Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystems Underpin a Healthy Planet and Social Well-Being



In no other realm is the importance of biodiversity for sustainable development more essential than in the ocean. Marine biodiversity, the variety of life in the ocean and seas, is a critical aspect of all three pillars of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental—supporting the healthy functioning of the planet and providing services that underpin the health, well­-being and prosperity of humanity.

The ocean is one of the main repositories of the world's biodiversity. It constitutes over 90 per cent of the habitable space on the planet and contains some 250,000 known species, with many more remaining to be discovered—at least two thirds of the world's marine species are still unidentified.1

The ocean, and the life therein, are critical to the healthy functioning of the planet, supplying half of the oxygen we breathe2 and absorbing annually about 26 per cent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.3

Evidence continues to emerge demonstrating the essential role of marine biodiversity in underpinning a healthy planet and social well-being. The fishery and aquaculture sectors are a source of income for hundreds of millions of people, especially in low-income families, and contribute directly and indirectly to their food security. Marine ecosystems provide innumerable services for coastal communities around the world. For example, mangrove ecosystems are an important source of food for more than 210 million people/ but they also deliver a range of other services, such as livelihoods, clean water, forest products, and protection against erosion and extreme weather events.

Not surprisingly, given the resources that the ocean provides, human settlements have developed near the coast: 38 per cent of the world's population lives within 100 km of the coast, 44 per cent within 150 km, 50 per cent within 200 km, and 67 per cent within 400 km.5 Roughly 61 per cent of the world's total gross domestic product comes from the ocean and the coastal areas within 100 km of the coastline.6 Coastal population densities are 2.6 times larger than in inland areas and benefit directly and indirectly from the goods and services of coastal and marine ecosystems, which contribute to poverty eradication, sustained economic growth, food security and sustainable livelihoods and inclusive work, while hosting large biodiversity richness and mitigating the impacts of climate change?

Thus, pressures that adversely impact marine biodiversity also undermine and compromise the healthy functioning of the planet and its ability to provide the services that we need to survive and thrive. Moreover, as demands on the ocean continue to rise, the continued provisioning of these services will be critical. The consequences of biodiversity loss are often most severe for the poor, who are extremely dependent on local ecosystem services for their livelihoods and are highly vulnerable to impacts on such services.

Concerns over the drastic declines in biodiversity are what initially motivated the development of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention encompasses three complementary objectives: the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources. With 196 Parties, participation in the Convention is nearly universal, a sign that our global society is well aware of the need to work together to ensure the survival of life on Earth.

The Convention also serves as a new biodiversity focal point for the entire United Nations system and a basis for other international instruments and processes to integrate biodiversity considerations into their work; as such, it is a central element of the global framework for sustainable development. The Convention's Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its 20 Biodiversity Targets, adopted by the Parties to the Convention in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in 2010, provide an effective framework for cooperation to achieve a future in which the global community can sustainably and equitably benefit from biodiversity without affecting the ability of future generations to do so.

The centrality of marine biodiversity to sustainable development was recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in which global leaders highlighted the urgency of taking action to improve the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. In particular, SDG 14 is aimed at con­ serving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development and emphasizes the strong linkages between marine biodiversity and broader sustainable development objectives. In fact, many elements of Goal 14 and a number of other SDGs reflect the same objectives and principles agreed upon under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Thus, efforts at different scales to achieve the Aichi Targets will directly contribute to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the SDGs.

Marine biodiversity and ecosystems are intrinsically connected to a wide range of services that are essential to sustainable development. These relationships are often complex and dynamic, and are influenced by feedback loops and synergistic effects. These outline the need to take an integrated and holistic approach to conservation and the sustainable use of marine biodiversity, based on the ecosystem and precautionary approaches, principles of inclusiveness and equity, and the need to deliver multiple benefits for ecosystems and communities.

Work under the Convention has evolved to reflect such an approach and to support Parties and relevant organizations in implementing the Convention, notably through national biodiversity strategies and action plans, and through policies, programmes and measures across different sectors that both affect and rely on biodiversity.

