From the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to new rules on cutting shipping emissions, Angeli Mehta looks at the plethora of initiatives to relieve the unprecedented stresses on marine life

Our oceans give us life. They produce half the oxygen we need to breathe, and they soak up carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. They also provide us with food and recreation, and enable 90% of the world’s trade. But they’re under huge stress.

Climate change would be worse if it weren’t for the fact that the oceans take up about half the carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere. But the extra carbon dioxide is changing the chemistry of the oceans so they’re becoming more acidic.

Marine life has never experienced as fundamental a shift in ocean conditions this quickly.”

“The rate of acidification is unprecedented in the last 800,000 years,” says Sarah Cooley, director of the ocean acidification programme at the Ocean Conservancy. “Marine life has never experienced as fundamental a shift in ocean conditions this quickly.”

And acidification is just one challenge. She points out that marine life also has to contend with warming, disease, plastics pollution and over-fishing. In just 180 years, we have managed to change systems that took millennia to evolve.

The oceans will continue to take up carbon dioxide but it’s not clear how much – or for how long. “The sooner we can decrease carbon dioxide emissions, the better,” suggests Cooley. But meanwhile, other stresses – such as nitrogen run-off from agricultural land, and coral reefs being hit by boats or damaged by humans standing on them – can all be tackled.

Higher CO2 levels have caused acidification which is killing coral reefs. (Credit: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

The first alerts came from the now well-documented damage to coral reefs from both warming and acidification, and the large-scale loss of oyster hatcheries on the pacific coasts of North America. Cooley says efforts are under way to cultivate bivalve shellfish such as oysters and mussels together with kelp, so protecting not only livelihoods, but helping to restore coastal ecosystems.

Kelp absorbs carbon dioxide five times as fast as land-based plants, and also likes nitrogen. In Florida, scientists are growing coral fragments, and trying to discover the best stocks and methods for planting into depleted reefs. Aside from their rich biodiversity, coral reefs protect coasts from erosion and flooding by reducing wave energy and trapping sediment.

“One of the biggest benefits of that work is that when you train hundreds of volunteers to plant out baby corals, you educate those volunteers about the scale of the problem the reefs are experiencing,” Cooley says.

The idea is to establish a set of principles on best practice for business in the ocean

What has been more challenging, she adds, is engaging onshore industry.

Addressing our oceans’ woes is made difficult because of a lack of joined-up ocean governance, with a complex web of authorities and players all impacting on our oceans’ health. And both waters and marine species cross borders at will.

Since last autumn, states from around the world have been negotiating a UN treaty to protect marine biodiversity in the high seas, which are beyond national jurisdictions. At the moment, according to the High Seas Alliance of NGOs, there is no legally binding mechanism to establish marine-protected areas there, or even to undertake environmental impact assessments.

A peacock mantis shrimp in waters off Indonesia known for biodiversity. (Credit: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock)

The UN has also asked business for help, because global governance processes tend to move only slowly. Last year, the UN Global Compact, a voluntary corporate sustainability initiative, brought leading industry players in shipping, energy, and fishing together with finance and equity companies to create the UN Global Compact Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business.

“The idea is to … establish a set of principles on best practice for business in the oceans; and ensure that we get better at protecting the oceans while developing business opportunities,” explains Bjørn Otto Sverdrup, head of sustainability at Norwegian energy company Equinor.

One of its first acts was to map ocean governance. “I would say it [the ocean] has been mismanaged on the governance side,” suggests Sverdrup. The government of Norway may have something to offer: it takes a holistic approach to the management of the environment, “with science-based dialogue, and transparency between business, government and academics,” Sverdrup points out. “A lot of countries don’t regulate their environment in that way.”

Marine-protected areas work if monitored, and are connected, but you have to do it right

A lack of governance is preventing capital from flowing at the scale required to make a difference, according to Torsten Thiele, an ocean finance expert who set up another platform, the Global Ocean Trust, to work on technology and finance solutions to deliver sustainable governance.

“Marine-protected areas work if monitored, and are connected, but you have to do it right,” says Thiele. He’s optimistic that a structure can be found for marine-protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas, and advocates satellite technology to monitor them.

“We need a single global data resource: the same satellite to catch illegal fishing, help operational fishing, and monitor the MPA.”

Global Fishing Watch uses satellite technologyto track large fishing vessels.

