A critical analysis of the capacity of SDG 14 ‘Life Below Water’ to transform the world by 2030

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 2989

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 by all United Nations Member States to provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for the people and our planet. The agenda was an elaboration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aimed to reduce poverty by 2015 through eight target areas.

Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) – Life Below Water – was the first-time oceans and seas became a subject for discussion in their own right within the United Nations. SDG 14 comprises 10 specific targets working towards the overarching aim to conserve and sustain the oceans, seas and marine resources for development. This essay will outline three main aggressors to the marine ecosystem; pollution (target 14.1), climate change (target 14.3) and overfishing (target 14.4); and address the progress being made and challenges being faced in achieving the 2030 target.

Marine Pollution

Marine pollution is at the most mainstream danger to life below water due to its exposure in news outlets and the direct responsibility consumers have to reverse the damage to the oceans. Target 14.1 aims to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution in all kinds by 2025 (UN, 2015).

Currently an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, set to increase 10-fold by 2020 (Greenpeace, n.d.). This has an unprecedented impact on marine biology, where many marine organisms cannot distinguish common plastic items (e.g., the plastic bag) from the likes of jellyfish, a key part of their food consumption. By 2050, it is estimated that by weight, there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (EMF, 2017).

Three main ways plastic ends up in our oceans is through the lack of recycling, littering and products flushed down the drain. Plastic that doesn’t get recycled ends up in a landfill, however during transportation it often blows away due to its light weight. From there, plastic clutters our drains and enters our rivers, eventually finding its way to the sea. Littering has the same effect, with illegal dumping of waste causing a great surge of plastic into our seas. Many products that are considered essential in daily life, such as sanitary products and cotton buds are flushed into our sewage system before residing in our oceans.

A study by Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research found that ten of the world’s rivers release more than 90% of total plastic found in the sea, largely due to high populations living on riverbanks and insufficient waste management systems (Schmidt, Krauth and Wagner, 2017).

Micro-plastics are another element of plastic pollution that pose a real threat to aquatic life. At less than five millimetres long, micro-plastics emerge from larger plastic debris that degrade into smaller pieces and micro-beads – a type of manufactured micro-plastic used in health and beauty products – that get washed down the drain. Micro-beads first appeared in personal care products around 50 years ago as plastics increasingly replaced natural ingredients. Until recent years, the damage micro-beads have on human health has been relatively unknown, yet emerging studies have revealed that ingestion of micro-particles can cause alteration in chromosomes leading to infertility, obesity, and cancer (Sharma and Chatterjee, 2017).

The harm of micro-plastics is extensive to marine biology and can enter the aquatic food chain at every level. Due to their small size, they can be consumed by anything from zooplankton, which make up the base of the aquatic food chain, to fish, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. The toxins contained in micro-plastics can be passed into animal tissue, working their way not only through the aquatic food chain but eventually reaching human consumption.

Some notable bans on micro-beads have been put in place in the Global North post 2015, all working towards achieving SDG 14. This includes the USA Micro-bead Free Waters Act 2015, banning plastic micro-beads in rinse-off cosmetic products, followed by Canada who published the Micro-beads in Toiletries Regulations 2018. There is no regional legislation on banning micro-beads in the EU as yet, however several member states such as UK, Sweden and France have already introduced bans on some intentionally added micro-plastics in rinse-off cosmetics (ChemSafety, 2019).

Climate Change: Ocean Warming and Acidification

Climate change is a growing danger to life below water, causing the oceans to rise in temperature and the levels of acid to increase, each having a negative impact on marine life. SDG target 14.3 sets out to minimise and address the impacts of ocean acidification through enhanced scientific cooperation on all levels.

Ocean warming and ocean acidification negatively impact all marine life by limiting growth and survival (Frontiers, 2019). The acidification of the ocean has accelerated by 30% since pre-industrial times and is predicted to increase alongside growing greenhouse gas emissions. Ocean acidification, partnered with other damaging environmental factors such as warming waters, make it harder for aquatic species to survive the changes to their ecosystem.

Coral bleaching is a prime example of the detrimental impact of climate stressors.

Environmental changes like warming and pollution cause the coral to react by expelling the algae that live inside their tissues. These algae give the coral energy to grow and reproduce, therefore by expelling it, they lose their pigment and are left with a transparent outer shell, known as coral bleaching. Although some types of coral can feed themselves, the majority depend on the algae and in effect, starve without it. What is known to be the worst coral bleaching event was declared in 2015, impacting every major coral region on the planet. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffered the worst in 2016 and again in 2017, losing half of its coral to bleaching over the two years. The Indian Ocean also took a hit, where one survey found that between 60% to 90% of coral colonies were bleached (Slezak, 2017). It is not impossible for coral to recover from a bleaching event, although the timescale can take decades. Corals are home to millions of fish with at least a quarter of the planet’s marine life relying on coral at some point during their life cycle (AMCS, n.d.).

The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) has announced the event is no longer occurring in all three ocean basins – Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian – indicating the global bleaching event is coming to an end. Coral reefs are not beyond help and many proactive steps are being taken to make their ecosystems more resilient (Koss, 2017). The concern is less about the act of recovery but more the time scale the coral reefs have to do so. A reduction in the rate we burn fossil fuels is essential to protect coral reefs and the marine habitats that rely on them, and we are required to do so at an urgent rate.

There is a growing consciousness for consumers to reduce their carbon footprint, supported by environmental initiatives and policies that are raising awareness. In relation to scientific cooperation, CO2 mitigation technologies have the potential to bring about the required 20-fold reduction in per capita carbon emission, however continuous population and economic growth remains a serious challenge, if not complete breach, to the capability to do so (Huesemann, 2006).


