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Rio+20 Is Our Chance to Recognize the Benefits Healthy Oceans Have for People

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When President John Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, he issued the world a set of challenges. He said, "Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce."

The United States answered his challenge when it came to space exploration, but in many ways, we missed the mark on the oceans. It is only now, more than 50 years later, that the world is finally turning its collective attention to the other 70 percent of Earth which so dominates its appearance from space and affects every aspect of our survival.

This week, world leaders and delegates from over 190 nations are meeting in Rio de Janeiro to address the great challenges of sustainable development and build a new model of green growth in the coming century. One of the most important issues they are discussing is the state of our planet's oceans, and rightfully so; they are at the foundation of all that we do, and ocean health will determine the direction of our quality of life in the 21st century.

Right now, one billion people depend on fish for their main source of animal protein -- that's one out of every 7 people worldwide. Beyond the dependence on seafood as nourishment, the global seafood industry generates more than $190 billion annually and creates more than 350 million jobs. Closer to home, more than 2.5 million American jobs depend directly on the oceans and contribute $246 million to the U.S. GDP.

These goods and services which support our livelihoods, health, food security and cultural heritage represent our "natural capital" -- a critical, but as of yet, economically invisible pillar of sustainable development. In Rio, the key message my colleagues from Conservation International are trying to communicate is that the management of natural capital must be better accounted, valued and incorporated into decision-making as nations and businesses collaborate to build healthy green -- and blue -- economies that will continue to thrive well into the future.

The need for this development redesign has never been more urgent. Our planet will likely be home to over 9 billion people by 2050. Much of this increase will occur among the middle class with high consumption rates, and it is estimated that we will need twice the amount of food, water and energy by mid-century. With 925 million people already undernourished across the globe, we are at a tipping point with the management of our oceans if we plan to rely on them to provide sustenance forever.

As a society we are beginning to recognize that ocean ecosystems and health have been in a state of decline for quite some time, but we have not appreciated or acknowledged how this decline will affect future generations' access to food, livelihoods, safe coastal places to live, cultural identity and other benefits, including some we take for granted, such as oxygen.

Our oceans are being threatened by overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and the loss of biodiversity. In fact, the number of fish species collapsing as a result of overfishing has increased exponentially over the last 50 years. Over 87 percent of monitored marine stocks are now fully exploited, over exploited or even depleted, and 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean have been fished out.

One major reason for this is illegal and unregulated fishing, which accounts for up to one-quarter of the fish caught each year. It is creating a competitive disadvantage and loss of economic value for law-abiding nations and companies.

However, we now have the tools to track and reverse these troublesome trends. Over the last three years a group of the world's leading ocean experts, who I've been very fortunate to work with, have been developing the Ocean Health Index -- a tool to measure, country by country, the ability of marine ecosystems to thrive and support human well-being, including jobs and food.

This Index, which will launch later this year, recognizes that people are now part of the ocean ecosystem and defines a healthy ocean as one that sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future. Doing so requires a much more thoughtful and forward-looking partnership between people and oceans than we have achieved-to-date. But it's difficult to manage what you cannot measure, which is why accounting for and valuing natural capital from our oceans is so critical.

Given all that we now know, it is absolutely essential for us to choose a smarter path; one which collectively embraces more intelligent, effective management of our natural resources. The Ocean Health Index will measure our progress along this new path and also give insight into ways to improve its score. We want them to provide a catalyst for action so that countries, policymakers, scientists and individuals will have both the rationale and the information needed to make sound decisions about sustainable ocean health solutions.

The Ocean Health Index will provide humanity with an essential tool for assessing the state of our oceans and for taking dramatic action. As the world's leaders confront the hard facts of ocean management, I hope they will come together to secure a safe and healthy global ocean which will provide long-term benefits for humans everywhere -- from the United States to Australia to China -- while also protecting the astonishing diversity of marine life that makes it all possible.

What other choice do we have?

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