The ocean – flashpoint yet part of the solution
In sharper fokusFirst the good news: Since the turn of the millennium the ocean has been moving up the political agenda, and the world’s leaders are now acknowledging that the state of the world’s oceans is much worse than had long been assumed, with higher temperatures, sea-level rise, and more intense storms, as well as declining biodiversity. Acidity levels are rising, while oxygen concentrations continue to drop. The oceans are being severely overfished in many regions and are being polluted with tonnes of contaminants and garbage every day. In 2020, more than 80 per cent of the ocean’s surface area experienced at least one heat wave. At the beginning of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, it is clear that the oceans are the setting for not just one, but three global environmental crises, all of which are entirely man-made – the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the global pollution crisis.
The impacts of these environmental crises are not equally distributed around the globe. Throughout the world, the disruptions, particularly those associated with climate change, are hitting poor people hardest, because they have little or no adaptive capacity. The hardships are exemplified by small-scale fishers who are not able to follow the migrating schools of fish with their small boats, or farming families in coastal regions, who are increasingly losing their lands and livelihoods to the rising seas.
- 8.19 > This thermal image of a mussel bed in Vancouver, Canada, indicates that the mussels heated up to 50 degrees Celsius during an extreme heat wave in summer 2021.
- There is also no question that social problems such as poverty, hunger and social injustice are fuelling the crisis. People who depend solely on the sea have no choice but to keep on fishing until the very last fish is caught. The extent to which marine conservation measures and programmes for sustainable use of the seas can be effective therefore always depends on the extent to which they take into account the needs of people impacted locally.
At the same time, however, the ocean itself offers a number of solutions, ranging from its great potential for wind energy and sustainable fishing and aquaculture to the immense amounts of carbon dioxide that could be fixed and sequestered by the restoration of mangrove forests and seagrass meadows, or through systematic large-scale kelp farming. Yet achieving these goals will require a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we interact with the sea. Instead of focusing exclusively on the objectives of extracting the maximum amounts of fish, shellfish, oil, gas, sand, ores and other resources, humankind will have to consider how the goals of marine conservation, sustainable use and a fair and equitable sharing of the ocean’s bounty can be reconciled and implemented simultaneously.
- 8.20 > Dead mussels cover a stretch of beach in Vancouver, Canada. Under normal conditions, these rocky coast dwellers can survive temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius for short periods. However, these marine organisms were unable to cope with the record temperatures of 45 to 50 degrees reached in summer 2021; as a result, large numbers of them died.
- 8.22 > Healthy seagrass meadows and mangrove forests, such as those that still exist in Cuba and elsewhere, are hotspots of marine biodiversity. Here, an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) rests on a seagrass bed near a red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle).
- The experts assembled in the Ocean Panel recommend five basic building blocks:
- Whenever decisions about the ocean are made in future, they must be based on data and scientific knowledge. This requires open, accessible databases and technologies that facilitate the measurement of environmental parameters, simulation of processes, tracking of stakeholders, prediction of developments, monitoring of management measures and, finally, the sharing of data. Some of these technologies are already being applied on a small scale. A computer model, known as POSEIDON, allows scientists to simulate the interactions among various fishery management measures, fishing fleets and marine ecosystems, thus enabling them to compare alternative options. There is also a new Marine Manager portal developed by the marine conservation organization Global Fishing Watch. Almost in real time, the portal makes data available on key marine parameters, zone boundaries and human activities (e.g. fishing, mining, tourism) in marine protected areas, thereby facilitating the monitoring and protection of the various regions by area administrators and interested users. At present, this portal only covers five selected marine protected areas, but should be functioning globally by 2024 at the latest.
- Marine spatial planning should be guided by concrete goals and transcend sector boundaries. Considering the many interactions among the individual sectors of the marine economy, new and coordinated policies for use are needed that include integrated, ecosystem-based management and science-based spatial planning for all marine regions. However, success can only be achieved when a balance is established between the interests of the various user groups. All of these groups must therefore be involved in the planning. Other requirements are that the ocean may only be exploited to an extent which does not harm its biotic communities, and that the local populations have fair access and usage rights. This includes exclusive fishing rights for local fishing communities.
- More money needs to be invested in methods for sustainable use of the oceans. To date, only one quarter of the funds needed to restore critical degraded ocean habitats is available. Governments are also being called upon to foster new kinds of sustainable marine use through subsidies. These could easily be financed through elimination or redirection of the existing harmful subsidies for industrial fishing and for subsea extraction of oil and gas. Correctly applied, investments in the health of the ocean offer the prospect of substantial financial returns in the long term.
- Land-based inputs of garbage and pollutants must be stopped,, especially by reducing the huge amounts of waste through smart recycling practices and the use of alternative packaging materials, and by introducing a circular economy in all sectors of business. Effective environmental protection measures also need to be introduced and implemented in agriculture.
