The ocean has long sustained coastal communities that rely on it for their food, livelihoods and wellbeing. But these benefits don’t stop at the shoreline. New research commissioned by the Ocean Panel shows that the health of the ocean is directly linked to the health of humans everywhere.

The extent to which ocean health impacts human health is relatively unexplored in science and academia to date. This new research illustrates that a healthy ocean and its biodiversity can offer critical benefits to all people — such as new medicines and technologies, nutritious and sustainable diets and opportunities to bolster physical and mental wellbeing.

But these benefits aren’t a given. Policymakers must act swiftly to curb greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, overfishing and other practices that are degrading the health of the ocean. Otherwise, many of the ocean’s benefits to human health could be lost even as we are just beginning to realize their full potential.

1) A Healthy Ocean Enhances Physical and Mental Health and Societal Wellbeing.

Mounting research shows that access to the ocean can directly benefit human health — specifically in communities that have socioeconomic disadvantages and typically less access to nature.

Research finds coastal residents are more likely than inland dwellers to meet recommended levels of physical activity. This reduces the risk of many non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The ocean also has positive impacts on mental health. For example, in Indonesia during the Covid-19 pandemic, exposure to and interaction with the ocean served as a ‘buffer’ against negatives outcomes like depression and anxiety.

These effects are so strong that some medical practitioners are starting to administer so-called “blue prescriptions,” which call for time spent in natural ocean and coastal spaces to promote health instead of relying on pharmaceuticals.

The ocean’s benefits aren’t reserved for coastal dwellers, either. Globally, $5 trillion is spent each year on coastal and marine tourism. This represents approximately half of all tourism, reflecting the value that visitors place on time spent near the ocean.

These human health benefits are strongest when the ocean itself is healthy. Research suggests that countries with more protected ocean areas have lower mortality rates. Conversely, increased ocean pollution has proven negative health effects. For example, a significant amount of toxic microplastic has been found in seafood. Individuals with identifiable microplastic in their arteries are at a 2.1 times higher risk of a heart attack, nonfatal stroke or death from any cause than individuals without such identifiable microplastics.

Volunteers pick up trash at a beach in Venezuela.
Volunteers clean up trash at La Guaira beach in Venezuela. Access to the ocean is proven to support physical and mental health, but these benefits hinge on the ocean itself being healthy. Photo by Edgloris Marys/Alamy Stock Photo

2) Ocean Biodiversity Can Inspire New Medicines and Biotechnology.

Marine species have evolved in competition with each other over millions of years to survive in diverse and sometimes extreme ocean environments. During this time, they’ve developed a wide array of adaptations that can help create new medicines and health-related biotechnologies. For example, some bryozoans (sedentary, filter-feeding aquatic invertebrates) create chemical compounds called “bryostatins” when their cells change food into energy. Certain bryostatins are currently being tested as anti-cancer drugs.

Marine-derived medicine is not a new concept. The earliest example dates back some 5,000 years, to China in 2953 BCE. The first marine-based drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Cytarabine, was developed in the late 1960s. To date, twenty-three marine-derived pharmaceuticals have been approved and an additional 33 are in clinical trials and development. These drugs are already used to treat inflammation, immune system disorders, skin pathologies, infectious diseases and cancers.

Prototype of an inhaler made from seaweed-based bioplastic.
Prototype of an inhaler made from seaweed-based bioplastic. Marine-based materials can offer healthier alternatives to conventional, fossil fuel-derived plastics. Photo courtesy of SymbioTex

Advances in marine ‘green chemistry’ are also providing solutions to health issues stemming from fossil fuel-based products. For example, “bioplastics” made from seaweed are currently being produced an alternative to fossil fuel-based plastics. Unlike petroleum-based plastics, these are biodegradable. And they typically contain much lower concentrations of associated harmful chemicals that can, for example, increase the risk of certain cancers. Bioplastics from seaweed can also be molded into health devices such as inhalers or packaging for medicine or food.

These innovations are likely just the tip of the iceberg. The market for marine-derived pharmaceuticals alone is currently valued at $4.1 billion and anticipated to reach $9.1 billion by 2033. Potential new applications in both biomedicine and biotechnology are being discovered with increasing frequency as more companies invest in this area.

3) A Healthy Ocean Can Support Global Food Security.

Over 3 billion people currently depend on seafood as their main protein source. Sustainably managed, the ocean could produce enough food to nourish many more. This offers a critical pathway toward improving food security in a world where around 828 million people still suffer from hunger and more than 3.1 billion are unable to afford a healthy diet.

But ocean-based food sources are threatened on multiple fronts.

Climate change is warming the ocean, increasing its acidity and decreasing its oxygen content. This is disrupting marine food chains and shrinking certain fish populations — including some of the more nutritious and commercially important seafood species. Even if global warming is limited to below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), the availability of key nutrients such as iron, calcium and omega-3 from catches is expected to fall by 10% due to species decline. Under a “business as usual” scenario, where global warming may reach 4-5 degrees C (7.2-9 degrees F) by 2100, nutrients from fisheries could decrease by 30%.

