The COVID‐19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with nature, but the overriding climate and biodiversity crises have not gone away. Emissions continue to rise, and climate impact problems continue to escalate and develop (IPCC, 2019). The same is true of serious losses of ecosystems and associated biodiversity driven by overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution (IPBES, 2019; Rogers et al., 2020). Resetting the narrative requires better navigation of these driving forces and a need to remind ourselves of our place in the world, our links to nature, and our dependence on a healthy, functioning ocean.
If we are to reconnect the dots in an orderly manner to lead us to better actions and conclusions, a joined‐up narrative is needed to stimulate integrated action. Politically, the world agreed to look at linking climate and biodiversity in 2014 at COP21 in Paris, but there has been limited progress to put such words into practice. Notably, the decision text at COP25 in 2019 recognizes the ocean as an ‘integral part of the Earth’s climate system’, highlights the need to ensure ‘the integrity of ocean and coastal ecosystems’, and requests the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, a United Nations (UN) climate change advisory group, to open a dialogue on the ocean and climate. The 44 submissions to the UN addressing content and format of this dialogue make clear the urgency of implementing the Paris commitments, informed by a clear ocean narrative.
Through a workshop held in London, but conducted mainly virtually, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean drew together leading marine scientists to pose them this very challenge. Their response was to create a six‐point post‐COVID‐19 narrative (Table 1) together with a list of the fundamental services the ocean provides to humankind (Appendix 1) and the case for urgent action (Supporting Information Data S1).
4.1 Narrative themes
4.1.1 All life is dependent on the ocean
Nurturing the ocean is essential to safeguard our future as it provides valuable and vital ecosystem services, such as oxygen production and climate regulation, as well as food, energy, mineral, genetic, and cultural and recreational services (Figure 2; Barbier, 2017). Coastal communities and economies are reliant on these services for their sustenance and persistence, which have also been challenged by the COVID‐19 pandemic. The provision of these services and access to appropriately managed resources are critical to accomplishing the sustainable development goals adopted by all member states of the UN to eliminate poverty and promote sustainable development (Singh et al., 2018; Claudet et al., 2020a). Our survival is accordingly dependent on a healthy ocean, but from afar it may seem to some more akin to a parasitic relationship, where resources are being extracted well beyond safe, sustainable levels, with little thought for ocean health or for the plight of future generations. If we are alert to the problems, we often simply shift our baselines (Pauly, 1995; Jackson et al., 2001), forgetting how the ocean was and instead use more recent data on partly depleted resources to justify our actions.
Humankind’s relationship with the ocean is no longer sustainable; we are affecting ocean ecosystems and resources on a global scale through our overexploitation of the ocean for food and energy production, tourism, and transportation, and through land‐based activities such as atmospheric emissions and discharge of waste (Halpern et al., 2015). Additionally, the cumulative effects of human uses are further changing the ocean’s properties, destroying habitats (Rogers et al., 2020), altering species distributions (e.g. Poloczanska et al., 2013; Poloczanska et al., 2016), food webs (e.g. Pauly et al., 1998; du Pontavice et al., 2019), and ocean circulation and biochemistry (e.g. Doney et al., 2009; Levin, 2018; Hu et al., 2020), thus altering the capacity of the ocean to provide ecosystem services to humankind, such as climate regulation or food production (e.g. Costanza et al., 2014; Cheung, 2018). The problems we face are now so big that they are manifest at the whole ocean/world scale, and so the solutions need to have similar scale and ambition if they are to be successful. A systemic view of the ocean can promote mutually beneficial solutions for reaching humanity’s full potential within safe sustainable limits, whilst still achieving the goal of a healthy global ocean (Singh et al., 2018; Claudet et al., 2020a). This is not without precedent, and numerous examples of success in conservation coupled with sustainable management of marine living resources to the benefit of both industry and local communities give grounds for ocean optimism (Knowlton, 2020).
