June 8, 2020

On World Oceans Day, SDGs Remind Us of Ocean’s Role in Our Planetary Ecosystem

Proposed at the 1992 Earth Summit and officially recognized by the UN in 2008, World Oceans Day is a celebration of our shared ocean. On a planet that is mostly water, we are very reliant on the ocean, yet we can easily forget about the issues affecting it when we spend most of our time on solid ground.

World Oceans Day aims to increase the public’s ocean literacy, this year with a focus on the theme ‘Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean.’ World Oceans Day also shines a light on SDG 14 (life below water). The SDGs point to the interlinkages among  a truly sustainable Earth and ocean health.

Goal 14 requires the protection of aquatic ecosystems by preventing overfishing, reducing marine pollution, addressing ocean acidification, and conserving marine and coastal areas. The Goal also prioritizes the ocean’s impact on human lives, with targets to increase economic benefits to small island developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs) from the sustainable use of marine resources, and to provide access for small-scale fishers to marine resources and markets.

The SDGs remind us of the ocean’s crucial role in not only our ecosystem, but also our society. One of the most important resources the ocean provides us with is food, the subject of SDG 2 (zero hunger). Fish, shrimp, crabs, and even barnacles form the basis for many coastal diets worldwide. Ocean-based food products are further connected with SDG 8 on economic growth. Even foods that are not widely known as ocean products contain marine ingredients, such as  carrageenan, a stabilizing and thickening polysaccharide extracted from red algae (aka seaweed). The carrageenan industry is important in the economies of countries like the Philippines.

When it comes to the seafood industry, profit has too often taken priority over long-term sustainability. This has resulted in the drawing down of fish stocks faster than they can be replaced, which not only hurts the ocean’s ecosystem but has disastrous long-term effects for coastal economies. Without practices that prevent waste and competition, experts tell us that most fish stocks will be depleted by 2050. The implementation of sustainable consumption and production practices (Goal 12) are of the utmost importance for communities that rely on seafood for their livelihoods.

But the ocean provides us with much more than food. It allows us to travel, it is a source of renewable energy, it plays an important role in the production of pharmaceuticals, and its beaches are the main draw for many tourism industries around the world. The ocean is an important source of global economic output, most importantly in SIDS. Ocean sustainability issues differentially affect populations that rely on the sea, a factor that must be taken into account when implementing policies aiming to increase sustainability. The tourism industry has a lot to gain from sustainable policies in the long term, not only because clean and healthy coasts mean expanded profits, but also because rising water levels due to global warming put coastal regions at risk. But when countries depend heavily on tourism profits, it can be hard to act in a way that might dampen the emphasis on short-term profits.

With rising water levels, our life-giving ocean becomes life-taking. It forces people out of their homes and countries, creating issues of inequality. As climate change causes sea levels to rise and extreme weather events to happen with more frequency, the number of climate refugees will increase. This demands the facilitation of orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies, as detailed in Goal 10.

Despite being one of climate change’s most deadly weapons, the ocean also plays an important role in mitigating it. The ocean is full of microscopic organisms that act as primary producers of roughly half the earth’s carbon and 70% of our atmospheric oxygen. Some of these photosynthetic phytoplankton are extremely efficient when it comes to carbon sequestration and can reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon by using carbon dioxide (CO2) to build calcium carbonate shells. Haptophytic algae removes half of the  CO2 that results from the burning of fossil fuels, and produces secondary compounds that aid in light scattering and cooling. The ocean plays an important role in absorbing carbon emissions and is of great use as a resource for scientists searching for ways to combat climate change through biological innovation.

Kelp, a type of brown algae, is a good example of all the ecosystem services the ocean provides us with. Kelp is a significant CO2 sink, so it does its part in combating climate change. Giant kelp forests are found on cold, rocky coasts and provide protection for hundreds of species, perhaps most famously the charismatic sea otter. Not only is this a huge boon to biodiversity (SDG 15), but it also is great for the tourism industry. Kelp forests present an opportunity to entertain the public with cute animals while also educating them about ocean sustainability issues. Furthermore, kelp can be harvested sustainably by “mowing” the top like grass without any damage to the meristem. The resulting product is incredibly versatile; it is used to flavor many East Asian dishes as kombu, and its carbohydrates can be used as thickening agents, finding its way into toothpastes, pharmaceuticals, and shampoos.

We need water to live, and not just because we’re drinking it. All things that are living came from the ocean, and we are still reliant on it today. Without a healthy ocean, there is no sustainable future on this planet.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Ocean Conference and Ocean Youth Forum, which were expected to host central celebrations on World Oceans Day, have been postponed. However, a full virtual slate of speakers, panels, and presentations for World Oceans Day has been announced by the UN, in association with Oceanic Global. Interested parties can tune in to the many events from 10:00 am-5:00 pm EDT on 8 June at unworldoceansday.org/2020, to learn more about ways in which SDG 14 links to the other SDGs.

Source: sdg.iisd.org

This article was authored by Lydia Grund, IISD Generation 2030 intern and biology and environmental science and policy major, The College of William & Mary.