This week, the ocean finally gets the attention it deserves – and desperately needs. Delegates from almost all of the United Nations' 193 member states have gathered for the U.N. Ocean Conference, an unprecedented and historic special session of the General Assembly to push the world to better sustain the ocean and its resources for the future.
A healthy ocean is synonymous with the planet's survival, and human history is intertwined with the ocean. From the dawn of humanity to the modern era, explorers and settlers have crossed the world by ocean. And yet the ocean remains vague, unknown, and unexplored with human attitudes towards the ocean vacillating among fear, ignorance, arrogance and apathy.
In contrast, it is with heroic certitude and vivid imagination that we have looked skyward and invested heavily in space exploration and research. The U.S. spends roughly 157 times more in space exploration than in ocean exploration. While NASA's 2016 budget for exploration was $4.4 billion, the allocation to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for ocean exploration and research was a mere $28 million.
Yet Earth is the only planet on which we know life exists. It is Earth's inner space, not outer space, on which our very survival depends. Half a century after we first determined to reach the moon, the time has arrived for a new ocean age.
The ocean occupies 71 percent of the earth's surface and supplies 50 percent of the atmosphere's oxygen. Taking depth into account, the ocean provides 99 percent of our planet's living space and 97 percent of all water. Roughly 90 percent of global commerce traverses the ocean, and 40 percent of the world's population lives within 60 miles of a coastline. For approximately one billion people, fish provide a main source of protein.
Too often, however, public policies and human activities have taken the ocean for granted. Today, 90 percent of "apex" predators – the creatures that eat creatures that eat other creatures – are gone, numerous commercial fisheries across the globe have collapsed due to overfishing and climate change has made itself felt increasingly.
Ocean acidification due to CO2 emissions absorbed by the sea is negatively affecting many species at the base of the food chain. Climate-related sea level rise is driving increased coastal flooding and warming ocean temperatures have led to growing numbers of deadly coral bleaching events. Some studies indicate 90 percent of all coral reefs will be dead within this century.
Even as we need to confront these chronic challenges, new threats present themselves all the time. Recently, for example, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed to authorize multiple industrial seismic airgun surveys related to oil and gas exploration off the East Coast of the United States. This is a threat that has been revived under the Trump administration. The effects of these proposed seismic airgun activities would impact a wide range of species, from marine mammals to fish and small invertebrates. Of particular concern is the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered great whales on the planet.