The world’s oceans cover 70% of Earth and help create $1.5 trillion in economic activity every year, creating millions of jobs, providing food, and creating energy. Still, there’s a delicate balance between using our world’s oceans and guarding them against exploitation.
Achieving that balance is the reason for the establishment, in 2018, of a panel of world leaders whose goal was to work toward a “sustainable ocean economy,” culminating in a new report comprising detailed goals—such as curbing ocean warming, marine pollution, overfishing, and losses of habitat and biodiversity—and strategies to achieve them by 2025, in order to create a more sustainable, long-term “blue economy.” “Humanity’s well-being is deeply intertwined with the health of the ocean,” said Erna Solberg, Norway’s prime minister, and one of the founding panel members, in a press release. “For too long, we have perceived a false choice between ocean protection and production. No longer.”
Some of the goals include creating sustainable seafood industries by eliminating illegal and unregulated fishing, making renewable ocean energy sources cost-competitive and accessible, scaling up new industries such as the commercial farming of seaweed and algae, and taking a precautionary approach to seabed mining. The report also calls for measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect coastlines, and reduce ocean pollution.
There’s a strong emphasis on equity, in involving people of all nations that contribute to the ocean economy, especially those countries and indigenous people that are disproportionately affected by overproduction and climate change. “You can’t just prosper, prosper, prosper—fish more, drill more,” Lubchenco says. “You have to do it in a way that minimizes the impacts on the ecosystem and maximizes the equitable benefiting. And that you have to consider those in concert.”
A mix of 14 developed and developing nations from around the world made up the panel and have signed on to its recommendations. They include Norway, Portugal, Canada, Japan, Australia, Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, and island nations such as Fiji and Palau, for whom “the ocean is our past, our present, and our future,” in the words of Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau Jr. These 14 countries make up 40% of the world’s coastlines and control 30% of the world’s oceans, translating to 30 million square kilometers, or a mass the size of Africa. “They are indeed serious players in the ocean space,” says Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist and one of the panel’s expert cochairs, who was the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Obama. “Don’t underestimate the power of those 14.”
Each specific plan is backed by 19 different scientific studies, which were commissioned by the panel, and carried out by 250 scientific authors from 48 countries, in order for the plans to be credibly rooted in science. Estimates from some of the studies show that completing the suggested measures would produce 6 times more food, 40 times more renewable energy, and contribute a fifth of the greenhouse gas emission reductions required to stay within 1.5°C of warming.
Every member of the group has pledged to implement the holistic strategies in 100% of their nation’s waters by 2025, so as not to ignore certain individual ecosystems. They’re ambitious but practical, Lubchenco says. They’re also rooted in the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, specifically the “Life Below Water” goal, which aims to protect marine biodiversity from such problems as overfishing, pollution, and ocean acidification. On December 2 and 3, the U.N. is hosting Climate Dialogues, the first that’s specifically focusing on climate change and oceans, at which Lubchenco will be a keynote speaker.
Though 14 countries are spearheading the effort, the panel hopes other coastal and island nations will join in the coming years, so that, by 2030, 100% of ocean areas under national jurisdictions are sustainably managed. The U.S., as far as Lubchenco knows, was not yet officially invited to participate. “In the last four years, [it] has not been a very good partner internationally,” she says. “And, nor has it been concerned about things like the health of the ocean.” But she hopes the Biden administration and the incoming Congress will sign on—especially as the country emerges from the COVID-19 crisis and the government fulfills its promise to rebuild a more sustainable economy.