Standing on a beach and looking out at the crashing waves, you might think the ocean is unchanging and invincible. But looks can be deceiving. The ocean is in trouble, stressed by overfishing, pollution, and a warming climate that is altering its very chemistry. Scientists have been focused on these concerns and are advocating for 30% of the ocean to be protected and conserved by 2030. Given the urgency of that timeline, this issue of Trend steps back to explore how we got to this point and looks forward to what we can do to save the ocean—which makes up three-fourths of the planet, supplies food to millions, and provides half of our oxygen.
There is no better guide to the history of the ocean than Callum Roberts. An esteemed oceanographer and writer as well as a former Pew marine fellow, he explains that the ocean and humanity share a history that dates back more than 150,000 years. It is a tale of the expanding plunder of fish, but the story doesn’t stop there. Today, plastic pollution has been found in the deepest corners of the seas, the acidification of the ocean’s waters as they absorb more carbon dioxide is bleaching once spectacular corals, and rising waters resulting from climate change will not be stopped. As Roberts grimly summarizes: “Regardless of what we do now, a rise of six or even 10 feet in sea level is locked in based on emissions already in the atmosphere.”
Pew’s Winnie Lau notes that 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year—but this is a challenge we can do something about. Lau says that the flow of plastic into the ocean can be reduced by up to 80% by 2040 if government and industry work together. She explains that Pew is launching a tool that governments can use to determine the extent of their country’s plastic pollution problem and guide reforms.
Saving the ocean requires policies informed by evidence and the knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have lived near the ocean for thousands of years. Aindil Minkom, who lives on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian External Territory in the Indian Ocean, writes in this issue that “the ocean provides so much to our community—our food, our way of life, our culture—and we look after it by fishing in a sustainable manner.” In recent years, his island home—some 600 miles from any significant landmass—has been endangered by industrial fishing fleets. Fortunately, he and other islanders have worked with the Australian government to create two new marine parks, covering an area larger than Texas, to help protect local fish populations—a step, Minkom notes, that is “meaningful not just for us, but for the health of the global ocean.”
As dire as the threats to the ocean are, so too are the meaningful solutions that we can achieve. Marine protected areas show that the ocean can replenish itself. Science-based fisheries management proves that depleted stocks can be restored. As altered as the ocean has been by climate change, coastal wetlands remain the planet’s best carbon dioxide storehouses.
Knowing the problem is the first step to solving it. We hope this issue of Trend enlightens the journey toward more respect and conservation of the Earth’s lifeblood, its ocean.