Source: EU Reporter
Author: Martin Banks
The stark statistics speak for themselves. At current rates of consumption, plastic debris will most likely outnumber fish in the world’s oceans by 2050. More than 90% of fish stocks in the Mediterranean are over-exploited and the amount of carbon dioxide that humans will have released into the atmosphere by 2100 may be enough to trigger a sixth mass extinction.
Adding insult to injury, the Earth’s temperatures keep rising, and more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions is being absorbed into the oceans that cover two-thirds of the planet’s surface. This has a direct effect on rising ocean temperatures, leading to further threats to fish habitats, such as acidification and deoxygenation, writes Martin Banks.
According to Philip Stephenson, an American businessman and philanthropist who runs the Philip Stephenson Foundation, the “combination of coastal pollution, sedimentation, disease, over-fishing and oceans warming” has left coral reefs especially threatened. In the Caribbean for example, where his Foundation is currently working on restoring the fragile marine invertebrate, “the percentage of live coral has decreased by 50% in the past 4 decades.”
The good news is that world’s oceans are at last receiving some attention. According to Dr. Owen Day, a marine biologist and the founder of CLEAR Caribbean, which is working with the Philip Stephenson Foundation on restoring coral, the European Union has a “key” role to play in protecting oceans, “especially since the USA has pulled out of the Paris Agreement.” And for better or worse, the EU seems genuinely interested in safeguarding the world’s salt-water resources.
Stephenson agrees with that assessment: “Despite the many problems associated with the Common Fisheries Policy used in the management of Europe’s fisheries, there has been progress in recent years, such as the ban on fish discards and stricter management measures for North Sea cod, which is now recovering rapidly.“
Earlier this year, the Commission announced plans to devote more than €550 million to protecting the health of oceans, funding more than 30 initiatives including efforts to combat piracy and illegal fishing, a satellite monitoring system, and a new plastics strategy for the bloc. The EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini says she hopes that other countries will pitch in, and increase total funding to more than €1bn.
But the EU should not rest on its laurels, especially with a climate-sceptic President in the White House. As Dr. Day told EUReporter: “The EU and member states need to strengthen their resolve to implement mitigation measures to keep global temperature increase below 1.5 C. Many European countries are supporting marine management activities around the world, such as the creation of large Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around European Overseas Territories.” European aid, he says, is supporting development and adaptation programmes in fisheries and coastal management.
“But,” he warns, “there is much more that is required. Using its expertise in marine matters, the EU should be a significant catalyst for a new global agreement on high seas governance and protection. Beyond its own waters, the EU should also contribute to curbing IUU fishing and other nefarious acts that take place in the open ocean and damage marine environments.”
In terms of specific threats to the health of our oceans, Dr. Day notes that marine pollution is a “huge problem” in large parts of the ocean, “and the impacts are numerous”, especially when compounded by human activity. “The enrichment of coastal areas with nutrients (nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, phosphates – also called eutrophication) from sewage and fertilizers, is creating large dead zones on the seabed, where oxygen becomes depleted. The number and size of these dead zones are increasing and large fish kills are being reported in many areas.”
Increasing volumes of sewage pollution in coastal areas is also a threat to human health, he says.
“The increasing discharge of sewage from boats visiting MPAs or tourism hotspots is a growing concern for both the health of humans and fragile marine ecosystems.”
Against this worrying backdrop, one EU-funded scheme that is doing good work is the Copernicus surveillance service, a sophisticated data-collecting network. When fully deployed and if used as envisioned, it “will provide significant visibility into climate, environmental and security issues.” Its data could then be used to “drive policy and come up with agreements to mitigate and reverse negative impacts we have on oceans health.”
But implementing one surveillance system is not the be-all and end-all needed to stop –and hopefully reverse – the declining health of the world’s oceans. Stephenson is quick to point to shipping companies, which have a pivotal role to play.
For example, “better” shipping routes could help cut CO2 emissions. He says, “The types of ships, the level of technology and maintenance employed on each ship, how the ship owners and operators observe rules and legislation on illegal dumping of untreated waste, fuel or cargo products, the routes and timing of shipment, are all factors that influence the effect the maritime transportation industry has on the marine environment.”
Action is needed at the international level, including the EU, because coral reefs are threatened from a combination of coastal pollution, sedimentation, disease, over-fishing and oceans warming, says Stephenson.
International military and security risks also add to these pressures and they expand beyond the exclusive economic zones of each country. “As such,” says Stephenson, the high seas remain a “mostly unregulated territory where illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) by unscrupulous operators takes place with impunity at an industrial scale.”
Stephenson, who is keen to raise the profile of the world’s marine resources, has called on governments to “find a way to do more about regulating their own industries and protecting fragile marine ecosystems, while also combatting criminal activities taking place at sea.” Otherwise, he warns, “The consequences of not cutting marine pollution will be both ecological and economic. Pollution can greatly reduce the function of coastal ecosystems and lead to lower economic returns in fisheries, tourism and coastal protection. Healthy coral reefs are very valuable natural coastal defences, and their loss often causes rapid coastal erosion, with the loss of beaches and coastal infrastructure. Over 80% of Caribbean beaches are actively eroding because of a combination of reef loss and sea level rise.”
Ideally, this could be done either through the United Nations and/or using other bilateral mechanisms.
Much like the statistics on the current threat to marine life, Stephenson’s message could not be more stark, “If we do not act decisively now, we stand to see more depletion and destruction that would ultimately have catastrophic impacts on humanity.”