SECOND EDITION – Updated May 2013

Every second breath we take comes from the ocean. Billions of people rely on our oceans for their food and for employment. In return, we are plundering the oceans of fish, choking them with pollution and altering them forever with the impacts of human-induced climate change.

Our oceans give us life

Once seen as boundless, the world’s oceans are finite and the marine life they hold can indeed be exhausted. Roughly 80% of the large predatory fish in our oceans have been fished out, and coral reefs are fast disappearing. Soon our oceans will be unable to recover. The 3rd UN Global Biodiversity Outlook in 2010 warned that unless “radical and creative action” is taken quickly, our oceans will collapse.

Humankind has set sail on a wrong course, harming our very source of prosperity. As technology has improved, so ocean life has disappeared faster and faster, and fishing fleets have moved further away from the coast in search of decreasing numbers of fish. The
international waters of the high seas – areas once seen as too far, too deep and too difficult to exploit – are now in peril.

Threats to the world’s oceans

Overfishing, pirate fishing, and destructive and unsustainable fishing methods are some of the main causes of ocean destruction and the collapse of fish populations. Giant factory ships are using state-of-the-art equipment to locate and literally vacuum entire schools of fish out of the water. These industrial fishing fleets target one species at a time, deplete it and then turn to another species, threatening the very future of our oceans’ ability to sustain life on Earth.

Rising temperatures and ocean acidification are the twin threats to ocean life resulting from the increased levels of carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels. We are witnessing wide-scale coral bleaching and increases in invasive species due to climate change.

Pollution is widespread throughout our oceans. All sorts of human-generated pollutants are degrading the marine environment, including those discharged from factories on land, pesticides and nutrients from agriculture, sewage, plastics, toxic chemicals and oil resulting from spills, and even radioactive discharges from nuclear power stations situated near the coast.

Without clear rules and regulations to govern deep-sea mining and its potential impacts on marine life, there is concern that irreparable harm may be inflicted on our oceans. Deep-sea mining companies are most interested in exploiting those areas of the seabed covered in polymetallic nodules and hydrothermal vents. Unfortunately, extracting the valuable deposits associated with these vents is likely to harm the rich and unique ocean life that are often found living in these little-known deep-sea environments.

The search for marine genetic resources found in the organisms living in the deep sea is another activity that is unregulated and could lead to the destruction of rare marine species and habitats.

A lack of political will has left huge gaps in the way we manage our oceans, causing a “Wild West” mentality in oceans governance.

What can be done?

The poorest people on our planet will be impacted by the changes happening to the oceans the soonest and the hardest. But, ultimately, we all will suffer the consequences. Ocean resources will increasingly become a source of conflict unless clear rules are put in place to ensure the fair use of our oceans. There may still be time to reverse the damage we have caused to our oceans, but it requires action be taken now.

Oceans in the Balance [PDF]