- The many services provided by the oceans must be reflected in all economic accounting and product prices, in order to more clearly reflect the true value and importance of the ocean. Conventional methods of calculating a country’s economic performance (gross domestic product, for example) fail to consider the damage done by some industries, or the extent to which their activities accelerate climate change. This also still applies to calculations of the strength of the marine economy, perpetuating the perception that non-sustainable activities like industrial fishing are profitable, and leading to their being subsidized in many places. To realistically balance the damage caused by marine industries with the potential benefits provided by the ocean, new calculation criteria and procedures are needed. Their development is a task that needs to be addressed jointly by governments and their statistics authorities.
- 8.21 > Investments in sustainable forms of marine use pay off in the long term. Experts predict profitable benefit-cost ratios and high returns within three decades.
The threefold benefits of genuine marine protected areasEine neue Studie, veröffentlicht im März 2021, zeigt jedoch, dass auch radikaler Meeresschutz – das heißt die Erweiterung besonders stark geschützter Meeresregionen – bei der Bewältigung der Klima- und Artenvielfaltskrise helfen kann. Wer sich mit diesem Thema auseinandersetzt, muss jedoch wissen, dass mit dem Begriff „Meeresschutzgebiet“ (Marine Protected Area, MPA) durchaus unterschiedliche Schutzstandards gemeint sein können. Die Weltnaturschutzunion (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN) definiert sechs verschiedene Meeresschutzgebietstypen: Angefangen von den am strengsten regulierten MPAs, in denen alle Aktivitäten verboten sind, bei denen Lebensraum zerstört oder aber Organismen beziehungsweise Material dem Meer entnommen wird – dazu gehören Fischerei und Bergbau ebenso wie die Erdöl- und Erdgasförderung –, bis hin zu Gebieten, in denen die afterhaltige Nutzung natürlicher Ressourcen erlaubt ist.
- 8.23 > Large fishing countries now pay high subsidies to allow their fleets to fish far from home, thus minimizing the risk of overfishing in their own waters. According to the most recent calculations, the 10 largest providers of subsidies spent around USD 15.4 billion on this item in 2018.
- A new study, published in March 2021, shows that radical marine conservation, meaning the expansion of highly protected marine regions, can also help in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises. However, those involved with this issue must understand that widely different protection standards can be implied by the term Marine Protected Area (MPA). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines six different types of marine protected area. They range from the most strictly regulated MPAs, where all activities are prohibited that destroy habitats or involve the removal of organisms or material from the sea (including fishing and mining, as well as oil and gas extraction), to areas in which sustainable use of natural resources is permitted.
As of June 2021, a total area of 7.7 per cent of the global seas had been officially granted marine protected status – an area equivalent to the size of North America. However, high fishery protection standards have actually been implemented in only 2.7 per cent of the global marine area. According to Oceana, an ocean conservation organization, activities harmful to the sea and its biotic communities are permitted in up to 96 per cent of the designated Natura 2000 marine protected areas in Europe. Areas such as these are therefore referred to in environmental conservation circles as “paper parks”. They are protected areas on paper only, providing little or no protection in reality. To take just one example from the Oceana report: in more than 500 European Natura 2000 areas that were explicitly designated for protection of the seabed fauna, fishing methods that destroy these very communities are still permitted.
But even disregarding the lack of effective protection in many marine protected areas, the number, size and connectivity of the areas, in the view of experts, are far from what is necessary to offer the many sea-floor dwellers sufficient habitats over the long term, or to enable them to adapt to climate change. Adaptation would generally require migration to areas closer to the poles, where the organisms would encounter conditions similar to those in their former habitats. Protected corridors between the old and new habitats are necessary to facilitate the colonization of new areas by these flora and fauna. In the new March 2021 study mentioned above, an international team of scientists therefore investigated which marine regions need to be urgently placed under protection in order to achieve the best possible outcomes in terms of species conservation, fishing and climate protection. For the latter, the most important question was in which regions bottom trawling should be prohibited, because this activity disturbs carbon reserves on the sea floor and encourages their breakdown by microorganisms. Over the long term, this process leads to the release of 15 to 20 per cent of the carbon dioxide that the ocean had previously removed from the atmosphere and trapped in sediments on the sea floor. Bottom trawling worldwide causes elevated emissions of greenhouse gases on a scale similar to the amounts released by soil changes in agriculture.
- 8.24 > When the marine conservation organization Oceana reviewed some 3450 European marine protected areas with regard to their protection standards in 2018, they found that in more than 70 per cent of the areas at least one of 13 environmentally harmful activities was permitted, including disruptive interventions such as aquaculture, fishing, oil and gas extraction, shipping, laying of subsea cables and pipelines, and the construction of wind farms.
