This article is adapted from a keynote speech to G7 Ocean and Environment Ministers in Halifax, Canada, on 20 September 2018.

Fighting for the ocean is one of the greatest and defining challenges of our age.

Our relationship with the ocean is at a crossroads. Humanity has a clear choice: business as usual, with continuing ocean decline that will harm every area of human development and wellbeing; or deep-seated change in our behaviour, priorities and investments in order to balance ocean protection with our socio-economic goals.

It really is a case of sink or swim.

There are three main reasons why we are at a turning point - and there are three highly-achievable steps that can set us on a course for securing a healthy, productive ocean that supports wealthy, sustainable economies.

The time is right for change, first of all, because human exploitation of the ocean is causing immense, and in some cases irreversible, damage. A third of fish stocks are unsustainably harvested, we are choking our seas with plastic and agricultural run-off, and our carbon emissions are causing unprecedented warming and acidification. The situation is critical.

 The oceans provide us with so much more than food
The oceans provide us with so much more than food
Image: National Ocean Service, US Department of Commerce

Secondly, thanks to incredible progress in science and technology, we now know what damage we are doing, and, increasingly, understand the extent to which we rely on the ocean – not only for food, transport and recreation, but as the world’s greatest carbon sink, sheltering us from the impacts of climate change by absorbing 30% of our carbon and 90% of the heat we produce.

Ignorance, or the claim of more pressing priorities, have ceased to be an excuse.

Thirdly, there has been an explosion of interest in the ocean, by governments, by business and among the general public. Just five years ago, when the recommendations of the Global Ocean Commission were launched, one of its goals was to have a Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean. Now it seems impossible this was ever in question. We have a UN Envoy for the Ocean, UN Ocean conferences, and top billing at major gatherings like the G7.

We also have the Friends of Ocean Action brought together by the World Economic Forum, the Special Envoy for the Ocean and the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden to fast track solutions in support of SDG14; and then the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which brings together 12 heads of government who are committed to developing, catalysing and supporting solutions for Oocean health and wealth in policy, governance, technology and finance.

And it is the G7 and these other bodies that can make the difference - who can help turn this trifecta of opportunity into a new age of ocean action.

The ocean is open for business as never before – but we need leaders and governments to take bold decisions that lead to ocean health and wealth.

We must seize the chance to build a sustainable blue economy and develop innovative blue solutions to the world’s great challenges: climate change, food security, renewable energy and regional security.

So, how do we get there?

There are three immediate and achievable steps that will set us on the right course. First, advancing and applying marine science and sharing it with less-developed states; second, putting an end to illegal fishing; and third, extending protection to vulnerable, pivotal ocean areas.

The ocean is a highly complex ecosystem, built on countless interactions and dependencies. It is imperative that interventions to restore and maximize the value of the ocean be based on the best available science – and that it is made available to decision-makers everywhere.

Luckily, we are living in an era of discovery in marine science. New technologies and methods are allowing scientists to explore previously unreachable places. New studies are revealing more about the links between the ocean and our climate, and about how dependent we are on ocean resources and services for our very survival.

But, studying the ocean is an expensive and exclusive business, and much of it – especially the more remote and deeper zones - remains under-investigated. Only about 5% of the ocean has been thoroughly studied, and there are still vast unknowns and uncertainties about emerging challenges like acidification, melting polar ice and the impact of microplastics.

There are also fundamental gaps in our socio-economic knowledge that can hinder effective decision-making. In particular, there is a chronic lack of information about the role of women in the fisheries sector, where their work is often unrecognized, marginalized and invisible – even though an estimated 50% of fisheries workers around the world are women. We need to gather gender-disaggregated data to support policy-making that protects this vital work force.

The G7 can work together to put some serious wind in the sails of this age of ocean discovery. This is the next great frontier in human enlightenment, and one that must be pursued in the spirit of collaboration: we must coordinate, not duplicate.

Let’s increase commitments to marine research, lead multi-national initiatives, and create centres for ocean science and innovation attracting the best experts from around the world.

The G7 can make a global difference by incentivizing, expanding and enhancing the availability of marine science and data for practical decision-making and sharing its benefits. Public and private investments in research that helps solve ocean challenges will generate returns well into the future – but it does require investment now.

The fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – the second area where the G7 can play a decisive role – is a prime example of where a combination of science, technology and international cooperation hold the key to success.

It is well known that illegal fishing is a global threat to food security and small-scale fisheries, and that it robs 26 million tonnes of fish from our seas and $23.5 billion from our economies.

Most illegal operators care as little for the marine environment as they do for the people who work for them. Reports of human rights abuses and links to organized crime are rife. We must mobilise the combined force of the world’s governments and multilateral institutions to quash this scourge.

We have the tools to make illegal fishing history. In 2016, the FAO Port State Measures Agreement entered into force as a binding international treaty aimed at denying illegal fishers access to ports and markets. Advances in science and technology allow real-time tracking and monitoring of vessels. More and more seafood retailers are on board. Now we need the combined political will to get the job done – and the world’s wealthiest and most influential states can lead the way.

The Port State Measures Agreement needs to be scrupulously implemented and ratified by all states. We should also lead by example by enforcing strong national seafood traceability standards, and create partnerships with developing countries to accelerate the transfer of vessel monitoring technologies to regions where the IUU fishing risk is highest.

This is a cross-border problem that needs open source solutions.

IUU fishing has no place in our ocean, in our ports or on our plates.

Third, and perhaps most urgently, we need to protect the most vulnerable and precious areas of our ocean, to allow biodiversity to replenish and build resilience.

For decades, scientists have been calling for marine protected areas to cover at least 20% of the ocean. The world met them halfway with the Aichi Biodiversity Target to achieve 10% protection by 2020. But, just two years from the deadline, still only 7% of the ocean is protected.

There is still time to meet the Aichi target by 2020 and to give an unequivocal sign that the world is serious about protecting our oceans.

The G7 states command vast areas of the ocean in their Exclusive Economic Zones and have huge influence in regional bodies, including in the Antarctic and Arctic.

Beyond nations’ territorial waters, the high seas languish in a totally unprotected, lawless state, exposing our greatest natural heritage to unchecked exploitation. But, here too, we have an immense opportunity for change.

States have just begun formal negotiations of a new High Seas Treaty, which is intended to include agreements on how to protect and share the bounty of the sea bed and create mechanisms for establishing marine protected areas on the high seas.

Creatures and substances found in the deep sea are being investigated for treating cancer, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer's Disease, and could even provide a solution to the global crisis of antibiotic resistance.

The new treaty is essential if we are to explore these still mysterious resources and ensure the benefits are equitably shared among the global community.

The G7 nations should champion a strong High Seas Treaty, and proactively push for it to be agreed by its 2020 deadline. A chance to protect half the planet is not to be squandered.

The next two years promise to be a turning point for ocean recovery – if we raise our ambitions and make the right choices. With these three steps forward – scientific advancement and solidarity, eliminating IUU fishing and expanding ocean protection – the G7 can use its combined power as a force for positive change on a planetary scale that will be felt at a very human level.

Many of us working in the ocean world can already feel the winds filling the sails of change, and eagerly await mobilization of more concrete actions, policies and partnerships for a healthy, and wealthy ocean.