Photo: Jakob Owens / Unsplash

In economics we talk about goods and services. Here we find a paradox. The natural world provides 100 percent of the goods and services (natural capital) that are essential to life and the human economy. Surprisingly those essential goods and services are considered “externalities” by many economists and governments. Arguably the most significant source of natural capital is Earth’s ocean.

What are the goods and services provided by the ocean? What is happening to them? What does that mean to the future? These are significant questions yet to be fully answered.

Earth is the only known water planet. Life as we know it would not exist if it were not for our ocean. More than 17 percent of the protein in our diet comes from the ocean. Nearly half of the human population lives within 60 miles of the coast. At least 90 percent of international trade is transported by sea. The ocean absorbs about 92 percent of the solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface. The climate would be intolerable if the ocean didn’t serve as a heat sink. Our ocean has absorbed about half of the CO2 emitted by humans since the industrial revolution. This has mitigated much of the CO2 contribution to global warming. There is a limit to how much the ocean can absorb. The consequences of approaching that limit are not good.

The natural capital provided by the ocean belongs to everyone and must be protected. It boils down to three basics: food, water and a livable habitat. The ocean is responsible for a stable climate that provides a livable habitat. Water vapor from evaporation provides the precipitation that allows food to grow and water to drink. From storms to the distribution of precipitation; from the ocean currents to weather patterns and the climate; the ocean is indispensable to life in the water or on land. The ocean is at the foundation of the natural capital that supports life on Earth.

Today the ocean is under threat. The global ocean is largely without laws or international protections. It is being depleted, polluted and staked out by nations laying claim to marine resources.

We are the dominant bio-geochemical force on the planet. If we don’t understand and protect our global ocean, we are sawing away at the branch that supports us.

When a resource is shared by all, it is referred to as the “commons.” In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest will behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.

The global ocean is the very definition of “the commons.” Like the atmosphere, the ocean must belong to everyone or it will belong to no one. If unmonitored and unregulated, national, corporate and private interests will commodify this fundamental source of food, water, and habitat for all life on Earth.

That doesn’t mean you can’t sell bottled water, or a food crop, or wood products from the forest.  It means you can’t compromise the fundamental bio-geochemical system that provides that natural capital. This is not a glimpse into some distant future. The global ocean is already being depleted and spoiled, increasing the risk to everyone.

What is the condition of the global ocean?

  1. Many fish stocks are seriously depleted. Modern industrial fishing techniques are harvesting deeper and deeper into remaining stocks. This gives a false appearance of continuing abundance. If this exploitation continues unabated without strict quotas and protections, more fish stocks will collapse. Virtually all higher order predator stocks like tuna, salmon, and sword species are already depleted well beyond population replacement rates. Many poorer coastal countries depend upon traditional fisheries. Quotas and protected areas are frequently violated and unreported. This is responsible for nearly a third of the global catch.
  2. Half of the fish reaching the plate are from aquaculture. This does not lower the pressure on wild stocks. Aquaculture also causes significant environmental stress. There is serious doubt that rising demand can be met without even greater environmental damage.
  3. Marine ecosystems are damaged by the massive use of artificial fertilizer, manure, and chemicals in industrialized farming practices. Loads of nitrates and phosphates reach coastal waters causing algae growth. Algae depletes the oxygen and results in dead zones devoid of fish. Some of these dead zones cover thousands of square miles.
  4. Millions of tons of garbage are dumped at sea. Nearly all of this is unregulated. Plastics are broken into tiny bits that are ingested but have no nutrient value. Only 0.5 percent remain near the surface. The majority ends up in the sediment and in suspension impacting the entire food chain. The effect is immense.
  5. Salmon, Cod, Tuna, and Mackerel were once staples of the marine harvest. Their depleting numbers are indicative of a much larger problem. Species diversity, like a diversified Wall Street portfolio, is insurance against hard times. Over harvesting, rising water temperatures, and wasteful fishing techniques have reduced the resilience of marine fisheries to environmental change. Invasive species may outcompete native species. Many invasive species are introduced by international shipping.
  6. The ocean stores heat and CO2 in enormous quantities. This slows global warming and changes in the climate. Without this, the world would be much warmer. As the ocean is depleted and spoiled it loses resilience and this mitigation service is also depleted.
  7. Warmer ocean water means rising sea levels. Sea levels are not uniform because of currents and the motion of the planet. Islands and coastal areas are under serious threat. Some have already been abandoned.
  8. Coastal cities are already threatened by increasing storm surges and rising seas. The expense of adaptation is forecast into the trillions of dollars over the next 75 years.
  9. Marine mineral extraction is largely unregulated with few considerations to environmental damage.
  10. Nations are expanding their marine spheres of influence for geo-strategic purposes.
  11. Without natural reserves and protected areas tourism is also a threat to delicate ecosystems.
  12. The ocean’s flora provide over 50% of atmospheric oxygen. Acidification from CO2 threatens that service.

The ocean gives us so much. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it. Our future depends on our behavior and how we protect the ocean, but we cannot act alone. The ocean commons belongs to everyone, yet it is almost entirely ungoverned. As yet, there are no comprehensive international strategies that address the complexities of marine ecosystems and environmental threat. The ocean is among the least protected or administered areas of the globe. Inaction is both irresponsible and dangerous.  International cooperation and strategic policy must come quickly before humanity becomes impotent and irrelevant.

W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.

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