Oceans Overview

Last Updated Jun 13, 2022

This guide is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the issues related to the ocean and environment and outlines opportunities to address the impacts on marginalized communities. By Clarissa Coburn

Did you know?
  • More than three billion people rely on the ocean as their primary source of nutrition. The livelihoods of more than 870 million people depend on fisheries and aquaculture. 
  • Ocean plastic is a major, international pollution problem. Solving it will require reducing plastic production, not just addressing existing plastic and waste problems. 
  • A solution is to pass ocean conservation laws that engage vulnerable communities to be part of the solution.

Overview: Oceans

The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface and impacts all life on the planet in myriad ways, from food production to the effects of climate change and the increased frequency of natural disasters.

Ocean pollution far predates research into the issue. The nature of the ocean -- expansive, uninhabited -- means that exploitation was historically easy to hide and difficult to track. While new technology and research efforts have revealed a plethora of problems, significant efforts will need to be made to fully identify and address the multitude of ways that humans have harmed the ocean. 

Overfishing and plastic dumping goes back to the 1800s. Since then, extraction and pollution have been cornerstones of wealth building alongside the exploitation of humans and land. 

Climate Change and the Ocean

As the climate changes, the ocean is warming quickly. Warmer ocean temperatures drive more intense storms, sea-level rise, and ecosystem deterioration. Climate change also fuels conflict between people and ocean life, as conservation and for-profit efforts see their potential ocean use shrink.  

“Researchers compared two time periods, 1955–86 and 1987–2019, and identified a significant increase in the warming rate — approximately 450% — since early record-keeping began.” -National Center for Environmental Information

While the challenges created by climate change have many negative impacts on the ocean, the ocean also offers us essential data that can help guide solutions. 

Sea-level Rise

Sea-level rise will reduce habitable land mass and contribute to increased storm damage in the U.S. and around the world. This inevitability will require significant investment in population relocation, protection, and, when that work is insufficient, recovery. Around 13 million people could be forced inland in the U.S. due to the rising sea levels expected by 2100, according to one study, which is the first to use machine learning to project migration patterns resulting from sea-level rise. 

Most Likely Relocation Choices

Climate Relocation Suburban and rural areas in the Midwest will also experience a disproportionately large influx of people relative to their smaller local populations as well.

Sea-level rise will look different around the globe, but one constant theme will dominate: Poor individuals and communities will not be able to prepare, retreat, or rebuild. 

In the U.S., systemic inequality will collide with climate change and sea-level rise to drive more hurricanes that will disproportionately affect communities of color.  

“Low-income housing is often built in flood zones. There’s certainly a justice issue with how we deal with sea level rise.” -Yale Environment 360

Gains and Losses by Race, Natural Disaster Damage

Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification, like climate change, is driven by CO2 production globally. It changes the ocean’s chemistry, creating conditions inhospitable to ocean life, particularly coral reefs. This damage to marine ecosystems has implications for conservation and fisheries. 

Other Ocean Pollution

There are many sources of pollution in the ocean directly and indirectly harming marine ecosystems and those on land who rely on those ecosystems. Plastic pollution and other garbage humans leave in the ocean are long-lasting, and so are their impacts.

These pollutants kill and contaminate marine life, eventually ending up in human bloodstreams

Seafood and Pollutants


Each of the above issues has a role in driving depleted fisheries, as climate change reduces available micronutrients that sustain ecosystems and wastewater creates uninhabitable conditions for sea life. Fisheries also suffer from overfishing, caused by both legal and illegal fishing that goes beyond what ocean ecosystems can replenish. Together, these factors threaten the ocean as a sustainable source of seafood, which is an essential source of nutrition globally.

Seafood and Nutrition

Why Donors Should Care

The flow of the ocean connects communities around the world, which means that negative impacts are distributed globally. 

