It was a lot easier to be a responsible person 200 years ago, back when we didn't know about concerns like agricultural runoff, animal methane or the host of other negative consequences resulting from our consumption practices. Ignorance was bliss. Or at least we didn't have the knowledge to question otherwise. But gone are those days, and now we must face the price for years of ignorance.

The United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out strategic objectives for how we can address the greatest concerns facing our world today. SDG 14 is Life below water and rightly so as oceans cover around 75 percent of the earth's surface1 and affect many more spheres than one might expect – for example, over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods and oceans absorb about 30 percent of carbon dioxide produced by humans.

We wanted to learn more about the greatest threats to life below water and how to best address them. So, we talked to some leaders trying to make a difference in the area. Here's what we learned.

Big threats to life below water:

Overfishing and unsustainable aquaculture – A majority of fisheries (over 80 percent of assessed stocks) are fully fished or overfished today. Illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing accounts for as much as 53 percent of reported catch. Moreover, when unchecked, fish farming can, and has, led to increased pollution and loss of species diversification.

Climate change and acidification – We owe the oceans a great debt. They've been absorbing around 93 percent of the excess heat produced by greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s.2 And oceans are getting increasingly warmer, acidic and less oxygenated as a result.

Pollution and plastics – An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste go into the marine environment every year.2 You've probably seen or at least heard of the damage plastic enacts on marine wildlife. Plastic contamination of the marine food chain also has a trickle-down effect, which means it also negatively impacts fish and shellfish for human consumption.

Nutrient runoff, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals – Most of these pollutants have long half-lives, accumulate over time and have largely unknown impacts. We can, however, link them to low levels of oxygen in waters as well as deformation, cancer and reproductive failure.2 Again they affect marine species directly and humans indirectly.

What we can do:

Use sustainable aquaculture – When properly regulated, aquaculture can be good for marine ecosystems, produce very little waste and promote species diversification. Most viable options for sustainable aquaculture have not yet reached large-scale commercial markets but we can do more help them get there.

Promote alternatives to plastics and work to remove the plastic that is currently polluting our oceans – Read about Parley, an organization led by UBS Global Visionary Cyrill Gutsch working to combat marine plastic pollution with Ocean Plastic® – a premium material made from upcycled marine plastic waste intercepted on beaches, coastlines and the open ocean.

Find alternatives to toxic compounds – Regulatory initiatives like the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants are doing a lot to try and prohibit the use of toxic chemicals and find more sustainable alternatives. There's also steps we, as individuals, can take by signaling to our governments and industries that certain chemicals have no future.

And the most effective, individual action?

At UBS in society, we've talked to many thought leaders and subject-matter experts about issues of sustainability. There's one question we always ask – what can people do, in their daily life, to help? Most of the answers we get have the same underlying message.

Ask more questions.

As consumers, we have incredible power. By asking more questions about where our food is coming from, how it got to us and what were the impacts along the way, we can communicate that these issues matter and that unsustainable practices have consequences. So, in short, when something sounds fishy, call it out.


Read our Chief Investment Office's analysis on oceans, and which industries ocean conservancy will impact in the years to come.

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