Despite all the political words, pledges, and calls to action in the name of nurture and protection, the vast open ocean referred to as the High Seas, which accounts for nearly half the surface area of the planet, still has no coherent legal framework for sustainable management of biodiversity, effective or otherwise (Rogers et al., 2020). For the remaining 21% of waters within the territories and jurisdictions of countries more has been done, but even here actions fall well behind political words and aspirations (Rogers et al., 2020). The political target of 10% protection may be met by the end of 2020 from a numerical basis, but not in terms of effective measures that demonstrably protect nature (Rogers et al., 2020; Claudet et al., 2020b). The 10% target was formatted at the third World Parks Congress in 1983, and though the conservation world is now demanding at least 30% in strict protection through MPAs, the political world has stuck for the ocean to that original 10% idea. The 10% target includes any and all types of conservation measures with only a small fraction of that 10% now in fully or highly protected MPAs (Claudet, 2018; Sala et al., 2018). Over a similar period of time, global‐scale substantial changes in ocean health have been identified, whether that be warming, deoxygenation, sea‐level rise, acidification, or, more recently, the conclusion that the speed of the major current systems has altered since the 1990s (Hu et al., 2020). Policy over the decades has simply failed to keep up with the science, and to respond with the additional ambition that is clearly needed to protect the ocean and address the issues involved.
As a result, ocean extremes (cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons, flooding, and heat waves), species redistributions, and biodiversity loss will increasingly and disproportionately now affect small islands and less wealthy coastal nations. Prevention is far better and less costly than cure, and more likely to succeed if carried out now. Indeed, a recent study by the World Economic Forum showed that, by embedding ‘net‐positive’ nature requirements into their COVID‐19 recovery strategies, governments and businesses could collectively realize US$10 trillion (£7.9 trillion) economic growth alongside creating 395 million new jobs within a decade (World Economic Forum, 2020). Set against these projected benefits, COVID‐19 is disrupting the ‘blue economy’—a mix of marine jobs, products, and services that have been valued at US$2.5 trillion a year. If the ocean were a nation, it would rank as the seventh largest economy in the world (McCauley, Teleki & Fluxà Thienemann, 2020). Alongside rebuilding a sustainable ocean economy, another recent study showed that the benefits of protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean outweigh the costs by a ratio of at least 5:1 (Waldron et al., 2020). Much more on‐the‐water action is therefore needed right now if we are to make such returns on investments and nurture this ocean‐dominated world back towards good health before any such interventions become less, or completely, ineffective, or impossible.
4.1.2 By harming the ocean, we harm ourselves
We have ample scientific data that confirm certain large‐scale human activities are damaging to the current and future state and condition of the ocean, from which humankind derives the very benefits we value, and yet there is little action to cease these practices. Out of sight and out of mind can no longer be the excuse when marine species, habitats, and ecosystem structure and functions are being impacted and lost. In some cases, such as unsustainable fisheries, activities are even subsidised with taxpayers’ money (Sumaila et al., 2016). Although there is a process of environmental impact assessments in place in most nations, they have not been effective in many cases, in part because of stakeholder manipulation (Enríquez‐de‐Salamanca, 2018).
Intertidal and subtidal habitats are closest to human populations and, therefore, have arguably been most impacted by anthropogenic activities. For example, global mangrove cover decreased by 0.2–0.7% annually between 2000 and 2012, with some countries suffering significantly greater decreases (Hamilton & Casey, 2016); coastal development is a primary cause of this decline. These activities have many impacts on ecosystems, including direct (e.g. building on habitats) and indirect impacts (e.g. increased erosion and sedimentation from land clearance and forestry that increases water turbidity), alongside the loss of appreciable carbon storage that such ecosystems provide.
More broadly, coastal reclamation, land‐use change, pollution, and climate breakdown have led to a loss of 30–50% of coastal ecosystems (Pandolfi et al., 2003; Waycott et al., 2009; Polidoro et al., 2010; Barbier, 2017; Duarte et al., 2020; Rogers et al., 2020). The value of ecosystem services provided by such ecosystems is considerable; coastal wetlands in the USA, for example, are thought to confer a value of US$23.2 billion a year in storm protection damage (Costanza et al., 2008). Recent estimates of damage from 88 tropical storms and hurricanes hitting the USA between 1996 and 2016 suggest the economic value of the protective effects of wetlands has an average value of about US$1.8 million/km2 per year and a median value of US$91,000/km2 (Sun & Carson, 2020).