He points to Global Fishing Watch, which uses satellite technology and machine learning to track large fishing vessels. “That’s the kind of technology we can also use for conservation.” (See Over-fishing a worse threat to oceans than climate change)

Another example where technology had been used effectively to protect marine species involves the placing of acoustic buoys off the US coastline. These alert shipping to avoid potential whale strikes – once a frequent occurrence.

Thiele estimates the world will spend trillions on infrastructure over the next 10 years: “But with tens of billions, if sensibly guided into ocean governance, we could make a massive positive impact on the ocean and global environment.”

The low-hanging fruit of improving coastal resilience is highly profitable

He insists economic benefits will outweigh cost. “The low-hanging fruit of improving coastal resilience is highly profitable,” Thiele says. Indeed many developments like early warning systems for coastal storms, flood prevention, protecting livelihoods, and disaster risk management have been demonstrated to yield positive returns.  

“In the longer run we need to be more innovative in using technology – reducing the number of vessels and noise from vessels,” suggests Sverdrup of Equinor. Partnerships have led to the development of underwater robots and autonomous vehicles; whilst Equinor has pioneered floating wind farms, which allow turbines to be placed in deeper waters, where they are less likely to disturb fish. The added advantage is that installation is quieter. Otherwise, creating a bubble curtain around conventional substructures breaks up sound waves to cut noise.

The crisis caused by the vast quantities of plastics littering our oceans has caught the public’s imagination, prompting businesses across the world to launch a plethora of initiatives to tackle it.

Protecting marine environments can help defend coasts from erosion. (Credit:

The latest – the Alliance to End Plastic Waste – launched in January in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, brings together 30 companies from the plastics, consumer goods, energy and waste sectors, including Procter & Gamble, Shell, Total, Suez, Veolia, Dow and DSM.

Between them, the companies have committed to investing $1.5bn to tackle waste in the environment over the next five years. Initially, the alliance will partner with cities to design waste-management systems, to plug the gap in infrastructure, and invest in an incubator fund set up by Circulate Capital and the Ocean Conservancy, to help deliver a pipeline of projects for investment.

WWF is setting up a mechanism to make brands accountable for what they’ve pledged, and to drive best practice across cities and tourist regions that will stop plastic entering the oceans in the first place.

People have a fundamental connection to the ocean … They want the ocean to thrive

Environment groups are urging the EU to back plans for ports to charge a fixed fee for handling shipping waste, to deter them from illegally dumping it at sea. Indeed, for the past two years the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam have been offering free plastic waste disposal to ships entering their harbours.

Plastics waste is but one problem for the oceans caused by marine trade. Despite the contribution of shipping to climate change (some 2.5% of global emissions and rising), its activities were not included in the Paris Agreement. Last year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), committed to at least a 50% cut in emissions by 2050, and to pursue efforts to phase them out altogether.

The industry has its work cut out to meet this aim (See Cruise industry finds the answer may be blowing in the wind), but an instant gain could come from reducing speed. A recent study commissioned by campaign group Transport & Environment suggests a 10% cut in fleet speed could slice 19% off carbon emissions, even accounting for the extra ships that would be required to do the same work.

Rotterdam offers free plastic waste disposal to ships to deter dumping at sea. (Credit: corlaffra/Shutterstock)

So-called “slow steaming” also reduces noise (a huge threat to larger marine mammals) and the risk of whale strikes.

From next year, the IMO will ban ships using fuels with a sulphur content of more than 0.5% – compared with 3.5% now. But it looks like many ship owners will opt to “scrub” the exhaust gases with seawater, rather than use more expensive low-sulphur fuels. The fear is that discharging the water at sea will only add to acidification, and further pollute marine waters.

The concept of natural capital has been embraced by the private sector: now there’s a recognition of the need for a shift of focus towards marine-based activities. The Natural Capital Coalition has begun work on an oceans supplement, to develop a global approach to measuring and valuing business impacts and dependencies on the oceans, to inform decision making.

“People have a fundamental connection to the ocean … [They] want the ocean to thrive,” says Cooley of Ocean Conservancy. “We all have a common interest here, and that gets you a long way into a conversation, to be able to talk about solutions.”

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability.  @AngeliMehta.

Main picture credit: Rich Carey/Shutterstock

This article is part of the in-depth Saving our Oceans briefing. See also:

‘Over-fishing a worse threat to oceans than climate change’

Alliance to end Plastic Waste  oceans  CO2  shipping  coral reefs  acidifcation 

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