14. Life Below Water

How business leadership can advance Goal 14 on Life Below Water

Healthy oceans are critical for life on earth through their regulation of global climate and water systems, and through sustaining the natural resources that provide 17 percent of the global population’s animal protein intake. Many communities also rely on oceans for their livelihoods. The earth’s oceans are under ever increasing pressure from direct pollution and eutrophication, climate change, and fishing and aquaculture. Ocean plastic and debris are increasing rapidly; at this rate, it is estimated that there will be more plastic debris than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050, presenting a huge risk to ocean and human life. Ocean acidification can lead to weakening of the shells and skeletons of many marine species. Overfishing negatively impacts food production, the functioning of ecosystems, and biodiversity.

Businesses play a key role as responsible stewards of oceans, seas, and marine resources. Oceans underpin the global economy. Over 90 per cent of the world’s trade is carried by sea, supporting more than USD $2.5 trillion of commercial activity every year. Maritime transport can impact ocean habitats by emitting exhaust, leaking chemicals and dumping waste into waters. Extractive activities including fishing, offshore drilling for oil and gas, and mineral mining can cause great damage to ocean environments if not managed sustainably. Land-based activities also generate by-products that are carried to oceans and disrupt marine ecosystems through pollution and eutrophication of habitats. All businesses have a responsibility to abide by environmental law and international treaties on the protection of marine ecosystems.

There is significant scope for business leadership on Goal 14. Yet today, Goal 14 is rarely identified as a priority for business action despite many businesses relying on maritime resources for inputs and transportation. Business leadership on Goal 14 requires first understanding the business link to oceans across end-to-end operations. Leading companies can then implement policies and practices to protect ocean ecosystems affected by their end-to-end operations. They can also contribute with their strong research, development, and deployment capabilities to provide new products, services, and business models which negate impacts on ocean ecosystems and contribute to their restoration. They can lead by galvanizing finance for the protection and further development of ocean ecosystems and water system flows, including through multi-stakeholder partnerships. Leading action can also involve the design and implementation of solutions to accurately value and respect natural capital, and enabling others to do the same.

Maintaining healthy ocean environments is a fundamental precondition for businesses to operate in the long term, and addressing the current challenges provides a significant businesses opportunity. Global markets for ocean resources including energy, food, fresh water, minerals and recreation are large and growing, but a lack of sustainable products, processes and business models make many activities unsustainable. Technologies such as aquaponics, tidal energy, and energy efficient desalinization can address this challenge while presenting significant opportunities to reap rewards from the sustainable use of ocean resources.

Action on Goal 14 is closely linked to many Goals, including Goal 13 on climate action and to Goal 15 on life on land. Reaching the targets of Goal 14 will likewise require significant progress on Goal 12. The important role that the oceans play in providing food globally means that the success of Goal 2 on zero hunger requires that ocean biodiversity loss be halted. Oceans are also closely tied to Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation through their regulation of global climate and precipitation.

Do your actions satisfy the Leadership Qualities?

Guiding Questions to apply to the Leadership Qualities to your business






  • Is your company committed to supporting the achievement of Goal 14? Have you developed a holistic strategy that reflects this commitment, covering end-to-end operation and the wider community?
  • Are you committed to learn from your actions and do you have processes in place to improve them accordingly?
  • Is your strategy supported by the highest levels of management, including the Board of Directors?

Key Considerations

Intentionality is essential for successful action on Goal 14, with top-level commitment and leadership to drive awareness and recognition of the importance of the Goal, especially as it is often less visible to stakeholders.

  • Do your actions achieve long-term outcomes that greatly exceed those resulting from current industry practice?
  • Are your actions aligned with what is needed to achieve Goal 14?

Key Considerations

Ambitious action on life below water addresses systemic, often human activity-related causes of ecosystem threats, ensuring that solutions are aligned with the long-term outcomes required to realize the 2030 Agenda.

  • Is support for Goal 14 embedded across all organizational functions?
  • Are staff and board incentives aligned with achieving Goal 14?

Key Considerations

Consistency requires the company to have incentive structures that promote the protection of oceans, seas, and marine resources across all business functions.

  • Do you proactively look for opportunities to partner with Governments, UN agencies, suppliers, civil society organizations, industry peers and other stakeholders to inform how to advance Goal 14?

Key Considerations

Life below water is a common pool resource, influenced by a variety of stakeholders. This implies that successful realization of the company’s goals will almost always depend on collaboration with other actors, including Governments, peers, supply chain members, local communities, and international organizations below water.

  • Do you publicly express your commitment to advance Goal 14?
  • Do you identify, monitor, and report on impacts, including potentially adverse impacts?
  • Do you mitigate risks associated with your action?
  • Do you remediate negative impacts associated with this action?
  • Do you engage stakeholders in a meaningful way?

Key Considerations

Life below water supports many livelihoods, so there are risks of negative impacts on communities associated with company action. These should be continually monitored and accounted for, with meaningful engagement with impacted communities, and public reporting.

Business Actions


Protect ocean ecosystems


Develop products that restore oceans


Finance the protection of water systems


Design solutions that value natural capital

How taking action on Goal 14 is interconnected with other Goals

The Global Goals are inherently interconnected. Action taken toward one Goal can support or hinder the achievement of others. Identifying and addressing these interconnections will help business to build holistic and systemic solutions that amplify progress and minimize negative impacts. To help build a greater understanding, we have illustrated some of the ways in which the Goals connect. These are not exhaustive, and we encourage business to consider how they apply in their own operations.

Maximise likelihood of positive impact on:

Protecting ocean health contributes directly to climate action (Goal 13) by preserving natural carbon sinks and regulating global climate patterns. Its achievement relies on progress being made toward responsible consumption and production (Goal 12). Since several communities rely on ocean resources and fisheries for their livelihoods, action to protect these ecosystems also helps reduce poverty, hunger and inequalities (Goals 1, 2, 5 and 10), as well as improve health (Goal 3). A close link between life on land and life below water means that Goal 15 also benefits from action to preserve life under water.

Minimise risk of negative impact on:

There may be trade-offs in the short term between protecting ocean health, and pursuing economic growth (Goal 8) and industrial development (Goal 9). For example, current accounting methods may show that it is more valuable to transport goods or discard waste as cheaply as possible, with no regard for impact on ocean health. However, this trade-off may disappear if ocean health is valued appropriately.

Goal 14 Targets

Targets of Goal 14

  1. By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution
  2. By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans
  3. Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels
  4. By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement sciencebased management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible
  5. By 2020, conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on the best available scientific information
  6. By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing
  7. By 2030, increase the economic benefits to Small Island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources