The oceans are worth at least $24 trillion in services such as fishing, tourism, shipping and carbon sequestration, but “urgent action” is needed if the world wants to maintain that ocean economy, according to a new report.
The report, published this week by the World Wildlife Fund, states that if the oceans were a country, they would be the world’s seventh-largest economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And, according to the report, even those measurements of the oceans’ value are likely underestimates: the report didn’t take into account essential ocean services such as oxygen production, temperature stabilization, and cultural services in putting a value on the ocean.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, lead author of the report and director of the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, told Nature that the $24 trillion represents a minimum value for the world’s oceans — but despite that, “it’s quite large,” he said.
“[The report] comes up with a very large number despite the fact that we can’t value the many intangibles — production of sand along coastlines, the value of oceans in terms of their contribution to cultures, and so on,” he said.
More than two-thirds of the goods and services that were included in the report rely heavily on healthy ocean, which means countries need to act quickly to protect the oceans if they want to ensure this economic value will be maintained.
“The evidence is clear: the ocean is a major contributor to the global economy, but its asset base is being rapidly eroded,” the report states. “To restore the ocean’s productive capacity before it is too late, the world must take urgent action.”
The report lays out eight steps countries should take to preserve the ocean economy, actions that include reducing emissions — an effort that the report says must include the adoption of a binding agreement at the United Nations’ climate talks in November — and committing to increase ocean and coastal conservation. It also calls for the creation of an international “Blue Alliance” made up of countries that would “cultivate international will” and “establish a global fund to support countries that have fewer resources and are more vulnerable to the impacts of ocean degradation.”
The report notes that the oceans — and thus the economic resources they provide — are already being heavily degraded. Pollution, overfishing, poorly-planned aquaculture, coastal development, tourism, climate change, and a range of other stressors have greatly affected the oceans over the last few decades. One of the most striking examples of this degradation is the loss of the ocean’s coral reefs, which, aside from serving as a home to a wide range of marine life, can help protect shoreline communities against storm surge.
“Recent studies indicate that at least 50 percent of reef-building corals on tropical reefs in Southeast Asia, Australia, the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean have disappeared from reefs over the past 30 years,” the report states. “While declining water quality and over-exploitation represent serious short-term threats to coral reefs, ocean warming from climate change and ocean acidification are widely appreciated as two of the greatest threats to reefs.”
Overfishing is a major concern too, for the ocean ecosystem and for the communities around the world that depend on fish for sustenance. Luckily, the state of ocean fish stocks could be looking up, at least in the U.S.: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced earlier this month that number of U.S. fish stocks listed as overfished has fallen to its lowest point since 1997. Still, according to the report, 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are over-exploited or fully exploited, a term that means the fish stock shouldn’t be harvested at any higher rate if it is to remain healthy.
Other reports have outlined the threats the ocean faces, though this is among the first to put a value on the ocean’s services. Last year, a study found that the Pacific Ocean is taking up atmospheric carbon dioxide and acidifying much faster than previously expected, a change that’s dangerous for coral — especially baby coral — and fish, which scientists predict could become more hyperactive or confused as the ocean acidifies. And in 2013, the State of the Oceans report found that the level of acidification in the oceans is “unprecedented” and the earth is “entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure.”