Head of Oceans and Freshwater, UNEP
When it comes to our planet’s underwater blue ecosystems — kelp forests, coral reefs, seagrass meadows and mangroves — out of sight is often out of mind. However, this is changing.
As we learn more about the ocean — currently, 80% remains unexplored and 91% of species unidentified — we come to appreciate that its blue ecosystem services are essential to the wellbeing of our human and non-human populations.
Ways blue ecosystems give us life
From fostering fish populations — which ensures food security — to sequestering carbon and providing natural infrastructure that protects coastlines from storms, life below water is hard at work.
Local communities rely on blue ecosystems for their livelihoods and as part of their cultural heritage. Mangroves, for example, provide food, building materials, coastal protection and natural spaces for an estimated 2.4 billion people living within 100 km of the world’s coastline.
Many countries, particularly island nations, rely heavily on blue ecosystems’ ability to attract tourism. The medicinal value of underwater resources is also being increasingly explored and recognised.
We must ensure that life on land does not destroy life below water.
Damage we have caused and how to fix it
Despite the existential role that blue ecosystems play in the lives of human and non-human species, human activity is destroying them at an alarming rate. Between 2009 and 2018, about 11,700 square kilometres of hard coral — more than all the coral currently living on Australia’s coral reefs — were lost.
In the past 50 years, up to 50% of kelp forests have been degraded. We lose a football field of seagrass every 30 minutes. Between 1996 and 2020, mangrove forest loss led to an overall reduction of 139 megatonnes of carbon stocks. That is equivalent to approximately four times the global CO2 emissions of fossil fuel burning and the manufacture of cement in 2018.
We must ensure that life on land does not destroy life below water. We should undertake activities that truly value the nature-based solutions offered by our blue planet. By increasing our evidence base and advocating for sustainable blue economies that work with — instead of against — nature, we can better inform policy and show that nature is not a ‘nice to have’ but a must-have. It must be protected, sustainably managed, restored and financed accordingly.