Land‐based pollution, including nutrients, chemicals, and debris, enters the ocean especially via riverine input, damaging marine life, changing productivity cycles, and creating deoxygenated zones (Stemmler & Lammel, 2009; Doney, 2010; Lammel et al., 2016; Breitburg et al., 2018; Chiba et al., 2018). Oil and gas exploration and exploitation are known to cause local and regional impacts from the sea surface to the deep seabed (Gomez & Green, 2013; Chang et al., 2014; Cordes et al., 2016). However, the most significant direct threats to biodiversity in the ocean, both within national jurisdictions and beyond, are from global fisheries (Lascelles et al., 2014; O’Leary et al., 2020; Rogers et al., 2020) and now exacerbated by accelerating ocean warming and deoxygenation (Laffoley & Baxter, 2016; Breitburg et al., 2018; Laffoley & Baxter, 2019). Impacts from fishing are not only from overexploitation but also from the environmental impacts of current fishing methods (Rogers et al., 2020). For example, bottom trawling occurring in both the shallow and deep ocean can have long‐lasting impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018; Victorero et al., 2018; Clark et al., 2019).
Coral reefs have been estimated to reduce damage to terrestrial assets by US$4 billion annually through coastal protection (Beck et al., 2018). Yet, these very same coral‐reef ecosystems are predicted to be reduced to 10–30% of their area of extent with a 1.5°C increase in temperature resulting from climate disruption. If the temperature is allowed to increase by 2°C then the remaining area shrinks to just 1% (IPCC, 2019). Such a narrow window of change in environmental conditions demonstrates the linkages between climate and biodiversity, and the importance of acting quickly to mitigate climate breakdown to prevent the large‐scale transformation of a habitat already at high risk of impact from sea‐surface temperature rise (Gattuso et al., 2015). Rapid and sustained reduction in the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other powerful greenhouse gases, such as methane, is the only way of mitigating climate breakdown impacts on coral reefs. Other conservation, adaptation, and restoration options will progressively narrow and become more expensive to society as time progresses and as the effects of ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation become more intense (Gattuso et al., 2015).
Additionally, it is unconscionable that new major industrial activities go ahead despite a lack of informative data and/or mitigation considerations. For instance, it is expected that deep‐seabed mining for metals, such as cobalt and nickel, will begin within the next decade, justified on the basis of a need for renewable energy technologies, despite the potential wide‐ranging and long‐lasting impacts, including inevitable biodiversity loss (Niner et al., 2018; Jones, Amon & Chapman, 2018), with recovery on human timescales an impossibility in the abyssal ocean (Jones et al., 2017; Simon‐Lledó et al., 2019). The money required for successful deep‐seabed mining would be better invested in the development of technologies that use alternative metals and other materials, recycling of metals and rare earth elements, and forcing compliance with such measures, rather than driving more and more unsustainable extraction of finite resources (Levin, Amon & Lily, 2020).
Given the global scale of ocean challenges, many large‐scale geoengineering solutions have also been suggested: marine cloud brightening (to increase ocean reflectivity), artificial upwelling (energy and fish production), downwelling (hurricane diversion), mineralization of CO2 in rock under the sea floor (carbon storage), and adding carbonate minerals to the ocean (to enhance alkalinity). Several assessments, however, have identified significant risks associated with such projects, so any possible geoengineering solutions to climate disruption require a lot more investigation (Shepherd, 2012; Hoegh‐Guldberg et al., 2019). In any such endeavours, the precautionary principle is the only sensible approach when considering future activities.
4.1.3 By protecting the ocean, we protect ourselves
In the past, obtaining provisions from the ocean was too easily taken for granted; the ocean seemed ‘too big to fail’ until it became increasingly clear that human impacts were, and are, threatening the ocean’s functionality and capacity to provide these services (Lubchenco & Gaines, 2019). These issues are now too large to ignore. It is abundantly clear that we protect ourselves by protecting the ocean.
