From the sea’s shore, it can be hard to believe that something as vast and deep as the ocean can be harmed by a human being. But individuals are parts of communities, and our global community has exploded to over seven billion people. The multiplier effect of growing populations, increasing demand for food and 200 years of carbon-intensive industrial production have put a tremendous burden on the ocean.
The ocean is being depleted of critical fish stocks, choked with discarded plastic and made increasingly acidic from increased carbon emissions absorbed from the air. If things continue as they are, experts estimate that by 2025 there will be a ton of plastic in the ocean for every three tons of fish.
It doesn’t have to be like that. We can stop the flow of plastic into the ocean and move away from disposable plastics altogether using a variety of technological and scientific innovations.
One example is the Marine Debris Tracker, a free app developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Georgia. It allows people to report when they see litter in waterways or coastlines. The crowdsourced data is then plotted on maps to show areas most in need of clean up.
As for the plastic itself, companies are finding profitable ways to reuse it or replace it entirely. For example, U.S.-based MHG uses microbial bacteria and canola oil to make safe, biodegradable products like food containers, bottles and fishing line.
It’s harder to visualize ocean acidification from carbon absorption -- though its effects may become increasingly apparent. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution, which has dramatic implications for marine ecosystems that we are only just beginning to understand.
We need more data to understand the impacts of acidification, especially in vulnerable habitats, so much of the focus of research on this problem has been on monitoring. The XPRIZE Foundation, which has spurred technological leaps in space exploration and healthcare, in July awarded grants to developers of affordable and accurate pH sensors. These sensors can be deployed in a variety of marine environments and are particularly needed in developing countries that currently lack monitoring capabilities.
To get the most out of these technological tools, we need strong global partnerships that can put them to use. This past week Secretary of State John Kerry and I joined hundreds of policymakers, scientists and business leaders in Chile for the second Our Ocean conference. There, we committed to expanding marine protected areas and to forming international partnerships to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. (Vessels doing this are often the same ships that traffic in arms and people.)
The challenge now is to establish shared protocols and integrated data systems to catch rule breakers and, in the end, reward the honest fishing industry.
One example in the works is the mFish initiative, a partnership between governments, NGOs and the private sector. This project puts GPS and smartphone technology in the hands of fishermen in developing nations. The devices are loaded with software that can report on catches, forecast the weather and track navigation. Scientists and regulators get data on what’s being caught and where, while boat captains get tools to plan their expeditions and bring their fish to market. A pilot project of mFish this year in the Philippines will connect 13 coastal communities and 20,000 fishermen by the end of the year, expanding to 200 communities and 100,000 people in 2016.
The threats facing our ocean are profound, but it’s far from a lost cause. As the Our Ocean conferences have demonstrated over the past two years, the global community has woken up to the problem and is ready to take action to preserve our shared marine resources. Working together and harnessing new technological tools, we can undo the damage and protect our ocean.
About the Author: Catherine Novelli serves as the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.
Editor's Note: This opinion piece originally appeared on the Guardian.