Ocean Habitat

Overview

Dhow sailing boat

Oceans contain the greatest diversity of life on Earth. From the freezing polar regions to the warm waters of the tropics and deep sea hydrothermal vents to shallow seagrass beds, marine organisms abound. Humans rely on the oceans for their important natural resources. Fishing is the principal livelihood for over 200 million people and provides the main source of protein for more than a billion.

Overexploitation of fish and other resources, destructive fishing, unregulated development, pollution and climate change are altering oceans in numerous ways. Human impacts can be found even in remote areas, such as the middle of the Pacific where plastic garbage accumulates. WWF works around the world to protect oceans and the variety of species and communities that depend on them.

North Atlantic right whale population continues to decline, raising alarms

Only 366 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are left, experts say, representing a shocking 8% decline in a single year and the lowest number in about 20 years for this iconic species. Human impacts—specifically entanglements in fixed fishing gear and vessel strikes from ship traffic—remain the biggest threats to the survival of this species.

North Atlantic right whale and calf swim in green waters off the coast of Florida

Why They Matter

  • Oceans supply fish and other seafood that forms a major source of protein for a billion people. They also provide seaweed and marine plants used for the manufacturing of food, chemicals, energy and construction materials.

  • The ocean’s surface layer absorbs about half of the heat that reaches the planet from the sun. By distributing this heat around the world, oceans have a profound impact on weather and climate. As humans have pumped more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, oceans have helped to buffer the effects of climate change by soaking up about half of that carbon. 

  • Ocean waves, winds and currents offer potential for sustainable energy supplies.

Threats

Fisherman

Plastic Pollution

Every day plastic is flowing into our natural environment at an unprecedented rate. Plastic waste negatively impacts over 800 species and causes an estimated $8 billion in economic losses annually for the fishery, maritime, and tourism industries. Abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear, commonly referred to as ghost gear, contributes significantly to the problem of plastic pollution in our ocean. Gillnets, traps, and other types of fishing gear can continue to catch target and non-target species indiscriminately for years. This impacts important food resources as well as endangered species. Because of this, ghost gear has been coined as the most deadly form of marine plastic debris, damaging vital ocean habitats, aquatic life, and livelihoods.

Unsustainable Fishing

The number of overfished marine fishing stocks has tripled in half a century. Today, one-third of stocks are currently fished at biologically unsustainable levels, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Unsustainable fishing is closely linked to the bycatch of other marine wildlife like turtles and dolphins. A key driver of global overfishing is illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. It threatens marine ecosystems, puts food security and regional stability at risk, and is linked to human rights violations and even organized crime. The global seafood supply chain is complex and weakly regulated in many places, which means illegally caught and traded fish can find a way to market quite easily. Once intermingled, illegal products are very difficult to detect. In most cases consumers simply cannot tell if the fish they eat was legally caught because our current laws are not strong enough to track information from bait to plate.

Oil and Gas Drilling

Much of the world’s untapped oil reserves lie offshore beneath the Arctic's biologically productive waters. Exploring and developing these resources in the remote and unforgiving Arctic comes with extreme risks. Oil spills can kill birds, fish and marine mammals, as well as the smaller organisms that provide food for these larger species. The impacts on nature directly impact Arctic Indigenous peoples who are part of the ecosystem and depend on it for survival. There is no proven technology that allows for the complete containment or cleanup of oil spilled in the marine environment. In the extreme conditions of the Arctic, storms are frequent, ice is still present for much of the year, daylight nonexistent during the winter, and response infrastructure is more than 1,000 miles away. Oil development and related shipping can also generate life-threatening levels of ocean noise pollution for marine mammals.

Climate Change

In the last 200 years, the oceans have absorbed one third of the CO2 produced by human activities and 90% of the extra heat trapped by the rising concentration of greenhouse gases. As the climate responds to decades of increasing carbon emissions, the store of energy and heat from the atmosphere builds up in the ocean. If we reach a tipping point, we will likely see more extreme weather events, changing ocean currents, rising sea levels and temperatures, and melting of sea ice and ice sheets—all of which aggravate the negative impacts of overfishing, illegal fishing, pollution, and habitat degradation.

What WWF Is Doing

Boat with WWF staff

Sustainably Managing Fisheries

WWF works to end overfishing, addressing it at both a local and commercial level. Through collaboration with a variety of partners we strive to transform fisheries so that they are sustainable, have minimal impact and can provide food and livelihoods for years to come. We work with the fisheries industry to reduce bycatch of marine turtles, cetaceans and sharks and help develop and promote new technologies and gear. WWF continues to promote stronger enforcement against pirate fishing and destructive fishing (with dynamite and cyanide) and support mechanisms for full traceability of fisheries products.

Pacific bluefin tunas, Mexico

Establishing Marine Protected Areas

WWF is working to create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in places like the Coral Triangle. WWF works to ensure MPAs are designed and managed well and that they benefit both people and nature. We also monitor the impacts of reserves on local communities.

Responsibly Farmed Seafood

WWF knows that when done responsibly, aquaculture’s impact on wild fish populations, marine habitats, water quality and society can be significantly and measurably reduced.WWF is committed to leading the farmed seafood industry toward efficiency and environmental sustainability. We are on the forefront of spreading awareness among aquaculture producers about the importance of responsible practices. WWF encourages large retailers and restaurant chains to adopt responsible seafood procurement policies that call for sourcing responsibly farmed seafood products.

Helping Communities Adapt to Climate Change

Replanting mangrove forests

WWF works with local communities, governments and others to help wildlife and people residing in coastal communities successfully adapt to and prepare for the impacts of climate change. We address water scarcity by collecting rainwater and promoting drought-resistant crops. In coastal areas we focus on mangrove restoration to buffer shorelines from storm erosion. We monitor coral reef health and try to protect them in order to build their resilience against bleaching events.

Promoting Ecotourism and Sustainable Development

Coral reef at Marine Park

In places like the Galápagos, WWF wants to ensure that tourism can be a tool for conservation and sustainable development. We help create tourism models that both support conservation and improve people’s livelihoods. We work on reducing the ecological footprint caused by the tourism industry and visitors. We also advocate for sustainable coastal development and protection of important marine places, such as Cabo Pulmo National Park in the Gulf of California. WWF works with governments, in places such as the Mesoamerican Reef, to ensure that future coastal management decisions minimize impacts on reefs, mangroves and fisheries and incorporate sustainable use of marine resources.

Advocating for Responsible Oil and Gas Development

WWF advocates for responsible development in areas where oil and gas may occur, particularly in sensitive areas such as the Arctic. If development does transpire, WWF wants to ensure it is done as safely and responsibly as possible. Within targeted oil development sites, we identify areas in need of protection, such as those important for wildlife and indigenous people and communities. WWF also advocates for tighter standards for oil spill response in places such as the Arctic.

Projects

  • Universal Standards for Seafood Traceability

    The ocean provides a bounty of seafood, supporting hundreds of millions of jobs and feeding billions of people. But roughly a quarter of the fish caught globally is done illegally in the shadows, fueling a black market that exploits wildlife, people, and gaps in enforcement of laws. A lack of transparency allows rogue vessels and criminal networks to operate undetected and profit off stolen fish, taking money out of the pockets of people who follow the rules and contributing to declines in ocean health. Ending this black-market trade of seafood is good for nature and people but will require an array of proven tools working in tandem, chief among them is traceability.

  • Accelerating Tuna Sustainability through the Global FIP Alliance for Sustainable Tuna (G-FAST)

    Tuna are among the world’s more commercially valuable fish; strong global demand and excess of fishing fleets will likely cause stocks to decline if management strategies are not improved.

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Experts