NRDC’s Top 5 Actions to Safeguard Our Ocean

Despite such incalculable value (or maybe because of it), our ocean is at risk.

A monk seal swimming over a coral reef in Hawaii

NOAA/PIFSC/HMSRP

Every year on June 8, the world celebrates its one, mysterious, life-sustaining ocean. 

Officially recognized by the United Nations in 2008, World Ocean Day raises awareness of the importance of a thriving ocean and fosters interest in its protection and sustainable use. 

From the perspective of a functioning planet—and our well-being—this is “mission critical.” The ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe and regulates our climate; it feeds billions of people; and it provides deep spiritual and cultural meaning to societies worldwide.

Despite such incalculable value (or maybe because of it), our ocean is at risk. Our seascapes are growing ever-more crowded with human use, including industrial-scale fishing, aquaculture, oil and gas development, military activities, offshore wind energy, and shipping. As climate change accelerates, it’s increasingly transforming our seas. For decades, the ocean has been absorbing much of the heat caused by global warming, resulting in it being warmer and more acidic than it has been for millions of years. This is driving marine life to search for cooler waters, helping fuel harmful algal blooms, and destroying important habitats like kelp forests.  

The news is not all dire. There is much we can do to strike a balance between use and protection, and to safeguard all we cherish in the ocean for future generations. 

Below are five of NRDC’s priority ocean actions for the year ahead. All are urgent, all are doable, and all would secure a healthier ocean and planet. 

1) Support 30x30.

A simple but powerful antidote to the increasingly industrialized and climate-stressed world is to protect at least 30 percent of our ocean and 30 percent of lands and inland waters by 2030, an initiative called “30x30.”

Scientists have called for 30x30 to allow a range of natural ecosystems—and the communities they support—to better withstand both the climate crisis and the interrelated biodiversity crisis. Intact wetlands serve as carbon sinks and help slow storm surges from hurricanes. Protected migration corridors provide room for species as their habitat ranges shift over time. In the ocean, fully or highly protected marine protected areas (MPAs) provide safe havens for stressed ocean life to recover and thrive without additional pressures from extractive practices like commercial fishing and oil and gas drilling. MPAs are key to restoring our ocean and protecting our climate and biodiversity; in short, to securing our future.

For 30x30 to be successful, it requires us to act now, with strong, durable actions over a diversity of areas. Efforts at the international, national, and state levels are happening and, here in the United States, this means filling in the significant gaps in our nation’s ocean protection. Currently less than 2 percent of the waters around the continental United States have any strong, holistic protection.

No matter where we live on this planet, we need a healthy ocean to survive. Sign the World Ocean Day action here to signal your support for 30x30.

2) The planet needs the “high seas treaty.”

The high seas, the areas of the ocean that lie beyond the jurisdiction of any one country, constitute nearly two-thirds of the world’s ocean and covers almost half the surface of the planet. Poorly understood and weakly regulated, these international waters are under increasing pressure from climate change, overfishing, noise, and chemical and plastic pollution, as well as destructive activities like bottom trawl fishing and seabed mining.

Virtually every scientific expedition to the high seas finds species new to science. Indeed, it is sometimes said we know more about the back side of the moon than we do of our own ocean. And as human activity expands into the high seas, we risk losing species and habitats before they can be discovered.

After decades of discussion, the United Nations is on the verge of finalizing a new treaty to strengthen the conservation and management of the high seas. These negotiations provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to conserve marine biodiversity on a global scale and protect the interests of the billions of people who rely on our ocean for food, jobs, and economic livelihoods.

NRDC has been deeply involved in the negotiations since day one, advocating for strong treaty language that will result in real conservation benefits on the water. Together, along with our partners from all over the world, we will apply the final push to get the treaty over the finish line in 2022.

3) End offshore oil drilling.

One of the most crucial issues facing our ocean and climate is continued offshore oil and gas development. Offshore oil and gas exploration, development, and production harm wildlife through seismic exploration blasts, pose severe risks to healthy ecosystems, and fuel dangerous climate change. They also threaten community well-being, including Native groups who rely on a healthy ocean and fishermen who make their living from our rich seas. Disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout have had long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems, and there is no way to ensure that such disasters will not happen again if we keep drilling for offshore oil. 

