It’s the ocean, stupid!
– Why Ocean Health is key.

It’s the ocean, stupid!
– Why Ocean Health is key.

European School of Governance, position paper # 84 by Stephanie Plön and Louis Klein.

Governing the Anthropocene is a question of stewardship, both of the oceans and of this planet. We need to recognize our long-term responsibility towards this communal space called “Earth” for our communal well-being. Stewardship cares for commons, sometimes based on a strong set of guidelines and institutions defining and enforcing prudent and fair use. In any case, freedom in commons needs to be balanced and wisely hedged. And in this respect, climate change and ocean health share the same root cause. It does not need to start with scientific evidence. It starts with our attitude and its cultural and political implications. If we care, we survive. In view of recent climate disasters, this topic is an increasingly pressing matter.

When one of the first pictures of our planet, taken by the Apollo 17 spacecraft mission in 1972, was sent back to its control units, it became evident that our planet was misnamed “Earth” and should in fact be called “Ocean”. More than two thirds of our planet are covered in water, most of it salty ocean; and in the Southern Hemisphere it is even more evident how little of earths’ surface is covered by land. The photo of Earth taken just over 40 years ago became known as the ‘Blue Marble’ and is one of the most reproduced images in human history as a depiction of our planet’s vulnerability and isolation amid the vast expanse of space. Yet we do not treat our planet very well.

Our planet is “sick”, its function and well-being out of equilibrium. Climate change has been declared the decisive battlefield for our future in the 21st century. Yet, the political debates on climate change seem to be as contaminated as our environment and our oceans. Recent documentaries like ‘Sonic Sea’ (http://sonicsea.org/film) and ‘Plastic Ocean’ (http://youtube.com/watch?v=6zrn4-FfbXw) highlight the utter disrespect we pay the fundamentals of live. And they illustrate how little we gain if we succeed to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. We may win the battle against global warming, however, the oceans and life within them are already dying.

We depend on ocean health. Yet, ocean health is not just about the oceans and all the critters that inhabit it, such as fish, oysters, squid, and whales. Ocean health is about our connectedness as humans to the oceans – our influence on its wellbeing and in turn the oceans’ influence on us, our food security, our climate, our health as the human race. Ocean health is the perfect indicator for planetary well-being. In a time when climate policies are reversed, it is high time that we change our thinking and outlook on how we treat nature- because without it our survival on this planet is in jeopardy. This degree of connectedness and circularity is illustrated amazingly by recent discoveries of how whales act as ecosystem engineers and influence our climate (https://theconversation.com/bottoms-up-how-whale-poop-helps-feed-the-ocean-27913).

Marine mammals are considered sentinels of ocean health. Numerous studies have explored the effects of pollution, both noise and chemical pollution, habitat degradation, and changes in climate and food webs on these marine apex predators. Yet the interplay of these factors, the cumulative effect, remains little understood. And we need to recognize and understand the role we play in this bigger picture. What started as the “Conservation Medicine” trend in the early 2000’s and turned into the “One Health” concept in 2006 (http://www.onehealthinitiative.com), must now spread wider to encompass all of the earth’s components. As predominant as the ocean is to our earth, such needs to be the thinking we dedicate to ocean health. In his recent article, Rob Scholes (https://theconversation.com/the-needs-of-the-land-and-the-needs-of-the-people-cant-be-separated-73614) takes on the voice of the land-an important voice. It is time we also give the oceans a voice. Until now the oceans have been treated with a sense of communal ownership, they have been considered as an open-access system with no use constraints. The results are evident, highlighting yet again ’the tragedy of the commons” (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full), a piece of writing from 1968, which is surprisingly relevant today.

It is questionable whether pressure on governments is the solution- a global societal change needs to happen, as sea change that pervades the mind and thinking of every human being on earth. It needs to be incorporated into human moral values as much as basic human rights. We as individuals need to take our power back and decide that it is our wish, the wish of every child, every adult, every man and woman on earth, to ensure our survival, our future, our health on this planet called “Earth”. As much as our moral values and basic human rights require the pre-condition of empathy, this thinking needs to transcend to the space we live in, and the planet we want to survive on.

Stewardship starts with empathy and thrives on knowledge. Yet, the vast, deep oceans remain largely unexplored. In fact, it has been compared to the last frontier- space, and numerous articles support what wealth of knowledge still remains to be explored. Initiatives like the Ocean Health Index (http://www.oceanhealthindex.org) are starting to document the current state of affairs on a global scale, but increasingly, there is a sense of urgency for a substantial or significant transformation – the tide needs to turn.

Advances in ocean health require multidisciplinary approaches. It is a question of joint efforts. Science and humanities, marine biology and sociology, political studies and oceanography need to overcome the limits of their respective disciplines to thrive on collaboration. Multidisciplinary research facilitates the change of attitudes and fosters prudent action. We need to take on the voice of the ocean together, for without it and its functioning there will be no future life on earth. And space is no escape.