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If oceans were a country

Flickr: Mark Seton

I recently went diving among some of the amazing coral reefs of Indonesia. Their sheer beauty is beyond description, and their value is beyond calculation. But let’s try to put it in perspective.

The World Wildlife Fund recently estimated that the total asset base of the ocean is valued at US$24 trillion, and the annual “gross marine product” (GMP) – equivalent to a country’s annual gross domestic product – is at least US$2.5 trillion.

To make that real, imagine that we gave every person alive in the world today US$350 every year; we’d still have a little left over from the wealth we extract from the oceans annually. If the ocean were a country it would have the seventh largest economy in the world – larger than Brazil’s or Russia’s.

if-the-ocean-were-a-country-b1.jpegIf the ocean were a country it would have the seventh largest economy in the world – larger than Brazil’s or Russia’s.
Image: UNDP São Tomé and Príncipe

Oceans provide a substantial portion of the global population with food and livelihoods and are the means of transport of 80 percent of global trade. They absorb nearly one-third of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, delaying and mitigating the effects of climate change. The sea also offers vast potential for renewable ‘blue energy’ production from wind, wave, tidal, thermal and biomass sources.

But despite the benefits derived from the ocean, it is still being allowed to degrade.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), nearly 90% of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited or have reached their maximum level of exploitation. A recent report estimated that 75% of remaining coral reefs, the world’s most diverse marine ecosystem, are currently threatened, and many have already been lost. It is projected that if we continue to travel the current greenhouse gas emission pathway coral reefs will disappear by 2050.

And such losses are not inevitable. New research shows that the sustainable management of fisheries makes economic sense: within 10 years we could increase profits in the fishing sector by US$51 billion (or 115 percent) a year compared to today, if fisheries were managed sustainably.

Last month celebrated World Oceans Day under the theme Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet. The four words say it all. And behaviours in the coming years will determine the fate of this ‘last frontier’, with implications for the health of the entire planet.

But how can ordinary citizens, address such immense degradation, you might ask.

I intend to do my small part – I will only eat certified sustainable fish from now onwards, and I will advocate for better labelling of sustainable wild-caught fish in Asia, where I live. These actions will not only lead to a healthier ocean, but also to improved economic returns.

I encourage each of you to think big today on how to improve the health of the ocean – and to make your own pledges.

As the legendary marine biologist Sylvia Earle remarked: “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live.” The ocean environment is unquestionably linked to human life – and to our health and wellbeing as a species.

Contributed by Johan Robinson Regional Technical Advisor with the Sustainable Development team at UNDP's Asia Pacific regional hub in Bangkok.