Free Interactive Report

The Oceans and Marine Life in the US

SDG 14: Life Below Water, aims to ensure we conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources by 2030. Maintaining healthy oceans and seas is vital to human well-being. Not only do these ecosystems support food supply chains and economies around the world, they are also one of the biggest resources we have to slow global warming and reduce the impacts of climate change.

Life Below Water in Context

Oceans cover 75% of the Earth’s surface and are one of the largest carbon sinks regulating the planet’s temperature, absorbing around 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities. Over 3 billion people depend on the biodiversity found in coastal and marine ecosystems for their livelihoods.

The future of commercial and recreational fisheries, coastal tourism, and the food security of billions of people all depend on oceans and other marine ecosystems, which are particularly threatened by climate change, overfishing, and plastic pollution.

Increasing carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are causing these ecosystems to become warmer, more acidic, and oxygen-depleted. Nearly 33% of reef-forming corals and over 1/3 of marine mammals are facing extinction, and 90% of fish stocks are overexploited. Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found in our oceans, with 8 million tons of plastic ending up in the oceans every year.

In the US:

  • Over 3 million jobs (1 in 45) directly depend on the resources from the oceans and Great Lakes.
  • Almost 40% of the population (130 million people) lives in coastal communities.
  • 20 million to 1.8 billion pieces of plastic can be found along the nation’s coastline.

Ocean Pollution in the US

The vast majority of pollutants that end up in the ocean come from human activities as a result of littering, poor waste management practices, and stormwater discharge. Even pollutants like oil, come from sources on land more often than they do from an oil spill disaster – 3x as much oil is carried out to sea via runoff from our roads, rivers, and drainpipes.

Marine debris is defined as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or Great Lakes”. Plastic trash makes up 80% of marine debris and is now found in most marine and terrestrial habitats, including the deep sea, Great Lakes, coral reefs, beaches, rivers, and estuaries.

By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.

Plastic Waste Entering Coastal Environments in The US (metric tons)

Garbage patches are large areas of the ocean where marine debris collects. They are formed by rotating ocean currents called gyres. There are 5 gyres on the planet, all of which have a garbage patch, with debris floating at the surface all the way to the ocean floor. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest, with an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash covering an area twice the size of Texas.

Ocean acidification is another major challenge that must be addressed in order to achieve SDG 14. Driven by the increasing amount of carbon dioxide the ocean absorbs, ocean acidification changes the chemical composition of the water, making it harder for coral reefs and other marine organisms that build shells and skeletons to survive and drastically changing the health of marine ecosystems, food webs, and the stability of commercial fishing.

Sustainable Fisheries and Marine-related Economic Activity in the US

The US is one of the world’s largest seafood markets, spending about $96 billion annually. It’s estimated that every American eats close to 16 pounds of seafood a year. The commercial and recreational fisheries industries support over 1.7 million jobs and $244 billion in economic activities annually.

U.S. marine fisheries are monitored and managed with the goal of:

  • Preventing overfishing.
  • Rebuilding overfished stocks.
  • Increasing long-term economic and social benefits.
  • Ensuring a safe and sustainable supply of seafood.

Bycatch (the catch of non-target fish and ocean wildlife), is one of the largest threats to maintaining healthy fish populations and marine ecosystems. It is also difficult to measure, but the most recent research estimates that 17-22% of U.S. catch is discarded every year, amounting to around 2 billion pounds every year.

The U.S. has been successful in restoring 47 fish stocks (although 8 of these have since reached overfished levels again). As of 2020, 20% of known U.S. fish stocks are considered overfished, meaning their population levels are too low to support sustainable fishing in the long term unless action is taken.

Placing at least 30% of the world’s water in marine protected areas (MPAs) has been deemed necessary to slow wildlife extinction and the impacts of climate change, as well as stabilize food chains and the economies of coastal communities. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines MPAs as “clearly defined geographical spaces, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.

The U.S. has established almost 1,000 MPAs (892 in states and another 100 in territories) protecting 26% of its oceans, estuaries, coastal waters, and Great Lakes.

  • Over 99% of these areas are in the remote Pacific Ocean.
  • 23% prohibit commercial fishing.
  • 3% are fully protected, prohibiting any resource extraction.