- As a first step, the researchers calculated what proportion of the oceans would have to be strictly protected if only one of the three objectives at a time were prioritized (species conservation, secure fishing yields, maintenance of carbon stores on the seabed):
- Species diversity would receive 90 per cent of the maximum possible benefit if around 21 per cent of the ocean’s area were protected from human intervention. This would require the granting of strict protected status for 43 per cent of national waters (exclusive economic zones – EEZs) and six per cent of the high seas. The result would be a much greater degree of habitat protection, particularly for endangered species and those threatened with extinction. While 1.5 per cent of the necessary area currently has protected status, after the expansion the proportion would increase to as much as 87 per cent.
- Fishing yields would increase by up to 5.9 million tonnes if 28 per cent of the marine area were protected. For this objective, as for species conservation, the protection mandate would have to apply primarily to the EEZs, where 96 per cent of all wild catches are now made.
- To effectively protect around 90 per cent of the carbon stores on the sea floor that are being subjected to bottom trawling, this activity would have to be prohibited in 3.6 per cent of the ocean area, again mainly inside the EEZs because most trawl fishers work in this area. The researchers were not able to include the possible impacts of deep-sea mining on greenhouse gas emissions from the ocean in their calculations, because it is still largely unknown how this industrial sector will develop over time.
- 8.25 > Since January 2020, Palau has topped the list of countries with the greatest proportion of marine protected areas. It has placed 78 per cent of its exclusive economic zone under strict protection, an area larger than the US state of California. This means that fishing and all forms of resource extraction are prohibited there.
- The selection of protected areas is considerably more complex when all three goals are addressed simultaneously, because in some places the goals may be incompatible. Measures to conserve biodiversity, for example, could entirely preclude fishing in certain areas.
Nevertheless, the results of the calculations illustrate the role that the ocean could play in tackling the current crises. Placing 45 per cent of the total marine area under strict protection could achieve 71 per cent of the possible benefit for biodiversity, 92 per cent of the possible benefit for fisheries, and 29 per cent of the possible benefit for maintenance of carbon stores. However, this would require intensive international cooperation, targeted selection of the marine regions to be protected, and financial compensation for countries that would have to close large areas of their species-rich coastal waters to fishing and resource extraction and thus lose these potential earnings. The scientists note that a coordinated network of marine protected areas could serve as an effective mechanism for more climate and species protection, and would also contribute to the recovery of fish stocks so that the sea would again produce more food for humans.
Both the World Biodiversity Council (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) support this approach. In their new Workshop Report on the interactions between biodiversity and climate change, they set the required proportion of natural areas at 30 to 50 per cent.
The eight member states of the Nauru Agreement are Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Tokelau, as well as the Federated States of Micronesia. Among other species, half of the world’s skipjack tuna, the most commonly fished tuna species in the world, is caught in the territorial waters of these nations.
If exploitation were the exceptionEnvironmentalists take these scientific recommendations much further. During the 2021 Monaco Ocean Week, a policy discussion forum on marine issues that is now held on a regular basis, one group presented novel and alternative ideas.
If the designation, implementation and management of marine protected areas are so complex and difficult, the group suggested, it might make more sense to place the entire area of the oceans under protection, and then just designate those areas where exploitation of the sea or its use for shipping lanes would still be permitted. The extraction of organisms and material from the sea would then no longer be the rule but the exception, and fishing, mining and shipping companies would have to apply for the necessary licences.
The consequence of such a step would be that anyone who wants to fish, extract resources or engage in long-distance shipping would have to provide evidence, in their application, that their activities would cause no harm to marine biodiversity or the marine habitat, or at least that the environmental footprint of these activities would be kept within acceptable limits. The approach would thus completely reverse the status quo, shifting the perspective and focus of the problem from exploitation of the oceans to their protection. The immediate consequence would be that the companies, rather than marine conservation organizations, would have to compete to be recognized and heard in the debate on sustainable marine management. It would also be easier to discuss which forms of fishing and other marine uses are acceptable, and which are not. Furthermore, it would be possible to ensure that an environmental impact assessment were carried out prior to any industrial use of the sea, and that the results of the assessment would genuinely count.
According to environmentalists, the current UN negotiations on the third implementing agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ agreement) offer a realistic opportunity to explore how such an approach could be put into practice – even though it would initially be limited to the high seas. Representatives of industry and governments will presumably reject the idea out of hand because such an approach would severely restrict the use of the seas. Given the current crises facing the Earth, however, humankind has no option but to search for new ideas. Or, to paraphrase a joint analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Biodiversity Council: Sustainable development for people and nature will only be achievable if humanity fundamentally reforms and reorientates its economic, social and governmental systems. This will necessitate measures on a scale never previously undertaken in human history. The idea of giving conservation the highest priority in global marine management would fit nicely within the framework of a reformed and realigned system of ocean governance.
