The ocean acts as the planet’s lungs, producing half the oxygen we breathe and absorbing half of the carbon dioxide we have pumped into the atmosphere. It acts as the planet’s heart, circulating heat and nutrients around the globe. And it acts as the planet’s liver and kidneys, absorbing and filtering our waste. Just like these internal organs and systems so critical to our bodies, we must take great care not to overtax these vital marine functions.
All of us are intimately connected to the ocean, whether we’re hiking the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, traversing the Sahara Desert, or out hauling lobster pots on Casco Bay near my hometown of Portland, Maine. To protect the health of our ocean and in turn, our blue economy, we must, as the saying goes, “first do no harm.”
On Wednesday, March 27, I was able to bring this message before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation when I was invited to testify at a hearing entitled “Our Blue Economy: Successes and Opportunities.” And while I appreciated the committee’s optimistic take on the topic I also wanted to ensure that before we dove into the opportunities, we also accounted for the threats compromising the ability of our ocean to continue carrying out its essential life support functions on which we have all come to rely.
While there is no internationally accepted definition of the “blue economy,” the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey defines it as comprising “the economic activities that create sustainable wealth from the world’s oceans and coasts.” Other international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program also define the blue economy to include a component of sustainability.
They include this term because sustainability is not just a buzzword — it’s an imperative. Humanity has set our climate on the precipice of a catastrophic point of no return. We have decimated fish populations and put countless species—from microscopic plankton to the largest animals on the planet like the North Atlantic right whale—at risk of extinction. We have turned the ocean’s gyres into plastic soup and strewn waste from the poles to the depths of the Marina Trench. If we continue this business as usual; if we fail to treat this system with an abundance of precaution, it won’t just be our blue economy that will suffer in the long run; it will be our entire planetary economy.
This is why we established the Aspen High Seas Initiative—to address the existential threats currently facing even the deepest, remotest areas of the global ocean—our final conservation frontier. While people may conceptually understand that we live on an ocean planet, the ocean remains primarily out of sight, and out of mind. Thus, our goals are to increase understanding of the global ocean; cultivate a new, diverse set of ocean champions; and inspire world leaders and key decision-makers to protect the High Seas and the ocean at a global scale.
To do this will require a massive commitment to telling the stories of our ocean and its link to everyone on Earth. The Aspen High Seas Initiative is committed to telling these stories through film, original journalism, social media, and every other outlet we can muster to educate people about what the High Seas are, how this often-overlooked 45 percent of the planet shapes our daily lives, and the urgent imperative of moving policymakers to action.
It will also require a greater investment in ocean exploration, research, and monitoring that can take advantage of an exponential increase in our capacity to acquire data. A 2017 piece from the World Economic Forum asserted that “we have collected more data on our oceans in the past two years than in the history of the planet.” A blog piece in Scientific American further reported that NOAA’s ocean sensors collect 20 million megabytes of data daily. That’s fantastic, but for this volume of information to actually mean anything, we must ramp up our ability to process, analyze, and understand what those data are telling us. Fortunately, we have partners such as the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the 4th Industrial Revolution, and XPRIZE who are diving in to assist.
Even with private sector and philanthropic involvement, there’s plenty of room for the federal budget to grow. Funding for NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration has nearly doubled since 2013 to $42 million. Yet that figure is still – a rounding error compared to the multiple billions of dollars we spend on NASA’s space exploration. This is no knock on space exploration, but unlike what we’re likely to find on our next space mission, I can give you a 100% guarantee that our ocean is absolutely teeming with alien life forms just waiting to be discovered.
Protecting this marine biodiversity is central to an effort underway right now at the United Nations to negotiate a new treaty aimed at protecting biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. When complete, this treaty will provide a mechanism for establishing marine protected areas on the High Seas among other key topics aimed at safeguarding these critical aspects of our last global commons.
Science has shown that protecting 30-40 percent of the ocean will be necessary to safeguard biodiversity, preserve ecosystem services, and achieve socioeconomic priorities. Strongly protected areas allow fish to grow large and reproduce, protect important bottom habitat, and have spill-over effects that replenish fish stocks outside their boundaries. And the same technological advances that have led to our ocean data revolution can also provide the keys to enforcing restrictions against industrial and illegal fishing in these ocean parks.
Last month, students — the youngest among us who have the most to lose from our chronic ocean neglect — took to the streets for a Climate Strike to draw attention to the looming existential environmental crisis of our time. Many of them carried signs that were wise in their simplicity: There is no planet B. There is no ocean B. Their action and their voices must remind us that above all, when it comes to our universally unique life-giving ocean, we must first do no harm.
Michael Conathan is the Executive Director of the Aspen High Seas Initiative.