"Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children's lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land."
These wise words were spoken by Luna Leopold, a husband, father, teacher, and researcher in the field of fluvial geomorphology.
He was also a visionary.
Leopold passed away in 2006 after a long and impactful career. He was a steward of the planet's water resources long before ocean acidification, overfishing, marine pollution and climate change emerged as global concerns shared by the masses. You could say he was the canary rockfish in the underwater coal mine.
And he was right.
Water is Life
Today, coastal waters around the world are deteriorating due to pollution. Excess nutrients are running off the coasts, causing dense plant growth which deprives animal wildlife of oxygen. When this is combined with overfishing, ecosystems are destroyed, small-scale fisheries are faced with dire economic situations and coastal communities that rely on the ocean for their food supplies suffer.
Right now, environmentally harmful plastic and land-based oil, human waste, fertilizer, and trash are being dumped into the oceans and seas at alarming rates, according to Conserve Energy Future.
The pollution is killing more than 1 million seabirds a year, destroying the biochemistry, behavior, reproduction, and growth of marine life, and having adverse effects on hundreds of millions of people who rely on the oceans for their survival.
Sadly, the vast majority of those affected are among the world's most vulnerable.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, between 10 and 12 percent of the world's population relies on fisheries and aquaculture for its survival. Most live in developing countries, but the effects of the deteriorating oceans are felt around the world.
In 2012, for example, the world's fisheries--large and small--produced about 160 million tons of fish, generated more than $129 billion in exports and delivered about 16 percent of the protein consumed by people in every country, according to UN-Environment.
Water is life for everyone, regardless of gender, age, race, location or religion. This is why it is so important for countries around the world to commit to marine conservation.
What's Being Done
It is a fact: No one can survive without water, and the health of the world's oceans touches everything that sustains life--from the air people breathe to the food they eat to the climate in which they live.
That's why the United Nations has set ambitious goals to reduce marine pollution of all types, with a focus on that which comes from land-based activities:
- minimize the effects of ocean acidification
- effectively regulate fishing industries to prevent overfishing and illegal harvesting
- conserve at least 10 percent of the coastal and marine areas
- develop increased scientific knowledge to improve the health of oceans, seas, and rivers
- enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans by implementing international laws.
They are aggressive goals--especially because many are targeted to be achieved within the next three years.
Some progress has been made. For example, the proportion of the world's marine fish stocks that exist within biologically sustainable levels (which declined from 90 percent in 1974 to about 70 percent in 2013) has slowed. About 60 countries and the European Union have developed regulations, policies or laws that protect and help small-scale fisheries. And 13.2 percent of the marine environment that exists under national jurisdiction is considered protected.
But the Challenges Continue
Right now, 16 percent of the world's marine ecosystems are considered to be at "high" or "highest" risk by the Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme, which exists to provide a baseline assessment of how human activities adversely impact the oceans and seas.
The five biggest marine ecosystems identified by the Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme as being most at risk continue to deteriorate.
The Bay of Bengal, the East China Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Brazil Shelf and the South China Sea continue to be polluted by runoff and oil spills.
Sadly, there is simply too much money at stake for some governments and businesses to fully join the effort to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
But there is hope.
"Sea" a Brighter Future
Everyone relies on the rivers, seas and oceans, so protecting the Earth's water is a shared responsibility.
As Leopold said, the condition in which the oceans are left for future generations tells the story of how people lived their lives today.
That's why it is so important to take action to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.
Elect public officials who understand the issues. Eat sustainable sea food. Reuse plastic products. Clean up the water.
There is no more critical resource issue--and there is no better time to act.