Explore more using our interactive report

This interactive report is continuously updated and it is free thanks to X4Impact Founding Partners. The report highlights some selected indicators related to life below water, marine economic activity, and the sustainability of our oceans.

You can view the economic activity from commercial fishing, the population that lives in coastal cities in the US, the number of Marine Protected Areas by state, and the millions of pounds of fish discarded per year. You can also understand the flow of money to fund nonprofits working on Life Below Water, Marine conservation, and Ocean Pollution, as well as exploring by state the list of nonprofits that work on this issue.

The Oceans and Marine Life in the US
Darker color means more economic activity from commercial fishing in a state*. Click on any state to see details on this and other indicators.
Of the population
lives on the coast
Coastal residents
Marine Protected
Areas (MPAs) have
been established**
Pounds of fish are
caught & discarded
at sea annually*
Pounds of fish
are caught & discarded at
sea annually*
Social Funding for UN SDG-14
(forms 990 filed with the IRS)
Annual Income
Avg. Income
Revenue sources for these organizations
Top Nonprofit Organizations
in coastal states & Great Lakes region
No data available

The Negative Impact of Ocean Pollution and Unsustainable Fishing in the US

Ocean acidification makes it hard for organisms like lobsters, oysters, and coral to build shells and skeletons. This impacts the health of coral reefs, which support thousands of other species and tourism, as well as provide ecosystem services to coastal communities like buffering against extreme weather. This also impacts fisheries that rely on these animals with major economic consequences for the communities supported by this industry and for food supply chains and food security of billions of people.

Marine debris can:

  • Injure or kill marine and coastal wildlife
  • Degrade habitats
  • Interfere with navigational safety
  • Cause economic loss to fisheries and maritime industries
  • Degrade the quality of life in coastal communities
  • Threaten human health and safety

The Economic Impact of Healthy Oceans and Seas

The US is extremely dependent on having healthy oceans, seas, and coasts.

  • Almost 40% of the population (130.7 million people) live on the coast.
  • Just 14% of the counties near the coast produce 45% ($307 billion) of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
  • Over 3 million jobs (1 in 45) directly depend on the resources from the oceans and Great Lakes.
  • Coastal areas are major domestic tourist destinations for over 180 million Americans annually.

The loss of recreational benefits from damaged and degraded coral reefs in the United States is expected to reach $140 billion by 2100, and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that coastal reefs protect economic activity worth $319 million a year in Florida alone.

The EPA estimates that West Coast communities alone spend more than $520 million to control litter and reduce marine debris every year.

The UN SDG-14 Indicators

The United Nations Impact Indicators related to UN SDG 14 Life Below Water:

The United Nations has defined 10 Targets and 10 Indicators to track progress towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of Life Below Water by 2030. Key indicators in the U.S. are related to plastic pollution, overfishing, ocean warming, marine protected areas, ocean pollution, healthy fish stocks, and others.

The indicators for success outlined by the U.N. include (SDG Tracker):

  • Protect and restore ecosystems, measured by the proportion of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) managed using ecosystem-based approaches.
  • Prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris, plastic pollution, and nutrient pollution.
  • Regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and destructive fishing practices to restore and maintain healthy fish stocks.
  • Conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law.

Interactive Report Notes:

*These values represent the value of domestic fishery landings—fish and shellfish that are landed and sold in the 50 states by U.S. fishermen and do not include landings made in U.S. territories or by foreign fishermen.

**Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) include marine reserves, fully protected marine areas, no-take zones, marine sanctuaries, ocean sanctuaries, marine parks, and locally managed marine areas. Each area has a specific level of protection and a specific allowed range of activities. This report does not include MPAs in US territories.


  • Commercial Fishing Value: NOAA Fisheries Database 2020
  • Coastal Population: X4Impact analysis of NOAA’s State Of The Coast: National Coastal Population Report, Population Trends from 1970 to 2020 and U.S Census 2020.
  • Discarded Fish: X4Impact analysis of NOAA Fisheries Database 2020 and OCEANA Wasted Catch Report.
  • Marine Protected Areas: MPA Inventory, NOAA and the U.S. Department of the Interior 2020.
  • Plastic Waste Generation and Management: X4Impact analysis of EPA Plastic Waste Management 2018 and Law et al 2020.
  • Nonprofit-related data: X4Impact analysis of over 600,000 forms 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service -IRS 2018-2020

Other Sources:

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