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Indispensable Ocean: Aligning Ocean Health and Human Well-Being

A report from the Global Partnership for Oceans Blue Ribbon Panel.

By Dr. Sylvia A. Earle

In a presentation at the World Bank headquarters in 2009, I began by showing the classic image of Earth from space and commented: “There it is—The World Bank. Throughout the history of humankind, we have been drawing down the assets, living on the capital without accounting properly for the losses.” This is especially true of the ocean, where impacts are less obvious than for terrestrial systems. Current policies and mind-sets globally were formed decades ago when it seemed the ocean was “too big to fail.” But failing it is, with about half the coral reefs, kelp forests, mangroves, sea grass meadows and coastal marshes globally gone or in serious decline, hundreds of coastal dead zones, steep reduction in numerous commercially exploited species of sharks, swordfish, tunas, cod, salmon and many others.  At the same time, the role of the ocean in governing climate, weather, production of oxygen, the carbon cycle, water cycle and overall planetary chemistry has come into clear focus.  Now we know:  If the ocean is in trouble, so are we.  It is time to take care of the ocean as if our lives depend on it —because they do.

I admit to being skeptical at The Economist’s World Ocean Summit in Singapore early in 2012 when World Bank President, Robert Zoellick announced the formation of the Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO) and the intent to commit funding aimed at alleviating the decline of critical ocean systems that in turn are affecting the economy, health, security, and very existence of people, especially those who are least well-off. Zoellick spoke of addressing perverse subsidies that have fostered over-sized industrial fishing fleets that have laid waste to vast regions of the sea with social and economic consequences to people everywhere, especially those in coastal areas who rely directly on the ocean for sustenance.  He noted the costly neglect of ocean research, concerns about global warming, ocean acidification, sea level rise and the connections of ocean health to human survival and well-being.

So, I was cautiously optimistic when potential partners met in Washington, DC in April, 2012 followed in June at the Rio+20 Summit with the formal launch of the GPO, now a growing alliance of more than 140 countries, international organizations, civil society groups and private sector interests committed to alleviating poverty while addressing threats to the health, productivity and resilience of the ocean. It is mobilizing finance and solutions at an unprecedented scale, focusing on problems including overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution that affect communities, countries and global prosperity.

Early in 2013, I was asked to be part of a panel of 21 ocean-minded individuals with distinctly diverse backgrounds from 16 countries. This Blue Ribbon Panel was charged with guiding investments by the GPO—and others—that would take into account ecological, economic and community sustainability. I participated in most of the intense electronic exchanges and meetings in Asia, Africa, and the US where leaders in government, science, industry, conservation and social justice analyzed, scrutinized, sometimes agonized and finally rationalized weighty subjects, skillfully kept on point though the superhuman patience and diplomatic skill of the Chairman, Australian scientist Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and the supporting staff from the US Academy of Sciences and the World Bank.

The resulting report, Indispensable Ocean: Aligning Ocean Health and Human Well-Being, has just been released. It is a small document crammed with big ideas, a useful distillation of serious deliberations aimed at finding solutions of concern to all, emphasizing the power of public-private partnerships. There is guidance here,  whether your primary focus is on sustaining profitable extraction of wildlife from the sea, looking to the ocean as a source of oil, gas or minerals, or seeking support for protection of  the ocean’s biodiversity and  fundamental life-support functions. It is encouraging to see the World Bank making a serious effort to invest in maintaining the blue part of the planetary portfolio that not only underpins human health, wealth and security, but keeps us alive as well.

More information can be found through the links below:

Global Partnership for Oceans 

GPO Blue Ribbon Panel

Follow the GPO and Sylvia Earle on twitter: @GPOceans | @SylviaEarle

National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and the New York Times, “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, and first “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine, is an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer.