04 – The problems in the Ocean you didn’t know about
A few weeks ago I returned from a 3000 nautical mile sailing expedition. Blissfully ignorant, I opted to crew a vessel that was following the old trading routes discovered centuries ago, far from anywhere, in the middle of the pacific ocean. That experience will continue to occopy my pre-frontal cortex for years to come.
The journey spanned the world’s most isolated islands, the Marquesas,Tuamotus, and Society Islands – also known as French Polynesia. Doesn’t ring a bell? Find a physical globe, spin it around so you have the continent of Africa facing away from you and you will be staring right at it. Except, you will be staring at nothing. The only thing you will see are shades of blue, with some dark tiny dots which are islands of life in the vastness of a liquid dessert. From east to west, the archipelago covers an area the size of Europe.
Now, I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but I’ve done nothing like this. Using only the power of the wind, going from mountainous archipelagos where a kaleidoscope of cliffs, volcanic peaks, and steep valleys are covered by a jungle blanket – to pristine atolls where the water is so clear, you feel like you’re gazing into a separate universe with an unlimited color palette and life lacking no imagination. Amazing.
Being so immersed in this “waterworld”, I couldn’t help but get a profound sense of the ocean’s role in our biosphere and how indeed, it is essential for the survival of all life on Earth. The ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and it is responsible for producing over half of the oxygen we breathe. Read that again. 50% of the oxygen you breathe. The ocean also plays a significant role in regulating our climate and weather patterns, and it provides a home for an astronomical amount of species of plants and animals.
You know, we too came from the ocean, and it’s now under so much pressure, we are threatening to disrupt an equilibrium that took the planet billions of years to form.
I guess, instinctively we know this is true. Perhaps it’s why, if you’re anything like me, you have a hard time watching all of those BBC documentaries with David Attenborough all the way to the end – they seem to accurately portray the true cost of human development and prosperity. However, I think part of the reason why we get uncomfortable is because we lack a basic understanding of what is happening out there in the big blue sea. After all, we are land animals – we know what we see and touch every day.
So, dear reader, consider this my chance to educate you on the problems in the ocean you didn’t know about. Thus, when you’re finding yourself in a lounge with some self-righteous “climate investors”, you’ll have some hard-fact morsels to throw them off guard.
The higher level issues are:
CO2 Emissions: For the average layman, this appears unrelated and is not really well understood. But C02 affects the oceans tremendously as it increases the overall acidity of the ocean, which, in turn, leads to dead zones. Huge areas the size of countries where there are literally no fish. No marine life. No ecosystem. C02 also causes the ocean to warm up, leading to reef degradation and coral bleaching. Most famously is possibly the Great Barrier Reef, now witnessing an alarming uptick in what they refer to as “mass bleaching events” which scientists have proven is caused by increased temperatures. And just this last month, the global sea surface temperature hit a new record high.
Land-waste emissions: Basically all plastics that are not collected through proper disposal, will at some point end up in the ocean. Either rain or wind will carry it there. In fact, one of the big findings by the Ocean Cleanup project was that rivers are the arteries that carry waste from land to the ocean, and 1% of the world’s rivers are responsible for roughly 80% of plastic pollution. Other land-waste threatening the ocean are toxins and PCBs.
Agri-runoffs: Heard of the Dutch farmer’s protest? You know, the one where they almost threatened civil war? That was basically sparked by the Dutch government’s attempts to reign in nitrogen emissions from agriculture which is one of the really big contributors to algae-blooms. Along the coast, they suck up all the oxygen, which in turn suffocates all marine life. All of this has basically gone unchecked until recently, and governments are receiving heavy resistance from farmer unions caught between increased productivity pressure and a sustainable future.
Overfishing & illegal fishing: Overfishing and illegal fishing is perhaps one of the world’s biggest problems that nobody seems to know about. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, as of 2020, only 7% of the world’s oceans are protected by regulatory frameworks and quotas. Approximately 1 / 3 of world’s fish stocks are overfished. This means that the stock is being harvested at a rate that is not sustainable in the long term, and the population of the species is declining as a result. Additionally, another 1 / 3 of fish stocks are fully fished, meaning that they are being harvested at their maximum sustainable yield. Combine that with illegal fishing which is increasing around the continent of Africa and Indonesia and you have a looming disaster for coming generations.
Invasive species: Ever since the introduction of sail millennials ago, invasive species have been a threat to marine ecosystems. By ballast water discharge, shipping, or fishing operations, invasive species often outcompete native species for resources, disrupt food webs, or cause ecological damage to natural ecosystems. Perhaps the most notorious of latest examples is the “Didemnum vexillum” or “sea womit”, a sponge-like creature that clings onto hulls of ships and infects harbors around the world at an alarming rate. Once established it blankets the floor, 10x its size in under two weeks, and destroys all other marine life in the area.
Deepsea mining & exploration: This century has seen an absolute explosion in ocean industrial activity ever since we managed to successfully harvest hydrocarbons in offshore waters. The drilling, so far, has been going on beneath the surface, however with deepsea mining we are not yet sure about the extent to which we are permanently disrupting marine ecosystems with new operations. Some organizations are calling for a complete ban, while others are awaiting more regulatory guidance. This controversy is literally happening as we speak, more in-depth here.
Destructive tourism: If there was ever a project that we could kill today, that was utterly useless for humanity, and could save a whopping 100 million tons of yearly C02 emissions, what would be your guess? How about: the cruise industry? Not only are they not benefiting local communities, they dump their sewage in gorgeous fjords and are among the worst in class when it comes to CO2 emissions. In the last 30 years, the world witnessed tremendous growth in exploitative tourism, but we now need to rethink this in a more regenerative way.
But let me ask you, dear reader, what problems do you see? And do you see any particular problems that, as long as we start mobilizing capital at it, can generate an amazing growth and impact story for generations to come?
Because this is what gets us excited over here at Katapult. That and regulatory tailwinds like the new 30/30 Act of the EU which was recently announced to halt and reverse nature loss, by putting 30 percent of the planet under protection by 2030. These new commitments in addition to the Paris Agreement will force billions to be invested into new technologies and markets.
The problem is picking the winner, but we have some exciting news to share on how we do just that. More on this in a later post, so stay tuned.
Marcus Hølland Eikeland is Katapult’s Program Director and Partner. You can read more from Marcus’ blog series: The Big Idea, here.