Marine Week 2023: Ocean conservation needs a sea change

Professor Carlos Duarte is Professor of Marine Science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia and Advisory Board Member at Red Sea Global. For Marine Week, he dives into the multiple vital roles coastlines, seas and oceans play, and argues for a new approach to preservation and restoration.

underwater photo of turtle near rock formation during daytime

When it comes to ocean conservation, governmental and private sector investment has consistently fallen far short of what is required. Less than 1% of climate finance goes on “blue economy” ventures to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on ocean preservation, the lowest of any SDG.

Yet, as described by the UN, the ocean is ‘our greatest ally’ against climate change. The ocean not only absorbs 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions, but it also captures 90% of the excess heat created by these emissions. To reverse the impact human activity is having on the planet, giving the lungs of the planet more room to breathe is crucial.

Attention deficit

The ocean is ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for many people, with 60% lying outside national jurisdictions, and a lack of awareness about the importance of marine conservation may be holding back investment. Research by the Sea Save Foundation found that while people may know there are problems, they often struggle to name the key issues when asked. Compared with other environmental challenges, there is less public pressure and consequently policymakers don’t treat ocean protection with the urgency it deserves.

A delicate balance

Alongside the environmental benefits oceans bring, there is a social element too. Oceans sustain delicate ecosystems which, if thrown off balance, could impact hundreds of millions of people.

Take coral reefs, for example. Over 500 million people worldwide depend on these for food, jobs and coastal defenses. Coral reefs can regenerate from extreme weather events, but as global warming intensifies, the frequency of these events is making it harder for them to recover. In fact, if global temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees, as expected by the end of the century, 70 to 90% of the world’s reefs will experience heatwaves too regular for them to survive.

Oceans are also home to hundreds of thousands of beautiful marine species, which benefit us not just as a source of food, but of potential miracle cures. Certain marine invertebrates produce natural products that scientists have used to develop treatments for cancer. As human diseases become increasingly resistant to antibiotics, marine microbes may also become a source of new antibiotics and therapies, with marine biodiversity offering great and largely unexplored potential for the development of new drugs.

body of water during sunset

Changing approach

Far more investment is required to avert catastrophe. A formative study at the start of the decade determined the total cost of saving our oceans and meeting the SDG14 target would amount to $175 billion annually, yet just $980 million is invested annually in marine nature-based solutions.

With so much at stake, more policymakers and private investors are beginning to realize the scale of the problem. The United Nations agreed in March 2023 to approve the historic High Seas Treaty, which provides a legal basis for the COP15 goal of turning 30 percent of the world’s oceans – and the creatures living in them – into protected areas. Likewise, the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework, has set a goal to restore 30% of degraded habitats by 2030, among many other targets.

It’s a start, but policymakers and private investors need to do more to not just protect but restore the lifeblood of our planet.

The potential of coral

Coral restoration should be a priority investment, with reefs supporting at least 25 per cent of marine life despite only covering 0.2 per cent of the sea floor. This requires bringing coral farming to the aquaculture scale. The Red Sea, a giga project on the west Saudi coast developed by Red Sea Global, is attempting just that. Using innovative artificial structures, we’re growing small pieces of coral that can eventually be replanted on existing Red Sea reefs, where they will have a restorative effect.

This is just one example of how the blue economy has become a hotbed of innovation ripe for investment. Startup Liquid Robotics, for instance, has developed an autonomous, solar-powered robot that can explore more than 90% of the world’s oceans to collect critical data on marine ecosystems.

Likewise, scientists have partnered with fishing companies to form Precision Seafood Harvesting, which uses “smart nets” to catch specific species of fish and save other organisms that would otherwise be caught.

Environmental consultancy, Advisian, has developed high-tech buoys that can track the progress of oil spills in real time.

Innovations such as these are helping to save our oceans and, with them, the rest of the world. Investors have a crucial role to play in accelerating their uptake and impact.

school of fish in body of water

Conservation in the Red Sea

As a responsible developer, we want to play a role in shining a spotlight on the issues facing our oceans and protecting and enhancing the precious marine habitats surrounding our destinations through a regenerative approach. In partnership with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), RSG undertook a comprehensive marine spatial planning simulation, which informed the final master plan to minimize the impact of development on the environment and explore opportunities to create positive conservation impact through our investment. This study was published in an open-access peer-reviewed scientific journal and on our website to educate people and drive awareness.

Why we need to act now

We can no longer afford not to act. Our oceans cover 70% of the planet and are an essential part of supporting life on Earth, providing much of protein supply at zero water footprint and absorbing almost a third of our carbon emissions.

Biodiversity loss poses a threat to the oceans and also to our wellbeing. Green-house gas emissions, overfishing, illegal fishing, and habitat degradation are jeopardizing marine life and compromising our ability to prevent global temperatures from rising. Three years ago I led a team of scientists that showed that rebuilding the abundance of marine life within 30 years is possible and provided a road map showing how to do this. We now have ambitious goals and targets to guide our efforts to 2030. If we don’t act now, we risk losing the extraordinary biodiversity of marine life, the support healthy oceans offer to our wellbeing and suffering defeat in the climate battle.

More on marine conservation: 

An expert’s guide to marine conservation success

WATCH: Eden Project seagrass video shows why plant is so precious

Conservationists should focus on populations, not species, report finds

Images:  Jeremy Bishop (top), NOAA (middle), 


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