The oceans are a vital source of life, livelihoods, food and biodiversity, but what on earth are we doing to them?

The amount of fish, sea birds, whales and other marine species has been reduced by as much as 50% in only 40 years, according to the WWF publication Living Blue Planet Report, launched in 2015. This is a much more acute situation than previously anticipated, something that requires immediate action at both the national and international level.

Every other year WWF describes how our planet is doing through our Living Planet Report, which focuses on land-based species. Last year, for the very first time, such an analysis was conducted also for marine species. Neither reports are uplifting reading. As for life in the oceans, there has been a 50% decrease in populations of commercial fish stocks. As many as 17 species of mackerel and tuna have experienced a 74% decrease, sharks and rays are now endangered, while sea turtles are critically endangered. According to the United Nations, about 90% of the world's fish stocks are either fully utilized or subject to overfishing. This is a threat both to our oceans and to global food security.

Marine life is threatened by many factors, including climate change, overfishing, aquaculture, tourism, extractives and land-based pollution. What we are seeing is humanity collectively mismanaging the ocean to the brink of collapse. This is a critical situation for the amazing and irreplaceable biodiversity we find in our global oceans, but it is also a serious threat to human life. Around 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced in the oceans. Hundreds of millions of people are dependent on seafood to survive. About 3 billion people get almost 20% of their animal protein from fish, and fisheries worldwide employ about 200 million people.

Another WWF report, Reviving the Ocean Economy, shows that the value of key ocean assets is conservatively estimated to be at least $24 trillion.

 Global oceans asset value
Image: WWF

If compared to the world’s top 10 economies, the ocean would rank seventh, with an annual value of goods and services of $2.5 trillion. And these assets are completely renewable if only they are managed in a sustainable way. In order to do that, we need an ambitious, comprehensive and both national and international rescue operation. Now.

  If the ocean were a country, it would have the seventh biggest GDP
Image: WWF

The good thing is that solutions exist, and we can turn the tide on this development. The ocean is a dynamic, interconnected global ecosystem that can bounce back relatively quickly if the pressures are dealt with effectively. Smart measures include better fishing practices to eliminate bycatch, waste and overfishing; getting rid of harmful subsidies and unregulated fishing; protecting key habitats and a large portion of the ocean to enable the regeneration of its living resources; and cutting CO2 emissions that cause severe acidification of the ocean.

The UN sustainable development goal no. 14 is about conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Virtually all nations have agreed to this. The goal is to be achieved, among other things, through sustainable management, reducing the impact of ocean acidification and marine pollution, as well as by putting a stop to all illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by 2020. This work needs to be backed up by concrete commitments and investments.

In order to save marine ecosystems as well as ensuring sustainable development for poor coastal societies, efforts to fight drivers of marine degradation have to be properly coordinated. Marine ecosystems do not have borders, so regional cooperation is essential to ensure sustainable management. A comprehensive initiative that puts marine resources at the centre and finances various ways of sustainably managing these, would make a huge difference to life in the ocean, fighting poverty and increasing food security. Important lessons for such an initiative can be drawn from the International Climate and Forest Initiative, which has established a series of partnerships with key forest countries and contributed to significant advances in the development of the REDD+ mechanism under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The funding regime provides results-based, predictable and adequate funding streams for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Last autumn the Norwegian government launched a new programme called Fish for Development. The aim is to achieve a more strategic approach to development cooperation in the areas of fisheries and aquaculture. The overall objective is to reduce poverty through improved food security, sustainable management and profitable business activities. There is political will, both in government as well as in Parliament, to step up Norway's international contributions in this field. But for Fish for Development to be successful it needs to be more broadly defined to tackle the most important threats to marine life and be scaled up substantially.

We see no reason why Norway, as one of the world's largest fishing nations, should not take the global lead in the fight for healthy and biodiverse oceans. Norway is seen as being cutting-edge in the field of marine resources and fisheries management, and has been an important country when it comes to gathering knowledge and building competency in African countries through programmes such as the EAF Nansen Project.

Now is the time to take our efforts to the next level. If we want to save both people and the planet, a great place to start is in the oceans.