Ocean Blues or a Bright Blue Future?

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The national security cutter USCGC Bertholf the Arctic Ocean Sept. 14, 2012, during Arctic Shield 2012 (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 1st Class Timothy Tamargo/Released)

By Rear Admiral Jonathan White, USN (ret.) and Annabelle Leahy

The pandemic of Covid-19 has tremendous and largely unknown implications for global health, security, and economic prosperity, but as we work diligently to steer the future toward positive outcomes, we must not lose track of the growing challenges and opportunities that continually unfold with another well-known but not well-understood global phenomenon — the ocean.

The ocean and its resources are inextricably tied to human health, the economy, and security. The link between the environment, particularly the ocean, and human health, is an area of increasing global importance as climate change increases the incidence of toxin release from harmful algal blooms, damage from catastrophic weather events, and potential for contagion from waterborne viruses and bacteria. These threats are not just related to health but also to security. Climate change is a core systemic risk to the 21st century world, and we must specifically address the ocean in this discussion. 

Changing ocean conditions are a growing threat to nations around the world, with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rapidly rising sea levels, and melting sea ice displacing populations and infrastructure, shifting and revealing new operating environments, and impacting the ability of decisionmakers to effectively identify, assess, and prepare for new and changing risks. The likelihood of humanitarian disasters, state failure, and conflict are increasing, and the challenges of collapsing fisheries, plastic pollution, ocean acidification, and more threaten integrity of marine ecosystems, exposing deeply established economic systems and engrained cultures and changing conventional conflict.

However, the ocean is also brimming with potential solutions for many global issues. Over the past several months, the current global health crisis has exposed how broad threats, such as a pandemic, create true global and national security concerns; raised questions about our preparedness in global crises; and demonstrated the need to prepare more resilient national and global economies, infrastructure, and social systems. Some ocean resources remain largely untapped and can mitigate both security and health concerns, from healthy food to marine-based pharmaceutical products. There is a large variety of resources found in or on the ocean, from wind and mineral deposits to fisheries and marine genetic resources, that, when sustainably managed, could rectify inequalities in food security, assure financial security in both developed and developing economies, and play a huge role in reducing our reliance on carbon-intensive products. Newer ocean-based industries, such as seaweed harvesting, offshore wind, and others will be key to ensuring a smooth transition to a cleaner, decarbonized world by creating new jobs where unsustainable practices have depleted resources and by providing access to food, energy, and clean water. Sustainable management must be science-based and requires data collection and monitoring efforts to be sufficiently flexible and adaptive to new knowledge and changing conditions. The key to ocean-based solutions is the responsible and deliberate, but innovative and bold, application of ocean science and technology.

Despite the likely threats and vast potential benefits the ocean represents, it remains a relative blind spot in our understanding of Earth science and the natural world. Continued, strong investment in ocean science and technology can prepare our planet and our people against future threats of many kinds and help us better understand the changing dynamics of future global conflicts. The predictability provided by strong ocean science and technology, from forecasting extreme weather, harmful algal blooms, and dangerous tides, to projecting sea level rise, fisheries movement, and navigation ability, is crucial to ensuring the resilience and continued viability of the essential benefits that come from the marine environment as well as the safety of people around the world.

We must transform the way we look at our ocean and the blue economy. As we find ourselves in need of robust, comprehensive initiatives for economic recovery, we must prioritize resilience and consider an accelerated transition to a more sustainable economy that includes the blue economy. This will require continued, and growing, investment in ocean science and technology to ensure sustainable growth built on scientifically sound principles. We must use our scientific, technological, and leadership capabilities to support a healthy ocean that reduces security threats and can continue to benefit people economically, nutritionally, socially, and environmentally.

Over the course of history, the United States has demonstrated a strong ability for scientific leadership. U.S fisheries are some of the most sustainably managed in the world, ensuring healthy, traceable seafood, and we have the ability to lead efforts in fisheries management and other uses of ocean resources across the globe. However, ocean resources, and the management tools put in place to conserve and protect them, cannot be constrained to national boundaries or other man-made limits, so these efforts must be truly a world-wide collaboration. We are looking to build a sustainable future, and we both need and can be on the forefront of this effort. Risks in our modern world, particularly those that relate to the environment, must be addressed multilaterally, and it is important that the United States remain engaged in conversations on how to minimize those risks. By taking bold, decisive, and collective action, we can ensure science is prioritized in finding solutions in this and other times of crisis. 

Now is the time for profound change in the way we think about our relationship with the world around us, particularly the ocean. The next big global crisis could come from the ocean, but so could the next big solution. It is up to us to determine the outcome based on how much we commit to increasing ocean understanding. No matter if we live or work in a coastal state, or in the middle of a landlocked country, the ocean impacts our livelihoods, lifestyles, health, and security. Without the increased predictability that comes from ocean science, we are failing to address a major risk to the stability of our health, security, and economy. We stand in a precarious time in history, where decisions made, and actions taken now, will have resounding impacts on people and our planet for generations to come. If we fail to take advantage of this opportunity, the threats to both human health and security will be severe. We hope to avoid more serious global crises, but if and when they do occur, we need to be prepared to understand where the most serious threats are, who is most at risk, how we can best adapt to the challenges, and how to prevent the worst-case scenarios. This can only be fully done with the knowledge, technical capability, and expertise that comes from present and future investment in ocean science and technology because ocean health is human health.

Rear Admiral Jonathan White, USN (ret.) is President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

Annabelle Leahy is a Policy Intern with the Consortium for Ocean Leadership


* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis

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