MPAs have been widely documented and actively tracked for decades (Lubchenco & Grorud‐Colvert, 2015), such that the current estimate of ocean area within MPAs is approximately 7% (UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 2020). This single number includes multiple layers. There is a wide range of activities that are allowed or disallowed in any given MPA (Zupan et al., 2018b), leading to different outcomes from different types of MPAs (Zupan et al., 2018a). Fully protected areas are MPAs where all extractive and destructive activities are prohibited (Horta e Costa et al., 2016; Oregon State University et al., 2019) and have been widely shown to return significant ecological benefits (Claudet et al., 2008; Lester et al., 2009; Roberts et al., 2017; Zupan et al., 2018b), with the capacity to benefit local communities (Sala et al., 2013; Ban et al., 2019). Highly protected MPAs achieve conservation outcomes but may also allow human use with the lowest possible impact (e.g. providing a means to balance rights and tenure of indigenous communities whose harvesting practices preserve biodiversity). Other minimally or lightly protected MPAs might still allow destructive activities, balancing human use but achieving fewer conservation benefits, if any (Zupan et al., 2018a; Oregon State University et al., 2019). Minimally protected MPAs would be expected to result in little to no progress towards meeting global conservation goals, but ironically are the main type of MPA used by many countries to increase the area in MPAs whilst avoiding the challenges and costs of changing ocean uses (Rogers et al., 2020; Claudet et al., 2020b). Thus, the ~7% protection does not depict full ocean protection as it includes different levels of protection with varying conservation outcomes (Rogers et al., 2020).
The second challenge to MPA accounting is the fact that not all MPAs are managed and enforced on the water (Gill et al., 2017). It can take many steps from the moment the intent to create an MPA is announced, to the point it is designated (legally binding), implemented (regulations are in force on the water), and management is enforced (where monitoring and regular reviews occur to ensure that conservation goals are being met; Sala et al., 2018; Oregon State University et al., 2019). Many MPAs in the current global tally are designated but not yet actively managed. Thus, taking into account these so called ‘paper parks’, a closer examination shows that nearer to 5.3% of the ocean is currently in MPAs that are implemented (Marine Conservation Institute, 2020). This means that Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity where 10% of representative habitats of the ocean are well protected is still a remote target (Klein et al., 2015; Jenkins & Van Houten, 2016; Sala et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2020; Rogers et al., 2020).
The discrepancy that arises from assuming that all MPAs have the same conservation outcomes leads to confusion, partly because different assessments are tallying different numbers and percentages (Sala et al., 2018). Furthermore, analyses show the 10% target is likely insufficient; the more appropriate goal to achieve effective biodiversity conservation in functioning ocean systems is for at least 30% of the ocean to be fully to highly protected (O’Leary et al., 2016; Rogers et al., 2020).
If we are to protect ourselves and the many services the ocean provides, it is critical that a clear accounting of MPAs and other forms of effective area‐based conservation measures is carried out as we work towards achieving more appropriate targets. In addition, an adequate level of protection needs to be implemented and effectively managed; MPAs need to be climate smart and resilient in the face of global change (Tittensor et al., 2019).
Though we have stressed the importance of spatial conservation measures here, it is important to emphasize that this does not mean the rest of the ocean is left to business‐as‐usual exploitation. For example, marine reserves in themselves do not necessarily reduce overfishing and may even displace fishing activity to areas where it has previously been low (e.g. Kaiser, 2005; Agardy, Notarbartolo di Sciara & Christie, 2011). They also provide little protection from issues such as long‐range pollutants or invasive species (Agardy et al., 2011; Burfeind et al., 2013). It is therefore of great importance to manage the entire ocean for all activities so that they are sustainable and maximize ocean and human health (Rogers et al., 2020).
