Oceans in Crisis


Cod and other commercial ground fish are caught in a net in the Gulf of Maine (center photo). Our appetite for fish is wreaking havoc on aquatic populations worldwide. The conservation group World Wildlife Fund predicts that if cod fisheries continue to be fished at current rates, there will be no cod left by 2022. "Seventy-five percent of fisheries are overfished," says marine biologist Enric Sala. "If nothing changes, all fisheries will have collapsed by 2050." The solution, says Sala—a National Geographic Society fellow—is involving all levels of society, from consumers to policy makers. "The solutions exist, we just need the political will to implement them on a large scale," he adds.

Our Oceans are in Danger

The oceans are the planet’s life support system. We depend on oceans to moderate our climate and filter pollution. We rely on the rich diversity of ocean life to supply us with food and medicines. Our oceans give us a place to play, to work, to rest and to discover.

Our oceans are vast, but they are not immune to human influence. We have already altered or destroyed many marine ecosystems and driven million-year-old species to the brink of extinction. According to a study published in Science, less than 4 percent of the oceans remain unaffected by human activity. Oceans are not, as once imagined, inexhaustible resources, so vast that human activity can barely make a dent. In fact, the evidence is just the opposite. We have severely altered the state of our oceans through direct and indirect means.  Land-based activities affect the runoff of pollutants and nutrients into coastal waters and remove, alter, or destroy natural habitat. Ocean-based activities extract resources, add pollution, and change species composition. The critical threats to our seas will likely increase with a growing human population…

World fish stocks may run out by 2048, reveals a new report from Science magazine.


misc_entangle-seal.jpgOverfishing and other destructive fishing practices deplete our ocean fish populations, reduce the diversity of underwater life and lower the resilience of marine systems. In the last few decades, commercial fishing has evolved into a high-tech, heavily subsidized industry that uses cutting-edge electronics, huge amounts of fuel and miles of gear to find and catch more fish in remote places formerly out of bounds to fishermen. Today, 76% of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited or overfished. Each year billions of unwanted fish and other animals – like dolphins, marine turtles, seabirds, sharks, and corals – needlessly die from inefficient, illegal, and destructive fishing practices. Poor fisheries management is the largest threat to ocean life and habitats… not to mention the livelihoods and food security of over a billion people.

Inadequate Protection

They might cover over 70% of our planet’s surface, but only a tiny fraction of the oceans has been protected. Even worse, the vast majority of the world’s few marine parks and reserves are protected in name only. Without more and better managed Marine Protected Areas, the future of the ocean’s rich biodiversity – and the local economies it supports – remains uncertain. The largest, least-protected places on our blue planet are found in the high seas – the open ocean and deep seabed that lie seaward of individual nations’ jurisdictions.  They cover about 45% of the Earth’s surface, and 64% of the oceans.  Belonging to no single nation, they have been, for too long, neglected by all.


A trawling vessel dumps large ancient deep sea coral overboard. Photo: Marine Photobank


Untreated sewage, garbage, fertilizers, pesticides, industrial chemicals… most of the pollutants on land eventually make their way into the ocean, either deliberately dumped there or entering from water run-off and the atmosphere. Not surprisingly, this pollution is harming the entire marine food chain – all the way up to humans.


Fish farming is often touted as the answer to declining wild fish stocks. But more often than not, the farming of fish and shellfish is actually harming wild fish, through the pollution the farms discharge, escaped farmed fish, increased parasite loads, and the need to catch wild fish as feed.

Coastal Development & Tourism

The beach is not just a favorite holiday destination, it’s our favorite place to live. Around the world, coastlines have been steadily turned into new housing and tourist developments, and many beaches all but disappear under flocks of vacationers each year. This intense human presence is taking its toll on marine life.

Oil & Gas

Important reserves of oil, gas, and minerals lie deep beneath the seafloor. However, prospecting and drilling for these poses a major threat to sensitive marine habitats and species.


Deepwater Horizon explosion - April 20, 2010


The oceans are huge highways, across which we ship all kinds of goods. Like other human activities, this heavy traffic is leaving its mark: oil spills, ship groundings, anchor damage, and the dumping of rubbish, ballast water, and oily waste are endangering marine habitats around the world.

Climate Change

Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, changing species distributions – global warming and climate change are already having a marked affect on the oceans. Strategies are needed to deal with these phenomena, and to reduce other pressures on marine habitats already stressed by rising water temperatures and levels.

This coral colony of Montastrea faveolata has been monitored since 1993. This photo, taken in 1996, shows healthy coral tissue covering the entire colony. The coral head is approximately 500 years old.

1996 - Healthy

This coral colony of Montastrea faveolata has been monitored since 1993. This photo, taken in 1997, shows that 80% of the coral colony has bleached. The coral head is approximately 500 years old.

1997 - Bleached

This coral colony of Montastrea faveolata has been monitored since 1993. This photo, taken in 2000, shows that 80% of the coral colony has died due to coral bleaching. The coral head is approximately 500 years old.

2000 - 80% dead

2005 - Dead/Overgrown with Algae

Coral Head, approximately 500 yrs old. The four photos show a coral colony of Montastrea faveolata that has been monitored since 1993. The first photo in the series was taken in 1996 with healthy coral tissue covering the entire colony. By 1997, most of the coral has bleached and 80% dead in 2000. By 2005, nearly all of the coral colony is dead and covered in algae.

Want to Learn More About our Oceans?

To get started, please visit the National Ocean Service website, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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