The ocean was once thought to be too vast to be changed by human activity. However, evidence shows that the burden on ocean ecosystems is growing from pollution, overfishing and climate change.

Unsustainable development along coastlines is destroying vital marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests. Since the start of the industrial period, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the heat from human-caused climate change and one-third of the world’s carbon emissions. This has resulted in the ocean becoming warmer, more acidic and less oxygenated, as well as a decrease in marine biodiversity and rising sea levels. Simply put, human activities and demands on the ocean aren’t sustainable, much to the detriment of ocean health.

To address this growing problem, the 15 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) hold a shared ambition to develop and implement Sustainable Ocean Plans. These plans are meant to ensure the integrated, inclusive and sustainable management of 100% of their national waters to benefit people, nature and the economy. Delivery on this commitment would bring improved ocean management and governance to 35% of the world’s exclusive economic zones.

The Urgent Need For Sustainable Ocean Management

A holistic approach to ocean management is needed to stop and reverse the current decline in ocean health. Such an approach must consider the ocean as a connected system and recognize that the activities of one sector or on one shoreline will affect other parts of the ocean and those who rely on it.

When issues are tackled one at a time, the ambitions of a sustainable ocean economy — effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity — cannot be fully realized. For example, building a port to facilitate trade and create jobs could destroy coastal ecosystems that stabilize coastlines and form the foundation of local fisheries. Furthermore, in the face of a changing climate, ocean management practices and decision-making structures must become more dynamic, adaptable and utilize the best available knowledge and data.

The need for integrated sustainable ocean management that restores ocean health and delivers equitable prosperity is as compelling as ever. Every $1 invested in mangrove conservation and restoration yields $3 in return through benefits like increased productivity in fisheries and avoided damages from storm surges. Moreover, investments in ocean-based solutions can deliver as much as 21% of the emissions reductions the world needs to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C.

A graphic showing the contributions of five types of ocean-based climate action.

That’s where Sustainable Ocean Plans come in. These are goal-driven plans that ensure the long-term health of ocean ecosystems as an underpinning for thriving economies and societies, ultimately serving as a unifying umbrella for improved national coastal and ocean-related governance. They build and improve upon current practice by bringing existing ocean plans and processes together, filling in gaps and creating an integrated whole. They also bridge the divide between sectors and stakeholders, ensuring a wide range of perspectives and interests are considered.

What Makes Sustainable Ocean Plans Effective?

Research suggests nine attributes should guide the development of Sustainable Ocean Plans to ensure the maximum benefit for people, nature and the economy. Each of the nine attributes is vital to establish effective ocean management and should be carefully considered by those undertaking sustainable ocean planning.

A graphic showing the nine attributes of sustainable ocean plans.

Here are four attributes that are particularly important for responding to known and recurrent challenges in implementing effective ocean management:

1. Inclusive Ocean Management Processes

Properly engaging stakeholders in ocean planning is central to the acceptance and ultimate adoption of ocean management plans and practices. However, current practices are often criticised for — and sometimes suffer from — excluding or not engaging with stakeholders. Poor communication, lack of transparency, perception that decision-making is advancing the interests of powerful stakeholders or serving to benefit dominant actors are some of the symptoms of non-inclusive, undemocratic and non-participatory processes. This can lead to conflicts and grievances among stakeholders, as well as reduced legitimacy and buy-in for the plan.

Planning authorities for sustainable ocean plans must establish robust mechanisms for stakeholder participation throughout planning and decision-making processes to understand and address the full spectrum of social, cultural, economic and ecological interests. Additionally, plans must accommodate the specific needs of local communities, Indigenous people and vulnerable groups to ensure opportunities for meaningful engagement in the development of a sustainable ocean economy.

In the United States, the Northeast Ocean Planning initiative established a committee to support the engagement of all relevant stakeholders in the development of New England’s Northeast Ocean Plan. This committee includes representatives from all New England states, federally recognised tribes, federal agencies and the New England Fishery Management Council. These groups were actively engaged in the planning process through decision-making meetings open to the public, outreach events, workshops, public webinars and public listening sessions.

2. Integrative Ocean Management Processes

In addition to mechanisms for stakeholder participation, these plans must include mechanisms that apply to all ocean economy sectors to encourage cross-administrative coordination and bring together all the relevant authorities around aligned or shared goals.

