Oceans’ Call to Action

© Alexis Rosenfeld

We’re a day behind on World Oceans Day, but John Tanzer’s words are lasting, despite the date.

Don’t Waste A Crisis – A World Oceans Day Call to Action.

By John Tanzer, Oceans Practice Leader, WWF International

It was early March when the realization hit. Our Year of Ocean Action wasn’t going to happen — at least not in the way so many had been planning. 2020 would be extraordinary, but for all the wrong reasons. Our Super Year was meant to be the launch platform for a decade of strong global efforts to restore the ocean. Clearly, the attention and resources we had hoped to harness have been in much demand elsewhere.

I was not looking for a “silver lining” to the suffering and loss caused by the coronavirus, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a quote about not letting a crisis go to waste. Was it Winston Churchill who said it? Or a contemporary politician?

It turns out, it was not Churchill, and it wasn’t even a politician. The line can be traced back at least as far as 1976, to M. F. Weiner’s article in the journal Medical Economics, “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.” Weiner apparently meant that a medical crisis can be used to improve all aspects of a patient’s well-being.

So, it wasn’t a callous sentiment about seizing the upper hand in a moment of chaos. It was an acknowledgement that a crisis may arise which so disrupts the norm that all preconceptions are set aside, and all solutions are on the table.

Not that the ocean wasn’t already in crisis before COVID-19. But that crisis had somehow become normalized, like so many other “slow boil” environmental catastrophes. Yet with the pandemic, humanity itself has become the patient in crisis. In this moment, with notions of normal shattered, we have an opportunity to rethink the approach to our other great existential threat: destruction of the natural systems that sustain us.

The gift of this crisis that we cannot waste is a new vision of how to address a massive, life-threatening challenge and a realization that returning to “normal” is not enough.

Vanishing Value

This new vision starts with seeing the ocean for the economic engine it is. The ocean’s value is far greater than the fish that can be hauled out of it, and certainly greater than simply a repository for waste. The range of goods and services that flow from coastal and marine environments can be valued conservatively at US$2.5 trillion each year, and the overall value of the ocean as an asset is 10 times that. But because the ocean has enriched people so freely throughout history, we have not truly assessed its value accurately.

The ocean is being emptied of the fish, sharks, whales, turtles, krill and other species that support its functioning. It is becoming more acidic as it absorbs climate-changing carbon dioxide. We degrade our coasts in the name of development, but in fact we are more exposed to erosion and storm damage without reefs, mangroves and seagrass to serve as buffers.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, WWF was a leading advocate for building a “blue economy.” Based on clear principles, a blue economy would support sustainable and inclusive development through sectors such as marine energy, marine biotechnology, coastal tourism, transport and food production, while recognizing the essential needs and contributions of coastal communities.

Now, with trillions of dollars being allocated to post-COVID stimulus plans, the widely adopted Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles are all the more essential. This global health crisis and the ensuing recovery provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in a healthier, fairer world that values and protects natural capital.


In just a few months, the pandemic response has provided an important lesson for dealing with complex crises. The answer is rarely either/or; it is both/and. For COVID-19, the solution must be lifesaving care now and vaccine development for tomorrow. The response must address people’s physical and economic well-being because the two are linked. Individuals have a responsibility to take precautions and make smart choices, and policymakers have a responsibility to protect and preserve the public good.

Institutions charged with managing the ocean today are not well designed for both/and solutions. They too often reflect silo thinking and competing interests, leading to fragmentation and inertia when we have no time to waste. The casualty is the complex, highly connected and interwoven health of the ocean desperately in need of holistic and coherent management.

Let’s just focus on overfishing. For decades, each player has tried to maximize its take and compete for influence at the cost of the bigger ocean. Fisheries management organizations are often pitted against more traditional conservation interests, as if the health of the ocean and the health of fisheries can be decoupled. They cannot.

Wild fish are more than food.

An ocean without fish is not simply an empty aquarium. Without the nutrient cycling done by abundant, diverse species, it is more like an abandoned house, falling into disrepair with no one to maintain it. More than this, an ocean without fish is a village without food, multiplied by tens of thousands.

Well-placed and well-managed protected areas can support thriving ecosystems and food security. By 2030, we must have in place a system that is comprehensive — covering 30% of the ocean — representative in type and diversity of habitats, and connected, so the ocean’s circulatory system can disburse the benefits widely.

Such protected areas are not fortresses to keep people away. Rather, they help ensure the ocean can “pay its way” in the long term by continuing to provide food, tourism, climate functions and safe, stable coasts.

The universally adopted Sustainable Development Goals clearly articulate a both/and agenda. They deliberately linked the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. We already know many, perhaps most, of the solutions required. The governments and multilateral development finance institutions now responsible for investing unprecedented “recovery packages” can and should be far more ambitious than returning us to where we were in December 2019.

The pandemic has writ large how we — civil society, business, governments — need to be dialing up our ambition to restore the relationship between people and planet, and that means the ocean. The diverse and growing coalition behind Rise Up has articulated a bold agenda for ocean recovery that should both inspire policymakers and offer a practical roadmap for action.

Read the entire editorial here.

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