Protecting our ocean against its deadliest predator: humankind

Restoring ocean health | Pioneer Perspective | BMO GAM
June 2021
Emma Lupton

Emma Lupton

Vice President, Analyst, Responsible Investment


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The ocean is a continuous body of salt water covering more than 70% of our planet, holding about 97% of our total water supply. It produces at least 50% of our oxygen, while absorbing over one-third of global CO2 emissions. It hosts most of Earth’s biodiversity, regulates our climate, and feeds billions of people. It’s also key to our economy, generating $2.5trn of economic value annually, while c.40 million people are expected to be employed by ocean-based industries by 2030.
Clearly, the ocean is an extremely important aspect of nature that’s essential to our health, wellbeing and global economy. Ocean health is therefore a highly interconnected issue, whereby any threats to it have wide-ranging consequences for people and the planet. And that’s precisely the problem: our ocean is in crisis thanks to human activity. We must stop harmful activities and urgently protect and restore our ocean to ensure a sustainable future for us all. UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life Below Water – is the most directly linked to ocean health, but so are a range of others, from Zero Hunger to Good Health and Wellbeing, and Climate Action.

Humanity is the ocean’s deadliest predator

Overfishing, plastic pollution, air pollution, whaling, drilling and mining, oil spills, and sewage and agriculture waste run off…these are just a sample of the destructive human activities having a direct negative impact on our ocean by threatening wildlife populations and altering entire ecosystems. Official facts and stats vary, but here are a few to give a sense of the crisis we’re facing:
  • In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund reported that there was a near 50% decline in marine life populations between 1970 and 2012.
  • In 2018, Sir David Attenborough’s documentary Blue Planet II spread awareness that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic reaches the oceans annually.
  • In 2019, Greenpeace reported that fishing gear (such as nets, pots and traps) make up the majority of large plastic pollution in the oceans.
  • In 2021, Nature reported that the global population of sharks and rays has fallen more than 70% since 1970 – and cited overfishing as the main driver of the decline.
  • The Reefs at Risk Revisited report states that 75% of coral reefs are under threat from direct human activity and climate change combined – a figure that could rise to 90% by 2050.

Addressing ocean health and climate change – it’s not ‘either/or’

As the coral reef stat above suggests, we must discuss ocean health within the context of climate change. Rising greenhouse gases are causing sea levels and sea surface temperatures to rise, as well as increased acidification and deoxygenation. Changes to our ocean’s circulation and chemistry means it cannot regulate our climate as effectively, and therefore storms are becoming more intense, while it’s also less able to absorb carbon emissions, further exacerbating climate change. Clearly, it’s not a case of choosing whether to prioritise climate change or ocean health – the two challenges are inextricably linked and we need to address them together – urgently.

A focus on overfishing

Fishing isn’t inherently bad for the ocean. But overfishing (catching fish faster than stocks can replenish) is one of the biggest drivers of declining ocean wildlife populations and the degradation of marine ecosystems. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that just over one-third of fish stocks are either fished to capacity or overfished. Meanwhile, bottom trawling (dragging heavy nets across the ocean floor to catch large quantities of fish) is extremely damaging to natural habitats, and bycatch (whereby unwanted sea life is captured while fishing for a different species) causes the needless loss of billions of species – many of which are endangered and protected.

Overfishing is also a social issue: it threatens food and economic security. Seafood is a vital source of protein for billions of people, and demand is growing. Meanwhile, fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people. Growing demand combined with overfishing means more diets, businesses and jobs are dependent on ever-dwindling stocks. The work of local fishing communities is therefore becoming harder, taking more time and resulting in less reward. And all the while they must compete against huge, foreign, subsidised vessels being used to meet the growing global demand. It’s estimated that billions of dollars in government funding annually supports illegal fishing activities that steal resources and security from coastal communities. Illicit operations within fishing supply chains can also be connected to human trafficking and slavery at sea, which can disproportionately affect the most vulnerable coastal communities.

