NASF: Ocean health is off-track, but not lost

Published on
June 9, 2021

Ocean health is declining and could cost the global economy USD 400 billion (EUR 328.1 billion) annually by 2050 if threats such as overfishing, plastic pollution, acidification, and ocean warming are not addressed, delegates heard at this year’s North Atlantic Seafood Forum (NASF).

A healthy ocean, however, could bring a much brighter future, according to Peter Haugen, the co-chair of the High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) expert group, who spoke during the 16th edition of the seafood business conference.

“The ocean is our lifeblood; our life source. It sustains us, with more than three billion people relying on food from the ocean as their main source of protein and nutrition. We also know that the ocean stabilizes the climate,"Haugen said. "We would have had a totally different global warming situation if it wasn’t there and working in the way that it does."

Haugen, who is also the program director for Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, told NASF attendees that the ocean economy is “a significant part of the global economy,” and that this position of importance is “poised to rise in the future,” but that it would need to do this in “a sustainable fashion.”

The aforementioned USD 400 billion cost to the global economy could reach USD 2 trillion (EUR 1.6 trillion) annually by 2100, Haugen said, adding that if overfishing continues, the sector’s annual yield could fall by around 16 percent by 2050, thereby threatening global food security. Additionally, without action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple to 29 million metric tons (MT) per year by 2040, he said.

Meanwhile, the biodiversity of the open ocean has declined by up to 50 percent over the past 50 years, and acidification and ocean warming are causing the widespread death of coral reefs. Not only will this lead to reef tourism revenues falling by more than 90 percent, but some West African countries are forecasting that fish stocks could decline by as much as 85 percent, Haugen said.

“Ocean health is off track and this declining health could cost the global economy significant amounts. Fish stocks will fall if we continue with overfishing. We cannot continue with the pollution and releasing plastic into the ocean in the way that we are doing. Significant action is needed,” he said.“The question is where should that action take place – on land, or in our lifestyles? A healthy ocean is a solution. That was one of the premises for the High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy – that the ocean is not only a victim; that it can also be a significant part of solution – not only for its own problems but for global sustainability problems.”

Established in 2018 by 14 world leaders, the Ocean Panel seeks to find ways to combine effective protection, sustainable production, and equitable prosperity, Haugen said.

“These things can be a triple win –­ for nature, people, and the economy. They are not competing or acting against each other,” he said.

Contributing to a political transformation document that was signed and launched in December 2020 by the Ocean Panel were 16 blue papers, three special reports, and one comprehensive ocean solutions report. Among the findings were that the ocean can supply six times as much food as it does today; that the ocean can handle about a fifth of the gas-emission reductions needed to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius; and that investing USD 2.8 trillion (EUR 2.3 trillion) into a healthy ocean would yield net benefits of USD 15.5 trillion (EUR 12.7 trillion) by 2050.

“If we don’t invest, we will lose coral reef tourism and fish stocks,” Haugen said. “Another interesting, but alarming finding is that the COVID-19 recovery plans that we looked at were not to a sufficient degree taking into account the possibilities from the ocean economy. That needs to change. There are possibilities there that shouldn’t be unused.”

According to the Ocean Panel’s experts, finfish mariculture could increase by a lot for “technological, economic, and scientific reasons,” although access to sustainable feed remains a challenge.

Bivalves and seaweed offer more scope because they don’t require feed, Haugen said, adding that there are already a lot of good examples in Asia and elsewhere where these are successfully feeding populations.

“These could feed more of the world, and this probably an area where we will see a lot of development in the near future – both for food and for feed,” Haugen said. “There won’t be such a big increase for capture fisheries, but if we don’t do anything, it will decrease and there’s a big difference between increasing 20 percent and decreasing 20 percent, so we need to focus on that sector as well.”

Moving forward, to boost ocean health, the Ocean Panel advises using data to drive decision making; engaging in goal-oriented ocean planning; de-risking finance and using innovation to mobilize investment; and also stopping land-based pollution.

At the same time, ocean accounting needs to be changed so that it reflects the true value of the ocean, Haugen said.

“There are a lot of possibilities in the ocean. Think of all species that we haven’t tried. Think about biodiversity,” Haugen said. “The world needs a sustainable ocean; the world needs sustainable ocean economy sectors, and the world needs in particular sustainable seafood. And I think that by looking at the various measures that come up from all the players – from the [European Union] taxonomy to people looking at sustainability and all of these agendas – if we go there together, we can get there, and we should leave no one behind.”

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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