Sustainable Development Goal 14

The Earth's oceans are filled with hundreds of thousands of species of fish, mammals, plankton, and more. But oceans are more than just a home to these creatures; oceans are also essential to life on land, influencing the climate, and without them, humans would not exist. Today, oceans face threats like few other times in history. Let's learn about what the United Nations hopes to do to help the oceans under Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water.

Sustainable Development Goal 14 Sustainable Development Goal 14

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Table of contents

    Protecting Our Oceans

    It's nearly impossible to fathom how massive the Earth's oceans are. Covering 71% of the Earth's surface and made up of quintillions of gallons of water, their sheer scale far outpaces any part of the world in which humans live. However, unlike other Sustainable Development Goals like zero hunger and no poverty, it's less clear how protecting our oceans is connected to sustainable development. After all, humans don't live in the sea, and it's not a significant source of drinking water, so why does it matter? Next, let's discuss the overall purpose of SDG 14 and why protecting the ocean is essential.

    Sustainable Development Goal 14 Purpose

    The overarching purpose of SDG 14 is to ensure the health of the oceans and all life in them. Currently, the ocean is under considerable threat from human activity. Overfishing, pollution, and global warming are accelerating the deterioration of our oceans. Perhaps the most crucial role our oceans play is oxygen production in the atmosphere. Oceans are carbon sinks, meaning they absorb far more carbon than they emit.

    Sustainable Development Goal 14 Microplankton StudySmarterFig. 1 - Microscopic life forms in the ocean called plankton are one of the biggest producers of oxygen in our atmosphere.

    To this end, the ocean is essential to allowing us to breathe and prevent the worst effects of climate change. Oceans also provide a critical source of food to particular communities. Many coastal areas have fishing industries, and marine life is an integral part of their diets.

    SDG 14 Targets and Indicators

    Like all other Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 14 has several targets, or more specific goals, and statistics that allow experts to analyze progress. The targets are:

    1. Reduce marine pollution

    2. Protect and restore ecosystems

    3. Reduce ocean acidification

    4. Sustainable fishing

    5. Conserve coastal and marine areas

    6. End subsidies contributing to overfishing

    7. Increase the economic benefits from sustainable use of marine resources

    8. Increase the scientific knowledge, research, and technology for ocean health

    9. Support small scale fishers

    10. Implement and enforce international sea law

    Let's review some main SDG 14 targets and indicators next.

    Reduce Marine Pollution

    Due to single-use plastics, poor garbage disposal, and industrial runoff, the oceans today face numerous threats from humans polluting the water. When farmlands are adjacent to water sources, fertilizers can end up in oceans, especially during rainfall. The fertilizers then create an environment where algae and bacteria thrive, typically at the expense of other marine wildlife. This process is called eutrophication. In the end, ecosystems can overconsume their resources and end up collapsing.

    A much more visible type of pollution is that of trash. Dumping from boats and improper waste disposal leads to garbage ending up in the ocean. Animals can be poisoned by garbage and physically harmed.

    Garbage in the oceans has become so prevalent that large masses of it even have formal names. The largest mass of waste is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a concentration of debris twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean. Because of currents, the garbage is constantly churning but limited to a certain area. On the bright side, numerous ventures are underway that collect the trash and are trying to stem the flow of new plastic to the patch.

    Like most SDG 14's targets, the "reduce marine pollution" target is difficult to quantify with indicators. However, research is underway on effectively measuring the amount of oceanic plastic pollution, including microplastics. Coastal eutrophication, however, is more easily measured and even visible using satellite images.

    Sustainable Fishing

    For many coastal areas, fishing is a job and a way of life. It's provided food and income for societies going back centuries. With advances in fishing technology and the spread of large commercial fishing operations, the amount of fish is being depleted in some areas faster than the stocks are replenished. If fish populations end up depleted, it strains local economies and creates food insecurity.

    In the Great Lakes, the Blue Walleye fish was once in abundance. Commercial fishing operations existed throughout the region, with thriving communities built around the industry. Beginning in the 1950s, Blue Walleye populations sharply declined and disappeared completely by 1983. Scientists attribute the collapse to overfishing, eutrophication, and competition with newly introduced fish species.

    Furthermore, fish are an essential part of their ecosystems, and a loss of their population impacts all other species. Simply put, to ensure there are enough fish, more fish have to be born than taken out of the water by fishing. Surveys of fish populations and how much fish are caught annually by fishermen are the primary indicators to measure sustainable fishing. By 2050 fish populations are predicted to keep declining, although not totally disappear.

    Reduce Ocean Acidification

    Another major threat to the oceans is acidification. Acidification occurs when the pH level of the ocean's water decreases, meaning it becomes more acidic. The culprit is excess carbon in the atmosphere, dissolving in water and creating carbonic acid. While this process is normal and usually results in equilibrium, burning fossil fuels and deforestation are causing the oceans to acidify at an alarming rate.

