When you think of the sea, you probably have a very simple sound in your ear: above the gentle sound of waves, below, peaceful silence. In fact, it is anything but quiet in the sea. Toadfish grunt, pistol crabs pop and bearded seals trill. Seaquakes, storms and breaking ice are also part of the natural maritime soundscape. But that is not how it remains. Recordings from underwater microphones make it clear that the listening experience is sometimes more reminiscent of a well-sounded night club: the engines of huge container ships are humming, warship sonars send loud sound impulses, fishermen increase their catch rate with dynamite, compressed air cannons emit explosion noise when searching for oil and gas , anchors are loudly rammed into the seabed for oil production platforms and wind farms. 

This noise storm spreads over great distances. According to the NGO Ocean Care, some sound waves can even be heard within a radius of 3.000 kilometers. And, as a meta study published in February shows, sea creatures suffer far more than previously thought: the noise disrupts their communication, drives them away from feeding and breeding grounds, changes their social behavior and puts them under stress. When marine mammals panic because of loud noise, they can emerge from great depths far too quickly and suffer serious, often fatal injuries in the process. However, as the researchers found, even mussels, jellyfish and crustaceans are not unaffected by the noise. 

Oceans: The earth is a blue planet

For a long time it was believed that the world's oceans are so large and so full of life that humans cannot cause any particular damage. We now know that the blue that covers a good 70 percent of the earth's surface is not only becoming more noisy due to human influences, but also warmer, more acidic, fewer fish and more toxic. In the past few years, one has almost got used to the images of faded coral reefs, floating oil spills or huge plastic islands.

Disastrous: The largest entry of plastic into the world's oceans takes place in Asia.
Disastrous: The largest entry of plastic into the sea occurs in Asia.

Less plastic in the sea

From the Arctic to the tropical seas to the Antarctic: straws, sacks and bottles are to be expected everywhere today. More than ten million tons of plastic waste are likely to find their way into the oceans every year, where they break down into tiny particles. In addition to “garbage disposal” by ships, the problem is primarily land-based: In developing and emerging countries in particular, there is often a lack of capacities and standards to dispose of ever larger amounts of waste properly. This has not prevented EU countries - including Austria - from exporting plastic waste to Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam or India, for example. Since January 1, 2021, this has only been possible to a limited extent - an important step in the fight against pollution. Other steps are urgently needed on site. Most recently, major ocean plastic polluters such as Indonesia and Vietnam announced ambitious plans to substantially reduce the amount of waste entering the water by 2025.

Word is now also slowly getting around that the seas will not get healthier just by watching. “The oceans have never been higher on the political and economic agenda than they are now,” says Kristian Teleki, Director of the Sustainable Ocean Initiative at the World Resource Institute in Washington, "they are finally seeing how important they are to humanity."

From an Austrian inland perspective, the sea is perhaps just a place of longing for a vacation or a supplier of shrimps, mussels and branzino. Its enormous importance for the planet is often underestimated, says Teleki: “Healthy oceans produce around half of the oxygen we need. As a huge carbon sink, they also absorb more than a quarter of man-made CO2-Emissions and absorb 90 percent of the additional heat energy that arises due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. " 

Last but not least, the world's oceans are essential for the global economy. According to the United Nations, around 90 percent of global transports are carried out by sea. And maritime sectors such as fishing, offshore mining, marine tourism and shipping generate an estimated $ 2,5 trillion in value each year, according to Teleki. "If the oceans were one country, they would probably be the seventh largest economy."

The oceans have never been higher on the political and economic agenda than they are now.
Kristian Teleki, World Resources Institute WRI
Kristian Teleki
World Resources Institute

The oceans as a supplier: global appetite for seafood

What people like to see on the plate on land still floats in the oceans. Fish makes up almost 3,3 percent of animal protein consumption for 20 billion people, and is by far the most important source of protein for hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Gambia, Ghana and Indonesia. Earthlings now eat around 20,5 kilos of fish every year. In the 1960s, the annual per capita consumption was still nine kilos, as can be seen in the 2020 fisheries report of the Organization for Food and Agriculture FAO. And even if more and more fish come from marine or freshwater farming (in 2018 it was already 82 million tonnes live weight, out of a total of 178 million tonnes), this in no way relieves the population of wild species. On the contrary: in aquaculture fish is needed as feed - and that is often caught in the wild (please read about larval meal as an alternative here.).

