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Rafael Sardá is an academic collaborator at Esade, and a senior scientist at the Spanish National Council of Research.

The Earth could have been called Planet Ocean. In fact, oceans are our planet’s largest life support system. About 70% of the planet’s surface is covered by water, and 97% of this water is found in the oceans. In addition, ocean currents govern the world’s weather and its dependent biomes. For centuries, a planetary equilibrium in the ocean’s overturning circulation (the flow of warm, salty water in upper layers of the ocean, and the opposite flow of cold water in lower layers) created stable conditions for the atmosphere and made life possible below water – and on land. Today, that equilibrium has been broken: the growing emission of greenhouse gases, primarily due to human activities, has interrupted the energy balance, heating the oceans and altering their ability to absorb these gases. In turn, this upended equilibrium has modified the overturning circulation, altering the transport of nutrients with the consequent loss of life. It has also increased the oceans’ acidification to a degree that can potentially collapse rich ecosystems and entire habitats.

Although the oceans seem an infinite resource, the reality is profoundly different. Growing scientific evidence shows that the health of the oceans is at great risk and that marine ecosystems are already subject to extreme stress from pollution and overexploitation. The demand for ocean resources is expected to continue growing, furthering expectations for oceans as drivers of human development and a source of food, materials, and space. Reversing the oceans’ further degradation and preserving their health is paramount due to the many irreplaceable benefits that they provide. As a result, there is an ongoing battle for their conservation and sustainable use. 

But, enough of the bad news. A recent study strongly supports the idea that we can have clean waters and rebuild marine life. In fact, its authors argue that we can substantially recover the abundance, structure, and function of marine life by 2050 if we mitigate major pressures, including climate change. The challenge now is how to diminish these pressures.

To spark this regenerative process, in 2015, the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development defined Sustainable Development Goal 14 (“Live Below Water”), a goal in which healthy and productive oceans are the principal consideration. The main objective of SDG 14 is “to conserve and sustainably use the world’s oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. To facilitate this goal in keeping with science-informed policy, the UN also proclaimed this decade (2021-2030) as the decade of ocean science for sustainable development. The aim is to establish the principles to reverse the cycle of degradation and unite ocean stakeholders worldwide behind a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries in improving conditions for ocean sustainability.

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The various regions of the world have reacted differently to these initiatives. Europe set a good example by implementing an ocean agenda with detailed actions in three priority areas: a) improving the international ocean governance framework; b) reducing human pressure on oceans and creating the conditions for a sustainable blue economy; and c) strengthening international ocean research and data.

The international ocean governance framework is based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations concerning the use of the world’s oceans. It distinguishes between the High Seas –64% of the oceans’ surface and 95% of their volume–, that is, all marine waters not owned by countries, and coastal countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ). UNCLOS argues that countries need to show greater ambition and proactively manage their EEZ by improving their spatial planning to achieve sustainable goals. Today, the UN and the High Seas Alliance (HSA) are committed to working with countries and other actors towards the adoption and ratification of a comprehensive treaty to protect the world’s oceans beyond national jurisdictions (30% of these waters by 2030). Polar regions deserve special attention: while Antarctica is subject to environmental protection in keeping with the Antarctic Treaty and a commission was created to preserve its marine living resources, the Arctic is at risk. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has promoted an Arctic Ocean Network of Priority Areas for Conservation to define stable measures for the conservation of its icy-waters, while the UN and industries in line with SDG 14 have prepared an Arctic Ocean Action Plan.

To reduce existing man-made pressures on marine ecosystems, a common ambitious plan with large collaborative agreements and significant changes in all industrial sectors will be needed. Business transformations in both ocean economy (extractive renewable non-renewable, and operational sectors) and in on-land industries that are indirectly pressuring the oceans are necessary to reverse this situation. A sustainable ocean economy (the so-called ‘blue economy’) will only emerge when economic activity is in line with ocean ecosystems’ long-term capacity to support this activity and remain resilient and healthy. Thus, present activities must mitigate and significantly reduce the environmental risks of ecological damage, and illegal activities should be severely prosecuted. The blue economy must be a clear aspirational objective for 2030.

In the decade of ocean science, we will enhance research, launch new monitoring satellite and observational systems, and gather better knowledge of the high seas and their deepest waters. At the same time, we also have to promote greater ocean literacy: starting in elementary school, people need to know that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even some of the food we eat comes directly from the ocean. We are highly dependent on this life support system and we need to take care of it.

Our human footprint is threatening the health of the oceans due to cumulative man-made pressures. We need to radically diminish these pressures to have clean waters, rebuild marine life, and provide the long-term conditions for resilient and functional oceans. To achieve this, we need to undertake significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently underway. The present decade must be a period of radical transformation because what we do now will be crucial for the future of the oceans’ health. It will also be crucial for the future of our planet.