But federal agencies have the power to set us on a new course. The secretary of the Interior Department is faced with an important decision this June: to continue our reliance on dirty offshore oil and include oil and gas lease sales in the next five-year program—or not. The secretary should offer a program with no lease sales. New offshore leasing would have zero impact on current high gasoline prices since new leasing doesn’t result in oil supply hitting the market for five or more years, and the fossil fuel industry is already sitting on leases that could produce oil and gas at current levels for a decade. The only thing new leasing would do is lock in fossil fuel infrastructure and climate pollution for decades, even as our planet continues to warm. Instead of additional oil and gas lease sales, we should be doubling down on our investment in clean energy. Clean energy does not contribute to climate change, carries no risk of catastrophic oil spills, and would free us from volatile fossil fuel price spikes.

NRDC calls upon the Biden administration to offer no new leases on the outer continental shelf and you can, too, by taking action here:

Tell President Biden to end climate-busting oil and gas drilling in coastal waters

4) Make widespread use of ropeless fishing systems a reality.

Climate change is posing new challenges to the coexistence of fisheries and some of our most iconic large whales. Warming water is shifting the distribution of prey species and bringing large whales into increased conflict with fisheries. Large whales are particularly vulnerable to entanglement in vertical buoy lines associated with fixed-bottom fishing gear, such as the traps and pots used to catch lobster and crab.

Entanglements are driving North Atlantic right whales rapidly toward extinction, contributing to unsustainable numbers of entanglements off the West Coast, and they are a problem internationally. The viability of fisheries is also at risk; fishing areas or, in some cases, entire fisheries can be closed down because of entanglements.

North Atlantic right whale #3560, Snow Cone, is entangled in discarded “ghost” fishing lines while swimming with her calf off Cumberland Island, Georgia.

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), NOAA permit #20556-01, CC BY-ND-NC 4.0

Ropeless fishing systems allow fishing to continue while reducing entanglement risk. In these systems, the vertical buoy line is replaced with a remote-controlled cage, inflatable lift bag, or spool of rope stowed on the seafloor. GPS or acoustic marking systems can be used to identify the gear’s location. Rope is only present in the water column for a few minutes during gear retrieval, if at all.

NRDC is working to advance the widespread use of ropeless fishing systems on the West and East coasts and is asking that the Biden administration and coastal states show strong leadership to rapidly achieve large-scale commercial deployment of ropeless fishing systems. We are also working to secure sustained federal, state, and private-sector funding to ramp up collaborative gear innovation and testing, scale up ropeless fishing system manufacturing, and subsidize the transition from traditional fishing gear to ropeless fishing systems.

5) Stop illegal and unreported fishing around the globe.

To manage the world’s fish stocks sustainably, fishermen must follow the rules that govern how many fish are being harvested and protect the marine environment. Imagine endeavoring to manage fisheries sustainably when roughly one-third of global fish stocks are fished illegally or are unaccounted for within fisheries management regimes.

That category of fishing, called illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, is pervasive internationally. It threatens commercial fish stocks, along with protected species of sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, and the ocean habitats that support marine wildlife. IUU fishing is also linked to human and labor rights abuses, such as withholding of pay, debt bondage, beatings, and excessive working hours.

The United States is a major player in driving demand for cheap and abundant seafood. We import more seafood than any other single nation in the world, and as one of the world’s top seafood markets, the United States has the power and influence to help end illegal fishing and associated human rights abuses. A critical first step is to disincentivize IUU fishing and to enforce penalties against human rights crimes at sea.

Despite the strong bipartisan support for ending these practices, the NOAA and Biden administration have failed to take essential steps to end IUU fishing and labor abuses. NRDC calls upon Congress and the administration to:

  1. make fishing operations more transparent;
  2. expand the U.S. seafood traceability program—the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP)—to include all imported seafood species and record information about working conditions on fishing vessels; and
  3. better enforce against countries that allow IUU fishing and human rights abuses in the seafood sector.

These ocean protections will not only ensure a healthier, more productive ocean. They will also assist communities and countries to become more resilient as we continue to feel the effects of climate change. Every day is an important ocean day here at NRDC, but we appreciate the opportunity to share our priorities on this 2022 World Ocean Day.

About the Authors

Lisa Suatoni

Deputy Director, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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