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Julie Angus on the environmental — and economic — benefits of oceans

June 29, 2021 By: Julie Angus

This post is also available in: Français (French)

Although 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coast, the majority of people are landlocked and might not regularly see the vital role oceans play in the health of the planet, the economy and ourselves. Yet out of sight or in plain view, oceans are critical to every one of us.

Let’s start with the environment. I like to think of oceans as the lungs of our planet. They produce the oxygen in every two out of three breaths we take, and are the world’s largest carbon sink. They have absorbed 50 percent of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted and 90 percent of the resulting heat. Without oceans, our global temperature would be 36 C higher than it is today. That would result in heatwaves in the middle of Canadian winters and summers as hot as a sauna. The planet would be uninhabitable.

Now let’s look at the business impacts. Oceans drive a U.S.$2.5-trillion, so-called “blue” economy, which is growing at a faster rate than many other industries. If the ocean was a country, its GDP would be the seventh largest in the world, ahead of Italy, Brazil, Canada and Australia. Fish are the primary protein source for more than one billion people. We get medicine, energy and minerals from the ocean. Then there’s the energy oceans provide, which has historically come through oil and gas, and now increasingly comes through wind, wave and tidal.

Oceans are critical to our supply chains. Ninety percent of global goods are transported across the water. If this is interrupted, as happened earlier this year when a stuck container ship blocked the Suez Canal, global havoc ensues, commodity prices rise and manufacturing is delayed. Beyond physical goods, the internet, worldwide connectivity and international communications rely on oceans. Fibre-optic submarine cables crisscross the ocean floor, delivering 99 percent of international data.

That is what our oceans do for us, and they have the capacity to do so much more. Renewable energy, sustainable fisheries and carbon sequestration are all opportunities for a healthier, more prosperous planet. By some estimates, the oceans can further offset our carbon emissions, helping us achieve a full fifth of the reductions necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 C by 2050.

In short, everyone should care about the 70 percent of the planet that’s non-terrestrial. Increasingly, people are. There are campaigns to clean up garbage that flows into seas, trash that creates floating islands and fills the stomachs of whales. Thirty countries, including Canada, have pledged to protect 30 percent of oceans by 2030, the amount thought necessary to restore ocean biodiversity and health. Ocean-focused venture funds are on the rise, buoyed by both strong financial returns and an impressive environmental impact. Every dollar invested in these funds generates five times that in benefits.

At Open Ocean Robotics we are part of the solution. Our solar-powered autonomous boats collect critical data about the oceans for months on end, even in the most challenging and remote maritime regions. This is important for a number of industries, but at the moment, we are focused on maritime protection. The information from our vessels is being used to reduce illegal fishing, a $23-billion problem responsible for 30 percent of all caught fish. We also provide real-time marine life protection to help safeguard endangered whale populations from vessel strikes, offshore construction and loud noises that interfere with acoustic communications.

In addition to our own technology, Open Ocean Robotics is driving national and international collaboration to preserve our oceans. In Canada, I am on the board of the newly formed Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST), an innovation hub that is uniting Western Canadian ocean startups, established companies and other ecosystems players to grow our domestic blue economy. As part of NATO’s Innovation Advisory Board for their Unmanned Maritime Systems Initiative, I am working to create a network of drones, sensors and buoys to enable a vastly superior understanding of our oceans.

Oceans are vital to every single person on our planet. And to protect this global resource, we need to work together, whether you see the sea every day or never have.

Julie Angus