If we don’t protect the ocean, humanitarian disaster awaits

The ocean is the world’s largest ecosystem and the source of oxygen and climate regulation for our entire planet

The ocean is the world’s largest ecosystem and the source of oxygen and climate regulation for our entire planet Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Isabella Lövin
Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action, Ministry of the Environment of Sweden
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Overfishing and climate change threaten the vital food supply of more than one billion people. They are the driving forces behind the deteriorating health of the ocean, which is the world’s largest ecosystem and the source of oxygen and climate regulation for our entire planet, not to mention jobs and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people.

If we do not take urgent action to restore and protect our ocean we will soon face an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. We can fix these problems. The ocean has an immense capacity to heal itself, and there are proven methods available for us to help it.

On World Oceans Day, we need to recognize that the situation is critical, and strengthen our commitment to reversing ocean decline. The ocean belongs at the heart of the global political agenda. It holds the key to overcoming some of our most pressing challenges, such as combating climate change and producing enough food sustainably for 10 billion people by the middle of the 21st century. Saving our ocean is a question of human survival.

We already have a globally agreed plan for how to restore and protect our ocean. In 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including 17 global goals. Sustainable Development Goal 14 ‘Life below water’ and its ten targets specify what must be done to improve ocean health. We also have the Paris Agreement, in which nations pledge to curtail their carbon emissions and keep the global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius, as well as the 1400 voluntary commitments made at the first-ever UN Ocean Conference, which was convened by Sweden and Fiji in 2017.

The projected warming per year (indicated by the color-coded bar on the right) of the world’s marine protected areas (indicated by the black dots). Image: UNC- Chapel Hill

What we don’t have is a lot of time. I urge world leaders to muster and exercise the political will to achieve these goals, to invest in ocean solutions and to encourage businesses and other stakeholders to join in. The G7 are meeting this week in Canada, and the ocean is on the schedule. I hope that the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful nations will seize this opportunity to take decisive steps to avert disaster. Addressing the following four key areas would help put us on track.


The UN estimates that fish provide about three billion people with 20% of their animal protein, rising to close to 100% in many islands and coastal regions. Approximately one in 10 people rely on fisheries or aquaculture for their income. Small-scale fisheries are responsible for 90% of all fishing jobs in developing countries. But decades of overfishing, unsustainable fishing practices and pirate fishing have put this life-giving resource under extreme pressure.

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The host of this year’s G7, Canada, knows only too well how devastating the outcome can be, having suffered the total loss of its Grand Banks cod fishery, along with tens of thousands of jobs. Image a similar scenario in a vulnerable, developing country. The results would be calamitous: widespread malnutrition, unemployment, insecurity and forced migration. The warning signs are already there, exacerbated by warming seas forcing some fish stocks to migrate out of reach of local fisheries.

So, what’s to be done? In short, we need to implement international agreements to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). The Port State Measures Agreement is designed to prevent vessels engaged in IUU fishing from using ports and landing their catches. We need to harness and share the latest surveillance and tracking technology to bring illegal fishers to justice and ensure that our fish are caught sustainably. There should also be a new push at the WTO to agree to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies. If the G7 put their weight behind - and invested in - these measures, two of the biggest obstacles to achieving sustainable fishing could be removed.

Climate change

Secondly, we must realize that the fight against ocean decline and climate change go hand in hand. The ocean is our best ally in the battle to curb climate change, absorbing more than 93% of our excess heat and about a quarter of our carbon emissions. But we don't know how long it will be able to do this for, as its chemical and physical properties fundamentally change under the weight of our fossil fuel addiction.

The solution lies in a combination of rapid, deep cuts in carbon emissions, and in regenerating the coastal wetland ecosystems that lock away almost a million tonnes of carbon every day. This "blue carbon" has been largely overlooked. There is huge untapped potential if we support schemes that incentivize its conservation.


We need to take action on many levels to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean. Every year, eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. This is equivalent to one garbage truck of plastic being dumped into it every minute. Plastic debris and microplastics are transported by ocean currents across borders. They are found everywhere, even on the remotest shores of uninhabited islands, in the Arctic ice, in the deep ocean and in a broad array of marine organisms. Improved waste management is urgently needed, but it won’t be enough.

We need to be smarter about plastic, adopting a more circular economy model. We need to drastically reduce our use of single-use plastic items, and we need to phase out microbeads in cosmetics and other products, where they can be substituted with non-harmful alternatives.

Marine protected areas

My last recommendation is related to both fishing and climate change. It’s to expand the world’s network of marine protected areas, first by meeting the SDG14 pledge to protect 10% of the ocean by 2020. Today we are at about 7%. A big push could give us something to celebrate in 2020, and help the ocean build its resilience to climate change and give marine species space to replenish. The negotiations on developing an international legally binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction are important in this regard.

I am proud of Sweden’s commitments to a healthier ocean. We have protected 13% of our national waters and are looking to expand further. With our EU partners, we are advancing tough measures against illegal fishing and have been working for decades to bring our fish stocks back to sustainable levels. Moreover, we have banned microbeads in cosmetics. Our goal is to become one of the first fossil-free welfare nations in the world.

We need to come together in solidarity to save our ocean and invest in its future. The ocean may seem big - almost infinite - but with seven billion people on the planet, our individual share is only one fifth of a cubic kilometre of ocean. That share is shrinking. If we don’t act now, collapses in fisheries and marine ecosystems will trigger humanitarian disasters around the world. Vulnerable coastal and island people will suffer first. But ultimately, we all need a vibrant ocean to keep afloat.

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Related topics:
OceanFuture of the EnvironmentClimate Change
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