Our Fate Is Tied to Our Ocean

06/08/2015 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

It's not an exaggeration to say that we depend upon the ocean for our very existence. It regulates our climate and our weather. It generates half of the oxygen we breathe. It provides food and income for billions of people. Covering almost three-quarters of the planet, the mighty ocean is -- without a doubt -- a natural resource like no other. Our fate is inextricably tied to the ocean's fate and the ocean is in trouble.

Many of the world's fish stocks are depleted and continue to be overfished. Runoff and debris are choking our waters. The very chemistry of the ocean is changing, becoming more acidic because of the carbon we are pumping into the air. That's the bad news. The good news is these problems can be solved. Fixing them, however, will require significant and sustained action by all of us -- individually and together.

Ocean issues have come to the center of the world stage in the year since Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the first Our Ocean conference. That conference spurred action by heads of state, businesses, scientists, philanthropists, and NGOs to protect fish, keep plastic out of the ocean, and measure ocean acidification.

As part of this wave of action, President Obama expanded the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. Gabon, the United Kingdom, Palau, and the Bahamas, among others, have recently committed to establishing new MPAs. We have a global goal of protecting 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Working closely with other governments and NGOs, we are also exploring new technologies to monitor and enforce fishing bans in MPAs to ensure that these MPAs safeguard the ocean as intended.

We are also developing a system to keep illegally caught seafood out of the United States by tracking it throughout the supply chain -- from harvest or farm to market. Because the United States imports about 90 percent of the seafood we consume and because we are one of the largest importers of seafood in the world, this traceability program should lead to a significant crackdown on illegal fishing around the globe. We are also advocating for entry into force of the Port State Measures Agreement, a new international treaty that would block illegally caught seafood from entering the stream of commerce in countries around the world. These actions will help level the playing field for all those countries and fishers who follow the rules and work hard to sustainably manage our ocean resources.

Overfishing isn't the only threat to marine life. At the same time, we are taking too many fish out of the ocean, we are putting too much plastic waste into it. Plastic products are the ultimate irony. Many are created for a single, short-term use, and then they live on for centuries as trash. And when not managed properly, plastic waste inevitably finds its way into our waterways, and ultimately the ocean. In 2010, an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean -- enough to line up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline in the world. Experts estimate that by 2025 there could be one ton of plastic in the ocean for every three tons of fish. Plastic entangles sea creatures and damages important habitats like coral reefs. It breaks down into non-biodegradable microplastics that are eaten by fish and then eaten by people.

Plastic waste in the ocean is a problem we know how to solve. We need to reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce; improve systems for waste collection and management; and reuse and recycle plastics whenever possible. Waste-to-energy projects and recycling innovations hold great promise. Discarded fishing nets are being recycled into skateboards and jeans. Companies are looking at ways to reduce plastic packaging in the near term and in the long term create a "circular economy" where all the parts of a product and its packaging can be reused.

Besides adding plastic waste into the ocean, we are also adding carbon, which is changing the ocean's chemistry. The ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which has caused the ocean to be about 26 percent more acidic than it was in pre-industrial times. The rapid rate of carbon dioxide uptake by the ocean means that its chemistry is changing 10 times faster than at any other time in the past 50 million years.

Ocean acidification has the potential to undermine dramatically the growth, behavior, and survival of numerous marine organisms, including oysters, clams, urchins, corals, and calcareous plankton. In collaboration with partners worldwide, we are working to increase monitoring of ocean acidification, and help shellfish farmers address the negative impacts that are already affecting their industries. Our efforts to achieve an ambitious, durable international agreement at the United Nations climate meeting in Paris later this year, and the stated intention of the United States to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels in 2025, will contribute substantively to protecting these resources and the businesses and people that depend on them.

Although we are making progress to address the challenges the ocean faces, there is much more to be done. The world will come together again in October when Chile hosts the next Our Ocean conference and we will keep up the momentum for action.

Protecting the ocean is not just a job for governments. Whether you live on the coast or thousands of miles from the nearest beach, each of us needs to take action to keep the ocean healthy. Carrying a reusable grocery bag, eating only sustainable seafood, and biking to work to reduce your carbon footprint can make a big difference when millions of us each do our part. Let's all join together for our ocean -- not just on World Oceans Day, but every day.