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Life Below Water: a glimpse into the connections beneath the surface

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Source: ‘School of Fish Swimming Underwater’ by Adriprayago Liemena (2019). offish-swimming-underwater-7826494/

The year 2015 saw a ‘universal call to action’ to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity (United Nations Development Programme, n.d) through the United Nation’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted by 193 countries, the Sustainable Development Goals are a framework of 17 goals that address economic, environmental and social challenges that diminish the possibility of peace and prosperity. This is not the first policy that has pledged for changes (World Health Organization, 2018) socially, economically and even environmentally – So what makes this different? The framework identifies 17 different goals for improvements, this itself is innovative since it covers a variety of different integrated areas that go far beyond what might be considered traditional concepts of environmental sustainability. What also makes the goals effective is that the recognition of specific goals allows for the identification of synergies between them and understanding the relationships between the goals can aid how these problems are tackled.

To try and better explain what I mean I will refer to SDG 14, Life Below Water, which is useful in demonstrating the underlying relationships that exist when considering the challenges we face as a species in terms of both conserving the environment and our livelihoods. It is clearer than ever that the ocean is under threat worldwide with rising plastic content (Parker, 2020), increased dead zones (Mckenna, 2018) and decreasing fish stocks (Harvey, 2019). SDG 14 is a goal set out that hopes to tackle these issues with focuses on the sustainable management of marine and coastal ecosystems, fishing regulations and conservation of fish stocks, and ways to reduce and mitigate ocean pollution.

By challenging some of these individual areas that are a subset of Life Below Water we can tackle more than one area simultaneously, for example, development in 14.4 (Restoration of Fish Stocks) can lead to potential synergies with other targets such as the management of coastal and marine ecosystems, increasing benefits for SIDS and LDCs (Small Island Developing States and Less Developed Countries) and the accessibility of resources and market for small fishers which can further progress SDG 14 as a whole (Le Blanc et al, 2017). These underlying relationships present among targets within SDG 14 are also present between the different SDGs; this is an important factor that requires consideration when prioritising different SDGs over another. However, as a coin always has two sides, the relationships between SDGs may not be potential synergies and instead be trade-offs impeding the progression of certain goals.

Source: ‘Garbage on Body of Water’ by Yogendra Singh (2019) water2480807/

The trade-offs and synergies between the goals can differ greatly and are reliant on the approaches made in the targets of individual goals. Such underlying relationships that cause these synergies and trade-offs are common in approaches made towards Life Below Water, with the marine biome being the biggest in the world, it should not be surprising that over 3 billion people (UNCTAD, 2016) rely on it for their livelihoods for either a source income or food and that over a million species (Mora et al, 2011) depend on it as a habitat and changes to it can have potentially unexpected and indirect effects on other actors involved in the marine biome system. Life Below Water calls for changes in the fishing industry such as ending subsidies, stopping illegal or unreported fishing and increasing exclusion zones to help restore the ecosystem and generate a more sustainable industry. Sustainable fishing is a concept that has existed for thousands of years and is especially prevalent in indigenous communities (Morin et al, 2021), the main reasons that they are not widely practised are due to a combination of it being difficult to meet modern demands and the challenge of understanding at what point is a practice considered sustainable, this has issues in the past with miscalculations causing long-term harm to fish stocks (Larkin, 1977) and inherently not only harming Life Below

Water’s progression (albeit the SDG’s not being established at the time) but also that of Zero Hunger, No Poverty and Decent work and Economic Growth. Nevertheless, if calculated and implemented correctly it would serve to benefit the ~39 billion people (Shahbandeh, 2021) in the fishing industry and would provide increased income from fisheries henceforward and assistance in the economic benefits for small island developing states and less developed countries in line with Target 14.7.

Source: ‘Drone view of fishing trawler on sea’ by Pok Rie (2020) fishingtrawler-on-sea-5829126/

To acknowledge further how deeply rooted Life Below Water is with other global challenges one only needs to consider the effects that increased commercial food production can have. An increase could have the potential to reduce levels of malnutrition globally and help diminish world hunger, yet can still have the potential to inflict harm. A common practice used to increase food yields and production is the use of, often artificial, fertilizers. Fertilizers are known to leach into bodies of water due to heavy rainfall, this can have ramifications on the organisms there such as decreased biodiversity, a decline in populations and dead zones (World Resources Institute, n.d) on the marine life due to the process of eutrophication through nutrient pollution. This is a hypothetical example that does not conform to sustainability so would not be implemented because of the goals however it does highlight how integrated the challenges the goals present are and the difficulty of overcoming them.

Ultimately the Sustainable Development Goals present a framework that, whilst requiring individual approaches, displays that sustainability is dependent on large-scale, simultaneous changes to the system due to the number of interconnections, synergies and trade-offs that are present within the goals.


Harvey, F. 2019. Fish stocks continuing to falls as oceans warm, study finds. The Guardian. Available at: continuingto-fall-as-oceans-warm-study-finds [Last Accessed 12/03/2022]

Larkin, P.A., 1977. An epitaph for the concept of maximum sustained yield. Transactions of the American fisheries society, 106(1), pp.1-11.

Mckenna, J. 2018. Dead zones in our oceans have increased dramatically since 1950. World Economic Forum. Available at: oceans-have-increased-dramatically-since-1950-and-we-re-to-blame/ [Last Accessed 13/03/2022]

Mora, C., Tittensor, D.P., Adl, S., Simpson, A.G. and Worm, B., 2011. How many species are there on Earth and in the ocean?. PLoS biology, 9(8), p.e1001127.

Morin, J., Royle, T.C., Zhang, H., Speller, C., Alcaide, M., Morin, R., Ritchie, M., Cannon, A., George, M., George, M. and Yang, D., 2021. Indigenous sex-selective salmon harvesting demonstrates precontact marine resource management in Burrard Inlet, British Columbia, Canada. Scientific reports, 11(1), pp.1-13.

Parker, L., 2020. Plastic trash flowing into the seas will nearly triple by 2040 without drastic action. National Geographic. Available at: seas-will-nearly-triple-by-2040-if-nothing-done [13/03/2022]

Shahbandeh, M., 2021. Number of people working in fishing and aquaculture worldwide 1995- 2018. Statistica

UNCTAD, 2016. Meetings | Oceans Economy and Ecosystem services: sustainable fisheries and           coastal     tourism.     Side     event     to     the     CBD     COP     13.     Available     at: fisheriesand-coastal-tourism-side-event [14/03/2022]

United      Nations      Development      Programme,      (n.d).,            SDGS.     Available      at: [Last Accessed 10/03/2022]

World Resources Institute, (n.d). Eutophication and Hypoxia. Available at [Last Accessed 12/03/2022]

World Health Organization., 2018. Newsroom | Fact sheets | Detail | Millenium Development Goals (MDG’s). Available at: sheets/detail/millenniumdevelopment-goals-(mdgs) [Last Accessed 10/03/2022]

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