The Working Waterfront

U.N. report on ocean goes beyond warning

Data drill into wide variety of health metrics

Peter Neill
Posted 2021-07-21
Last Modified 2021-07-21

Earlier this year, the United Nations announced the publication of its second World Ocean Assessment, presented as “the only comprehensive global analysis that looks at social, environmental, demographic, and economic trends affecting the state of the ocean…”

The announcement described the first World Ocean Assessment, released in 2015, as a warning “that many areas of the ocean had been seriously degraded, mostly due to the failure to deal with the pressures caused by human activities, including fishing, aquaculture, shipping, oil and gas exploitation, pollution, and the release of greenhouse gases.”

Approximately 15 percent of all sandy beaches worldwide are seeing retreating shorelines…

The conclusion of this latest assessment notes “that the situation has not improved, and that many of the benefits that the ocean provides to people such as oxygen, food, jobs, medicine, and climate regulation are increasingly being undermined by human activities.”

Here are the report’s key takeaways on the state of the ocean:

  • An alarming pace of sea-level rise, combined with increasing storms and coastal urbanization, led to erosion and flooding in coastal cities
  • Rising carbon dioxide emissions led to ocean acidification and together with warming and deoxygenation resulted in loss of biological diversity
  • The ocean heat content has more than doubled since the 1990s, severely affecting marine life and ecosystems
  • The number of dead zones, or areas with reduced oxygen in the ocean, has increased from more than 400 globally in 2008 to about 700 in 2019
  • Around 90 percent of mangrove, seagrass, and marsh plant species—as well as 31 percent of species of seabirds—are now threatened with extinction
  • Marine litter is present in all marine habitats, affecting the environment and marine organisms through entanglement, ingestion, and rafting of invasive species
  • Overfishing is estimated to have led to an annual loss of $88.9 billion in net benefits
  • Human-mediated movements have introduced about 2,000 marine non-indigenous invasive species, some of which pose significant biosecurity and biodiversity hazards
  • Approximately 15 percent of all sandy beaches worldwide are seeing retreating shorelines at an average trend of 1 meter per year or more over the last 33 years.

And here are the key takeaways on ocean science:

  • Innovations in sensors and observation platforms have substantially improved. For example, technology has allowed researchers to discover nearly 11,000 new marine benthic invertebrate species and more than 200 species of fishes since 2015
  • Some responses to mitigating or reducing pressures have improved since 2015, including the establishment of marine protected areas and improved management of pollution and fisheries
  • Innovations such as increasing efficiencies in energy generation have helped while over-capacity in fisheries has hurt
  • Although understanding of the ecosystem services of coral reefs is improving, there are still knowledge gaps, particularly on responses of coral reef communities to climate change
  • Global disparities in understanding the state of the ocean remain apparent, particularly across Oceania, Africa, and South America
  • Many regions, in particular those with least developed countries, still lack access to technologies that can assist in using marine resources sustainably
  • Regional disputes and geo-political instabilities may impede the implementation of global and regional treaties and agreements, thereby affecting economic growth, the transfer of technologies, and the implementation of frameworks for managing ocean use.

There is a need for key baseline measurements and updates to contextualize the effect of the effort by so many organizations and individuals worldwide. The UN claim to be the only such enterprise seems unaware of another, equally valuable project: The Ocean Health Index, a compilation region by region, nation by nation, of data organized around themes, goals, and sub-goals that collectively reveal the status and progress toward ocean sustainability year by year.

What is disturbing about both reports is that their assessments agree: the situation, generally, is not improved, despite specific progress from specific actions in specific places.

What, then, does the data tell us? Do we question the value and extent of what ocean conservationists are doing? Do we double-down on the existing strategies? Do we invent new approaches for finance and public awareness of ocean issues and actions? Do we pursue all three, and more? So much to do and so little time.

Peter Neill is director of the World Ocean Observatory, which produces weekly radio essays heard on WERU-FM, 89.9, on podcast at, and at He lives in Sedgwick.