The Five Biggest Threats to Our Oceans in 2020

The Five Biggest Threats to Our Oceans in 2020

From Greta Thunberg’s stark warnings to the UN, to Extinction Rebellion’s climate strikes, global warming has rocketed to the forefront of our collective socio political consciousness in the last year. For good reason: The IPCC’s scientists have issued a sobering warning that we only have twelve years to limit climate change. Although the climate crisis will disproportionately affect the poorest 10% of the planet, it is an existential threat facing every living being. The ocean, containing 97% of the world’s water, is one of the greatest causes for concern. It sustains all life on Earth, accounting for 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity, but its health is in rapid decline.

Our annual Ocean Awards, in partnership with the Blue Marine Foundation, aim to draw attention and support to conservation efforts. In the spirit of education, we have compiled a list of the greatest threats to our oceans, and solutions we can all work towards,

1. Plastic Pollution

Plastic is emblematic of unethical consumerism; it is cheap to manufacture, durable and disposable. As a result, vast quantities pollute our oceans.  A truckload of plastic enters the ocean every minute, damaging ecosystems and entering the food chain. Turtles, dolphins and seabirds can mistake it for food or become entangled and injured. Plastic has been found in the oceans as deep as 11km, meaning synthetic fibres have contaminated the remotest places on Earth.  A chilling estimate suggests that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (by weight).


Picture courtesy of  Rich Carey/

Oil Drilling and Pipelines

Regrettably, we have learnt precious little from oil-related catastrophes, such as Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez, as oil spills continue to happen with alarming regularity. In 2019 alone, we witnessed the Northeast Brazil oil spill,  as well as the Keystone Pipeline leak, which saw indigenous protestors come out in force. Oil spills only actually account for 10% of marine oil pollution, with the rest coming largely from shipping and oil drilling. Our dependence on oil is killing fish, mammals and seabirds and is destroying entire ecosystems. Although marine oil pollution has decreased in recent decades, decisive action is needed to combat this issue.


  • Go sustainable – use electric cars, switch to solar power, turn your heating down, choose petroleum-free beauty products
  • Make your voice heard – political scrutiny can force corporations to change harmful policies

Melting Ice Caps

We’re all too familiar with heart-rending images of polar bears stranded on dwindling icebergs, but the effects of melting ice caps are far more wide reaching in their devastation. As glaciers and sea-ice fall away into the water, changes in ocean currents will continue to disrupt weather patterns worldwide. Storms are growing in intensity and deadliness and floods are taking place with greater frequency. These effects are felt most immediately by indigenous communities, who have reported significant alterations in their way of life, including depleted fish numbers and coastal erosion. Sobering estimates suggest that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during summer within 20 or 30 years.


Dying Coral Reefs

Thousands of animal species make their homes in tropical coral reefs, making them the most diverse marine ecosystems on earth. Unfortunately, we are facing reef loss at alarming rates. National Geographic reported last year that 50% of the Great Barrier Reef is dead and it is almost entirely due to human activity. Coral reefs face a variety of stressors, including unsustainable tourism, rising sea temperatures, pollution and overfishing. These factors culminate in coral bleaching, a process that eventually kills reefs. The fishing industry is dependent on coral to support marine life but it also protects coastlines from the damaging effects of surging seas. The rippling effects could cause even broader collapse. In an interview for Business Insider, marine scientist Michael Crosby explains the dire consequences:

“Estimates are that up to 80% of the oxygen you are breathing in right now comes from the ocean. It doesn’t come from the land. In order for you to continue to breathe, you have to have a healthy ocean.”


  • Practise safe boating - anchor in sandy areas away from coral and sea grasses so that the anchor and chain do not drag on nearby corals
  • If you dive, don't touch - coral is extremely fragile and contact with humans can destroy its protective layer of mucus


Some 28.8 per cent of the world’s wild fish stocks are estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as overfished. About 61.3 per cent are said to be “fully fished.” That means 90 per cent of the world’s wild fish are either fully or over-exploited. This is due to destructive fishing practises, such as bottom-trawling, which destroys seabed habitats by accumulating huge levels of bycatch. Furthermore, the rapacious greed of the fishing industry has resulted in rampant human rights abuses of workers aboard fishing vessels. In future, we must conform to sustainable standards of fishing to avoid depleting our oceans entirely.


  • Eat less fish – go veggie or buy MSC approved fish
  • Donate to the Environmental Justice Foundation to combat bottom trawling and human rights abuses

Picture courtesy of Willyam Bradberry/

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