Warning lights are flashing for the ocean now - let’s chart a new course

22 septiembre 2020

Written by Dona Bertarelli, UNCTAD Special Adviser for the Blue Economy

Coral reef and deep sea diver
Default image copyright and description

Coral reef and deep sea diver / © Coursety of Barbados Government.

Ever since my father took my brother and I sailing as children, we fell in love with the ocean. This love led us naturally to work in ocean research and conservation, supporting the creation of Marine Protected Areas with the Bertarelli Foundation. More recently, it is why I accepted the invitation to become the Special Adviser for the Blue Economy for UNCTAD. My aim is to raise awareness of the need for governments, businesses and communities to work together, to create a sustainable and regenerative ocean economy.

As one of the lucky people who have sailed the seven seas, I discovered that each is unique – but I also saw first-hand that they’re all part of a single global ocean. One ocean, one planet, one humanity. We are all connected. From the mountain tops to the deepest ocean and smallest islands.

I invite you to ask yourself what the ocean means for you. Is it vast, peaceful, vital, the source and origin of all life – yet also mysterious, unexplored, dangerous or challenging?

Well, today, our ocean is at risk from global warming, pollution and overfishing. We are stripping the ocean bare, yet we depend on its biodiversity for life on Earth.

When I first visited Easter Island a few years ago, the Rapa Nui fishers told me about seeing lights far out on the horizon. I have seen the same lights when sailing. They are ships that have turned off their tracking devices, most likely to fish illegally. For sailors, they are a collision danger. For the Rapa Nui, they are a threat to their livelihoods.

Living on a boat isn’t too different from living on an island. You have to rely on your resources, make wise choices to live on stocks available, to manage your water, your food, your energy, and to keep your crew safe from extreme weather conditions. You can’t escape – you have to cope with whatever the ocean throws at you.

So, to minimise risks, as a skipper or as leader of your community or country, you need to anticipate! And that’s exactly why small island nations are at the forefront of the fight against the threats of climate change and ocean decline.  They can see what’s coming!

Warning lights are flashing for the ocean now –  not in the distant horizon, but right before our eyes.

Let’s chart a new course – with clear commitments, courageous decisions and concrete actions with tangible results.

Which brings us to the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs – humanity’s roadmap for transforming our world to live in harmony with nature and each other.

Today it’s clearer than ever that SDG 14 – the ocean goal – is key to the targets on poverty, hunger, health, jobs, gender equality, climate and more. But getting the ocean to its rightful place at the heart of the sustainable development and climate action agendas, is not easy.


Dona Bertarelli's Lightning Talk at the SDG Action Zone 2020.


As the visionary marine scientist Jane Lubchenco says, the ocean debate evolved from “it’s too big to fail” - so we can catch as much fish as we like and dump as much waste as we want - to “it’s too big to fix” - so there’s no point trying to regulate or restore it – and finally, to the realization that the ocean is “too big to ignore”.

How can we ignore the fact that we live on a blue planet? That the ocean covers two third of the planet; that it provides the oxygen for every second breath we take? That it absorbs about 30% of the carbon emissions and over 90% of the heat we produce? That the ocean is becoming more acidic and depleted of oxygen? That if the heat absorbed by the ocean over the last 50 years had gone into the atmosphere, Earth would be 36 degrees hotter – and unsurvivable?

We are exploting our ocean's resources unsustainably

We have hit the ceiling when it comes to ocean exploitation. Over 90% of all wild fish stocks are either fully or over-fished. We are pouring 8 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year. That’s a rubbish truck full of plastic dumped in the ocean every minute.

Unless we make deep, bold changes, the health of the ocean will continue to decline. Building a sustainable ocean economy is vital - it must be front and centre of the post-COVID-19 recovery.

So, what does this look like? Ocean resources must be used in a sustainable way. They must drive economic growth and development, supporting livelihoods and jobs - while the health of the ocean and coastal ecosystems must be preserved. This can sound like an abstract challenge, but it is very real for the over 3 billion people whose livelihoods are tied to fishing, tourism, shipping and other ocean sectors. It is very real for the billions of people who rely on fish as their main source of protein. And, in fact, it is very real for everyone on the planet. Regardless of where we are, our wellbeing depends on a healthy ocean.

Understanding the big picture of the ocean-climate-economy connection is essential. New technologies are changing our ability to monitor fishing and model climate change, and are needed to inform decisions, but people are ultimately the real driving force.

On my travels I’ve been very inspired by young people taking the helm of the ocean plastic crisis and launching beach clean-ups, and by Pacific islanders reviving their thousand year old traditions of ocean management and transforming their local economies.

We can learn a lot from the ancient wisdom of seafaring people. Today we want quick results, rapid returns on investments – and as an entrepreneur and ocean racer, I can certainly relate. But the ocean has its own timescale and the way we use, and manage it, is out of sync.

