Healthy oceans are needed for a sustainable future

20 March 2017

The world’s oceans are key to sustaining life on the planet. They provide a range of benefits for human well-being and prosperity by providing food, jobs, habitats and biodiversity, and by moderating temperatures and capturing carbon.

Yet mankind has put the oceans at risk of irreversible damage. Overfishing, ocean acidification, increasing pollution, unsustainable coastal development, and the unwanted impacts of extracting resources have resulted in a decreasing abundance of marine species as well as decreasing economic benefits to small island developing States and Least Developed Countries.

"Oceans and their resources have a vast potential to unlock growth, wealth and support the implementation of Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but human activity has taken a toll on ocean health," said UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi, adding that oceans connect people, markets and livelihoods and are a conduit for 90% of world trade.

More than 31% of global fish stocks have been estimated as being fished at biologically unsustainable levels, according to the 2016 edition of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

It has also been estimated that the oceans economy generates over 350 million jobs, worth $3.6 trillion a year, proving employment and food security to many of the world's poorest and hungriest people.

But subsidies for fishing are contributing to the rapid depletion of many fish species and are preventing efforts to save and restore global fisheries and related jobs, causing ocean fisheries to generate $50 billion less per year than they could.

Overfishing persists despite decades of effort to manage fisheries so that stocks are successfully conserved at sustainable levels.

Target 4 of SDG 14, which addresses the health of oceans, specifically recognizes the need to end overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It also envisages the end of destructive fishing practices and the implementation of science-based management plans to restore fish stocks by 2020, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics.

Global estimates of the cost of IUU fishing have been valued between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually in unlawful or undocumented revenue, representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish. It has also been estimated that the poor management of fisheries squanders roughly $80 billion annually in lost economic potential.

As a cross-cutting issue with economic, social and environmental ramifications and in light of the oceans' interconnectedness, all nations of the world should strive to make the oceans places of safety and sustainability of maritime activities for all humankind.

"Human-induced problems need human solutions, we must all come together and scale up effort and cooperation to find solutions," Dr. Kituyi said.

UNCTAD continues to support the successful implementation of SDG 14 and contributed a substantive a report: “Trade and Environment Review 2016: Fish Trade”, to the UN High Level Oceans Conference in June 2017 and to inform trade related international discussions and in particular, the next WTO Ministerial Conference scheduled for December 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.