Oceans Are for Everyone


  • 2015•09•22

    Mary Frances Davidson


    Photo: NOAA, Creative Commons BY 2.0

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

    Whether you live on the coast, or on a landlocked mountaintop, the world’s oceans and seas impact your life. Oceans play a vital role in regulating the earth’s temperature and climate patterns, acting like a giant solar panel that soaks up heat from the sun and distributes it across the earth through a complex system of currents.

    The next time you take a deep breath of fresh air, thank an ocean. Tiny phytoplankton produce about half the oxygen on earth, and form the foundation of the ocean’s ecosystem. These small creatures are critical to the survival of larger species, including the fisheries resources that directly support the livelihoods of about 10% of the human population.

    Oceans cover roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface, and contain an estimated 50%–80% of life on our planet. But the reality is that we know more about the surface of the Moon and Mars than we do about the ocean floor.

    With the inclusion of goal #14 in the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community has taken an important step towards acknowledging the importance of oceans and seas, and the role they play in creating the “Future We Want”.

    The conservation of sensitive ocean ecosystems though establishment of Marine Protected Areas and careful management of marine resources for human consumption are not goals per se. Rather, management of the oceans provides the means to achieve fundamental goals of sustainable development. We need to manage fish stocks so that even the most vulnerable among us has access to quality food. We need to use ocean resources as a way to provide sustainable livelihoods so that societies and individuals can lift themselves out of poverty. We need to ensure that ecosystems essential for life on Earth continue to flourish and remain resilient.

    Despite the vital importance of oceans’ health for life on earth, the sad truth is that they are in trouble. Sensitive habits like coral systems and mangroves are under long-term threat, and roughly 80% of all researched fish stocks are either fully exploited or over-exploited, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

    Managing our natural wealth

    The benefits that people and societies derive from the oceans depend on how we manage them. Fisheries resources are renewable, but are under-managed and over-exploited in many developing countries. Excessive fishing pressure has both biological and economic consequences. Lack of appropriate policies and capacity to evaluate the health of the ecosystem and the status of fish stocks make it challenging to formulate and implement adequate management measures. This not only influences the stocks, but also the ability of people to increase the economic value of fish through appropriate handling, processing, and marketing.

    In the mid-1980s, developing countries accounted for less than 50% of world catches; today, they account for more than 75% (although the total world catch has stayed roughly the same). Overfishing of developed country stocks has been offset by the expansion of fisheries in developing countries, and increased trade in fish and fish products. So in a sense, the problem of overfishing has been exported, from the rich to the poor.

    At the same time, fish has become ever more important as a source of animal protein and various nutrients in the diets of people in poorer countries. Almost half the global catch comes from 25–30 million small-scale fishermen in developing countries; each fisherman contributes, on average, less than 1.5 tons per year. Another 75 million people make their living from processing and trading the catches; but poor handling and processing means that much of the nutritional (and potential income) value is lost.

    Measuring our success

    How will we know if we succeed? A set of strong and measurable indicators is needed.

    We should see communities that depend on fisheries thrive. We should see improved nutrition, and increased availability of fish and fisheries products. We should see reduced emissions from the fishing industry, and healthy ocean ecosystems.

    Appropriate data collection and management will be key to achieving goal #14. Ultimately, by setting a path towards the “Future We Want”, the SDGs will guide our priorities for the next 15 years.

    In 2030, when we look back on our progress toward achieving SDG #14, we must have quality data on our oceans, and on the communities that depend on them, that confirm the positive effects of improved management of the oceans and the seas. Otherwise, we will be forced to admit that we have been adrift on a sea of uncertainty rather than on course to reach a sustainable future.


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    Oceans Are for Everyone by Mary Frances Davidson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.