An estimated 84 million tons of wild fish were pulled from the sea in 2018. The catches are far too high for a number of species. According to the FAO, a third of all commercially used stocks are now considered overfished, and 60 percent are “maximally exhausted”. The environmental organization WWF therefore advises fish eaters to avoid gold mackerel, cod, dogfish and several species of tuna and octopus, among other things, or to pay close attention to their origin. Overfishing not only threatens marine life, but also the jobs of those people who work on fishing boats or in the processing of seafood. Around 230 million people - at least before Corona - earned their income in maritime food production, most of them live in emerging and developing countries. 

Better balance between fishing and species protection.
Better balance between fishing and species protection.

More life in the sea

Around three billion people live on seafood, while fishing, mariculture and processing offer more than 200 million jobs. People in developing countries in particular live and feed on what the sea has to offer. But things are going wrong in the industry: overfishing and unsuitable fishing methods are putting fish stocks under pressure, and numerous species are threatened with extinction. Subsidies that increase the capacity of industrial fishing fleets, as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, favor the emptiness of the sea. This year, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the newly elected head of the World Trade Organization, wants to conclude a - long-delayed - agreement on the abolition of harmful subsidies. Projects such as "Fish Forever" by the NGO Rare are already celebrating tangible successes. This supports hundreds of villages in the Philippines, Mozambique and Indonesia in establishing responsible fisheries management.

The oceans in focus: using and protecting them sustainably

The increased attention to the oceans that Teleki is addressing is in any case reflected in numerous expressions of will, initiatives and conferences in which politics, business, research and NGOs actively participate. A new perspective is emerging: the ocean is neither an inexhaustible resource that should be exploited in the best possible way, nor is it merely a victim of harmful influences for which there is little hope. Rather, the focus is on the development of a “Sustainable Blue Economy” that is intended to harmonize economic growth and the protection of the ecosystem. 

In its 17 global goals for sustainable development (SDG), the United Nations have also taken into account “life under water” (SDG 14): Oceans and marine resources should be conserved and used in the interests of sustainable development. At the beginning of 2021, the “Decade of Ocean Research” was proclaimed in order to make ocean protection successful with scientifically based recommendations for action. The financiers of the blue economy include the World Bank, which invests more than five billion dollars in areas such as fisheries, coastal protection and waste management, and the European Investment Bank, which entered into a “Clean and Sustainable Ocean” partnership with the Asian in January this year Development Bank has signed. In the future, the partners want to finance “highly effective projects” in the Asia-Pacific region that will stimulate economic sectors close to the sea and protect the oceans from plastic and other toxins. 

Easy to care for: Algae cultivation is trendy and also benefits the climate.
Easy to care for: Algae cultivation is trendy and also benefits the climate.

Arable plant alga

You don't need fresh water, fertilizer or arable land: algae are easy-care crops that have been harvested in Asia for thousands of years. Today they are mainly cultivated near the coast in China and Indonesia. And there are some arguments in favor of expanding the cultivation area: Algae provide valuable protein that can be used to feed a growing world population, they are suitable as feed and fertilizer, as cellulose for the textile industry and as raw material for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics - they also store large amounts Quantities of CO2 and provide food for marine animals. The ambitious "Kelp Blue“Project in Africa now wants to show that algae cultivation is also possible on a large scale and on the open sea: By 2029, 70.000 hectares of brown algae forests are to be cultivated off Namibia and one million tons of CO2 be absorbed each year. Hundreds of local jobs are also to be created in postpress.

Alliance for more action to protect the world's oceans

Individual countries are also advancing as advocates for a new ocean economy. A force from 14 richer and poorer coastal countries, including Australia, Canada, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico, joined forces in 2018 on the initiative of Norway High-level panel on sustainable marine economics united. Together, the 14 states represent almost 40 percent of the world's coastlines, a body of water the size of Africa, 20 percent of global fisheries and 20 percent of the shipping fleets. “The participants may be very different geographically and economically, but they all know about the importance of healthy oceans for their own well-being,” says Teleki, who heads the panel as head of the secretariat. 

