The marine environment is an essential component of the global life-support system

Oceans cover 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and provide us with food, oxygen and jobs. But they are probably the least understood, most biologically diverse, and most undervalued of all ecosystems.

From deep oceans to coastal reefs, from mudflats to sea grass beds, ocean and marine systems provide us with essential services: carbon capture for climate mitigation, renewable energy and protection from storm surges, to name but a few. As the global population grows, we are probing deeper and further into the oceans - for fish, oil, gas, minerals and new genetic resources - in an attempt to keep pace with increasing consumption. This is damaging the oceans that sustain us.

Estimating the total value of marine ecosystems could provide policymakers with a strong rationale to improve ocean management and invest in marine conservation. This would reduce environmental risks and ecological scarcities while boosting human well-being.

This year’s tagline for World Oceans Day (8 June) “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet”, aptly encapsulates the importance of oceans and seas in our ecosystem, and represents an opportunity to raise awareness.  

Managing a complex ecosystem
UNEP has been busy supporting an integrated management of oceans and seas. Within UNEP, the Ecosystems Management Subprogramme works to drive change over both the short and long term through innovative solutions, build partnerships, and support countries to better manage, monitor and account for biodiversity and the health and productivity of ecosystems.

Central to a transformational response to decades of overfishing, pollution and unplanned coastal development will be moving from sectoral management, to an approach that marries seemingly competing interests in relation to marine and coastal resources and space within a robust framework and a spatial planning perspective. This is central to ensuring equitable access among diverse interests and users.

Oceans face the threats of marine and nutrient pollution, resource depletion and climate change, all of which are caused primarily by human actions. These threats place further pressure on environmental systems, like biodiversity and natural infrastructure, while creating global socio-economic problems, including health, safety and financial risks.

In order to promote ocean sustainability, innovative solutions that prevent and mitigate detrimental impacts on marine environments are essential. The internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) guide governments towards creating a world in which we better value the global ecosystem upon which we all depend for life.

We have 14 years to meet SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

What’s UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme?
Established in 1974, the UNEP Regional Seas Programme focuses on the protection of specific bodies of water from pollution, from land-based and sea-based sources; on promoting assessments of the status of the marine environment; and on the conservation and sustainable management of oceans through support to the establishment of regional conventions and action plans.

There are currently 18 Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans across the world, of which 14 were established under the auspices of UNEP. They received initial support, and continue receiving technical assistance from UNEP upon request.

These programmes aim to restore the health and productivity of oceans and marine ecosystems by promoting responsible stewardship. Over the last 40 years, they have helped countries to reduce land-based pollution, improve the management of coastal zones, and brought nations together to conserve the marine environment.

Some examples of change
The number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is growing. With support from UNEP, Haiti last year designated its first nine MPAs and others are set to follow suit.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy, which came into force in 2014, is phasing out the practice of throwing unwanted fish overboard and requires the industry to stick to quotas designed to achieve healthy fish stocks.
The government of the Seychelles has pledged to expand Marine Protected Areas  to cover 30 per cent of its exclusive economic zone (400, 000 square kilometres), with 15 per cent designated as no-take areas. The commitment has been incorporated in the Seychelles’ first Protected Areas Policy which was endorsed in 2013.

Traditional fishers in Madagascar have carried out more than 250 temporary closures over about 450 km of coastline, a practice that has dramatically increased the size of their catch.