The tuna in your sandwich takes decades to grow and reproduce. A Greenland shark can live for 400 years. A lobster for 50. The coral reefs that are bleached and killed in a flash by ocean heatwaves, took thousands of years to grow. Compare this to the five-year election cycles that dominate political agendas; or the race to build bigger fleets to compete over declining fish stocks; or the demand to mine deep-sea minerals, to build the latest smartphones.

Such short-term outlooks impact how we value and invest in the ocean – but there are new ways of valuing ocean life and funding its protection. A leading International Monetary Fund economist, Ralph Chami, has calculated that a single whale is worth about 80,000 dollars killed for food, but about 2 million dollars left alive, thanks to its ability to store about 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

Each year, one blue whale can absorb as much carbon dioxide as 30,000 trees, making the total whale population worth over 1 trillion dollars. The same valuation principle can be applied to sharks, or coral reefs – which are worth about 36 billion dollars a year to the tourism industry. So why, isn’t the conservation of living ocean biodiversity, a top political and economic priority?

A new understanding of the real value of the ocean will help direct resources towards a lasting, deep blue recovery built on science and nature-based solutions.

What action can be taken

I see three priority action areas. First, to protect the fish stocks so crucial for marine ecosystems, food security and coastal economies, it is time to meet SDG 14.6 and end the harmful fisheries subsidies that drive overfishing or contribute to illegal fishing.

The deadline for this target is 2020. Living up to this commitment would show that governments are serious about the SDG targets. It would end the untenable situation where governments distort the fishing industry by giving out large subsidies that encourage unsustainable fishing. Estimates of these subsidies range from 9 to over 22 billion dollars per year. And the vast majority is not helping small-scale, artisanal fishers. Worse still, 87% of these subsidies support the fleets of developed states, when 90% of fishers live in developing countries.

Just think what 22 billion dollars, or even 9, could do for a post Covid-19 recovery, if it was reallocated to advance more equitable and sustainable practices, and to help diversify economic activities for coastal communities. I would really like to see some of those funds used to elevate the millions of women who make up half the global fishing workforce – often in low-paid “invisible” jobs processing fish and trading in local markets. That way, SDG 14 and SDG 5 – “gender equality” – would be a win-win.

Second, let’s look at SDG 14.5 to protect at least 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. This is a subject close to my heart, and the Bertarelli Foundation has played its part, in helping to protect 2.7 million square kilometres of the ocean, in collaboration with governments, scientists, NGOs and the support of local communities.

Once again, small island states – which are actually great ocean states - are leading the way. In January, Palau closed 80% of its waters to all forms of extractive activities including all types of fishing. The Seychelles have declared 30% of their waters protected.

Today just 5.3% of the ocean is effectively protected in MPAs. A huge push is still needed to meet this 10% target, which is still short of the 30% protection recommended by scientists and a growing number of governments. This is why I welcome the UK’s Global Ocean Alliance initiative, calling for governments to join them in supporting this “30 by 30” goal – answered so far by 26 countries.

Two-thirds of the ocean do not belong to any country, and are almost entirely hidden from public scrutiny. A major boost will come when states finally agree on a new, binding High Seas Treaty, which will help to create MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and protect one of the global commons most essential to our survival. These negotiations were scheduled to end in 2020, but like so much else, have needed to be postponed.

In the coming months, countries which share responsibility for the Southern Ocean will also have the chance to approve the creation of vast protected areas in the important seas surrounding Antarctica.

Thirdly, achieving SDG 14 as a whole will harness the natural value of the ocean in a dynamic, sustainable blue economy that is based on protection, not exploitation, and which benefits all people. This demands global, cross-sector collaboration from governments, business, finance, philanthropists, scientists, youth, consumers and communities.

The blue economy is growing fast and dedicated plans are needed. I see action in the global tourism and hospitality sector - as crucial. This industry, badly impacted by the pandemic, is heavily reliant on a healthy ocean for tens of millions of jobs, and supports over 60% of some island economies. We can build back better by setting new standards for ocean protection and investing in the restoration of marine ecosystems – such as coral reefs, mangroves, beaches – that this industry depends on.

Initiatives are emerging to support this deep, blue vision for the future. UNCTAD is developing a set of Blue BioTrade principles that promote conservation, sustainability and equity – with a pilot project to come in the Caribbean. Multinational companies are starting to call on governments for ocean regulation, transparency, traceability and public accountability in their supply chains. And as a consumer, I encourage you when you buy or eat fish or other seafood, to check whether it is sustainably sourced.

2020 has not been the year any of us expected or hoped for, but global disruption can activate the deep changes we need. Billions of dollars will be needed to recover and rebuild. As citizens, we must demand that these funds are channelled to sustainable, just solutions – for our communities, for our ocean - our life support system - and for our future.

There are actions we can take right now, before the end of 2020, in this race for our beautiful blue planet. Where ever we live – even in a land-locked country like Switzerland, where I live – the ocean matters.

Racing “Around the world in 80 days” used to be science fiction. My sailing team and I did it in 47 days. We have no planet to spare, so restoring our ocean and nature, is not a fantasy either. This is a race we must embark on - together.

Remarks given on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at the SDG Action Zone.