Friendships have their ups and downs and when we get it wrong, we feel that pang of guilt to make things right. So, what if you had been ignoring one of your best friends for years... They'd been in touch from your earliest days, they made sure you were fed and they provided you with great holidays. And while they could be moody at times, sometimes even scaring you, they have always had a good heart and have nurtured you from day one. I am actually not talking about someone, but something – the ocean.

Marine Reserves, Dan Laffoley, IUCN, Ocean Unite
A key action is to protect much more of the ocean so it can recover and be resilient in the face of the demands we place on it. Since 1975, when places like Leigh Marine Reserve in new Zealand were established,less than 2% of the ocean has been protected.

We are all intimately connected to the ocean, but do we really know the scale of our relationship? Whilst researching the impacts of ocean warming for the biggest launch event we will hold at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, I was staggered to find out just how much the ocean has been helping us of late. Everyone knows about global warming, but less know about ocean warming, and where exactly all that extra ‘greenhouse’ heating of the Earth has been going. The reality is truly staggering. If the same amount of heat that' went into the top 2000 metres of the ocean between 1955–2010, had gone into the lower 10 kilometres of the atmosphere, then the Earth would have seen a warming of 36°C. We therefore owe it to the ocean that life goes on – we just might not have realised the degree of that debt.

rubbish, ocean unite, dan laffoley
Recycle your plastic because right now each year between 4 and 12 million tons up washed up on our beaches. Most if not all of the plastic manufactured still exists today because it takes so long for any of it to breakdown.

So how can we repay that debt? Well it is not surprising that the role of shielding us from harm has come at a great cost. To put it mildly, our best friend is feeling stressed. Just like we do with our other friends, it's time we gave it some space. We have been abusing our friendship; taking more than it can stand, and it is now suffering from the consequences of our actions

shrimp, ocean unite, iucn
Our demand for fish and shellfish is outstripping supply and threatening species and damaging the ocean. If you must eat it make sure it is only from traceable and sustainable sources – do you bit for the ocean .

It's time that we started being a good friend, it so it can recover. We have made so many promises, but we haven't kept up our end of the bargain. We promised to protect 10 per cent of the ocean by 2010  but we failed, so we just moved the goal posts to 2020. If was one of your friends did that to you, how would you feel? The reality is that we have barely protected four per cent of the ocean, and have increased our activities in the remaining 96 per cent to do things like seabed mining – years before we actually have the ability to see what effects this will have.

What we do in the coming years will make a huge difference. Just as the ocean is made up of many drops of water, the effort to save it will have to come from a commitment from everyone. Politicians still seem surprisingly reluctant to take the lead, so let’s create a situation where they have to listen and head up the procession.

corals, ocean unite, dan laffoley, iucn
Our activities on land are now taking a heavy toll on the ocean, affecting marine life from the smallest microbes to the largest whales, and from coral reefs to the deep ocean.

The solutions are there for everyone to see. We must immediately and dramatically cut our emissions of the greenhouse gases that are getting the ocean so hot and bothered. If we don’t the ocean won’t give up on us, but it will definitely change, and in ways that create many more problems for Earth. We need to challenge authorities to stop hiding behind closed doors and tell us what they are doing out on the ocean.How many of you know that an area of the seabed 80 per cent the size of the contiguous United States of America has been given over to mining companies to explore?

On land there would be an outcry, but in the ocean they are getting away with it. If you must eat fish, only buy from truly sustainable and traceable sources. Avoid buying sunscreens and personal care products with the ingredient oxybenzone, as it is shown to damage corals. Don’t use plastic bags and throw them away – always reuse and adopt a ‘bag for life’. But we must also create many more areas to let the ocean recover – we call them marine-protected areas. Join with ocean leaders and key conservation organisations to send clear messages that more must be done to protect the ocean. After all, we know rest and recuperation are some of the best tonics for recovery – so let’s extend that hand of friendship to the ocean, and start repaying our debt with gratitude.

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This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.