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Symposium 2013

Proposal - A new deal for the oceans

The Challenge

The significance of our oceans for human life, the world’s climate and biodiversity is immense. Oceans cover more than 71 per cent of the planet’s surface, provide 97 per cent of its water supply, ...

The significance of our oceans for human life, the world’s climate and biodiversity is immense. Oceans cover more than 71 per cent of the planet’s surface, provide 97 per cent of its water supply, and their yet widely unknown biodiversity is unparalleled. They provide jobs and growth, food, energy, and raw materials, and 70 per cent of global trade is handled by ships. Oceans thereby secure the livelihoods of millions of people, especially in coastal regions. But these livelihoods are increasingly endangered by the effects of global warming, by the unrestricted exploitation of the oceans and by the ecological damage the oceans are suffering from overfishing, pollution and noise.

In the past century, the variety and abundance of ocean life have been greatly reduced by overfishing and a cocktail of man-made stresses, particularly pollution (including greenhouse gases). The rate of loss is increasing and more damage has been done in the last thirty years than in all of previous human history. Some of these stresses will continue to increase in the coming decades while we institute policies to bring them under control. Things will get worse before they get better.

Because of the overwhelming influence that the oceans have in the processes that define our planet, these losses not only threaten sea-life, they place human wellbeing itself in jeopardy. To survive the growing crisis, we need a radical overhaul of our relations with the sea, shifting from overuse and misuse, to better stewardship and smart exploitation. This change of course will see us rebuild the abundance, variety and vitality of life in the sea, which will give the oceans the resilience they need to weather the difficult times that lie ahead. Without such action, our future is bleak.

Without effective controls on greenhouse gas emissions and consumption, no remedies will succeed in preventing the collapse of marine life in the long-run. But the following actions will help sustain the seas and their values to us while we get to grips with these overarching challenges.

Elements of the New Deal:

  • Establish marine reserves covering that are highly protected from exploitation across one third of all the oceans. Marine reserves are one of the most powerful tools we have for rebuilding ocean life, often leading to five-fold or more increases in abundance of life within 10 years of set-up. They can contribute to fisheries in surrounding areas by exporting fish and their young. They are the foundation for the new deal.
  • Reduced fishing pressure in the majority of ecosystems (at least a halving of pressure in general). Because this would increase fish stocks, the result is that we could catch more, by fishing less, at lower expense, and with far less collateral damage.
  • An outright ban on fishing below 800m deep (half a mile). The animals this deep live slow lives, are unproductive, and habitats there are extremely fragile. We shouldn’t have begun to fish there in the first place.
  • Phase out of the most destructive fishing gears, such as bottom trawls and dredges, or greatly circumscribe their use to particular, defined areas. Some fishing gears are so indiscriminate or highly destructive the wider costs of using them to catch fish are far greater than the benefits from the fish taken.
  • Instigate controls to reduce fertilising nutrient inputs and sediment runoff. Such pollution causes the formation of dead zones, toxic algal blooms and facilitates jellyfish explosions.
  • Reduce inputs of toxic substances, plastics and noise. These sources of pollution have built up to unprecedented levels in the last 30 years, and in the case of toxics are coming back to haunt us in fish like tuna that are becoming dangerous to eat.
  • Clear up of plastics in the ocean ‘garbage patches’, coasts and seabed. Vast rafts of plastic now drift in the oceans and litter beaches and seabed. It is gradually breaking down into particles that concentrate toxic chemicals and can be ingested by marine life, ultimately ending up in the fish we eat. It won’t go away unless we take it out.
  • End net loss of coastal wetlands (losses need to be compensated by mitigation), and initiate restoration programmes in places worst affected by habitat loss. Wetlands have been thought of as almost worthless in the past and were cleared with little remorse. But it turns out they form dynamic and self-repairing defences against sea level rise as well as acting as nurseries for commercial fish and food for overwintering and migrating birds. They are also an important sink for carbon emissions.
  • Wherever possible, adopt soft engineering approaches to coastal protection and restoration, particularly in the construction of defences to fend off rising seas. Hard defences like seawalls are very costly and destroy wetlands squeezed landwards by rising seas.

For a more complete description, see Ocean of Life: How our Seas are Changing, Penguin, 2012, or Der Mensch und Das Meer, DVA, 2013 by Callum Roberts.

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