The Future of Oceans


This piece originally appeared in Ensia. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.

Oceans cover more than two thirds of Earth’s surface. They are home to millions of species, provide a key source of protein to people on every continent, and play an enormous role in regulating our planet’s climate, water cycle and more. They also are facing tremendous disruption from human action, from altered temperature and circulation to overfishing to acidification to plastic pollution.

What kind of oceans will we pass along to future generations of humans and other living things? The answer to that question starts with two others: What kind of oceans would we like to pass along? And what would it take to do so?

For this fourth installment of our Envision 2050 series (read the first three here), Ensia asked seven individuals with special connections to the ocean to share their hopes for the world’s oceans — and what it would take to achieve them. Here are their responses:

Margaret Leinen: Keep Learning

Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

Put simply, the oceans are key to the future of our planet and its health.

Margaret LeinenMy hope is that by 2050 we can all look back and say that in 2015 we began to make the serious changes necessary to address — and even reverse — the challenges facing the oceans: pollution, rising seas, ocean warming, oxygen depletion, and acidification, to name a few. These issues are not isolated in their reach. The food and precious resources the oceans provide to global society have been bountiful, but we see them diminishing. We must act strategically going forward. It serves all of us, as a global society, to maintain the stability of the oceans as a natural system.

My colleagues at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, and across the oceanographic and earth science communities have employed instruments and observation networks to explore the oceans and track the troubling trends afflicting the ocean’s habitats, from coral reefs in decline to low-oxygen zones that choke out productive ecosystems.

One urgent area of concern is the world’s rising seas. No longer an issue isolated to far-off island nations, sea-level rise will be a sobering wake-up call for many in our crowded coastal cities by 2050. We must act now to develop adaptation solutions for the global community. We at Scripps are working with the world’s leading thinkers and researchers to share knowledge and develop sea-level rise solutions. From these efforts we look to develop a plan of action to help cities and states adapt to rising seas.

By 2050 our seas will be viewed as more than a platform for tourism and recreation and rather an ocean for solutions. Our sustainable energy solutions will be aided by marine algae–derived biofuel, while new medicines to treat modern diseases will be derived from sea creatures with novel chemical structures.

There is still so much we don’t know. We need to keep learning about our water world, especially the deep sea and the immense role of the oceans in global climate change.

All of us need to do our part. We are all stewards of the ocean and the planet. We must continue to explore. We must continue to study the things we don’t yet understand and protect the resources we have for future generations.

Shared oceans, protected by all, hold the solutions for the planet’s future.

Michael Conathan: Promoting a Robust Blue Economy

Director of Ocean Policy, Center for American Progress

Michael ConathanWhile humans rely on the ocean to support our existence, we must learn to use the maritime domain in ways that reverse the global decline in ocean health and ensure that the ocean’s bounty is available for future generations. One way the United States has already begun to do this is through ocean planning, an idea similar to traditional land use planning. The National Ocean Policy established by President Barack Obama provides U.S. regions with support to develop “regional ocean plans” that empower local ocean stakeholders to represent their interests in decision making. Other nations, including China, Australia, the Philippines and various European nations, have implemented similar practices.

Yet, to truly achieve a sustainable vision for the future of the world’s oceans, we must go beyond simple spatial planning. The ocean provides a great deal more than fish, fossil fuels and free trade. This generation’s legacy must include protecting and restoring robust, functioning marine ecosystems.

The oceans make the planet’s climate livable, absorbing 90 percent of the additional heat trapped by our ever-thickening atmospheric blanket of carbon pollution. They generate more than half of the oxygen we breathe. And they serve as the primary source of protein for over a billion people.

As oceans warm and acidify as a result of runaway carbon pollution, we put all of these ecosystem benefits at risk. Yet none of them will continue unless we incorporate their financial worth into the cost of doing business.

Putting a price tag on the value of a healthy marine environment will help political and business leaders arrive at more efficient and more sustainable decisions and develop a new Blue Economy that links economic growth with ocean health. Moving development away from the dirty industries of the past that profit from degrading our natural resources and toward a future that promotes efficiency and environmental stewardship can be a win for the planet and our pocketbooks.

