We know how important the ocean is for human well-being – without it we lose food, oxygen and an abundant source of beauty and inspiration. We also lose one of our biggest money earners and a whole range of goods and services worth the equivalent of the world’s “seventh largest economy” such as food, tourism, and shipping.
Yet, ocean waves are hiding the biggest potential threat to life on our planet - a dying sea brought about through a deadly mix of irresponsible fishing practices, pollution, warming and acidifying seas. Despite the gloomy outlook, there is still time to change course and we know what needs to happen. In fact, 2015 saw some great progress in ocean conservation and it’s imperative we don’t lose momentum in 2016.
In January 2015, the UN General Assembly decided it was time to develop a legally binding agreement to conserve marine life on the high seas, two thirds of the ocean. Countries will now move forward to negotiate this. We need it to be strong, enforceable and decisive enough to merit overseeing 50 per cent of the planet. Perhaps most importantly, it has to provide a mechanism to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) outside country waters.
In other good news, 2015 also saw nearly 2.5 million km2 of unprotected ocean proposed for full protection. These new areas include Chile’s Easter Island Marine Park, New Zealand’s Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary, and the United Kingdom’s Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve. Although only about two per cent of the ocean is currently protected; these new areas, when added to other committed protections around the world, will bring global ocean protection to almost six per cent when officially in place, an extraordinary achievement.
What more can we do in 2016? Scientists says that we need to aim for a goal of 30 per cent of the ocean set aside to avoid mass extinctions and help regenerate marine life. We can do this through highly protected marine protected areas where no destructive or extractive activities such as fishing or mining, can take place. Reserves can also help reduce and buffer the impacts of climate change on the ocean, help to rebuild species abundance and diversity, restoring and restocking marine life.
And, with a powerful piece of international legally binding global legislation on climate change agreed at the Paris UN agreement in December, the moral and legal backing to cut dangerous climate emissions as far and as fast as possible has been globally sanctioned. This is particularly important to people living on low-lying islands or coasts as it should limit the sea-level rise that is a result of climate change. It is also of critical importance if we are to save coral reefs. As a natural carbon sink, the ocean absorbs approximately 25 per cent of all the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities. And it has absorbed about 90 per cent of the atmosphere’s excess heat. We need to both cut emissions as drastically and quickly as possible, as well as build the ocean’s resilience to change through marine protected areas, and marine species abundance and diversity.
What would be the 2016 icing on the cake? How about finally declaring the world’s largest contiguous protected area in the Southern Ocean - one of the most pristine marine environments on the planet? How about getting enough countries to ratify and enforce the Port States Measures Agreement to help curb illegal fishing? 2016 must be a banner year for the ocean. We need increased transparency within the fishing industry and on the high seas. We need more areas off-limits for extractive activities. We need to stop pirate fishing vessels from hiding, and we need more good examples of sustainable profitable fisheries.
The challenges and opportunities of protecting the ocean are both exciting and daunting. However, I hope to look back in 12 months knowing that the ocean is in a better place and we are building a future where every year, we do more. Stopping the tide of ocean destruction can only be done by pushing fast forward on opposite and equally strong measures to counter the damage. 2016 has to be about building resources and regenerating the ocean because anything less will not do.