Public grasps threat to ocean even as leaders fail to meet targets, poll finds

As people mark World Oceans Day today, an overwhelming 94% of people in England and Wales believe the fate of the oceans and humans are inextricably linked, while more than half rate global ocean health as “poor or very poor”, according to a government survey.

The online survey of 8,000 people, carried out for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Ocean Conservation Trust earlier this year, reveals the depth of public understanding of the link between the health of the oceans and the multiple pressures upon them.

A catalogue of devastating reports in recent years has revealed overfished stocks, disappearing habitats and ubiquitous pollution, as well as the continuing impact of the climate crisis. A United Nations report last year found the world had failed to meet a single target to stem the destruction of wildlife and ecosystems, and that 60% of coral reefs were under threat.

Although there has been progress in some regions, the proportion of marine populations that are overfished has increased in the past decade to a third of the total, and many non-target species are threatened because of unsustainable levels of bycatch, while plastic waste and excess nutrients have been found to be at levels damaging to ecosystem function and biodiversity.

The Defra survey underlined a deep concern among the public in England and Wales over these threats. Almost half (49%) of those surveyed reported feeling concerned about the marine environment, while more than a third said they had undergone lifestyle changes to protect it. A further 75% said their seafood choices were influenced by information on whether species were endangered or overfished.

The public also gain physical and mental health benefits from our marine environment, the survey found. Eighty-five per cent of those surveyed felt that safeguarding marine life was personally important to them. Of people who had visited the English and Welsh coast last year, 80% said it was good for their physical health and 84% said it brought mental health benefits.

While 44% of those surveyed rated the health of the sea around England and Wales as poor, 57% rated the health of the oceans as poor or very poor.

The UK junior environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “It is clear people feel a strong connection with our beautiful ocean and coastlines. This is not only really welcome, it is also so important if we are to tackle the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and preserve our marine environment for future generations to enjoy.”

Nicola Bridge, head of conservation education and communications at the Ocean Conservation Trust, said: “It is especially important to learn from this work to push for increased protection of our ocean during UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.”

Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said plastic pollution and litter was the greatest threat to the health of the seas, followed by 57% who believed the greatest threat was chemical pollution, and 54% who thought it was overfishing.