Alexandra Cousteau: Abundance, Diversity, Purity

Explorer, Filmmaker and Water Advocate

Alexandra CousteauMy vision for the oceans in 2050 is one of abundance, diversity, purity. While most predictions point to a darker future for the oceans, I do believe that it is possible to have more fish, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and sharks in our lifetimes. But we have to start acting now. Scientists report that the amount of fish caught began declining for the first time in recorded history just a few decades ago. That’s obviously bad news, but it is also recent news. If we take action quickly we can have a huge effect on helping the oceans rebound.

The Cousteau family has been chronicling the stories of the oceans for three generations. We’ve seen the changes, we’ve told the stories. Yet in spite of all the damage that humankind has done to the oceans, I remain optimistic. The oceans are a shared resource covering 71 percent of the planet. They play a central role in the world’s natural systems, like regulating our climate and absorbing carbon dioxide. Over a billion people, including some of the poorest in the world, depend on the oceans and wild seafood for survival. Restoring abundance to the world’s fisheries is important not only for the planet but also for the people who live on it. To that end, I have taken action with [the international organization] Oceana to tackle these issues by focusing on the importance of science in identifying problems and solutions.

We need to accomplish three goals: stop overfishing, reduce bycatch and protect marine habitat. Scientists working closely with economists, lawyers and policy experts can achieve tangible results for the oceans. Examples in the Philippines and other countries have demonstrated how to rebuild fish populations: avoid overfishing by setting responsible catch limits, minimize the capture of vulnerable animals like turtles or juvenile fish, and protect habitat. With science-based management in place, the fish, the ecosystem they depend on, and the people whose livelihoods depend on both will rebound. By promoting responsible fishing practices, we can protect the oceans while helping to reduce poverty in coastal communities. If we can save the oceans, we can help feed the world.

David Sheppard: Rays of Hope

Director-General, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme

David SheppardIt’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of the world’s oceans. The 20th century lay to rest myths that the oceans were so vast and their living resources so huge that human activities could never make a significant impact. Instead, we saw destruction in the stocks of the great whales, the collapse of numerous fisheries as more fishing vessels poured onto the seas with increasingly sophisticated technologies, and the creation of dead zones as industrial effluents smothered and poisoned previously rich, productive waters.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report offers little reassurance. Half of all carbon dioxide emissions since 1750 came in the last 40 years with oceans absorbing 90 percent of the resulting heat energy, setting in temperature rises and ocean acidification that will continue for decades even if emissions ceased tomorrow. At current rates, shallow water tropical coral reefs will have vanished by 2050 along with a myriad of species and food for millions of people.

But there are rays of hope — especially in the Pacific island countries and territories with enormous Exclusive Economic Zones effectively making them Large Ocean States with stewardship responsibilities for over 10 percent of the global ocean. Large Marine Protected Areas in the Phoenix Islands of Kiribati and the Coral Sea of New Caledonia protect over 1.5 million square kilometers (580,000 square miles), and a sophisticated planning exercise is underway to protect most of the 1.1 million-square-kilometer (420,000-square-mile) Cook Islands Marine Park. Palau is banning foreign fishing fleets from its 600,000 square-kilometer (230,000-square-mile) EEZ, and shark sanctuaries have been established in the waters of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Cook Islands and Tokelau.

Alone, these bold actions won’t prevent the overwhelming impacts of climate change, but by reducing key stressors such as overfishing, habitat loss and inappropriate development, they give marine biodiversity a better chance. They act as a signal of hope: If developing countries can set aside vast tracts of ocean for conservation, then developed countries can also take a similar approach for the benefit of future generations.

Susan Avery: A Key Cog

President and Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Susan AveryI bring an atmospheric scientist’s perspective to the study of the ocean. In many ways the ocean community is positioned to do what atmospheric scientists did in the 1950s when they established a network of weather stations. This network dramatically expanded our predictive capabilities to the benefit of any weather-sensitive business or human endeavor.

Our planet is a complex dynamic system of interactions among the atmosphere, ocean, land surface, snow and ice, and all life on Earth. In that planetary clockworks, the ocean is a key cog. It drives heat, water and nutrients around the globe. It maintains essential ecosystems. In short, it makes our planet habitable.