In December 2020, the initiative presented an action plan drawn up by scientists to show that oceans can be used without consuming them. New guidelines and framework conditions should ensure that maritime aquaculture is environmentally friendly and profitable for local communities. The countries also want to take consistent action against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and abolish harmful subsidies that contribute significantly to overfishing. They also see a lot of potential in areas such as offshore wind energy, clean shipping or the preservation of natural coasts: applied globally, efforts in these areas could sixfold the amount of seafood by 2050, create twelve million new jobs, produce 40 times more renewable energies - and incidentally Substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Powerful: wind farms in the sea
Powerful: wind farms in the sea

Wind power at sea

Today wind turbines are mainly built on land, but the wind usually blows stronger and steadier off the coast. A big plus for offshore wind farms, which today generate clean electricity, especially in northern Europe and China. According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the total global offshore capacity is currently around 35 gigawatts, with China having installed around three gigawatts in 2020 alone. Falling technology costs and international commitments to decarbonize could accelerate the trend towards turbines off the coast worldwide, from Japan to South Africa to the USA. Several new projects are currently being implemented in Vietnam, for example, and according to a Danish study, the country has the potential to generate 160 gigawatts of wind power from water. In addition to wind, other ocean-based energies could also play a role in the future - obtained from waves, tides, currents or from floating solar and photovoltaic systems.

The panel members now want to develop individual action plans in order to switch to sustainable management of their territories by 2025. How successfully they will advance ocean protection is open, however: The alliance is purely voluntary, the corona crisis is affecting many members economically, and for a real global impact - especially when it comes to issues such as overfishing - it would be important to have more supporters To get board.

Thirty times thirty: Protected areas for the world's oceans

The latter also applies to the achievement of the “30 by 30” goal that has long been demanded by scientists. This stipulates that by 2030 at least 30 percent of the world's ocean surfaces will be left to nature itself. The 14 Ocean Panel members have already announced that they want to declare a third of their national sea areas as protected areas. Officially, more than 70 countries are behind the "30 by 30" requirement. "Real marine protected areas are zones in which no destructive or extractive activities such as fishing or mining are allowed to take place," said Diva Amon of the NGO SpeSeas recently at an ocean conference organized by The Economist magazine. 

In particular, the prospect that at some point in the deep sea, industrial mining might be possible, is currently worrying many environmentalists and researchers: Treasures hidden in the sea floor such as manganese nodules, iron and cobalt crusts are becoming more and more commercially interesting due to the increasing global demand for raw materials for smartphones and electric cars , so the concern, lead to a "gold rush on the high seas". The consequences of massive interventions at a depth of thousands of meters for ecosystems have hardly been researched. 

However, researchers expect that industrial mining could permanently change hundreds to thousands of square kilometers of the sea floor every year. One of many fears is that this could release bound carbon and thus accelerate global warming. There are still no legal regulations for deep mining. However, this year, after years of negotiations, the International Seabed Authority ISA wants to issue a mining code that defines the conditions for possible mining.

Oceans: Protection Against Debt

In any case, the blue planet is still a long way from the 30 percent target for marine protected areas: According to SDG 14, ten percent of the world's oceans should have been protected by 2020, to date, according to the IUCN nature and species protection organizations, there are only 7,4, XNUMX percent, and at a more or less strict level. Protection is therefore sometimes only on paper. "Unfortunately, symbolic announcements are not enough, marine protection must be well planned and resources for monitoring and surveillance," says Amon.

One problem is that effectively managed marine protected areas are too expensive, especially in poorer countries, and therefore there is a lack of both the financial resources and the political will to give them priority. This is where financial incentives could come into play, like a pilot project from The Nature Conservancy TNC demonstrates: In 2016, the US NGO brokered a debt rescheduling package for the Seychelles, a so-called “Debt-for-Nature” swap. To this end, TNC sat down with creditors, investors and public donors to buy the island nation's debts at a discount and to restructure them at better interest rates and repayment periods. 

