January 20, 2022

SDG 14: why is ocean conservation so hard?

Malcolm Kennedy

Readers of our blog will know by now that bridging the gap between what’s economical and what’s sustainable is our raison d’etre. And we’re not alone. The United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined specific targets across seventeen directions that the world collectively wants to move in. Among these is SDG 14, which focuses on conserving our oceans and life below water. If humans fail to care for our oceans, the resulting costs under a scenario of high climate impacts would be around 18% of our global GDP annually by 2050, and 25% by 2100.

This is not so different from the stakes of the climate crisis at large — but one question that interests us is why some kinds of sustainability projects have proliferated rapidly, while others with comparable potential for impact have trouble getting off the ground. For instance, while ecosystems such as mangroves and coastal wetlands sequester carbon at 10 times the rates of terrestrial forests, the protection of marine ecosystems lags behind terrestrial ones, where the UN-sanctioned REDD+ framework has established a baseline for sustainable forestry practices.

This is just one example of a more general rule: the planet seems better at taking climate action on land than at sea — despite the fact that the ocean covers over 70% of the earth’s area, and produces the majority of its oxygen. A recent paper from Deloitte, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and the Marine Conservation Society encapsulates the issue:

“Less than 1% of the total value of the ocean has been invested in ocean-based sustainable projects, with the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 (Life Below Water) remaining among the least funded of the SDGs.”  (Barber et al, 2021)

Why is this? The authors provide two complementary reasons.

The first reason is that shifting investment to ocean-based projects can only happen with reliable quantifiable data — which is often lacking at sea. Whale Seeker is working to help accelerate data collection for some of the most vital carbon-sequesterers on the high seas: whales. The automated detection tools we’re developing will help accelerate public-sector projects, such as marine protected areas, as well as private-sector monitoring and mitigation efforts, by providing more regular and abundant data for decision-makers in both domains.

The second reason for marine conservation falling behind is that the interconnectivity of global marine ecosystems makes offset programs targeted to one area more difficult than on land. For instance, most whales migrate across borders and through international waters in the course of a given year. Relatedly, oceans lack the jurisdictional control and resource ownership of terrestrial environments, so the question of who stands to benefit is often more distributed.

Both data scarcity and marine connectivity also have as a side-effect that the limited funds that exist for marine conservation are mostly clustered in coastal areas, rather than the deep sea, since coastal areas are more clearly demarcated by national boundaries, as well as being more accessible for monitoring and data collection. Whale Seeker is particularly excited about developing ship-borne automated whale detection systems, because this will allow the kinds of monitoring that are now mostly limited to coastal regions to extend to all areas where humans pose risks, whether through shipping or other maritime activities.

The ocean is an enormous common good — and yet it is underrepresented in basic research and in nature-based climate solutions. The more we know about it, the better we’ll be able to protect it. Whale Seeker is excited to help make that happen.


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