Most people probably don't know that the ocean is part of every breath of air we take and every drop of water we drink. It is a vital life-support system we often take for granted -- probably because we don't always see or think about what is happening below the water line. The ocean is one of our most vital life-support systems, but communicating its importance is a challenge. Because for many, what's out of sight is out of mind.
We need the ocean; we rely on it -- for nourishment, for economics, for communications, pleasure and for health. More than 2.6 billion people depend on the ocean as their primary source of protein. Ninety percent of global trade moves by marine transport, and submarine cables carry 95 percent of all global telecommunications. Coastal tourism is the largest market segment in the world economy -- nearly seven percent of global employment. And, the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly looking to the ocean for the latest medical breakthrough -- and in fact, has already found hope for cancer treatment and pain relief from sponges and snails.
The depths of the ocean hold potential resources we can tap into for medicine, energy, science -- the possibilities are bottomless. But right now, human activities causing overfishing, pollution and climate change are jeopardizing all of that.
The first problem is overfishing. The ocean provides a livelihood for millions of fishermen worldwide, but decades of misguided regulations and practices have depleted fish stocks and hurt the ocean. Fishing techniques like trawling -- where commercial fishers draw large nets along the bottom of the sea -- are the equivalent of clear-cutting rainforests.
The second is pollution. The ocean has become a dumping ground for garbage -- affecting marine habitats, entangling marine animals, contaminating food chains and creating an eyesore along coastlines. There are several concentrations of trash floating throughout the ocean -- such as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Even the debris we cannot see -- toxic chemicals that flow into the ocean -- still poses a threat to sea-life.
And last but certainly not least is climate change. The ocean is directly affected by climate change -- an issue of such enormity that most people feel overwhelmed by it and doubtful that changes they make as individuals can make much of a difference. The November issue of National Geographic magazine is devoted to exploring climate change -- and what we can do about it -- and timed to coincide with the global climate conference in Paris. This year is expected to be the hottest year on record, with last year hotter than the year before that. As our planet warms, carbon is directly sinking into the ocean, creating acidification and harming underwater ecosystems.
What can we do? First, we can commit to understanding the issues and take a look at what's working -- and there are some reasons for hope.
There are solutions to overfishing -- including fishing quotas, marine protected areas, and land-based aquaculture. For example, some -- such as Namgis First Nation's Kuterra fish farm on Vancouver Island -- have figured out ways to farm fish sustainably. After their local river changed from teeming with salmon to hosting barely any, this facility was built to grow fish in an environmentally responsible way: they recycle water, convert waste to fertilizer, avoid use of pesticides and antibiotics, and rely on grains and soy for fish food.
The ocean is also becoming a source of clean, carbon-free energy. In Europe, there's a boom underway in offshore wind farms, and the first U.S. one, located in the waters off of the Rhode Island coast, is expected to be up and running next year and to create 30 megawatts of generation capacity. It is estimated that by investing in this type of power, the United States could generate up to 4,200 gigawatts.
Second, we can work to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce use of single-use plastics, reduce energy consumption, and eat only sustainable fish and seafood.
Third, we can support those who are working for change. This month, leaders from all over the world will meet at the United Nations to adopt new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are designed to be a plan for people, planet, and prosperity. Among those 17 goals is one (#14) to conserve and improve the ocean, which makes up about 71 percent of our planet -- yet just over two percent of the ocean falls under some sort of official protection.
This is why the ocean is a core focus for us at National Geographic, and an area that we are investing in. We have launched programs such as National Geographic Pristine Seas, which has influenced the protection of more than 850,000 square miles of ocean around the world. We are also looking to protect endangered parts of the ocean -- areas that are critically important and at risk of exploitation or already damaged by it.
We all need to embrace the UN's goals -- and keep the ocean top of mind. We need to realize the value of what the ocean holds for us, and understand that the ocean's future and our own future are one and the same. And each of us needs to make a personal commitment to learn what we can do. Individually we may be just one drop, but together, we ARE the ocean.
The National Geographic Society is a 2015 winner of the Champions of the Earth award, the UN's top environmental prize
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 14.