June 8 is World Oceans Day, so you will probably see articles quoting conservationists raising the alarm about declining ocean health. They are right to do so. The ocean needs a lot of help right now. But I worry that the people reading articles that quote conservationists are conservationists themselves. We need to reach and influence a different audience if we hope to change the story about our oceans. 

I say this with no disrespect to conservationists. I am one, and I have enormous respect for my peers and colleagues. But the numbers don’t lie: 90% of global fish stocks over-exploited or fully exploited; the marine Living Planet Index has declined by 40% since 1970; half of the world’s corals gone in the last 30 years, and they may disappear entirely by mid-century. 

So on this World Oceans Day, it’s time to face the hard truth: the way we’ve approached ocean conservation has been insufficient to deal with the mounting pressure on marine resources. We need not just more investment, though that would help, but a radical new way of addressing the challenges we’ve created. 

This means raising the alarm beyond the environmental sector. We need to engage economists, social scientists, development bankers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, CEOs, ministers of finance, health, energy and defence. We need these people to recognise the opportunities available through the right investment and the profound risks we face through continued neglect and mismanagement of the ocean. And then we need them to take action.

WWF’s recent reports, Reviving the Ocean Economy and Marine Protected Areas: Smart investments in ocean health, target these audiences by marrying the most recent ocean and climate science with an economic case for urgent action. We have shown, for example, that more than two-thirds of the ocean’s annual economic value – $2.5 trillion – is dependent on healthy ocean assets. In other words, if we allow the continued decline in reefs, mangrove and other key habitats, we are draining the fuel from a natural economic engine. 

We have also busted the myth that protecting marine habitats only benefits species like turtles and dugongs. Every $1 invested in marine protected areas is expected to return at least $3 worth of benefits, including livelihoods, fisheries and coastal protection. 

We have risked the wrath of traditionalists by focusing on the ocean’s economic – rather than intrinsic – value for one simple reason. We weren’t breaking through talking about the plight of mangroves and tuna. We had the conservationists on side, and the rest were deaf to our messages because they didn’t align with “higher” priorities: economic development and food security for a growing population. 

WWF is venturing into this economic space because we must. We must speak the language of those who have the power to enact ocean protection, and who will be motivated to do so by the need to shore up their economies and achieve sustainable development. This is one part of our strategy for ocean conservation in the 21st Century. I am optimistic about the prospects of bringing new thinking and new resources to the cause, because the one thing the ocean doesn’t need is more of the same.

Author: John Tanzer, Director, Global Marine, WWF

Image: A hammerhead shark swims close to Wolf Island at Galapagos Marine Reserve August 19, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Silva