Marine pollutants, overfishing, illegal fishing and globalization also strain fishery stocks and put fishers’ livelihoods at risk. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing is estimated to cost low- and middle-income nations between $2 billion and $15 billion annually.

Solutions to these threats are typically most successful when they involve those most impacted: the local communities that rely on fisheries for their food and livelihoods.

In Timor-Leste, for example — a country where acute food insecurity and chronic malnutrition are widespread — the research organization WorldFish has been working with local fishers and government to improve fishery policy and management systems. This includes taking steps to maximize nutrient yields, such as by targeting more nutritious species and overcoming barriers to increased fish consumption. They’ve developed new products that extend shelf life, extended supply chains inland to reach more people and shared tips on preparing fish for children. The approach appears to be leading to increased fish consumption for malnourished groups such as children.

Shoppers peruse a busy fish market in Tokyo.
Shoppers peruse a fish market in Tokyo. The global seafood industry feeds more than 3 billion people and employs around 500 million. But fish populations are declining due to human-driven pollution and warming oceans. Photo by aluxum/iStock

4) A Sustainable Ocean-based Economy Provides Opportunities to Improve Health and Address Inequity.

The ocean isn’t just a source of medicine, food and recreation. It’s a major economic driver, with ocean-based industries and activities contributing approximately $2.5 trillion to the global economy each year. Fisheries, aquaculture operations and the fishery supply chain support the work of more than 500 million people worldwide. Their incomes directly impact theirs and their families’ health through access to food, healthcare and other necessities. Intact coastal ecosystems also serve as a buffer against climate change impacts like storms and floods which can destroy homes, livelihoods and infrastructure.

These benefits are only possible if the ocean’s resources and ecosystems are managed responsibly. Unsustainable practices — such as overfishing and the degradation of coastal ecosystems — both diminish the ocean economy and increase social inequity by threatening the health and livelihoods of those that are most dependent upon it. Climate-induced declines in ocean health could cost the global economy $428 billion per year by 2050 and $1.979 trillion per year by 2100.

In some places, individuals and institutions are collaborating to drive bottom-up behavioral change toward a more equitable ocean economy. In Bangladesh, for instance, communities of fishers have started to form self-developing networks and cooperatives. Members typically contribute to a common fund which provides financial support and fishing equipment to those most in need, such as people requiring medical treatment. Such networks and cooperatives can also enhance fishers’ political strength when negotiating with government agencies and can lead to increased compliance with fishing regulations. For example, Bangladesh’s Hilsa Guard network monitors compliance of their peers with temporal fishing bans.

But top-down change is also critical.  National governments must work toward a more equitable ocean economy, such as by developing and implementing Sustainable Ocean Plans (a national policy tool for holistic ocean management).

How Can Leaders Protect Ocean Health and Human Health Simultaneously?

While a healthy ocean is essential for human health, the reverse is also true: Continuing to degrade the ocean through pollution, human-induced climate change and unsustainable management poses serious threats to physical and mental health as well as food security and the global economy. Governments must act urgently to safeguard the ocean so that it can continue to support human health and wellbeing everywhere. Ocean Panel’s report presents three key actions to promote equity, sustainability, biodiversity and human flourishing:

  • Protect, restore and manage marine biodiversity: The huge potential for marine medicines, biotechnology and food depends on effectively protecting and managing marine biodiversity. To achieve this, nations must work in collaboration with local resource users to ratify and implement key frameworks that can help ensure protections. These include the Global Biodiversity Framework, the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement and the recent High Seas Treaty. These global actions will protect and restore the ocean, improve human health and wellbeing and reduce stressors on ocean ecosystems.
  • Combat climate change and eliminate pollution: Slowing the effects of climate change and removing ocean pollutants is imperative to protecting marine ecosystems and the services they provide. National commitments to the Paris Agreement, the COP28 outcomes and the UN Global Plastics Treaty (currently in negotiation) must be upheld. To protect human health and wellbeing, the negotiators of the UN Global Plastics Treaty must ensure that it imposes strict safety requirements on the more than 10,000 synthetic chemicals added to plastics, a mandatory cap on global plastic production, and mechanisms to curb the manufacture of single-use plastics.
  • Improve ocean and human health measurement to support equity: Evidence and linked indicators of ocean health and human health must be incorporated by governments and the healthcare sector into all policies and decision-making around ocean-human interactions. This data should be shared widely and made available and accessible. Through continued measurement, the effectiveness of health and ocean management policies can be assessed, unintended consequences detected, and improvements and course corrections made.

These actions should not be limited to those working in sustainability or conservation sectors, either. As trusted members of society, health professionals can play a key role in safeguarding both ocean health and human health by advocating for change, advancing equity and promoting sustained global action on responsible ocean management. A more ocean-literate health sector can also reduce the health sector’s carbon footprint and help cut medical waste and pollution.

The National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K., for example, serves a population of 67 million people and imports 80% of its goods via maritime routes, generating harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The NHS aims to tackle this through its target to reach net zero-emissions by 2045. Similarly, some health sector professionals are already working to drive change in this area.

Taken together, these actions can ensure that the ocean is able to thrive and that we can fully harness its benefits to uplift people everywhere.