine environments “can be valued conservatively at $2.5trn each year, and the overall value of the ocean as an asset is 10 times that”.

Figures as big as these are unnerving for policymakers, but what is even more shocking is that these estimates do not include offshore oil, gas and wind energy, which attribute to a number of intangible assets.

Getting some perspective
The total asset value of the ocean economy is worth trillions of dollars, and is vast. The total direct output from tangible assets, such as marine fisheries and shipping lanes used to transport goods, is approximately $12.1trn to date. Then there are the those assets that are harder to see, such as the value of intangible ocean assets like primary production, which describes the important role that algae and phytoplankton play in reducing the levels of carbon dioxide found within the Earth’s atmosphere. The benefits of which are also valued at more than $12trn to date.

If those numbers are a little difficult to understand, then the report’s authors also placed the ocean economy within the GDP metric: if the ocean were its own country, it would post GDP figures that would make many members of the eurozone envious and BRIC countries look on in awe. Its GDP would make it the world’s seventh-largest economy, falling just behind the UK (see Fig 1). Despite these impressive statistics, the global ocean economy is in a state of decline. “As natural assets are degraded, the ocean is losing its capacity to feed and provide livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people,” Hoegh-Guldberg wrote in the WWF report. “The downward trends are steep and reflect major changes in species’ abundance and diversity, as well as habitat extent, most over a single human lifespan.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are being exploited, a fact that is particularly worrying to experts as an ocean without fish would destroy the biodiversity of the oceans, and in turn destroy their economic value. The damage caused by our appetite for fish is vast, as the techniques used by fisherman to cast a wide net for quantity is not designed for precision fishing. This results in trillions of mistaken fish and other animals like sharks, dolphins and turtles getting accidently entangled in the many nets and fishing lines that sieve the seas in search of a good catch.

“Anything can be bycatch,” said Dominique Cano-Stocco, Campaign Director at Oceana, in the company’s report Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems in US Fisheries. “The dolphins that are encircled to bring you canned tuna, the sea turtles caught to bring you shrimp… [or] the millions of pounds of halibut or cod that are wasted when fishermen have already reached their quota. Much of this captured wildlife is treated as waste, thrown overboard dead or dying. This conservation problem must be solved to ensure healthy oceans into the future.”

Alarmingly, the study claims that global bycatch amounts to 40 percent of the world’s total catch, which equates to 63 billion pounds of marine life every year being tossed overboard.

“Hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, sharks, sea birds, sea turtles and fish needlessly die each year as a result of indiscriminate fishing gear,” said Amanda Keledjian, report author and a marine scientist at Oceana, in a press release. “It’s no wonder that bycatch is such a significant problem, with trawls as wide as football fields, longlines extending up to 50 miles with thousands of baited hooks and gillnets up to two miles long. The good news is that there are solutions – bycatch is avoidable.”

Bycatch might be avoidable, but it requires implementation of these techniques on a global scale. And time is of the essence, especially when the WWF Living Planet Index, which measures biodiversity, is based on analysis of more than 900 marine species. According to the index, there has been a 39 percent decline in marine mammals, birds, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2010. Intensifying the decline of these ocean-dwelling animals is the environmental impact that acidification is having on the coral reefs, which are home to nearly a quarter of all marine life on the planet.

Alex Rogers, Professor of Biology at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Road to recovery
There is clearly a consensus that global oceans are not stable and something drastic needs to be done in order to right the environmental wrongs that have occurred in order to make the ocean economy secure once more. There is reason to be positive, however, as a lot has been accomplished with regards to identifying solutions to shift the world’s oceans away from a path of decline, and back on track towards recovery.

One group that has worked tirelessly to provide solutions rather than just identifying problems, is the Global Ocean Commission. In the commission’s most recent summary report, it expresses how it has been encouraged by the rise in the number of new technologies that are now capable of providing viable solutions to understanding and fixing the issues the ocean economy faces.

“There are clear economic incentives for both the public and private sectors to take their responsibilities in the high seas more seriously. Without stronger governance and regulation, uncertainty will continue to pervade ocean-related industries and reduce profits,” explained the authors of the report. “We can continue to lay cables and ship containers across a dead ocean, but without paying attention to sustaining the life within it, we put our own lives and those of every living thing in peril. We all have a clear responsibility to act as the current stewards of this planet. We have an obligation to leave future generations a healthy and productive ocean, able to continue to give life and value to all humanity.”

