The Ocean: Our Overdrawn 'Global Bank Account'

09/21/2015 09:39 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2016

For generations, we believed the vastness and depths of the oceans left them beyond the capacity of humans to alter. In the last four decades, however, we've seen the fallacy of that thinking, as our actions have led to serious declines in ocean health.

Last week a new WWF report -- the Living Blue Planet Report -- revealed that we have lost nearly half of the oceans' wildlife in the last 40 years. Gone. In just one human generation, populations of marine fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles have declined by half. That is a staggering statistic.

This shouldn't be any surprise: we have treated the ocean like a global bank account where we make withdrawals of its resources year after year, without any deposits. And just like with a bank account, that pattern leads only to depletion and eventual bankruptcy.

Symptoms of a degraded ocean include declines of 50 percent in global fish stocks since 1970; dramatic declines in populations of the oceans' largest predators; half of global coral reefs lost over the last 30 years; mangroves and seagrass habitats shrinking; and an increase in the number of dead zones due to nutrient pollution -- from 49 in 1960 to more than 400 today.

If that is not disturbing enough, there are now measurable changes in sea levels, surface temperatures, salinity and the pH of ocean water due to absorption of atmospheric heat and the deposition of carbon in the oceans. The ocean's fundamental chemistry is changing faster than it has over the past 65 million years.

The news is depressing for sure, but we can't bury our heads in the sand or admit defeat. It is our actions that are driving these declines, and we can most certainly do something about them. There are solutions and there is no more time to wait.

Two upcoming global events can set a new course for our ocean's future. This month, the UN General Assembly will finalize its Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years. The goals -- which include a stand-alone goal on oceans -- could be an organizing framework for the concerted, international action we need for ocean conservation.

The oceans goal contains the right targets to conserve and sustainably use ocean resources. But it is essential that these targets to address habitat destruction, over-harvesting, illegal fishing, and marine pollution are accompanied by specific implementation plans and the concrete investments needed to make them a reality.

In December, at the UN climate conference in Paris, we can address the cause of the existential threat to our oceans -- carbon pollution. The ocean absorbs vast amounts of our carbon-dioxide pollution, as well as some 90 percent of the heat to date resulting from the greenhouse effect. This has two major effects. First is that the ocean is warming, expanding, sea ice is melting, and sea levels are rising. Second is that the ocean is acidifying, as it absorbs carbon. These two major effects threaten the foundations of life in the oceans, are changing weather patterns, and resulting in the loss of vital habitats, such as coral reefs. We must leave Paris with a strong climate deal that will slash the emissions driving the climate and ocean crisis.

WWF calculated that the oceans' assets are worth $24 trillion. Compared to the world's top 10 economies, the ocean would rank seventh, with annual goods and services worth $2.5 trillion. Not quantified in this report were basic life-support functions the oceans provide, such as half of the oxygen we breathe and regulation of the planet's climate and its water cycles.

The world's leaders must act on these opportunities to prioritize the actions and investments that will help our oceans recover. During the UN Sustainable Development Summit this month, there will be global attention on the ocean. The realities of the ocean's declining health need to be front and center during the ocean-goal discussion -- so much of our future depends on its recovery.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 14.

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