A healthy ocean needs safe havens for fish, whales, dolphins, corals, and other treasures of the sea. Marine protected areas (MPA) provide ocean life and their habitats refuge from human impacts and also allow depleted marine resources to recover. Many MPAs also serve as living laboratories – critical to scientific research and discoveries that benefit humankind. Effectively managed MPAs support the blue economy by helping to sustain fish stocks and bolstering tourism.
Despite these significant benefits, only three percent of the ocean is part of an MPA, and less than one percent is fully protected in a marine reserve. That’s a tiny percentage when you consider how much we depend on the ocean to support life on Earth. It provides food for billions of people, generates over half the oxygen we breathe, and even regulates our weather and climate.
The United States is committed to effectively managed MPAs as a key component of safeguarding ocean health and sustainability. MPAs cover about 32 % of U.S. marine waters (3,930,000 square kilometers). This includes 395,000 sq km of fully protected no-take reserves – about 3 % of U.S. waters. We strongly support and encourage efforts by other nations around the world to develop and implement science-based and effectively managed MPAs.
To date the three Our Ocean conferences have generated commitments valued at over $9.2 billion to protect our ocean and committed to protect 9.9 million square kilometers (3.8 million square miles) of ocean – an area the size of the United States.
The world has agreed to a target of conserving at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, including through effectively managed protected areas, by 2020. Through the Our Ocean conferences, we seek to help achieve and even surpass this goal.
Our ocean plays a key role in regulating the Earth’s weather and climate.
The ocean has absorbed about 30% of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This has helped limit global climate change, but at a high price – ocean waters are 26% more acidic than in pre-industrial times. This increased acidity weakens the shells of sea creatures and the skeletons of coral reefs.
The ocean has also absorbed over 90 % of the additional heat in the Earth system since the 1970s. This has helped limit global average temperature rise, but again at a high price. Ocean waters are warmer, which affects the distribution of marine species and the health of marine ecosystems, while also contributing to sea level rise. Sea ice and glaciers are melting around the world, exacerbating sea level rise. By the end of the 21st century, sea levels are on track to rise at least another 1 to 4 feet, affecting the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities.
The pace of these changes is quickening, making it difficult for marine life and coastal communities to adapt. Coral reefs and polar ecosystems are especially vulnerable. We already see differences in the ranges, activities, and populations of many marine species in response to climate change.
The impacts of these changes are already clear – fishermen working harder in search of a catch, coastal communities awash at high tide, coral bleaching around the world. Ocean acidification, ocean warming, and sea-level rise threaten economic livelihoods, food sources, the biodiversity of the ocean, the integrity of coastal areas, tourism, and recreation.
There is much we can do – and are doing – to minimize the impacts of climate change on our ocean and to adapt to those effects that are unavoidable. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally will be critical to this effort, and the commitments countries have made in the Paris Agreement are a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.
The protection and restoration of marine ecosystems and coastal habitats, such as mangroves and wetlands, can both sequester additional CO2 and increase the resilience of these areas to rising temperatures and extreme weather events. Coastal zone planning can help reduce the expected effects of sea level rise, while careful fisheries management can help adapt to shifts in species populations and ranges. To be effective, these responses require coordinated action and commitments from governments and individuals around the globe.
Fish stocks play a vital role in food security, providing nutrition and a source of income for billions of people. The livelihoods of 10-12 percent of the world’s population – that’s over 870 million people – depend on fisheries and aquaculture. And over three billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as a significant source of animal protein. Fisheries are a pillar of the global economy.
However our fisheries are threatened by unsustainable fishing. Lack of scientific data, poor management, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing reduce the long-term potential of fisheries to provide food and jobs. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, just over 30 percent of the world’s assessed fish stocks are overfished and being harvested unsustainably. Another 58 percent of fish stocks are being fished at or near their sustainable maximum and cannot support expanded harvest. All fish stocks, and especially these overfished and fully fished stocks, require scientifically-based, effective, and precautionary management to ensure their long-term sustainability.
The Our Ocean conference will examine the steps that fisheries managers need to take to reduce, and ultimately end, overfishing and mitigate the adverse impacts of fishing on the broader marine environment. Some options include: setting fisheries rules on the basis of sound science, monitoring and controlling fishing activity, enforcing meaningful penalties on violators, and building capacity for developing nations to fulfill their commitments.
Governments must also consider ways to combat IUU fishing, which costs the global economy billions of dollars each year. One of the most effective and cost efficient means to do so is by joining and implementing the FAO’s Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing. The Port State Measures Agreement requires Parties to refuse port entry or use by fishing vessels from another country that is known or suspected to have engaged in IUU fishing. Strong and effective implementation of the Agreement will ensure consistent enforcement measures to fight IUU fishing in ports around the globe. It will also improve coordination among countries, thereby preventing loopholes, weak points, and miscommunications that can be taken advantage of by illegal fishers.
At the 2015 Our Ocean Conference, Secretary Kerry announced a new high priority global initiative – Safe Ocean Network – to combat IUU fishing through enhanced collaboration, cooperation, and information sharing among parties. This global initiative will use a variety of tools to strengthen detection, enforcement, and prosecution of illegal fishing and related criminal activity at sea. In particular, it will advance the use of existing and emerging “maritime domain awareness” technologies to combat IUU fishing.
Pollution from a variety of sources is choking our ocean. An estimated 80 percent of marine pollution originates on land. Growing populations in coastal regions place increasing pollution pressure on coastal and marine ecosystems.
Nutrient pollution comes from diverse sources, including agricultural runoff and sewage and wastewater discharges. It overloads marine environments with high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients, which can produce large algal blooms. The decomposition of these algae after they die consumes oxygen. This creates hypoxic, or oxygen depleted, “dead zones” where fish and other marine life cannot thrive. An estimated 500 dead zones now exist in the world and many more areas suffer adverse effects of high nutrient pollution.
Marine debris – trash and other solid material that enters the ocean – threatens wildlife and marine habitats, presents health and safety concerns for humans, and imposes costs to society. Plastic waste, including packaging, consistently makes up a significant proportion of all marine debris. It does not biodegrade and is consumed by marine life. Preventing trash from entering the ocean is difficult due to the many sources, including poor trash management by communities and waste facilities, littering, and municipal storm sewers carrying trash in rainwater runoff. Effective prevention strategies will require changes in the behavior of businesses, governments, and individuals.
The Our Ocean conference will highlight best practices and innovative efforts around the world to address these problems, in particular ways to stop pollution from entering the marine environment in the first place. For marine debris, these include improving waste management and recycling, as well as reducing packaging and finding new biodegradable and recyclable materials. For nutrient pollution these include more efficient use of fertilizers, improved wastewater management, and techniques to minimize nutrient run-off.