This work takes a thematic approach focused on (a) understanding the ecological and biological value of the ocean; (b) addressing the impacts of pressures and threats on marine and coastal biodiversity; (c) facilitating the application of tools for applying the ecosystem approach for conservation and sustainable use; (d) building capacity to put in place the enabling conditions for implementation; and (e) mainstreaming biodiversity into sectors.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global process for the description of ecologically or biologically significant marine areas (EBSAs) has served to enhance understanding of the ecological and biological value of marine areas in nearly all of the world's ocean regions. This work serves as an important foundation for conservation and management, and creates the enabling conditions to further enhance and utilize this knowledge by catalysing scientific networking and partnerships at the regional level. It also helps to identify gaps in knowledge and to prioritize monitoring and research activities in support of the application of the ecosystem approach.8

Parties have also prioritized the need to address key pressures on marine biodiversity, including unsustainable fishing practices, marine debris and anthropogenic underwater noise, as well as climate change and ocean acidification. The secretariat, Parties to the Convention, other Governments and relevant organizations work with scientists and experts to synthesize best available knowledge on the effects of major pressures/stressors, and produce consolidated guidance on means to prevent and mitigate adverse impacts of these pressures.

Through expert workshops, publications and engagement with other relevant processes, the Convention on Biological Diversity has generated guidelines for the development and application of the ecosystem approach, including through area­based measures, such as marine spatial planning and marine and coastal protected areas, as well as biodiversity-inclusive environmental impact and strategic environmental assessments, integrating different sectoral policy measures to address various pressures on the biological and ecological values of the ocean.

Capacity-building to support implementation is also a central focus of the Convention on Biological Diversity. One of the tools for this is the Sustainable Ocean Initiative, a global partnership framework coordinated by the Convention secretariat, together with various United Nations entities and international partner organizations. The Initiative builds on existing efforts, resources and experiences by enhancing partnerships, disseminating lessons learned and knowledge gained, and facilitating improved coordination among sectors and stakeholder groups. It does this across multiple scales in order to create the enabling conditions needed for improved on-the-ground implementation. The Sustainable Ocean Initiative Global Dialogue with Regional Seas Organizations and Regional Fisheries Bodies on Accelerating Progress Towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets works to facilitate cross-sectoral regional-scale dialogue and coordination.9

Parties have also prioritized the mainstreaming of bio­diversity considerations into economic sectors that both affect and rely on healthy marine ecosystems for sustainable economic growth. Mainstreaming was at the forefront of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the recent United Nations Biodiversity Conference, held in Cancun, Mexico, in December 2016. Ministers of environment, fisheries and tourism, among others, at the high-level segment of the Conference expressed their commitment, through the adoption of the Cancun Declaration, to work at all levels within Governments and across sectors to mainstream biodiversity in sectoral development. In this vein, the Convention secretariat has worked closely over the years with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, regional fishery bodies and other stakeholders to support enhanced implementation by the Parties to the Convention to better mainstream biodiversity into the fisheries and aquaculture sectors.

If we are to achieve the SDGs and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, we will have to abandon business-as-usual approaches and mainstream biodiversity into our development planning, governance and decision-making. We will have to mobilize resources to make the on-the-ground changes that are so desperately needed. Furthermore, stakeholders at all levels will need to be conscious of how their actions and behaviours affect the marine ecosystems on which we all depend, and make conscious decisions to improve our relationships with the ocean, which has given us so much throughout human history.

The forthcoming Ocean Conference, to be held at the United Nations in New York from 5 to 9 June 2017, represents a momentous opportunity to build the necessary political will and put in place the enabling conditions to foment enhanced implementation at all levels with the inclusion of all stakeholders in order to realize a future of healthy and productive marine biodiversity that supports societal well-being. In line with the principles of intergenerational equity, we must also recognize the right of future generations to inherit a planet thriving with life, and to reap the economic, cultural and spiritual benefits of a healthy ocean.


1   For further information, see the Census of Marine life website:

2   The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment (World Ocean Assessment I) (United Nations, 2016). Available from

3   Corinne Le Quere and others, '"Global carbon budget 2015", Earth System Science Data, Vol. 7, No.2 (December 2015), 349-396 (371).

4   Mark Spalding, Robert D. Brumbaugh and Emily Landis, Atlas of Ocean Wealth (Arlington, VA, The Nature Conservancy, 2016), p. 14.

5   Christopher Small and Joel E. Cohen, Continental physiography, climate, and the global distribution of Human Population", Current Anthropology Vol. 45, No. 2 (April 2004), 269-277 (272).

6   Paulo A.L.D. Nunes and Andrea Ghermandi, The economics of marine ecosystems: reconciling use and conservation of coastal and marine systems and the underlying natural capital, Environmental and Resource Economics, Vol. 56, No.4 (October 2013), 459-465 (460).

7   Ibid.

8   For further information on ecologically or biologically significant marine areas, see

9   For further information on the Sustainable Ocean Initiative, see