The search for sustainable solutions

The ocean crisis may seem overwhelming – and the intention of this article is not to scaremonger but to present the problem before explaining that there are solutions already out there – it’s a case of mobilising behind them.

One such way to restore our oceans is by better protecting them to encourage wildlife to thrive. Currently only 2-6% of the ocean is classified as a Marine Protected Area. The UK government has launched the Global Ocean Alliance along with 42 other member nations, calling for at least 30% of the ocean to be in Marine Protected Areas by 2030. But it’s not just governments that have an important role to play in the protection and restoration of the ocean – so too do investors.

Our industry can drive positive change by investing in companies creating sustainable solutions for ocean health, such as those that promote the circular economy and a move away from single-use plastic use, waste management or sustainable fishing practices. Investors must also engage with companies to adapt their business models to better support the ocean – whether directly or through the adoption of more environmentally or climate-friendly practices.

At BMO GAM, our engagement focuses on land-based pollution, including that of plastic waste, pesticide and nutritional run off from agriculture, oil spills and chemical leaks. On plastics, we ask companies to reduce the amount of unnecessary single-use plastic, improve the recyclability of plastic, invest in packaging redesign and new materials, implement circular economy models and improve recycling infrastructure.

You can read more about our efforts in this viewpoint on ocean plastics, and this one on the implications of Covid-19 on ocean health. We are also prioritising engagement around biodiversity loss and climate change – for example through addressing overfishing and marine transportation.

Final thoughts

The ocean has taken care of us for centuries, and therefore a healthy marine environment is vital for the health of our planet and everyone living on it. Despite communities and individuals having long campaigned to protect our ocean, these conversations are entering the mainstream too slowly.

In 2018 Sir David Attenborough shed light on the ocean crisis during Blue Planet II, and more recently Netflix documentary Seaspiracy aggressively condemned fishing practices (although not without criticism). Governments, corporates and investors now must urgently address the ocean crisis and use their positions of influence to effect real, positive change. We cannot achieve the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda without finding a fair, just way to protect and restore our ocean.

Quote line

“To protect and preserve the ocean and all it sustains, we must create a new balance, rooted in true understanding of the ocean and how humanity relates to it. We must build a connection to the ocean that is inclusive, innovative, and informed by lessons from the past.”

Oceanic Global, the official partner to the UN for World Oceans Day

Interested in learning more? Use the sources below for further reading

National Geographic – facts about our ocean and the threats of overfishing and climate change

World Wildlife Fund – further information on the threat of overfishing

World Wildlife Fund – further information on fisheries subsidies

New York Times – more detailed information about sea slavery

Risk warnings

The value of investments and any income derived from them can go down as well as up and investors may not get back the original amount invested.

The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

Views and opinions have been arrived at by BMO Global Asset Management and should not be considered to be a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any companies that may be mentioned.

Use our handy glossary to look up any technical terms you are unfamiliar with.

Get to know the author

Emma Lupton

Get to know the author

Emma Lupton, Vice President, Responsible Investment team
Emma joined BMO GAM in 2016. She leads on the work relating to the SDGs, which includes engagement and investment alignment mapping. Emma works closely with the global equities team to help run the BMO SDG Engagement Global Equity Fund, and specialises in engaging on issues such as water management, ocean health, packaging and pollution. Before joining BMO, Emma worked in roles relating to water stewardship and has a background in wealth management. When not working, she enjoys marine conservation, tennis, kickboxing and walking her Parson Russell terrier.

Risk warnings

Views and opinions have been arrived at by BMO Global Asset Management and should not be considered to be a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any companies that may be mentioned.

The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

BMO Global Asset Management’s voting, engagement and public policy work is conducted independently of the wider BMO Financial Group. Positions taken by BMO Global Asset Management may not be representative of the views of the BMO Financial Group as a whole or of the other lines of business.

Use our handy glossary to look up any technical terms you are unfamiliar with.

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