A palm oil spill on the shore of Taganga beach.

Towards marine conservation: life in oceans is not always a paradise

By Alejandro López-Cerón, 2018-2019 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Biology

Earth it’s the only planet we can habit on. Everyone wants to breathe the same fresh air, drink the same pristine water and depend on the same oceans, forests and biodiversity. For decades, marine and coastal biodiversity have been studied considering an ascending gradient from the poles to equator. Marine and coastal ecosystems have an immense potential to provide ecosystem and social services to humanity, while they are managed sustainably through effective ocean and coastal governance and environmental policies(7).

As an environment, and besides tropical forests, there is no other environment other than coastal and oceanic areas providing 15% of oxygen. They are also responsible for absorbing up to 30% of the atmospheric CO2 and for removing 90% of excess of heat trapped by greenhouse gases. As a platform for regional trades, oceans allow 90% of traded goods, and are considered the primary source of jobs in fisheries, shipping, tourism, and energy production for coastal cities and populations with smaller inland territory. As a core of energy resources, 30% of oil and gas global exploitation occur in offshore areas(2,4).

Coastal areas face many threats to their natural conditions(3). Due to some activities impacting marine health, both species and habitats are constantly under pressure by:

  • Pollution: from aquaculture, coal-mining, and oil spills. Ballast water is also a mobile form of pollution introduced to foreign habitats. Offshore drilling augments the risk of toxic contamination of wildlife and coastal communities exposed to oil. Based on personal experience, I consider these as severe and permanent sources of negative impact (see Photo 1).
  • Land-based runoff: the huge demand for meat contributes to pollution and partially to greenhouse gases. Vast stocks of cattle, pigs, chicken, and other animals raised for meat generate huge amounts of waste that is released into tributaries and rivers flowing into oceans. I’m not against these, but cleaner protocols of production and waste management are a priority.
  • Acidification: oceans become an important carbon sink by absorbing one third of carbon dioxide on earth. More atmospheric CO2 injected into the ocean is making the waters more acidic. More acidic environments disrupt fundamental biological and chemical processes and, in consequence, vital events in the life style of species commercially important for fisheries like shellfish. Likewise, the ability of phytoplankton and oceans to keep on removing excess greenhouse gases may be slowing as those systems are reaching the saturation point, while their role as a major CO2 sink is diminishing. Therefore, less CO2 is pumped into ocean from the atmosphere.
A palm oil spill on the shore of Taganga beach.

Photo 1. A big stain of palm oil invades the shore of Taganga beach in Santa Marta, department of Magdalena, Colombia on April 23, 2008 after 10 tons of oil were spilled from the production plant of Terlica. Residents of the area said of seeing dead fish but Terlica said the oil is biodegradable and won’t harm the environment. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s already proven that marine ecosystems are vulnerable and, still, complex biomes(10,11). Some biodiverse and ecologically significant marine ecosystems are located among different regions and cultures worldwide(11). The political boundaries should lead to multinational laws for their sustainable use and management practices based on solid science(9). Policy makers must have access to the most innovative research when deciding the best management of the marine environment. Issued laws and policies are to include objectives, viability, effectiveness, and funding(11). Those policies ought to include mitigation plans, protection alternatives, adaptation and repair after impact.

In 2016, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) established the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(6), which include new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, and sustainable consumption. Among other goals, I consider that Quality Education (goal 4)(5,6), Sustainable Cities and Communities (goal 11), Climate Action (goal 13), and Life Below water (goal 14) are essential key areas to support coastal management. They will also provide governments and private sector with the tools necessary to achieve tangible objectives. Why? I believe these goals were designed to be interconnected and the measure of success is handling issues from different viewpoints rather than isolated strategies. We also must understand that human life surrounding oceans implies cultural values and the empirical interaction and knowledge existing for hundreds of years of the local communities with marine ecosystems (Photo 2). In all the generations of many human populations habiting in close relationship with coastal environments, have always existed a necessity of economic and social sustenance emanating from the ocean.

Fishermen on boats near the coast
Photo 2. INVEMAR (12)
Man working in a coastal village

UNDP proposes a new approach in economy which reflects both the opportunities and challenges that the Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG12), Climate Action (SDG13), and Life Below Water (SDG14) rely on. UNDP describe the two elements for The Blue Economy:

  1. Protection and Recovery of existing aquatic resource that provides food and livelihoods to human settlements. Natural resilience of fisheries is the best mechanism to deliver higher sustainable captures and associated economic tasks. In the same way, reduced pollution leads to less hypoxic areas that, in consequence, yields less fish captures. Under protection and regulation for its use, reefs and mangroves improve coastal protection from storms and sea level rise.
  2. New perspectives in economic activities derived from oceans. Already existing options such as offshore wind and tidal energy, appear promising if the appropriate funding is available. Production of fish in aquaculture has increased about 10% in 30 years. All the same, its sustainability is a paradigm since it still exhibits a high impact in environmental pollution and species diversity.

Education and new economic options are the most reliable tools for conservation of oceanic regions (Photo 3). Scaling the information will limit unsustainable habits and help to eliminate many of the threats that marine life faces. Oceans provide us with important economic services including vital sources of food and nutrition from fisheries, renewable energy from oil and gas, tourism, transport, new perspectives in biomedicine and industry. However, pollution and negative effects of climate change due to anthropogenic influence are devastating the health of the oceans. A new focus on the conservation and a real sustainable management founded on the principle that healthy ecosystems support sustainable ocean-based economies is required.

Group being taught about economical conservation tools
Photo 3. INVEMAR (12)
Fisherman sorting fish on a boat

I was educated as Marine Biologist. My knowledge comes from my work in the coasts along the Colombian Caribbean Sea. But you don’t have to be a scientist to help protect the world’s oceans. We can save fisheries and find options to reduce local poverty at the same time. We can solve the problem of ocean plastic pollution and protect marine environments as well. Many decisive actions are needed to reduce impact on coastal areas. They will also have a significant effect on the consequences of climate change.


  1. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI): http://www.whoi.edu/know-your-ocean/
  2. NOAA: https://www.noaa.gov/climate
  3. NOAA: https://www.noaa.gov/oceans-coasts
  4. NOAA: https://www.noaa.gov/education
  5. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
  6. Blue Economy: a sustainable ocean economic paradigm: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2018/blue-economy-sustainable-ocean-economic-paradigm.html
  7. Mission Blue: https://mission-blue.org/
  8. Miloslavich P, Díaz JM, Klein E, Alvarado JJ, Díaz C, Gobin J, et al. (2010) Marine Biodiversity in the Caribbean: Regional Estimates and Distribution Patterns. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11916.
  9. Ardron, J. A., Clark, M. R., Penney, A. J., Hourigan, T. F., Rowden, A. A., Dunstan, P. K., Watling, L., Shank, T. M., Tracey, D. M., Dunn, M. R., Parker, S. J. (2014): A systematic approach towards the identification and protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems. – Marine Policy, 49, p. 146-154.
  10. Gattuso J-P, Magnan AK, Bopp L, Cheung WWL, Duarte CM, Hinkel J, Mcleod E, Micheli F, Oschlies A, Williamson P, Billé R, Chalastani VI, Gates RD, Irisson J-O, Middelburg JJ, Pörtner H-O and Rau GH (2018) Ocean Solutions to Address Climate Change and Its Effects on Marine Ecosystems. Front. Mar. Sci. 5:337.
  11. Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas: https://www.cbd.int/ebsa/about
  12. INVEMAR: http://www.invemar.org.co/

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