- 8.26 > A desperate search for food: A Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) searches for edible seagrass beneath a thick carpet of algae in the waters of Florida. The algae are spreading because Florida’s rivers are carrying more and more fertilizer and untreated wastewater into the sea. In the first five months of 2021 alone, 761 manatees starved to death in Florida. This was 10 per cent of the total population.
The overriding goal – to restore the oceanToday, more than ever, humanity is dependent on a healthy and productive world ocean. However, we are currently at a crossroads: while the pressure of human use is steadily increasing, the diversity of life in the ocean is rapidly decreasing, and with it the range of ocean services. Scientists report that one third to one half of the sensitive marine habitats, including coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves, have already been destroyed. Large stretches of coastline are suffering from rising levels of pollution, eutrophication (overfertilization), oxygen deficiency and heat stress. The number of marine species threatened with extinction is growing. IUCN experts have so far assessed the population figures for more than 14,000 marine species. There is a high risk of extinction for around 11 per cent, i.e. more than 1500, of these species. They are therefore classified as endangered, critically endangered or threatened with extinction.
In order to reverse this trend, first, the restoration of habitats with key functions for the ocean is vital. Foremost among them are the mangroves, seagrass meadows, salt marshes, coral reefs, kelp forests and mussel beds. The number of restoration projects around the world is growing, but they are still far too small to have a global impact. Second, the anthropogenic pressure on the oceans must be minimized. The highest priorities are a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a shift from the conventional system of global fishing to truly sustainable fishing and management methods. If both these aims can be achieved, experts say, the prerequisites for the recovery of marine life within the next three decades would be met.
- 8.27 and 8.28 > The coastal zones of the oceans are among the Earth’s habitats that have been most extensively altered by humankind. In the Ocean+Habitats project, experts at the United Nations Environment Programme keep records of the extent to which coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes and other vital coastal ecosystems are under threat.
- 8.29 > Hundreds of coastal organisms are now on the Red List of Threatened Species. These scientific assessments help local decision-makers decide which species are in most urgent need of habitat improvement.
- But scientists also agree that there is no single solution that will enable the ocean to recover its former health. On the contrary, success can only be achieved if a number of coordinated measures are taken that are tailored to local conditions:
- preserving and restoring habitats,
- protecting endangered species and ensuring the sustainable use of healthy stocks,
- effectively combating the causes of pollution, and
- curbing climate change through drastic reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
- 8.30 > Fishing and the hunting of whales and other marine mammals were the first human activities to put heavy pressure on the seas. Since then, conservation agreements and technological advances have at least reduced this hunting pressure. However, economic development has resulted in the emergence of two new and deadly trends, climate change and marine pollution.
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- On the Kachelotplate sandbank, in the part of the Wadden Sea National Park in the territory of the German state of Lower Saxony, more grey seal pups are born every year. This is because the seals are able to find sufficient food and quiet in the park. While the staff counted only 40 young animals in 2010, the birth rate reached a new record high in 2020, with 372 newborns.
Eight small island states in the West Pacific provide an example of what sustainable fishing can look like. Within a period of 40 years, the member nations of the Nauru Agreement developed a common set of rules by which they now successfully and profitably control tuna fishing in their national waters. The core of the Agreement is a process of auctioning off a fixed number of fishing days to foreign fishing vessels. Beforehand, however, the island states carry out a precise assessment of the tuna stocks to determine how many tonnes can be caught without endangering the populations. From this amount, the number of fishing days is calculated and taken into account in the bidding process. In addition, strict conditions are imposed by the member states. Fishing vessels that use purse-seine nets are required to have observers on board who, among other things, ensure that neither dolphins nor whale sharks are caught. The use of anchored or free-floating platforms that attract tuna, marlin and other highly desirable edible fish, and make their capture easier, is also prohibited.
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- For the past 10 years, these measures have allowed the association of island states to protect its tuna stocks from overfishing by the large fishing fleets from Europe, China, the USA, Japan and Thailand, and to generate an income of up to USD 500 million annually from fishing licences. Prior to the agreement, when each member state was still issuing its own fishing licences, less than five per cent of the sale value of the tuna flowed into the national coffers of the country of origin. Since the bidding procedure has been in operation, this share has risen to 25 per cent for the skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), for example.
The many successes at the local level illustrate that sufficient tools and knowledge for sustainable marine management are available. The task now is to make use of them, to involve all stakeholders in the process, make the required funds available, and to always consider the ocean in relation to the climate and humanity. Protecting the ocean, enhancing its biodiversity and using its services sustainably is also climate action. Performing such marine protection activities at one location, however, should never be used as an excuse to allow emission-intensive activities to be carried out elsewhere.