4.1.4 Humans, the ocean, biodiversity, and climate are inextricably linked
The ocean forms a critical part of the Earth’s life‐support system through its modulation of climate (Figure 3; Stocker, 2015). It also directly controls the habitability of the coastal zone, the provision of food, recreation, livelihoods, transport of goods (shipping), and information (internet cables) (Bindoff et al., 2019). The ocean, from the surface to its greatest depths, is a vast reservoir of heat. Water can hold approximately 4,000 times as much heat as air. By taking up 93% of the excess heat from global warming (Levitus et al., 2012; Reid, 2016), and by absorbing more than a quarter of the excess CO2 associated with anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions over the past half century (Laffoley & Baxter, 2019), the ocean has protected the planet from more extreme heating (Houghton, 2007; McKinley et al., 2017). The ocean is also the largest body of water on Earth, controlling the water cycle by regulating evaporation, rainfall, terrestrial runoff, and sea ice formation. These, in turn, influence ocean circulation, which modulates the ocean carbon, heat, and salt budgets.
But this overwhelming influence comes with a cost for ocean ecosystems, and for people (Pörtner et al., 2014; Bindoff et al., 2019). The ocean has buffered climate breakdown over the last century by absorbing ever greater amounts of heat and carbon, but there are indications that the role it has played until now is changing. Both the rate of warming (Cheng et al., 2019) and the global mean circulation that transports heat by currents towards the poles from warm equatorial regions has accelerated (Hu et al., 2020). Based on the work of Cheng and colleagues, it is estimated that the ocean is warming up to 40% faster than was estimated by the IPCC (2013) report. The two main sinks (ocean and land) for greenhouse gas CO2, which are the major pathways for lowering concentrations in the atmosphere, appear also to be declining in their ability to do this at a fast rate, 0.54% per annum (Bennedsen, Hillebrand & Koopman, 2019). When combined, these two factors mean that climate disruption, as represented by a changing ocean, is possibly happening at a much faster rate than climate models have been predicting.
The consequences for climate and ecosystems have been enormous, with increases in ocean heat waves and other extreme events around the world (Holbrook et al., 2019; IPCC, 2019; Ainsworth et al., 2020; Cheung & Frölicher, 2020) and a much greater contribution of melting ice and snow to sea‐level rise than expected. Accelerating declines in sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets, and permafrost, as well as reductions in snow (Baxter et al., 2019; Connolly et al., 2019; Farquharson et al., 2019; Golledge et al., 2019; Maurer et al., 2019), together are contributing to accelerating sea‐level rise (Dieng et al., 2017; Nerem et al., 2018), threatening coastal and island habitability, ports and infrastructure, tourism, and coastal archaeology and food production (IPCC, 2019; Kulp & Strauss, 2019; Dawson et al., 2020). Ocean warming is causing poleward movement of species, loss of biodiversity (e.g. coral bleaching), and reduced productivity and integrity in tropical and temperate waters (Beaugrand et al., 2002; Chivers, Walne & Hays, 2017; Beaugrand et al., 2019; Skirving et al., 2019; Smith, Dowling & Brown, 2019).
Sea‐level rise is expected to reduce wetland cover and the potential for both carbon and nutrient sequestration. A warming ocean is also losing oxygen due to reduced solubility of gases and reduced ventilation (vertical mixing) as stratification intensifies. Animals and microbes in a warmer ocean require more oxygen to survive and thus ‘use it up’ as they respire in the ocean interior. Warming is expanding low‐oxygen zones (Stramma et al., 2008; Stramma et al., 2010) and tipping estuaries and coastal waters subject to eutrophication into oxygen‐depleted dead zones (Altieri & Gedan, 2015). This phenomenon, referred to as hypoxia or deoxygenation, can manifest in the redistribution of species (vertically and horizontally), loss of biodiversity, altered food webs, reductions in body size, and changes in productivity (Laffoley & Baxter, 2019). As the ocean absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, the resulting rise in acidity and undersaturation of carbonate ions challenges the ability of calcifying species to thrive, form habitat, and function properly (Gattuso et al., 2015; Doney et al., 2020). Effects are particularly severe at high latitudes and in tropical warm‐water corals (Pandolfi et al., 2011; Foster et al., 2016). Together, warming, acidification, deoxygenation, sea‐level rise, and changes in circulation impose multiple stresses on ocean ecosystems that interact cumulatively with direct disturbance in the form of overfishing, habitat loss or disruption, species invasions, contamination, and pollution.