In exchange, the government pledged to use the savings to protect their marine areas. To this end, a detailed plan was drawn up with marine biologists, politicians and local stakeholders. The success can be seen: The Seychelles have meanwhile increased their protected areas from 0,04 to 30 percent, whereby an area of ​​410.000 square kilometers - five times larger than Austria - is actively protected. TNC now wants to implement similar debt conversion packages with another 20 island and coastal states.

Protect the oceans with blue credits

“Blue carbon” financing could also help to preserve maritime ecosystems. What is meant is the carbon that is drawn from the atmosphere by mangroves, salt marshes and seaweeds and stored - this happens much better in water systems than on land. Until recently, this climate protection effect received little attention. On the contrary: every year the worldwide mangrove areas are shrinking in favor of shrimp farms, palm oil plantations or roads. This not only harms the climate. Mangroves are an important buffer between land and sea, protect people from storm surges and ensure richer fish stocks.

Valuable: Mangroves are tropical water forests with superpowers.
Valuable: Mangroves are tropical water forests with superpowers.

Protection of the water forest

Mangroves are true all-rounders. The coastal forests protect against flooding, filter water, provide food and breeding grounds for marine animals - and store significantly more carbon than tropical forests. The latter can be actively used for climate protection, such as the pilot project "Mikoko Pamojo“In Kenya shows: The residents of the village of Gazi no longer cut down their mangroves, but - in cooperation with researchers and NGO employees - take care of the reforestation and protection of their water forests on an area of ​​117 hectares. For this, the residents receive around 2.500 CO2-Credits per year (one credit equals one tonne of CO2), which participate in the voluntary market for CO2- Have certificates sold. The village uses the income to finance water, school and health projects. At the same time, the mangroves help to maintain the fish stocks. Similar “Blue Carbon” projects are also being implemented in Colombia, Indonesia and Madagascar.

One way to get Blue Carbon is to give it tradable value. This gives residents of coastal villages an incentive to protect their mangroves: They receive credits based on the tons of stored carbon and sell them on the market for CO2-Certificates. “This is a new and exciting way of combining the protection of the sea and the climate with the support of local communities,” says Teleki. He is optimistic: “The timing is potentially good. The global market for carbon credits is likely to grow significantly, as many countries and companies are obliged to reduce their emissions. ”There are still many challenges with the certification of blue carbon credits. According to Teleki, projects in Kenya or Indonesia are very small and not sufficiently developed to meet the rapidly increasing demand, and the real potential of the market for the protection of marine biodiversity must be determined more precisely. 

Sea commitment: 

One thing is certain: For a truly sustainable ocean economy, further innovative solutions, stronger political will and also more attention to the many man-made problems - even if these cannot be seen, but only heard. Noise-plagued sea creatures would be greatly helped if particularly noisy ships slowed down, ship routes led around protected areas or sound-absorbing methods were used in the construction of offshore facilities. All of this can be done if you want to. And advisable, because as Kristian Teleki states about the necessary protection of the largest ecosystem on earth: "The oceans are simply too big to ignore them any longer." 

200 meter cargo ship with wind propulsion: currently still a vision of the future.
200 meter cargo ship with wind propulsion: currently still a vision of the future.

Clean on the go

Container ships, ferries and passenger ships are significant climate polluters. Shipping causes between two and three percent of global CO2Emissions and also contributes significantly to air and environmental pollution in ports and cities. The problem is the fuel: crude and heavy oil are particularly harmful to the environment. A change of course is in prospect. The International Maritime Organization set the industry the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2050 percent by 50 (compared to 2008). In the short term, fuel consumption can be reduced, for example, by reducing the driving speed and optimizing routes. In the long term, new ships with more climate-friendly propulsion technologies and fuels are needed - research is being carried out on ammonia, e-methanol, e-LNG and hydrogen. Logistics group Mærsk is a pioneer: its first CO2-Neutral operated container ship put to sea.

Photos: WRI, RecondOil / Flickr, Oceanbird Wallenius, Wayne S. Grazio Flickr, Kip Evans MissionBlue, Rob Barnes, Yrjö Jyske / Flickr, Patrick Webster / Flickr