Target 14.4 aims to effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices by 2020, meaning there is an urgent need to transform human behaviour and control the use of technological developments that enhance the capacity to fish, both in turn contributing to the global fishery crisis (Schmidt et al., 2017). Worm et al (2006) predict that commercial fish stocks will run out by 2048, causing a serious breach to food security for the billions of people worldwide depending upon fish as a source of food and income. The first real indication of the impact of overfishing was the collapse of Canada’s Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992. Newfoundland was renowned as the world’s most productive fishery before experiencing years of overfishing and incompetent management (Greenpeace, 2019).

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing worsens the already damaging practices of overfishing. Some of the worst ocean impacts are caused by pervasive illegal fishing, which is estimated at up to 30% of catch, or more for high-value species and criminals up to $36.4 billion each year (WWF, 2019).

The exploitation of IUU fishing severely debilitates the sustainable management of marine ecosystems, with developing countries at most risk. Kenya’s South Coast faces particular conflict in relation to destructive fishing due to opposing social and economic dimensions. In this region excessive fishing of this type has been described as one of the major problems coastal areas, particularly reefs, face (McClanahan and Shafir, 1999).

Munyi (2009) found that the most destructive fishing gears have been identified as spear guns which were used by 32% of respondents, beach seines used by 29% and ring nets which were used by 5%. However, a more recent study demonstrates that the use of ring nets has increased from one gear and 15 fishers in 2004, to 40 gears and 861 fishers in 2016 (Mbugua, 2017). 1% were also found to use explosives, causing immediate damage to coral reef habitat with long-term impacts. Driving forces for the use of such methods are the perceived efficiency, availability and declining catches that triggers desperation amongst the fishermen (Munyi, 2009).

Kenya also faces a social complexity in relation to the roles of gender in beach seining. Women on the Kenyan coast who buy and process fish for local markets, known as Mama Karanga, provide a link between fisheries and the poor consumers (Matsue, Daw and Garrett, 2014). These consumers are mostly other women who cannot afford to buy the larger fish caught by legal fishing practices. As fish is the main source of food for the poorer inhabitants of coastal areas, many women would be forced into prostitution should they stop being able to afford it.

Some progress has been made to combat such issues in the Global South, and in turn SDG 14. In 2018, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced a £1million fund and initiative to support small-scale fisheries in becoming sustainable. Using the Ocean Stewardship Fund, MSC aims to engage 20% of global fisheries in the programme by 2020 and over a third of global fisheries by 2030 (MSC, 2018).

As IUU fishing is primarily an economic activity, this means incentives to engage in IUU operations will exist, and increase, as long as the expected profit of IUU fishing is positive. Thus, major causes of IUU fishing practices can be categorised as economic, including overcapacity, ineffective management and subsidies (Gallic and Cox, 2006). As well as the social factors impacting Kenyan fishing practices, institutional factors further encourage them as the gaps in the current international legal framework for the sea allows for some fishing activities to be in practice beyond the reach of national and international regulations (Gallic and Cox, 2006).

Reverting to the Global North, a significant and existing legal framework to consider is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act (MSA), first introduced in 1976 to protect fish populations in U.S. waters. The act was then amended in 1996 in retaliation to extensive overfishing during the 1980s and 1990s and further refined in 2006 to introduce additional safeguards.

NRDC (2019) reported evidence of progress that has resulted from the MSA, including two out of three overfished stocks had been rebuilt or were making significant progress by 2013 and $63 billion worth of recreational fishing sales were generated in 2015, supporting an estimated 439,000 jobs. Despite the evidence supporting the positive impact of the MSA on U.S. fish populations and the economy, the law is currently under attack in congress (Chapa, 2019). Since 2009, Congressional attacks on the MSA have consistently increased and a number of bills have been introduced that would hinder the ability of scientific advisors to provide recommendations on the protection of fishery management and thus challenging the progress of SDG 14 (Oceana USA, 2019).

The management of EU fisheries is outlined in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that contains a set of rules to conserve fish stocks. The CFP aims to ensure that fishing and aquaculture are environmentally, economically and sociably sustainable through four main policy areas; fisheries management, international policy, market and trade policy and funding (European Commission, n,d.).

To implement the CFP, recent progress has been made as EU ministers of the fisheries council have set further limits to fishing in line with scientific advice. These intentions should be considered as positive progress towards effectively regulating overfishing and IUU fishing practices, however the council set limits for 2018 at 44% higher than the published scientific advice (Clayton, 2018). It is not evident whether the 2020 deadline for the CFP and SDG target 14.4 will be achieved, but this does not discourage the progress the policy has to meet the overall 2030 target for the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is undeniable that work is being done to combat overfishing in all of its capacities on a global scale, however the setbacks outlined above emphasise the urgency for more work to be done. The specific target of goal 14.4 is to be achieved by 2020, a challenging target after considering the above case studies, however this does not suggest that the overall 2030 target of the SDGs cannot be achieved regarding this particular threat.


The Sustainable Development Goals are an ambitious agenda and with just over a decade to meet the 2030 deadline, questions are raised as to whether this is achievable. SDG 14 was a new concept, left out of previous development scopes and faced with extremely difficult aggressors to overcome. To add to this, many targets set within goal 14 do not have the luxury of a decade and instead are tasked with being achieved between 2020 and 2025.

As outlined throughout this essay, we are witnessing some positive movements towards combating aggressors and working towards achieving the targets of SDG 14, yet due to the vastness of life below water and the amount that needs to be done to save it, it is arguable.

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