We know the ocean is changing rapidly. It is warming, becoming more acidic and losing sea ice. Sea levels are rising. It is overfished and more polluted by chemicals and noise. These changes will have impacts on agriculture, fisheries, water, food, energy supplies, coastal infrastructure, transportation, and natural disasters such as tsunamis and extreme weather — all of which profoundly affect our economy, health, welfare and security.

At the same time, many nations are developing “blue economies” — expanding into the ocean not only to extract resources such as fish, minerals, and oil and gas, but also for aquaculture, bioprospecting, offshore renewable energy and other economic opportunities.

In my vision of the ocean in 2050, governments are investing in research and development to establish long-term observatories with sensors to monitor ocean conditions and collect the data necessary to help us understand our changing ocean.

Right now the future of the ocean is uncertain, which means our future is uncertain. With greater global investment in research, exploration and innovation, we can reduce uncertainties, improve projections about future conditions for our ocean and planet, and provide information that governments, resource managers, businesses and others can use to save lives, property and money, and to sustain the ocean as a resource. We can improve governance of the ocean and of the entire planetary commons — and help ensure our survival.

Douglas McCauley: Managing Change

Ecologist and Conservation Biologist, UC Santa Barbara

Douglas McCauleyThe decisions we make in the next several decades will more profoundly shape the future of the ocean than any other period in human history. In a recent report, my colleagues and I showed that the oceans are in vastly better shape than terrestrial ecosystems. This makes sense: humans are a terrestrial species and historically it has been harder for us hunt, farm and build in the ocean. But things are changing.

We must address three major challenges in the next 30 years if we wish to preserve the health and wildness of our global oceans.

  1. Marine Industrialization. A marine industrial revolution (alternatively called an emerging blue economy) is welling up in our oceans and represents a dramatic shift in the way we do marine business. Historically we went to sea to fish. By 2050, we are poised to see massive expansions in marine industries like seabed mining, underwater power plant construction (e.g., offshore wind, tidal energy) and oil/gas extraction. On land when we shifted from hunting animals to building our industries in their habitats, we saw a major spike in wildlife extinction. If we don’t carefully plan out marine industrialization, we may face a similar fate for ocean wildlife.
  2. Fishing vs. farming in the oceans. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that in less than 20 years fish farming will put more fish on our tables than wild-capture fisheries. We have to carefully ensure this explosive growth in ocean farming happens in a clean, healthy and sustainable way. In parallel to this growth in aquaculture, we must redouble our efforts to be sure that wild fisheries can continue to provide healthy free-range fish by setting aside ocean protected areas and coming up with novel solutions for managing the lawlessness associated with fishing in many settings (e.g., the high seas).
  3. Ocean climate change. None of these actions will have purchase if we don’t slow the rates by which we are warming and acidifying the oceans. Many marine species have demonstrated a very encouraging capacity for adaptation to climate stressors. Anything we can do to slow carbon emissions will buy them time to adapt.

By squarely facing the urgency of the situation in the oceans and prudently managing these new forces of change, we can chart a brighter future for life in the oceans and can avoid making many of the environmental mistakes we made on land.

David Agnew: Sustainable Fishing

Standards Director, Marine Stewardship Council

feature_envision2050_oceans_agnewOceans are like the heartbeat of our planet. They connect us across continents, regulate our climate, supply us with oxygen and serve as the foundation of ecosystems for an incredible array of wildlife. More than 200 million people depend on the oceans for their livelihood and another 3 billion rely on it for nutrition, making oceans crucial to our very existence. But our oceans are under enormous pressure. Fishing in a sustainable manner is critical to the health of this vast natural resource. It is our vision at the Marine Stewardship Council to see our oceans healthy and teeming with life, safeguarded for future generations.

We need to appreciate this important global resource, work together to provide solutions to overfishing and care for the oceans as they are fundamental to the health and well-being of our world and population. We can all start by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices and choosing to buy and eat seafood sourced from sustainable and well-managed fisheries, such as seafood products with the MSC ecolabel.

The more we learn about the issues facing our oceans, the more we’ll want to help ensure the health and vitality of this resource and then share that knowledge to inspire others to do the same. We are all connected, and we can each make a difference and contribute to the health of the world’s oceans for this and future generations.

View Ensia homepage



Please consider supporting by ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon.
Become a patron at Patreon!