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3 things businesses can do to accelerate ocean health

Preserving marine life and restoring ocean health is good for business.

Preserving marine life and restoring ocean health is good for business. Image: Unsplash/Bart

Hanh Nguyen
Ocean Industries Lead, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

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  • The ocean is the world’s seventh-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product, but it is suffering from multiple stressors due to marine and terrestrial economic activities.
  • With recent historic commitments to conserve and restore the ocean, businesses must demonstrate leadership.
  • Companies can accelerate ocean health by pursuing joint advocacy, data stewardship and business transformation.

For thousands of years, humanity has relied on the ocean. Home to age-old practices like fishing and shipping and, more recently, to major industries such as oil and gas alongside offshore wind and cruise tourism, the value of the ocean is equivalent to the world’s seventh-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product.

Ocean-based industries are vital to many countries and shipping forms the backbone of global trade. Yet, these bounties of the blue economy are now at risk - as the ocean, from the Southern to the Arctic, is suffering from multiple stressors brought on by decades of overfishing, pollution, resource depletion and habitat degradation.

There is no denying that marine and terrestrial economic activities have contributed dramatically to ocean health decline, yet it is not too late to change course.

Companies can not only secure their long-term survival by understanding and minimizing their impacts on marine life, but they can also unlock a vast array of novel business opportunities associated with the restoration of ocean ecosystems.

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Here are three ways businesses can actively make a difference in accelerating ocean health:

1. Joint advocacy

The past 18 months have witnessed significant progress in ocean governance, with the conclusion of landmark international agreements that spell out concrete goals for ocean protection and regeneration.

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’s targets of conserving 30% of the world’s ocean and land by 2030 (also referred to as “30x30”) while restoring 30% of degraded ecosystems, as well as the High Seas Treaty that seeks to regulate international waters beyond national jurisdictions, represent the tireless efforts of many governments, organizations and individuals, including those of businesses.

In 2021, in the lead-up to the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), a call to action for policies that can turn the tide on nature loss was signed by more than 1,100 businesses, accounting for $4.7 trillion in combined revenues.

Having clear regulations and measures to govern marine resources is good for business, as it improves the physical conditions for industries to operate, ensures fair competition for responsible companies and encourages ocean tech innovation.

Studies found that sustainable management of the ocean could allow it to produce up to six times more food than it does today, improving livelihoods while providing an alternative to land-based animal protein, with potentially much lower environmental impacts.

Effective ocean governance does not only benefit industries with direct ocean dependency. The High Seas Treaty, for example, establishes the sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources that can lead to substantial advances in developing next-generation medicines.

As the world celebrates the recent multilateral ocean wins, businesses must continue working together with governments and civil society to shape policies and raise ambitions surrounding the ocean.

Coalitions such as the Friends of Ocean Action provide a platform for companies to participate in a multi-stakeholder process of driving change and scaling up innovative solutions for ocean health.

2. Data stewardship

The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) seeks to advance our knowledge about the ocean and how to manage it sustainably. Industry data has a big role here, as companies can collect data of significant scientific value during their operations, which would require otherwise expensive scientific excursions. Businesses should, therefore, collaborate with scientists to accelerate data stewardship through open platforms like those hosted by HUB Ocean or the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which helps make data accessible to all.

These data repositories could inform the development of decision-making tools that support businesses in protecting the ocean. For instance, the Marine LEFT tool, developed by Oxford University, can quickly synthesize global databases to provide biodiversity-relevant information in a particular marine environment. That would give companies operating or planning to operate in an area an overview of its ecological conditions and help them consider risk management and mitigation measures accordingly.

Whale Safe is another tool launched at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. It uses AI to forecast and alert ships to their likelihood of encountering a whale so that they can slow down and avoid collision, one of the leading causes of whales’ death. Active usage and collaboration from industries are greatly needed for these tools to function effectively. Whenever possible, companies should aim to disclose non-confidential information that enriches these global models of data sharing and contributes to a shared pool of knowledge to advance ocean solutions.

Investing in blue ecosystem restoration also opens up new revenue streams.

Hanh Nguyen, Project Specialist, Ocean Action Agenda

3. Business transformation

One of the most challenging yet effective ways for businesses to reverse ocean degradation is to transform their operations towards nature-positive pathways. According to Citi Global Insights, $4.3 trillion of annual assets are currently at risk due to direct industry impact on the marine environment. It goes beyond ocean boundaries, as many land-based economic activities, such as hospitality and retail, depend on marine resources and the smooth functioning of ocean-based industries.

Conversely, the Ocean Panel report found that every $1 invested in key ocean actions can deliver at least $5 in benefits over the next 30 years. Transforming operations and procurement to reduce negative impacts on marine ecosystems while investing in projects that conserve and regenerate biodiversity can bring about significant opportunities for companies.

For example, with overfishing a high-profile issue that resonates deeply with the public, seafood companies’ actions count. That includes modifying fishing gear to reduce bycatch – the catch of non-targeted species – committing to sustainable sourcing or adopting traceability technology to minimize seafood loss and waste. Such action heightens brand image and keeps companies ahead of the regulatory curve. They also increase efficiency and improve supply chain resilience.

Investing in blue ecosystem restoration also opens up new revenue streams. For instance, the market value of restoring mangroves can be offered as insurance-related payments for their flood risk reduction benefits or traded as blue carbon credits.

Financing institutions can support this nature-positive transition by mobilizing capital towards sustainable blue economy activities and rewarding businesses that conserve ocean ecosystems. They can follow the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles, which offer guidelines for investors seeking to fill the financing gap for the most under-invested sustainable development goal – goal 14: life below water.

The ocean sustains all life and offers immense benefits. With historic commitments made to accelerating ocean health, business must demonstrate their leadership in turning them into action with real impact.

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