The regulation and management of activities in the ocean space has largely developed and evolved on a sectoral basis. Moving towards integrated ocean management is a significant challenge. However, breaking down siloes among relevant authorities like ministries of fisheries, trade, environment, energy and transport; involving all levels of authority, including national, state, local and tribal; and encouraging transparency and cooperation is vital to identify and address trade-offs in ocean uses and support decision-making toward shared goals. An integrative process ensures that sustainable use by all ocean sectors is combined with effective protection of marine ecosystems. It also links various existing plans, plans under development, documents and data into a coherent whole.

Fiji offers a real-world illustration of these processes within its National Ocean Policy. The policy aligns with the inclusive growth aspirations of the national development plan and established a steering committee with inter-ministerial representation to ensure coordination and oversee implementation.

3. Ecosystem-based Content

Sustainable Ocean Plans must strike the right balance between the pursuit of conservation, sustainability and socioeconomic outcomes. Resources can become overexploited in instances where economic priorities are preferred over marine ecosystem conservation, which ultimately undermines the foundations of these economic activities. Overfishing and unsustainable management practices are estimated to cause $83 million in economic losses. However, sustainably managed fisheries that are given time to regenerate could increase catches by up to 13%. In other words, increasing recognition of nature and biodiversity as an integral asset to economies is changing the way in which economic growth can be achieved.

A graphic that shows how ecosystems are at the center of all ocean activities.

A Sustainable Ocean Plan must encompass all the marine and coastal areas under national jurisdiction and understand the connectivity of these different places. For example, Canada’s Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast uses an ecosystem-based management framework that considers how ecosystems — including their structure, function, connectivity, habitats and species diversity — relate to the economic, social and cultural components of communities. This approach informs permit and tenure processes throughout the 102,000 square kilometres plan area and ensures that the long-term health of ocean ecosystems factors into marine-use considerations.

4. High-level Endorsement

When ocean management plans lack high-level support, the entire policy cycle might be disrupted. This can cause delays to the planning process, loss of credibility among responsible entities and a lack of adequate capacity and finance, all of which could cause plans to fail. On the contrary, institutional support within the governmental agencies for the development and implementation of ocean planning can create legitimacy, catalyse sufficient high-level attention and ground steadfast implementation over the long term.

Having political endorsement at the highest levels of government, such as a head of state, can signal a whole-of-government approach which fully engages institutions in the ocean management process and leads to maximum impact and success. Such an endorsement can allow adequate finance and sufficient capacity to flow throughout institutional structures in the country. The world leaders of the Ocean Panel demonstrate the importance of high-level support to make resources available for implementation. It is also a catalyst to scale global technical cooperation and exchange on the ocean agenda.

Japan’s Basic Ocean Plan shows how an endorsement can influence ocean plans. The plan was approved by the nation’s cabinet and implemented by a “Headquarters for Ocean Policy” which has the prime minister as its director general. This signalled a whole government strategy that involved appropriate coordination among administrative entities and related parties in the industrial sector, universities and other crucial actor. This allowed the entire country to work comprehensively to develop marine industries and promote marine research.

Realizing Sustainable Ocean Plans

With the inclusion of the United States in the Ocean Panel in November 2021, the members of the Ocean Panel are responsible for nearly 35% of the world’s exclusive economic zones. Achieving sustainable management of these areas would be a critical step forward to improve management and governance of the whole ocean.

Additionally, Ocean Action 2030 was formed in response to the new ocean action agenda launched by the Ocean Panel. Ocean Action 2030 is a voluntary coalition comprised of leading institutions that matches country demand with member capacity to provide countries with the necessary technical and financial assistance to develop and implement their Sustainable Ocean Plans.

Commitments from the Ocean Panel to develop Sustainable Ocean Plans is a welcome affirmation of political will to transition toward sustainable, integrated and inclusive ocean management. While planning is one thing, implementation is another. Countries must translate plans into real change in the water. The UN Ocean Conference, co-hosted by Ocean Panel members Kenya and Portugal, will serve as an important opportunity for countries to relay the steps they are taking in pursuit of this commitment. At the conference, member countries of the Ocean Panel will reaffirm their leadership and serve as inspiration for others to join the effort toward sustainable management of all the world’s national waters.