    For shellfish, acidic water means they cannot grow shells, and coral has a more challenging time growing and thriving. Shellfish are often at the bottom of food chains, and if their populations are depleted, all other species on the food chain are harmed. Coral reefs provide essential shelter and food for other aquatic animals, so their loss impacts all other species that benefit from them. This target is relatively straightforward to indicate, with researchers able to collect water samples from all over the world and measure their pH values.

    Life Below Water Problems and Solutions

    The challenges to our oceans are numerous, but let's review some solutions underway that are helping to ensure a bright future for marine life!

    Promoting Research and Technologies in Oceanic Health

    Today, research is abuzz with new ways to examine the problems facing life below water and how to harness technology to help solve these problems. Advances in fishing methods, marine garbage collection, and remote sensing are all ways technology has empowered us to improve the oceans. With necessary research undertaken in different countries around the globe, it's also crucial for research to be open and accessible to all so that the benefits can be reaped everywhere.

    Reducing Carbon Emissions

    It's no secret climate change is threatening health everywhere on earth, including the oceans. If carbon emissions are reduced or eliminated, the oceans will greatly benefit. This is particularly important when it comes to ocean acidification, where an excess of carbon is accelerating the process. Increased temperatures are also harming marine life, and reducing carbon emissions is a solution to ensuring warming doesn't become extreme. Fortunately, we know what impact carbon dioxide has on the oceans, but reducing the amount in the atmosphere is no easy task.

    Effective Waste Management

    Poor management of landfills and improper waste disposal in coastal areas leads to the pollution of oceans. Ensuring that no waste ends up in oceans starts with each of us reducing what we buy and being conscious of how we dispose of things like single-use plastics. Poorly regulated and managed landfills and waste dumps near water sources results in garbage ending up in the ocean, so better management is crucial.

    Sustainable Development Goal 14 Beach pollution StudySmarterFig. 2 - Garbage on a beach in Egypt

    On the bright side, advances in biodegradable plastics and waste collection is helping prevent waste from sticking around in our oceans.

    Progress Made To Help Sustainable Development Goal 14

    SDG 14 targets were supposed to be met by either 2020 or 2030. The progress made to help Sustainable Development Goal 14 is mixed, with variations on which targets are met and in what countries.

    Areas of Success

    There's been much progress for target 14.5: conserve coastal and marine areas. Many more marine areas have protection status in 2020 than at the goal's start in 2015. These areas are generally protected from fishing and destructive commercial operations like oil drilling by granting protective statuses like national parks or marine preserves. Another area of progress is in combatting unregulated, unreported, and illegal (UUI) fishing. More countries are cracking down on the practice by directly enforcing fishing laws in marine areas and by establishing stricter fishing laws.

    Sustainable Development Goal 14 Fishing boat StudySmarterFig. 3 - Fishing boast of the coast of England

    Targets Falling Short

    Unfortunately, most countries are not on track to meet most SDG 14 targets by 2030. Studies show that the ocean is still acidifying, and an alarming amount of fish stocks are overexploited. Because the planet is still warming and carbon dioxide levels are increasing, it's hard to keep up with reducing ocean acidification.

    Pollution is another area falling behind. While there are considerable efforts to clean up things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, problems with eutrophication and plastic pollutants continue to persist. There is no large-scale effort underway to clean up all of our oceans and to implement better policies to prevent contaminants from getting there in the first place.

    Sustainable Development Goal 14 - Key takeaways

    • SDG 14 aims to reduce the impact on marine life and improve the health of our oceans.
    • Key areas include reducing pollution, promoting sustainable fishing, and reducing ocean acidification.
    • There's been success in creating more preserves for marine areas and cracking down on illegal fishing practices.
    • The oceans still face strains from pollution, acidification driven by carbon emissions, and overexploitation of fish stocks.


    1. Fig. 1: Microplankton ( by Epipelagic ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Development Goal 14

    What is the 14th Sustainable Development Goal?

    SDG 14 is focused on conserving and preserving the Earth's oceans with a focus on sustainable use and protection of marine life.

    What are the ten targets for goal 14?

    The 10 targets are:

    1. Reduce marine pollution
    2. Protect and restore ecosystems
    3. Reduce ocean acidification
    4. Sustainable fishing
    5. Conserve coastal and marine areas
    6. End subsidies contributing to overfishing
    7. Increase the economic benefits from sustainable use of marine resources
    8. Increase scientific knowledge, research, and technology for ocean health
    9. Support small scale fishers
    10. Implement and enforce international sea law

    What is the problem with life below water?

    Our oceans and the lives in them are faced with unparalleled challenges ranging from pollution to overfishing. It's mainly driven by human activity and our behavior can influence what future they have.

    Why is life below water important?

    Aquatic lifeforms are one of the biggest sources of oxygen in our atmosphere, essential for us to breathe. To this end, oceans are a carbon sink and essential in mitigating the effects of climate change. Life below water provide food and economic lifeblood to lots of coastal communities too.

    Will there be fish in 2050? 

    While there will likely still be fish by 2050, at the current rate of depletion the amount will be less. Critically, the population of fish that humans eat and rely on for jobs in fishing might be far less by 2050.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the primary purpose of Sustainable Development Goal 14?

    Why is the ocean important?

    What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

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