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Solving Humanity’s Grand Challenges Requires a Healthy Ocean

Human well-being and human rights are inextricably tied to the health of the ocean, yet ocean conservation work is often isolated. Last month, as the United National General Assembly focused on tackling the grand challenges represented by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both the ocean goal (aka Goal 14, “Life Under Water”) and me, as...

Human well-being and human rights are inextricably tied to the health of the ocean, yet ocean conservation work is often isolated. Last month, as the United National General Assembly focused on tackling the grand challenges represented by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both the ocean goal (aka Goal 14, “Life Under Water”) and me, as a marine biologist, were a bit lonely.

At one event, guests were asked to put a sticker on their name tag indicating the goal they most supported. Of course, I chose the ocean goal: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” And until a colleague arrived, I was the only one representing the ocean. What was supposed to be a conversation starter turned me into a wallflower. It was a poignant reminder of how misunderstood and marginalized ocean conservation issues often are — and to our global detriment.

My name tag for a lovely event hosted by the UN Foundation and Warby Parker, where I was repping the ocean goal solo.
My name tag for a lovely event hosted by the UN Foundation and Warby Parker, where I was repping the ocean goal solo.

A healthy ocean can reduce poverty and hunger, support human health and economic growth, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and reduce international conflicts. My introversion that evening prevented me from approaching one stranger after another to explain how addressing the global problems they care most about also requires the restoration and sustainable management of the ocean. Here is that explanation now for how each of the other 16 SDGs requires a healthy ocean:

  1. No Poverty — The “Blue Economy” (fishing, shipping, tourism, aquaculture, energy production, biotechnology, etc.) is an enormous economic driver valued at $3 trillion annually. Billions of people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. A healthy ocean can help reduce poverty.
  2. Zero Hunger — Over 3 billion people depend on the ocean for nutrition, as their primary source of protein. A healthy ocean can help reduce hunger and support food security.
  3. Good Health and Well-BeingSeafood provides key micronutrients that hard for many to obtain elsewhere. Chemical compounds from algae and sponges are helping to treat cancer and Alzheimer’s. The ocean supports mental health through our emotional connection to the sea, a connection which can result in neuroconservation.
  4. Quality Education — Our brains don’t work well when we are hungry or malnourished. A healthy ocean means healthy and abundant seafood, which supports children’s ability to learn, and supports incomes from the Blue Economy that enable parents to pay school fees.
  5. Gender Equality — In the fisheries sector, roles are highly gendered (e.g., the term “fishermen”) and discrimination (including wage discrimination) is rampant.
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation — Coastal ecosystems have an impressive (and currently highly overtaxed) capacity to filter the sewage that is continually dumped into it. Wetlands, mangroves, and oyster reefs serve a highly valuable role in maintaining water quality.
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy — The ocean has enormous clean energy potential that is just beginning to be harnessed, including from wind, wave, tidal, biomass, thermal conversion, and salinity gradients.
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth — Marine fishing alone (not to mention, aquaculture, tourism, and research) provides over 350 million jobs, 90% of which are in developing countries. Although many of those fishing jobs are not decent right now (overfishing means it’s often hard to make a good living, and slavery and human rights abuses proliferate), they could be.
  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure — Clean energy and biotechnology are burgeoning and innovative ocean industries. Coastal infrastructure is a growing focus, especially given sea level rise and the increasing frequency and severity of storms.
  10. Reduced Inequalities — In places with high poverty there is often an increased dependence on natural resources. To reduce inequality, the ocean resources that people rely on to survive need to be sustainably managed and accessible.
  11. Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesAround 50% of the world’s population lives within 60 km of the coast, and around 75% of large cities are coastal. If these communities are to be sustainable they need to have a harmonious relationship with their adjacent waters.
  12. Responsible Production and Consumption — An estimated 3 million tons of seafood are caught and then discarded as bycatch each year. Meanwhile fishing is subsidized at over $25 billion a year. And we are on track to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. None of this seems terribly responsible.
  13. Climate ActionThe ocean has absorbed approximately 33% of the carbon emissions since the industrial revolution. Mangroves and coastal wetlands sequester carbon at a rate two to four times greater than mature tropical forests and store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area.
  14. Life Under Water — Yay for the ocean and all it does to support us!
  15. Life on Land — Land and sea are intimately connected. Without a healthy ocean, life on land (especially in coastal areas) suffers.
  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions — A degraded ocean can result in a breakdown of institutions. For example, overfishing eliminates fishing livelihoods and can cause people to turn to piracy. More broadly, smuggling of people weapons, drugs, and seafood across borders and the high seas is shockingly common. Ocean conservation is a human rights and national security issue.
  17. Partnerships for the Goals — The ocean knows no geopolitical or socioeconomic boundaries, and 64% of the ocean is high seas (outside of national jurisdictions). Seawater, fish, and pollution flow around the globe, making partnerships critical.
Icons for all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. (via
Icons for all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. (via

These linkages between ocean conservation and other aspects of sustainable development are not commonly understood, and that has financial implications. Right now the ocean goal only receives 0.74% of all the philanthropic funding dedicated toward the SDGs — meanwhile the ocean is 72% of planet! If people don’t understand how intrinsic a healthy ocean is to most aspects of human well-being, they certainly won’t be motivated to invest in the solutions.

And the phrasing “Life Under Water” — It’s not immediately clear what that means. It’s certainly not nearly as evocative as the framings of seeking peace, health, and equality. In addition to the broader “out of sight out of mind” challenge of communicating ocean issues, we have a marketing problem on our hands.

However, we are making important progress. Notably, the ocean actually has its own stand-alone goal for the first time, which is the result of a huge effort on the part of the ocean conservation community. This is a big deal! These goals are intended to frame and focus the work of the UN and the development community through 2030.

We — the ocean community, sustainable development community, and hopefully a growing group of partners — have a long way to go in both better communicating the centrality of ocean health to achieving the rest of the goals, and in achieving (and exceeding!) each of the specific targets under the ocean goal. We’ve got work to do, and I look forward to doing it together.

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Meet the Author

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.