The solution to the aforementioned issues is to first recognize the essential values that the ocean provides for all life on Earth and then, in joined‐up actions across all sectors of society, to strengthen existing and discover new solutions to overcome the challenges everyone now faces. Some are straightforward, such as taking the pressures off the system to enable the ocean to recover and become healthier into the future. This should be a multi‐pronged strategy, combining drastic cuts in anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and other potent greenhouse gases with dramatic scaling‐up of full and effective protection for ecosystems in the ocean, better provisions to protect mobile species, and a return to recognizable, demonstrable, and accountable sustainability for all activities conducted anywhere in the ocean.
Other strategies across society to join up actions will need to be stronger and more inventive. They will need to include more help to protect wide‐ranging marine species whose conservation is dependent on wider measures rather than just MPAs, as well as new innovative private–public partnerships. An example of this is the rapidly growing cuboid satellite industry and all the new technology they have to observe the Earth and ocean in hitherto unimaginable detail, and thus revolutionize surveillance and monitoring capabilities, and the prosecution of those individuals and nations who undermine everyone else’s efforts to do the right thing and protect the ocean.
4.1.5 Ocean and climate action must be undertaken together
Humans reside at the heart of the climate problem and must wholeheartedly embrace the ocean as part of the climate solution. Feedbacks from human influence on ocean temperature may reinforce and exacerbate global warming. Solutions to these problems must be ambitious and wide‐reaching. Protecting the ocean will require more than achieving the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas emission targets. Even if they are achieved, some parts of the ocean and dependent people in coastal cities and regions and small island states will still suffer (IPCC, 2018; Laffoley & Baxter, 2018).
The Paris Agreement only considers national emissions. It does not include, for example, aircraft and shipping emissions, which in the case of the pre‐COVID‐19UK, for example, added a further 57% on top of the current national emissions (Committee on Climate Change, 2019). Given the importance, and until very recently unrecognized key role, that the ocean plays in mitigating climate breakdown, much greater resources need to be allocated to understanding the ocean and its climate role so that humanity is in a better position to predict and adapt to the speed and scale of change in the future. This applies to addressing potential changes in the ocean that may initiate tipping points/regime shifts in global climate (e.g. Lenton, 2020). Short of yet‐to‐be developed innovations and geoengineering solutions, achieving the required reduction in carbon emissions will require dramatic changes in current approaches to ensure a habitable world for future generations. Though such benefits may not be immediately obvious, they are essential as they will ultimately lead to cleaner air, less acidic water, and so on. This new narrative is therefore formulated and focused on the opportunity for humanity to live within its means and to achieve its full potential in that context, both now and in the future, whilst preventing our current actions from reducing our future potential or even destroying it. Most people’s actions are driven by personal gain, not community or future community gain. Yet time is not on our side to address these shortcomings, as the decadal timescale to effect changes such as these is rapidly reducing with little sign of the serious at‐scale responses that will be required from governments.
Direct ocean‐based mitigation actions include increasing the generation of renewable energy (solar and wind) from the ocean, the greening of ocean industries (to achieve carbon neutrality), and enhancement of the natural carbon sequestration capabilities of blue carbon ecosystems through expansion and restoration of coastal mangroves, seagrasses, and saltmarshes, and carbon storage in seabed sediments and biogenic reefs. Hoegh‐Guldberg et al. (2019), based on the aforementioned options, plus possible sub‐seabed (geological) carbon storage, calculate that these initiatives could reduce global carbon emissions by 4 Gt of CO2 equivalent per annum by 2030 relative to projected business‐as‐usual emissions. During the COVID‐19 pandemic it is estimated that CO2 emissions fell by around 17 Mt per day, equivalent to 6.2 Gt per annum (Le Quéré et al., 2020). ‘A sustainable ocean‐based economy can play an essential role in much needed emissions reduction, while providing jobs, supporting food security, sustaining biological diversity and enhancing resilience’ (Hoegh‐Guldberg et al., 2019).
