More than a thousand years ago, the Vikings lived and died by the sea while often taking to the oceans in specially designed wooden ships and sailing for the unknown. They dreamt of plunder, stories to entertain the long winter nights, and not least of new trading posts and farm-land, far surpassing the fertility of the land of their ancestors in which they resided.
In many ways the oceans remain an untapped and untamed resource, offering huge promise for future generations. Our oceans, however, are not unaffected by humankind.
The coastal and marine ecosystems provide services vital to the hundreds of millions on the move towards the coasts in search of a better life. Being the ocean’s first frontier, these ecosystems are increasingly under threat.
The combined effects of mass movements of people towards coastal areas, a growing appetite for protein, energy derived from charcoal and other factors are compounded due to a lack of effective coastal governance and appropriate infrastructure investments, such as basic sewage treatment facilities, leading to the severe degradation of marine and coastal environments.
This degradation means that the blue forests and associated ecosystems of our earth - the mangroves, seagrasses, salt marshes, and coral reefs - are losing their ability to provide the fundamental services upon which human well-being depends.
Provision of shelter and food for juvenile fish species, which often thrive across mangrove, seagrass and coral reef habitats is one crucial example of the blue forests ecosystems services. While mangroves and coral reefs in particular help improve local food security in the coastal tropical regions, such ecosystems are equally important to the world’s supply of seafood.
Coral reefs and blue forests ecosystems form key nurseries for about a quarter of the ocean's fish, and thus provide revenue for both local communities and the international fishing industry, upon which developed nations depend heavily. For example, US imports from both wild and aquaculture based fisheries account for approximately 86% of the seafood consumed in the country.
While blue forest ecosystems often prove critical to fisheries on multiple scales, they also play a role in facilitating tourism and protecting coastlines from erosion. They may even offer new income-generating opportunities due to their rich biodiversity and vast, untapped potential for bioprospecting.
In addition, recent research showed that coastal and marine ecosystems can store up to ten times the amount of carbon per unit area compared to terrestrial forests, and that healthy mangrove forests helped save lives during the 2004 Asia tsunami disaster by absorbing the impact from destructive waves.
Given the importance of preserving these vital ecosystems the GEF, in 2014, partnered with the UN Environment, and a host of other partners, to launch the Blue Forest project. The project, which aims at synthesizing and leveraging work done by key global and local players, constitutes a powerful response through the joint development and dissemination of tools enabling countries to not only recognize local and national benefits derived from coastal and marine ecosystems, but to frame their contribution towards safekeeping our global climate.
At a recent workshop organized by the project in Latin America, international researchers, project managers, regional policymakers, and academics gathered to discuss the immense benefits that protecting coastal and marine ecosystems offers. The message from the work shop was clear, the world drastically needs innovative solutions to the mounting challenges posed by our warming world, overfishing and increasing pollution from our ever expanding land based activities. The Blue Forest project may help distill and disseminate such solutions at both the local and global level, including the upcoming June SDG 14 Oceans conference in NYC.
Because if we fail, we not only deprive current generations of the services which the ocean offers - we lock ourselves into a trajectory where future generations dare not dream of the oceans and the wonders arising from the great unknown.