Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
Trapped by a massive, slow-moving vortex of currents across hundreds of thousands of miles, plastic and other refuse collect in the five oceans. This refuse breaks down into small pieces that hover near the surface of the water until they’re eaten by birds, fish, and other sea creatures, with often deadly consequences. Interactive data visualization maps are helping to identify the sources, composition, and distribution of this massive environmental pollution.
The largest garbage dumps in the world are not visible from the sky, and many who travel through them never realize it. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic is added to them every year, even though they are located in the middle of our oceans. Pictures of marine creatures trapped in plastic garbage and the increasing evidence that the small-scale microdebris is entering our food chain and ends up on our plates have brought marine plastic pollution into the news. Some people say that in the past the fish came in the packaging, but that today the packaging comes in the fish.
Trapped by a massive, slow-moving vortex of currents swirling around in a circle across hundreds of thousands of miles, plastic and other refuse collects in the five oceans. For the Pacific Ocean the Ocean Cleanup project created a prototype to collect the surface-floating plastic waste in the ocean. The German startup Pacific Garbage Screening challenge tackles the terrestrial plastic runoff coming from large rivers, especially in southeast Asia. In the Atlantic Ocean the “Ocean Plastics Innovation Challenge” will bring together participants of the plastic supply chain to innovate ways to tackle the problem.
Companies too react to this highly emotional topic. Adidas cooperates with Parley to keep plastic from entering the oceans and transform it into high-performance sportswear. For 2019 Adidas aims to produce 11 million pairs of its Parley Ultraboost running shoes, using plastic collected from the ocean shores.
Over time the plastics dumped into the oceans break down into small pieces, and even microparticles, that hover near the surface of the water until they’re eaten by birds, fish, and other sea creatures. Some of these die from an inability to digest the plastic. In other cases, the plastic concentrations slowly flow through the global food chain, accumulating in other species with unknown consequences. But as important as the cleanup in the aftermath is, it is only the second-best choice, because it does not address the root cause. The solution needs to look at the entire lifecycle of products or resources in the sense of a circular economy. Here “Life below water” is closely related to responsible consumption and production described in sustainable development goal 12.
It’s not just our oceans being affected, and the plastics are not just from cities and countries with substandard waste management practices. Our daily activities are contributing to the problem. For example, when we wash clothes made from nylon, minute amounts of plastic flush into water systems. Toxins such as DDT attach to the plastic particles, which are then consumed by animals or recycled back into the fluids we drink. The big concern is whether they will eventually accumulate into dangerous levels.
A microplastics research project by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is collecting and analyzing water samples gathered by outdoor enthusiasts around the world. An interactive map shows how many plastics were found in each sample collected, and where samples need to be collected for those interested in participating.
Turning on your washing machine isn’t the only way your day-to-day activities affect Earth’s bodies of water. Your car, lawn mower, and other gas-guzzling appliances contribute to ocean acidification, whether you live in the Florida Everglades or the Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert, the furthest point in Asia from an ocean. Oceans absorb about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by fuels we burn. Carbon dioxide isn’t just destroying Earth’s ozone layer; it has increased ocean acidity levels a whopping 25% since the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear 200 years ago.
We don’t know much about the impact of increasing acidification, though research shows that it weakens shells of creatures, reduces productivity of some fish, and impacts microbial life. Researchers believe that coral reefs build fewer skeletal structures critical to marine life, and that the reduced productivity of fish slows the restoration of fisheries badly damaged from overfishing.
Over 170 million tons of fish were taken from the oceans, seas, and inland waters in 2016 – an amount that has been continually rising for decades. Almost all of that growth since 1985 came from aquaculture, or fish farms, while production from natural fish habitats has leveled off. That is a positive development, though almost 30% of natural fish stocks continue to be overfished, while 60% are fished at the maximum sustainable level, and 10% below maximum capacity. We risk a precipitous drop in the health of fish habitats if overfishing continues.
Overfishing doesn’t just create future risks. Nor is it an abstract, global issue. It is already impacting you. The number of times you think you are eating one seafood or fish when in reality you are eating something different is amazingly high. It’s due to food fraud, which is on the rise as demand for protein outstrips supply. A recent UN Report shows that the fish food chain is especially vulnerable to fraud. In almost all cases, seafood is substituted for a cheaper species or one that has been banned from sale due to overfishing, strongly suggesting a deliberate attempt to deceive consumers. DNA bar-coding can stop fraud in the food sector by conducting fast, low-cost DNA tests in stores and distribution centers and integrating the results into supply-chain management systems. It ensures that consumers who buy the goods, and the companies that sell them, get what they pay for. In the process, the companies adopting antifraud tools help stop unsustainable practices destroying life under water.
Citizen science projects are a new trend to engage interested people in marine conservation activities. HappyWhale.org is a public community where anybody can upload pictures of whale sightings at any place in the world. Since the flukes or the dorsal fins of cetaceans are the equivalent to the human fingerprint, this technology-enabled platform scales the efforts of scientists to understand the population dynamics of these elegant and potentially endangered species.
Similar to the plastic challenge, after-the-fact analysis of food fraud is the second-best solution. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the fish and seafood they eat. Next to the freshness and safety of the product, they want to know the local origin and legal compliance or the environmental and social impact of the catch. To meet this request, thought-leading fishing companies like Bumble Bee, one of the largest seafood companies, provide seamless transparency for their tuna products, from the handline on the boat to the plate of the consumer. In a joint proof of concept with SAP, Bumble Bee’s consumer app links the individual tuna can with essential information about species, population size and associated quota allowance, catch method, potential by catch, and whether the fisher is even Fair Trade Certified. Stories about community engagements, book donations, or providing safety equipment offer insights into how this type of sustainable supplier engagement creates positive social impact for the local villages. Since 90% of the capture fisheries comes from small-scale fishers, Bumble Bee allows consumers to buy the impact they want to make.
Protecting vast ocean spaces from noncompliant fishing is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Earthrace is committed to conserving the marine ecosystem through finding and stopping illegal behaviors in marine protected areas. In line with following this goal, EarthRace collaborated with SAP to create a Marine Alerting System (MAS) prototype. MAS incorporates machine learning technologies and data management solutions to calculate the probability of illegal activity within the protected area and to notify local patrol boat operators to intervene. Combining real-time data from radars, satellites, and tracking systems, the solution analyzes movement patterns to identify high-risk vessels likely to engage in illegal fishing. Generated alerts guide patrols into intercepting potential violators, helping to avoid overfishing and to secure population size.
During a Corporate Social Responsibility Day at the Sophia Antipolis campus of SAP Labs France, local kids were connected with the "Protect Our Oceans" project of a professional sailor, Alexia Barrier. Her ultimate goal is to raise awareness about sea pollution during a solo race around the globe. One aspect of the day was to use technology to create a chatbot to answer questions the public may have about marine wildlife or ocean conservation topics. In addition, Alexia, our colleagues, and their children not only spoke about this environmental topic but also acted by cleaning the nearby beach, collecting a huge pile of plastic and metal debris. By the end of the day, all children committed to being "Guardians of the Oceans."
You may be located thousands of miles from the nearest ocean, but your daily actions are impacting, and being impacted by, its degradation. With oceans and inland water bodies covering 71% of the Earth, we can’t ignore their state. Consumers, and the companies selling them products, can choose materials and sustainable practices to help protect the oceans.