UN Looking to Turn the Tide on Ocean Health

by | Mar 2, 2017 | News, Vincentian Family at the U.N.

To a certain degree, many of us relate to Laudato Si from a land perspective. We ask ourselves, “am I recycling and composting, going solar, watching my use of electricity?” and the like. But Pope Francis, within the Encyclical, also calls us to pay attention to the condition of our oceans. “The oceans not only contain most of the planet, but also most of the wide variety of living things, many of which are still unknown to us and are threatened by various causes,” he observes (no. 40).


Pope Francis reminds us that a quarter of Earth’s population live on or nearby coasts and that a rise in sea level can create “extremely serious situations” (no. 24). In that same paragraph, he warns of increasing ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide pollution and notes it is compromising the marine food chain.  He later points out other forms of water pollution. “Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas,” he says, at paragraph 29.   He raises awareness of the disappearance of ecosystems supported by mangroves (no. 39).  And he speaks of uncontrolled fishing and the threat to some oceans species, such as plankton (no. 40).


In concert with Pope Francis’ ocean concerns, and with an eye towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 by 2030, the United Nations has scheduled an Oceans Conference June 5-9, in New York.  SDG 14 calls upon the world to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”  It will be the first high-level conference to focus on implementing one specific SDG.

In preparation for the June Conference, multiple stakeholders just completed discussions during a two-day meeting in New York. The Conference Room was packed, with an overflow room required, indicating how significant the issues of oceans are to member states and interested groups.

Results will include a call for action, a report with summaries of discussions on seven themes, and a list of voluntary commitments for the implementation of SDG 14.  Themes included contending with ocean pollution; protecting and restoring marine and coastal ecosystems;  making fisheries sustainable;  addressing ocean acidification;  increasing scientific knowledge, research capacity, and marine technology; improving economic benefits to  Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs) as well as small-scale fishers, to marine resources and markets; and implementing international law.


“Dilution is no longer the solution to pollution!”  So goes a common chant with regard to the world’s seeming denial of ocean trash.

We’ve seen pictures of littered beaches, marine life entangled in six-pack rings, and whales dying of ingested plastic bags.  Add to this debris from fishing boats (i.e. nets, etc.) and it’s quite clear oceans suffer from a shocking garbage problem.

UN General Assembly President, Peter Thomson, opened the two-day meeting with a sobering statistic.  The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic refuse per minute goes into our oceans, he said. (That would be 525,600 garbage truck loads per year).   According to the UN, an average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter can be found on every square kilometer of ocean.  We are treating our oceans like massive dumps.

“Dilution is no longer the solution to pollution.”

Estimates are that eight million tons of plastic entered oceans from land in 2015.  This equals five plastic bags filled with trash for every foot of coastline around the world, according to the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.

Meanwhile, there are five major garbage gyres in our oceans, as well as smaller ones.   The Great Pacific Garbage Page is said to be five times the size of Texas.  The gyres are floating vortexes of garbage. In some spots, there are six times as much plastic as plankton.

It’s not simply that plastic waste disrupts beautiful beach views.  It also breaks down with sunlight and heat into tiny parts called micro plastics.   Much of the gyres include small plastic pieces which can be eaten by some marine life.   During the recent UN meeting, a video displayed even plankton ingesting micro plastic.  Imagine micro plastic moving up the food chain!  Studies continue with regard to the effects of such ingestion.

Other ocean pollution derives from the disposal of chemicals, fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns, household products, and sewage, as well as oil spills.

There are a number of positive efforts to deal with ocean pollution.  In the Cook Islands, divers annually participate in an underwater cleanup.  France has outlawed the use of plastic bags, plates, cups, and utensils.  The US bans microbeads from some bath and beauty products.   A shoe manufacturer has made tennis shoes out of recycled ocean plastic.  A cleanup of a 2.5 kilometer section of Versova beach near Mumbai was described as the biggest beach cleanup in history. And inventors are testing and perfecting ocean cleanup machines which may not be able to clean entire oceans, but represent creative starts.


According to the UN, more than three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports 90 percent of assessed wild fish populations cannot handle the pressure of additional fishing and for about a third of that, fishing actually needs to be substantially reduced. (World Wildlife Foundation).   Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for about 20 per cent of the world’s catch and 50 per cent in some cases (WWF).

About 5 per cent of the world’s oceans are now protected, according to the UN.  This is a helpful increase and a step in the right direction.   But the Convention on Protection of Biodiversity met in December in Mexico, calling for the world to protect ten percent of it coastal and marine areas.

Some possible solutions to overfishing include increasing the number of marine protected areas or reserves, so that stocks and ecosystems can recover; discontinuing subsidies for fishing fleets; implementing greater patrolling; improving the management of fisheries; and providing regulations which are more universal and enforceable.


As carbon dioxide increases, so also does ocean acidification.  (There’s been a 26 per cent rise in ocean acidification since the Industrial Revolution).  This means that some species will need to adapt, migrate to more suitable waters, or die, thus affecting food chains.  Some shellfish, for example, will find it harder to create their shells, which are affected by acidification.

If CO2 emissions continue to increase, then the question arises whether the ocean can continue to absorb them.  If not, they will stay in the air and potentially increase global warming, which raises sea levels, significantly affecting those who live in coastal areas.  This points to the imperative of member states acting to implement the Paris Climate Agreement.

Oceans absorb 30 percent of human-made carbon dioxide.  Ambassador Ronald John Jumeau, Ambassador from the Seychelles to the UN, addressed this issue of “blue carbon.”  Small Island States (SIDS) often include expansive areas of ocean. He pointed out that SIDS are expelling little carbon dioxide, but are absorbing other nations’ CO2 in their oceans.  Just as nations blessed with land are urged to preserve forests to assist with CO2 issues, so also should nations be cautioned against the removal of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses, because they absorb more carbon per acre than forests.


The UN recently launched a site which collects voluntary commitments related to ocean protection made by member states, organizations, business, the UN system, civil society and others.  Sweden, for example, volunteered to increase its marine protected areas.  The Peace Boat group is going to launch its “Ecoship project,” which is an energy efficient vessel scheduled to set sail in 2020.  UN Environment will campaign to stop ocean plastic pollution.


What kind of commitments might we make as a Vincentian Family?  Commitments could vary, depending on the proximity of Vincentian Family members to oceans.  Those living near oceans might consider a beach cleanup.  All of us might reflect on our use of plastics and, in consuming fish, choosing those species which are at sustainable levels and caught in a sustainable manner.

Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the Conference, thanked all participants at the recent preparatory meeting and stressed that the June Ocean Conference will be a “game changer” in reversing the decline of the health of oceans and seas, and in advancing the implementation of SDG 14.  We shall see shortly what type of action plan the UN develops.


National Geographic offers a great list of ten things you can do to preserve the ocean: click here to view the list.