Save our oceans to protect our health – European scientists call for global action plan

Research has shown that access to healthy coasts can improve and preserve physical health and mental wellbeing. Photo by Dr Easkey Britton, NUI Galway.
May 21 2021 Posted: 14:20 IST

Scientists have proposed the first steps towards a united global plan to save our oceans, for the sake of human health

An interdisciplinary European collaboration, the Seas Oceans and Public Health In Europe (SOPHIE) Project, which NUI Galway is part of, has outlined the initial steps that a wide range of organisations could take to work together to protect the largest connected ecosystem on Earth.

In a commentary paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, the researchers call for the current United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) to act as a meaningful catalyst for global change, reminding the public that ocean health is intricately linked to human health.

The paper highlights 35 first steps for action by different groups and individuals, including individual citizens, healthcare workers, private organisations, researchers and policy-makers.

The researchers point to the huge reliance on the global ocean as a source of food and economic income internationally, as well as a precious resource that research shows benefits to a person’s mental and physical health. However, the consequences of the impact of human activity are severe. Extreme weather events induced by climate and other environmental change result in coastal flooding, exposure to harmful algal blooms, and chemical and microbial pollution. These threats are compounded by sea-level rise, ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation associated with global environmental change.

At the same time, the coasts, seas and ocean provide people with food, trade, culture, renewable energy, and many other benefits. In fact, there is now strong evidence that access to healthy coasts can improve and preserve physical health and mental wellbeing. And a healthy ocean is a major source of potential natural products including medicines and green substitutes for plastics.

The paper suggests a list of possible first steps to a wide range of groups who can influence ocean health, emphasising that holistic collaboration is essential to make an impact, including:

  • Large businesses can review their impact on ocean health, share best practice and support community initiatives.
  • Healthcare professionals could consider “blue prescriptions”, nature-based interventions based in, on, or near water, as part of practical solutions for good health integrated with individual and community promotion activities.
  • Tourism operators can share research on the benefits of wellbeing when spending time by the coast, and collect and share their customers’ experiences of these benefits.
  • Individual citizens can take part in ocean-based citizen science or beach cleans and encourage school projects on sustainability.

Co-author and member of the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway, Dr Easkey Britton, said: “The UN Ocean Decade is a chance to truly vision and act on the future we want for our global ocean. This affects us all - the health of people is completely dependent on the health of the ocean. Building community around the challenges we face and the solutions we need is the most important thing. By working together across disciplines, sectors, and community groups we can create powerful and effective solutions to restore ocean health and transform how we think about public health.”

The paper calls on planners, policy-makers and organisations to understand and share research into the links between ocean and human health, and to integrate this knowledge into policy.

First author Professor Lora Fleming, of the University of Exeter, said: “The devastating Covid-19 pandemic, climate and other environmental change and the perilous state of our seas have made clear that we share a single planet with a single global ocean. Our moral compass points to addressing the myriad threats and potential opportunities we encounter by protecting and providing for everyone, both rich and poor, while learning to sustain all ecosystems.”

The project is funded by Horizon 2020. The full paper, entitled ‘The Ocean Decade— Opportunities for Oceans and Human Health Programs to Contribute to Public Health’,  is available at  

For more information on the SOPHIE project visit


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