The ocean is a significant contributor to the global economy. According to the OECD, oceans contribute $1.5 trillion annually in value added to the overall economy and this number could reach $3 trillion by 2030. But the ways in which we compromise the ocean threaten that. Plastic pollution alone costs $2.5 billion annually

While wealthy countries drive climate change and pollution, poor communities bear the brunt of the consequences - without the resources to address these problems. The health consequences are wide-ranging and deadly, from damage to developing brains in utero to cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

Closing the gaps to ensure that those most at risk from issues affecting the ocean is a key role for donors. There are strategies for fighting sea-level rise and ocean acidification. We know that oceans are key to addressing climate change. There are plans to address marine plastic pollution. Efforts to prepare for sea-level rise are underway. 

Indigenous communities are currently leading ocean conservation efforts. Donors can support these existing solutions and more. Focusing your efforts on groups that are underfunded – like Native Americans – is the best way to make the most of your donations.

“If we think about where is the water the most polluted, who gets impacted by storms, who is most dependent on the ocean and suffers when there’s overfishing, it often is poor communities and communities of color along the coastline.” -Yale Environment 360 

Who Is Affected By Oceans Issues?

While we are all connected to the ocean, the impacts of ocean issues are not equally distributed. 

Indigenous Communities

We often think of colonialism in terms of seized land, but the ocean has similarly suffered divisions by countries. Nations have declared Exclusive Economic Zones and prevented Indigenous people from practicing their traditional ocean use. This is particularly significant as Indigenous people around the world rely more heavily on the ocean for their nutrition than non-Indigenous people. In addition to the nutrition implications of reducing Indigenous peoples’ access to seafood, there are also significant cultural implications.

Seafood Consumption of Coastal Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous people experience negative impacts from exposure to pollution, ranging from kidney disease to fetal death

Global Disparities

Africa and Southeast Asia are facing the consequences of climate change on their fisheries. Countries that rely on the ocean for food are set to suffer from sea-level rise and ocean warming and have the fewest resources with which to prepare and repair will struggle the most as ocean conditions worsen. In addition, plastic pollution is forced on marginalized communities. 

Disparities within Wealthy Countries

Living in a wealthy country isn’t a guarantee of safety from the consequences of global ocean issues. Communities within countries like the United States will not be affected equally. The consequences, as always, will fall on marginalized communities and individuals. For example, climate-change-related flooding in the U.S. will disproportionately impact Black communities

What Is Causing These Disparities?

Inequality on earth has seeped into the ocean from many directions.

Historical global wealth inequality has poisoned our ocean, literally and figuratively. Greed has driven natural resource depletion and waste production that hurts ocean ecosystems and the world. On a global scale, inequality drives ocean pollution from two sides: Wealthy countries extract and pollute at high rates to serve and grow massive economies, while poor countries hurt local ecosystems in their struggle to survive. 

Climate change is driven primarily by wealthy countries, particularly China and the United States. While those emissions are localized, the impacts including disaster intensification, ocean acidification, and fishery damage are global. 

Similarly, plastic pollution overwhelmingly comes from the U.S., sometimes by way of Asia. The current trends show that in spite of anti-plastic efforts, the U.S. is on a path toward creating even more plastic pollution in the years to come. 

By the Numbers: Plastic Waste Generated by the U.S.

Plastic Waste in the U.S

In addition to pollution driven directly by wealthy countries, there are also indirect consequences of wealth inequality. Poor communities are driven to unsustainable practices by desperation. Practices like dynamite fishing destroy ocean ecosystems in the long-term but are popular in places where communities do not have sufficient resources to prioritize sustainable practices. 

And while wealth inequality and wealthy countries drive climate change, ocean pollution, and destructive practices, marginalized communities are the ones that can’t afford to prepare for or respond to climate change and other consequences.

Get Involved

  • The Biodiversity Funders Group offers opportunities for philanthropists to collaborate on ocean conservation funding projects together.
  • NEID’s Oceans Giving Circle explores the intersectionality of marine conservation, local livelihoods, and climate resilience by examining the greatest threats to our world ocean, and exploring the range of effective solutions being locally deployed.
  • Client Earth works in partnership across borders, systems, and sectors, using the law to protect life on earth.
  • Global Fishing Watch uses cutting-edge technology to turn big data about human activity at sea into actionable information in order to safeguard the global ocean for the good of all.
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