The world’s oceans were at high risk of entering a phase of “globally significant” extinction of marine species, an international panel of marine experts warned at Headquarters today.
Speaking during a press conference to launch a new report by the International Programme on State of the Oceans (IPSO) on the protection of marine species, the panel concluded that the combination of stressors on the ocean was creating the conditions associated with every previous mass extinction of species in history; the speed and rate of ocean degeneration was far greater than predicted; many of the negative impacts previously identified were greater than the worst predictions; and, though difficult to assess due to the unprecedented rate of change, the first steps towards a global extinction may have begun with a rise in the extinction threat to marine species such as reef-forming corals.
The experts were Alex Rogers, Scientific Director IPSO and Professor of Conservation Biology at Oxford University; Susan Lieberman, Director of International Policy with the Pew Environment Group and founding member of the High Seas Alliance (HSA); and Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. The press conference was sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
In New York to attend the twelfth meeting of the United Nations Open-Ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, the panellists all stressed that the meeting presented an opportunity for Governments to protect and conserve the wealth of life that inhabited the world’s international waters. The meeting’s theme, “The June 2012 ‘Rio+20’ Conference”, referred to “possibly the most influential global environmental conference this decade”, said Mr. Rogers. The experts were also united in their intention to ask countries attending the meeting and Rio+20 to meet their international obligations, make good on the commitments they had already made, and address gaps in the management of ecologically and economically valuable species and ecosystems of the high seas. (See also Press Release SEA/1958)
Mr. Rogers said that the report, released simultaneously with the start of the Informal Consultative Process, had been put together after a meeting at Oxford University by a team of experts in different aspects of marine science, particularly marine biology, but also climate change science and legal aspects of ocean affairs. The oceans were “incredibly important” for the earth and humankind, he said, pointing out that they produced half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, were a source of food, represented about 90 per cent of the planet’s living space, played a major role in most significant nutrient cycles and regulated the temperature, among other major functions.
He went on to point out that one of the meeting’s main findings was that changes in the oceans were being driven at an extraordinary pace, entailing a dramatic rise in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It was also well worth bearing in mind that the last five big extinctions on earth had been accompanied by major disturbances in the carbon cycle, some symptoms of which were now being seen. While the symptoms of climate change in the oceans manifested themselves in many different ways, the obvious one was the rise in sea surface temperature, which had risen by an average of about 0.6° C over the last few centuries. Those temperature changes had been particularly marked in the polar areas, he added, hence the extraordinarily fast melting of the artic summer sea ice, for instance.
Ms. Lieberman recalled that 20 years ago the world had gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the first “Earth Summit”, where many decisions had been taken, with Governments making a number of commitments. Ten years later, they had got together and made more commitments at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Next June, the world would gather once again in Rio to look at the commitments made on sustainable development, the planet’s future, how the world was doing, and what future commitments could be made.
She said conservation organizations such as her own were trying to get Governments to take decisions at Rio+20 that would benefit the oceans, an aim that was perfectly aligned with the IPSO report because the oceans were in crisis due to a number of threats caused by human activity and it was time for Governments to take action. Conservation groups wanted Governments to take action “at home”, but there were reasons why they needed to act through different United Nations processes and at Rio, she continued. The most important of them was that “probably billions of people” were now dependent on healthy oceans for their food security, now and in the future.
Mr. Gianni, whose Coalition had been formed in 2004 to promote international action to protect the deep sea from the harmful impacts of fishing, noted that the deep sea was one of the world’s largest reservoirs of biodiversity, but with the depletion of coastal and open-ocean fish stocks over the last several decades, industrial fishing fleets were increasingly moving into the deep ocean in search of new opportunities. Deep-sea fishing was therefore the greatest threat to deep-sea ecosystems, a fact recognized in scientific literature, including several reports published by UNEP over the last several years.
According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), he continued, approximately 10 countries were responsible for about 80 per cent of the deep-sea fleet on the high seas — Spain, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Australia, Japan, France, Portugal, Belize and Estonia. About 95 per cent of the deep-sea catch came from bottom-trawl fishing, which was recognized as the most destructive fishing practice on the high seas, and the most direct threat to deep-sea ecosystems. In that regard, he called on the General Assembly to hold a debate on the issue, with a view to imposing a prohibition on all deep-sea fishing that was not regulated in accordance with what the deep-sea fishing nations had themselves committed to do in 2006.
Responding to a question by the moderator, as to what the report was expected to achieve, Mr. Rogers said he hoped it would heighten the urgency with which many of the issues that it raised were being treated. “Many people think that these things are going to happen in the future,” he noted. “I have often heard people saying: ‘Well, that might affect my children or my children’s children’. Well, the simple fact is that we are seeing the manifestation of many of these impacts now, and have been seeing them for the last 20 or 30 years, so I hope this really pushes the oceans up the agenda at Rio and at other international meetings.”
Ms. Lieberman added that environmentally, the average person, Government or other entity could see when a tropical forest was destroyed and relate to that. However, there were still people with the false philosophical view that the oceans were endless, and therefore all those who talked about acidification and overfishing were merely overreacting. The reality was quite the opposite, she emphasized, explaining that the oceans were in fact probably as much in crisis, if not more so, than the land, which was 13 per cent under protection in one form or another globally, as compared to only about 1 per cent protection for the oceans. It was therefore a matter of raising political as well as public awareness that all was not well, she said. “Just because you go to the supermarket and still can find tuna doesn’t mean that everything is fine at all,” she added.