World Running Out of Time to Sustainably Manage Oceans
By Sunny Lewis
NEW YORK, New York, September 18, 2015 (Maximpact News) – The greatest threat to the world’s oceans comes from human failure to deal quickly with the many problems that human activities have created in the marine environment, finds the first World Ocean Assessment written by a UN-convened group of experts.
“Human impacts on the sea are no longer minor in relation to the overall scale of the ocean. A coherent overall approach is needed,” according to the report, presented to the UN General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Working Group on the State of the Marine Environment, including Socioeconomic Aspects, at a meeting from September 8 to 11.
“Many parts of the ocean have been seriously degraded,” the report states. “If the problems are not addressed, there is a major risk that they will combine to produce a destructive cycle of degradation in which the ocean can no longer provide many of the benefits that humans currently enjoy from it.”
The World Ocean Assessment does not include any analysis of policies. It is intended to support informed decision-making and contribute to managing human activities that affect the oceans and seas in a sustainable manner, under international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
World Ocean Assessment’s Ten Themes:
- Climate change: Climate change means rises in sea level, higher levels of acidity in the ocean, the reduced mixing of ocean water and increasing deoxygenation.
“The ocean is acidifying rapidly and at an unprecedented rate in the Earth’s history. The impact of ocean acidification on marine species and food webs will affect major economic interests and could increasingly put food security at risk, particularly in regions especially dependent on seafood protein,” according to the assessment.
“The consensus is that increases in global temperature, in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in the radiation from the sun that reaches the ocean have already had an impact on some aspects of the ocean and will produce further significant incremental changes over time,” the report states.
- Overexploitation of marine life: Harvesting of living marine resources has exceeded sustainable levels in many regions. And overexploitation has caused ecosystem changes such as the smothering of corals by algae caused by the overfishing of herbivorous fish in parts of the Caribbean.
Overfishing, pollution, loss of habitat and climate change are all putting pressure on fish reproduction with important implications for food security and biodiversity.
Women fish in shallow water in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania (Image credit: Matt Kieffer creative commons license via Flickr)
- Food security and food safety: Fish products are the major source of animal protein for a large fraction of the world’s population, but globally, the current mix of the global capture fisheries is near the ocean’s productive capacity, with catches on the order of 80 million tons a year.
Ending overfishing, including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and rebuilding depleted resources could result in a potential increase of as much as 20 per cent in yield, according to the assessment, but rebuilding depleted stocks would be costly. In some areas, pollution and dead zones are also depressing the production of food from the sea.
- Biodiversity: The pressures on marine biodiversity are increasing, particularly near large population centers, in biodiversity hotspots, and in the open ocean, which has so far suffered limited impacts.
- Crowded Ocean Spaces: Conflicting demands for dedicated marine space arise from the expansion of longstanding ocean uses, such as fishing and shipping, and from newly developing uses, such as hydrocarbon extraction, mining and offshore generation of renewable energy. As yet there is no clear overarching management system or evaluation of their cumulative impacts on the ocean environment.
- Pollution: The burgeoning human population as well as industrial and agricultural production are increasing the emissions of harmful materials and excess nutrients into the ocean.
Sewage discharge levels often are beyond local carrying capacities and can harm human health; still, discharges of industrial effluents and emissions are growing.
Plastic marine debris from the poor management of waste streams on land and at sea means that fish get caught in “ghost” nets, seabirds and seals die from eating plastic bags. Plastic debris destroys the natural beauty of many ocean areas, affecting the livelihoods of local residents who work in the tourist industry. Less obviously, zooplankton and filter-feeding species suffer from the nanoparticles into which those plastics break down, with “serious effects all the way up the food web.”
Humpback whale breaches in Morro Bay in front of smokestacks at San Luis Obispo, California (Image credit Devra creative commons license via Flickr)
- Cumulative Impacts: The cumulative adverse impacts of activities that in the past seemed sustainable are resulting in major changes to some ecosystems and in a reduction in the services they provide. For instance, where biodiversity has been altered, the resilience of ecosystems to climate change is often reduced.
- Uneven Benefits: Differences in capacities to manage sewage, pollution and habitats create inequities between developed and developing countries. Gaps in capacity-building hinder less developed countries from taking advantage of what the ocean can offer them, and reduce their capability to address the ways they degrade the ocean.
- Coherent Marine Management: This requires taking into account the effects on ecosystems of each of the many pressures, what is being done in other sectors and the way that they interact. The ocean is a complex set of systems that are all interconnected, and a coherent management approach requires a wider range of knowledge about the ocean.
- Solutions Delayed are Solutions Denied: There are known practical measures to address many of the pressures on marine ecosystems that are degrading the ocean, causing social and economic problems. Delays in implementing known solutions, even if they are only partial and will leave more to be done, mean that “we are unnecessarily incurring those environmental, social and economic costs,” the assessment warns.
The World Ocean Assessment was born 2002, when the World Summit on Sustainable Development recommended that there be a regular process for global reporting and assessment of the state of the marine environment, and the UN General Assembly accepted that recommendation.
In December 2010, the General Assembly established a formal Group of Experts to produce the first World Ocean Assessment by 2014. A much larger pool of experts assists the Group of Experts in conducting the assessments and provides peer-review to ensure the high quality of the outputs.
The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations, acts as the secretariat for the World Ocean Assessment.
A Bureau of 15 UN Member States, representing the regional groups of the United Nations, oversees the entire process.
Find the basics behind the first World Ocean Assessment here.
Read a summary of the World Ocean Assessment here:
About the Author: Award-winning journalist Sunny Lewis is founding editor in chief of the Environment News Service (ENS), the original daily wire service of the environment, publishing since 1990. Find ENS online at: www.ens-newswire.com
Featured image: Endangered Hawaiian monk seal entangled in marine debris (Image credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).