An ocean of opportunities is within our reach — if we succeed in turning the tide today

Pavan Suhkdev, President, WWF International

I have long believed that there can be no reckoning with the future without a clear-eyed understanding of the present. WWF’s new Living Planet Report 2018 (LPR), a stocktake of nature globally, presents a clear and sobering picture of how human activity is changing the face of our planet, its wildlife, forests, rivers and oceans.

As global wildlife populations show a 60 per cent decline, on average, in little over 40 years, the report also provides scientific evidence that some of the ocean’s most productive habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves are half lost already.

© Jürgen Freund / WWF

These are startling statistics that should spur us all into action. Leading the charge should be global policy makers who understand the foundational importance of these habitats and what their decline represents for ocean ecosystems, including fish populations, and for the people who depend on them. It amounts to an existential threat.

A perfect storm is brewing. As coastal communities expand rapidly around the world, ocean-derived resources are already stretched thin: the LPR also shows how pressure on many fish stocks continues to grow each year and how quickly plastic pollution’s insidious reach is spreading. With climate change decisively on the march as the recent IPCC report confirms, there can be no greater urgency.

That the LPR is being launched while the Our Ocean conference is underway is opportune given its focus on commitments for action by governments and the public and private sector, providing added impetus to accelerate ocean conservation. As delegates attend the discussions, the findings of the LPR are a reminder of what is at stake and the chance they have to commit to bold action to usher in much needed change.

The ocean has never drawn so much attention, and with that comes the promise of solutions.

One of the most interesting and promising approaches to ocean conservation is described by the umbrella phrase, sustainable blue economy, or just ‘SBE’, a new acronym for the conservation lexicon. In practice, this would translate into a regulated and regenerative marine-based economy that provides social and economic benefits for current and future generations; restores, protects and maintains the diversity, productivity and resilience of marine ecosystems and is based on clean technologies, renewable energy, and circular material flows.

Whilst some ‘new economy’ ideas shine bright for a moment and then dim just as quickly, after spending much of my last fifteen years at the intersection of economics and conservation, my hunch is that SBE will have staying power — precisely because it is the only way forward for the ocean if we want to secure economic and social stability, while keeping within planetary limits.

Let me emphasise the urgency of our collective commitments and tasks- time is not on our side when it comes to confronting the growing threats.

I hope we can look back at 2018 as the year when we took some of the longest strides in turning the tide for ocean conservation through the SBE approach.

We have before us the possibility to extend real, practical and enduring opportunities to community partners who are on the frontline; to redesign value chains to take full account of the pathological impact of pollution and to secure a future with increasingly aware and active consumers and stakeholders who do not see the ocean merely as the latest frontier to exploit for short-term profits.

A healthy ocean is essential to the wellbeing of humanity. Investing in our ocean’s blue natural capital is an investment in our collective future as well as in the future of the coastal communities across the globe who are directly dependent on these ecosystems for livelihoods and food security. Whether it is communities in Indonesia’s Koon Island that have long used traditional wisdom in managing their fishing resources and are now being supported through local tourism and fishing businesses which benefit from healthier fish stocks, to create a reinforcing system of sustainable blue economics, or governments increasingly seeing the importance of coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses for meeting their commitments under the Paris climate agreement, the ocean can be the beneficiary of a new economic thinking. It can show how we can deliver profits without degrading ecosystems, or even better, how revenues can be earned by restoring ocean ecosystems, and these are the essence of an ‘SBE’.

The kind of change needed for the ocean must be based in new thinking, in new norms and regulations, and most of all: action! I’m buoyed by the work of a diverse group of institutions that has rolled up its sleeves already committed to make this approach work and I hope this is just the start.

This Our Ocean will see major investments in ocean conservation being announced from generous philanthropists and foundations, corporate interests and governments with real foresight. Delegates will also witness a new wave of support for the principles that will drive the financing of the SBE. In tandem, these two threads can help make real the shift toward arresting the sharp decline of ocean ecosystems so that future Living Planet Reports can tell a different story.

Today we have a chance to write a new story for the world’s oceans, one of progress and recovery where the world saw an ocean of opportunities for a sustainable future and seized it. Are you on board?

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This column first appeared in the Jakarta Post edition of 30 October 2018, available online here.