However, societal adaptation can and must go further to build ocean resilience to climate stress. From spatial planning and the designation of MPAs to improved fishing and aquaculture practices, new ocean science and ecosystem‐based management, climate consideration must become integral to how we study, perceive, protect, and use the ocean. The benefits will accrue to the ocean economy (Gaines et al., 2019), to the whole of society, and to the health of the planet (Gattuso et al., 2015).
4.1.6 Reversing ocean change needs action now
In many respects, the ocean has been treated as a frontier with open access to its resources, relatively few rules to constrain human activities, and competition to exploit its resources. This has resulted in wasteful exploitation of species, habitats, and ecosystems (Norse, 2005).
Fishing is the best‐known example where technological advances since World War II have allowed expansion of such activities across the entire ocean (Swartz et al., 2010) and to increasing depths (Watson & Morato, 2013). Despite a decline in global catches (Pauly & Zeller, 2016), and evidence of an ocean‐wide declining catch per unit effort, the size and power of the international fishing fleet, including both industrial and small‐scale fisheries, has been allowed to continue to increase (Rousseau et al., 2019). Not only has this resulted in the depletion of many populations of target fish species, but it has also become the current number one driver of extinction risk in the ocean (IPBES, 2019; Rogers et al., 2020). It is also economically wasteful; the World Bank has estimated that overfishing causes a loss in annual revenues of US$83 billion per year (World Bank, 2017). The combination of direct fishing impacts and indirect effects of global climate disruption on exploited ecosystems is also making fisheries themselves vulnerable (Thiault et al., 2019).
Poor profitability of fisheries coupled with lack of regulation has led to other undesirable consequences in the industry, particularly human rights abuses, such as slavery, child labour, and violence (Ratner, Åsgård & Allison, 2014; Tickler et al., 2018; Vandergeest, 2019). Efforts to reduce fishing capacity and to regulate catches have allowed fish stocks to stabilize in developed countries, such as in Europe, Canada, and the USA (Fernandes & Cook, 2013; Fernandes et al., 2017; Hilborn et al., 2020), and there has also been a gradual increase in the incorporation of biodiversity considerations into fisheries management (Friedman, Garcia & Rice, 2018). However, despite an increasing number of international and regional conventions, agreements, guidelines, codes of practice, and plans of action, as well as national regulation, measures both to reform fisheries to make them sustainable and to conserve biodiversity from the impacts of fishing have been fragmented and too slow at a global scale.
The solution to the problems leading to a degradation of marine ecosystems, the services they provide, and their predicted sustained and accelerated decline for the foreseeable future is immediate concerted global action. Such action is not unprecedented at a global scale. The discovery of the ozone hole in Antarctica in 1985 (Farman, Gardiner & Shanklin, 1985) triggered the creation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the subsequent regulation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halogenated ozone‐depleting substances that stimulated the opening of the hole in the first place. Evidence since then suggests that this multilateral agreement has largely succeeded, with evidence that the ozone hole is reducing in size (Banerjee et al., 2020). Vigilance is still required to ensure that CFC production does not increase again, as the expected rate of reduction has slowed, suggesting that unreported new production is occurring that is inconsistent with the protocol (Montzka et al., 2018; Dhomse et al., 2019).
In contrast to how we have dealt with CFCs, the sectoral and fragmented approach to ocean governance underlies our inability to tackle the drivers of degradation of marine ecosystems and, at a broader scale, the Earth system. Failure to recognize the connections between the state of the ocean, human health, and societal well‐being is symptomatic of an archaic view of management of resources for the benefit of a limited number of actors, such as private industry or states.
The connectivity between marine ecosystems (e.g. O’Leary & Roberts, 2016; Popova et al., 2019) means that negative impacts in one place, or on one species, habitat, or ecosystem, inevitably have broader consequences for the ocean. What has not been fully recognized is that they also impact humans at local to global scales.