We Need to Change Course: Ocean Life Is at Risk of Unprecedented Extinction


When you stand on a beach looking out across an ocean, the effect can be to make you feel puny. It is easy to believe that there is little we humans can do to harm, or for that matter protect, the colossal oceans. Our perception of human impotence, of our inability to affect the oceans, is deeply rooted in the way we govern the seas today.

In the 17th century Hugo Grotius developed the doctrine of the "freedom of the seas", in the face of Portuguese and Spanish claims to sovereignty over vast areas of ocean. He argued that nobody could own the seas, which had been "created by nature for common use"; and was convinced that there were enough fish to go around, that the ocean could deal with what we threw at it and that the bounty was vast enough to share without ownership. The trouble is that then there were perhaps half a billion people – but now there are more than 6 billion of us exploiting what we now know are limited resources.

Like everyone, scientists immersed in their specialist topics can become blinkered to the bigger picture. Experts focused on particular tasks have been documenting in fine detail the ways in which aspects such as overfishing, pollutants or warming waters are affecting the seas. A panel of top specialists was recently convened to compare notes on each of their investigations and to take stock of widespread disruptions to ocean systems. They found that individually their lines of evidence were cause for concern, but taken as a whole the evidence was alarming.

The marine scientists assessed the cumulative effects of human impacts – by linking their findings they found that the oceans are in a much worse state and deteriorating at a faster pace than they had previously thought. The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) panel now warns that ocean life is "at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history".

The crux of the problem is that the rate of changes in ocean systems is accelerating and outstripping what was expected just a few years ago. Destructive fishing practices, pollution, biodiversity loss, spreading low-oxygen "dead zones" and ocean acidification are having synergistic effects across the board – from coastal areas to the open ocean, from the tropics to the poles.

The report highlights that the fundamental disturbances to the carbon cycle, acidification and oxygen depletion being recorded in the oceans today were all associated with the five mass extinctions that occurred in the past history of life on Earth, and that the rates of change we are recording today exceed those found in the fossil record. Fortunately, there is a rapidly expanding global awareness of both the interconnectedness and the wonder of ocean systems – for many, videos of the deep abyss or uninhabited coral atolls are just a mouse click away. With this growing awareness comes an empowering sense of stewardship.

IPSO offers clear solutions to fixing the worst problems facing ocean governance, such as creating well managed protected areas, reducing the input of pollutants – including plastics and agricultural fertilisers – and making sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Technical means to achieve many of these solutions already exist, although outdated societal values are holding us back from putting them in place effectively. Overcoming these barriers is core to the fundamental changes needed to achieve a sustainable and equitable future for the generations to come: a future that preserves the natural ecosystems of the Earth that we benefit from and enjoy today.

The IPSO findings are a wake-up call for society to the fact that scientists already have solutions that can be acted on now. They know how to manage coastal and marine carbon sinks to avoid additional emissions of greenhouse gases. They have ample data showing which forms of fishing are sustainable and which are wasteful or damaging. And they know the urgency with which we need to act to establish a comprehensive system of marine protected areas to slow declines in biodiversity and rebuild resilience in marine ecosystems.

The report presented at the United Nations headquarters in New York this week will kick-start government delegate discussions centred on continued reforms to our 17th-century ideas of open access to ocean resources. As Dan Laffoley, an adviser at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, puts it: "The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now."

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