In order to fulfil that obligation, the commission laid out a number of proposals that will look to stem the tide of decline and help undo the damage that has been caused as a result of pollution, overfishing and climate change. The security of the world’s oceans is only possible through a concerted effort: one of the key proposals in the Global Ocean Commission’s report is for all UN member states and stakeholders to agree to the terms outlined in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for the global ocean. The primary purpose of the proposal is to establish the global ocean at the forefront of the UN development agenda, which will help provide the necessary drive for change in order to secure and protect the world’s seas.

“We must address the fragmented approach that is currently driving ocean decline,” the report said. “A concerted effort is required which should be framed in a specific Ocean SDG, underpinned by key reforms in global ocean governance and implemented by every government, by civil society and by the private sector so that the words on paper become action in the water.”

The type of action that the commission wants to see UN members taking would bring about an end to exploited fish stocks around the world and shift towards a sustainable fishing practices; reducing the size and capacity of shipping fleets, as well as applying a cap on the number of vessels sieving the world’s oceans.

Fig 2

According to the commission, there are simply “too many boats trying to catch too few fish”, with the number of fishing boats being 2.5 times larger than what is actually required in order to acquire the amount of fish necessary to meet global demand. Overfishing not only threatens the health of the ocean economy, it is also causing millions of the world’s poorest citizens to be robbed of a valuable food source. What’s worse is the fact that so much of the catch taken is wasted, while added strain is also being applied by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

According to the Global Ocean Commission’s report: “One of the biggest obstacles to the effective management of high seas fish stocks is the prevalence of IUU fishing caused by economic incentives, which in turn were enabled by a lack of regulation and enforcement resulting from global governance deficiencies. Each year that it is allowed to thrive, illegal fishing on the high seas is progressively stripping oceans of fish stocks and further threatening the food security of over a billion people, mostly in the developing world.”

It continued: “The overall extent of IUU fishing on the high seas is very difficult to estimate, largely because much of it is unreported or illegal. The most reputable estimate suggests that IUU fishing on the high seas is worth $1.25 billion annually.”

Plastic problem
Overfishing is having a substantial impact on fish stocks, but there is another source of harm that threatens marine life, the stability of the global ocean and the health of humans: plastics.

There are a number of extremely harmful toxic chemicals that are absorbed by plastic, such as PCBs and DDTs. These dangerous chemicals are made increasingly harmful to humans, as their concentration can increase dramatically by the time they are consumed by humans in the form of fish or other seafood. According to the Ocean Health Index, there are numerous health effects linked to the consumption of these chemicals, such as cancer, malformation and impaired reproductive ability.

Around 80 percent of all marine pollution comes from land-based activities, and the level of plastics in the world’s oceans has become so vast that it outweighs all other types of marine debris, according to the Global Ocean Commission. One of the biggest driving forces behind this surge in plastic is due to the incremental increase in the number of plastic-based products that are being manufactured.

The report claims that since the 1950s, there has been a tenfold increase in amount of plastic debris found in certain areas of the ocean. Researchers expect this worrying trend to continue, considering the popularity of plastic packaging by manufacturers in the global economy.

This has led to around eight million tons of plastic entering the ocean each and every year (see Fig 2) and, as a result of winds and currents, a proportion of that material accumulates in five basins around the world. The most famous of these is the Pacific Gyre, which is said to be twice the size of Texas. However, thanks the Dutch inventor and environmentalist Boyan Slat, there is a new technology that may be capable of cleaning the oceans of all this plastic debris.

Created by Slat and developed alongside his team at the Ocean Cleanup, the project is set for deployment in the second quarter of 2016 off the Tsushima coast – an island located in the waters between Japan and South Korea. Using floating barriers and the natural movement of ocean currents, the rig will passively gather the plastic debris. The system itself is set to span over 2,000 metres, making it the longest floating structure to ever be deployed in the ocean.

“Taking care of the world’s ocean garbage problem is one of the largest environmental challenges mankind faces today,” explained Slat in a statement. “Not only will this first clean-up array contribute to cleaner waters and coasts, but it simultaneously is an essential step towards our goal of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch [the Pacific Gyre]. This deployment will enable us to study the system’s efficiency and durability over time.”

It is clear that the combination of pollution, overfishing and climate change is leading to an erosion of marine assets and pushing the ocean economy to the brink. Unless the international community makes a fast and concerted effort, the future of millions of people who directly rely on the ocean for their food, employment and livelihood could be jeopardised.

Pressure groups have tried to get the international community on board by highlighting the environmental consequences of inaction, but it appears that for too long the message has fallen on deaf ears. This time round, the message is the same, but the delivery of it has shifted to one that stresses the economic impact that will be felt should the world’s oceans be left to continue in their downward spiral. Considering the primacy that economics plays within our modern world, perhaps this tactic will provide the right narrative to make a difference.