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If We Don't Help Our Ocean Soon, It Will Stop Helping Us

You don’t have to live on the coast to be drawn to the breathtaking sights and sounds of the ocean. As essential to life on earth as it has been for millennia, the ocean covers about 70 percent of the planet, dictates the weather, feeds billions of people, stores 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, and is home to an array of life, some of which hasn’t even been identified. This biodiversity provides the raw materials for the complex oceanic food web and is vital to a healthy, resilient ocean.

Numerous species of reef fish swim at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Source: James Watt/NOAA

Couple these facts with the realization that hundreds of millions of us work and play upon this shimmering blue canvas, and we have ample motivation to protect it.

Instead humankind is fueling the decline of marine biodiversity with a long list of assaults, including overfishing, warming seas and changing climate, illegal fishing, ocean acidification, toxic runoff, and colossal levels of plastic pollution and other debris. As a result, marine populations decreased nearly 50 percent between 1970 and 2012, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2015 “Living Blue Planet Report.” Nine out of 10 commercial species are over-exploited or fished to their limit. Illegal fishing accounts for up to 26 million tons of seafood every year, valued at $23.5 billion.

Whiting fish fill a hold on a vessel. The species, a smaller member of the cod family, is commonly used in frozen fish sticks. Source: Getty Images

So as the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity takes place this week, the global community faces a choice: Do we let our ocean continue its rapid deterioration or do we act to save it?

The answer is that we must save the ocean to save ourselves. And it’s clear how we can do that.

First, governments must create—and enforce—large, highly protected marine areas (MPAs). These reserves afford marine life a place to feed and breed free of external threats, such as fishing and seabed mining, and convey benefits far beyond their boundaries as fish and mammals travel to neighboring waters. MPAs also foster intact ecosystems that serve as buffers against the effects of ocean warming and help plants and animals weather the effects of global climate change.

Only about 3 percent of the ocean is safeguarded in MPAs, despite a 2014 call from the International Union for Conservation of Nature to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. Hitting that target would allow biodiversity to rebound, maximize the value of fisheries—in part by stemming or reversing the decline of individual fish stocks—and help the lifeblood of the planet continue to perform its many other critical roles, according to a review of 144 studies published in 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Letters.

Second, governments and other entities that manage and oversee fisheries should adopt a system known as ecosystem-based fishery management, designed to maintain ecosystems in a healthy, productive, and resilient condition so they can provide the services that both people and nature need. This requires basing catch limits and similar policies on both the health of the target species and how fishing would affect habitat and other marine life.

In areas for which the relevant data may be lacking, such as in the deep sea or parts of the Arctic Ocean recently opened by melting sea ice, policy should follow the precautionary principle: Err on the side of protection until experts have enough data to advise policymakers and fisheries managers.

Melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is allowing boats to reach some areas for the first time. Governments should refrain from allowing fishing in these places until scientific data show it can be done sustainably. Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

For example, the mesopelagic or “twilight zone” of the oceans—which extends from 200 to 1,000 meters below the surface—is among the least understood but potentially one of the most important parts of the sea. This zone is too deep for photosynthesis, but nevertheless teems with life and stores immense amounts of carbon dioxide, helping to regulate climate. According to a 2017 report in The Economist, some countries that have fished out their shallower waters are moving to open the mesopelagic region to fishing. But without a more complete understanding of this zone and the life within it, and science-based rules to govern these waters, the ocean’s decline will continue or even accelerate.

Despite the challenges faced by the ocean, there is some good news: A handful of countries are leading on marine conservation, including Canada, which in the past two years has created three MPAs—Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam in Nunavut, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs in British Columbia, and St. Anns Bank in Nova Scotia—and issued eight critical habitat protection orders to safeguard marine species, including beluga and North Atlantic right whales. Proposed amendments to the country’s Oceans Act, which could pass this summer, would streamline the process for designating MPAs and open the door for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Parliament to build their marine conservation legacy.

It’s often said that scientists have better maps of the surface of Mars than they do the sea floor. We still have much to learn about the ocean, but we have more than enough data to know that the only wise course forward is to act urgently—and together—to save it.

Tom Dillon leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international conservation work.

*This article was first published in Le Devoir.

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