The State of the Ocean

The ocean covers two-thirds of our planet and is home to an astonishing array of unique animal and plant species. From the microscopic phytoplankton which form the basis of the marine food chain, to the immense blue whale – the largest animal to have ever inhabited our planet – the biodiversity in our ocean is truly staggering.

We rely upon the ocean for the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat and the water and atmospheric cycles that sustain all life on earth. Yet despite being the lungs of our planet, growing pressures driven by unsustainable human activity are creating significant losses in wildlife, and contamination and destruction of once pristine environments.

In the 20th century alone, an estimated 2.9 million great whales were killed by the commercial whaling industry, thought to be the largest destruction of biomass in human history, with some species including the blue whale reduced in population size by up to 90%. This dramatic decline prompted the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to adopt an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. One of the world’s most successful conservation and welfare measures, the moratorium has saved several whale species from extinction. However, some countries continue to pursue commercial whaling in violation of the moratorium, placing pressure on the IWC to overturn it.


  • 2.9

    million whales were killed by the commercial whaling industry in the 20th century

  • 7-8

    vaquitas remain, making it the world's most endangered marine mammal

  • 13

    million tonnes of plastics enter the world's oceans from land every year

Cetaceans are also threatened around the globe by non-hunting threats, including unintentional bycatch in fishing nets which kills hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins and porpoises each year. Illegal fishing has reduced the population of the Mexican vaquita porpoise to just a handful of animals. The vaquita now teeters on the brink of extinction, due to a failure to halt illegal fishing for the endangered totoaba fish, whose swim bladder can reach tens of thousands of dollars on the Chinese black market.

The ocean is increasingly threatened by humanity’s insatiable consumption of resources. Plastic pollution is now recognised as a global environmental crisis. Each year, up to 13 million tonnes of plastics enter the world’s oceans from land – a figure that could quadruple by 2050. The reach and depth of the contamination is horrifying; microplastics have been documented in all marine habitats – from the ocean surface and sea ice to the seabed – and can be ingested by species throughout the marine food chain. It is not just the ocean that is at threat from plastic pollution, but also soil and terrestrial ecosystems. Plastic poses a threat to human and animal health at every stage of its life cycle – from fossil fuel extraction and refining, through to consumption and waste management.