From McCauley DJ et al.
A front page story in the New York Times this week, "Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction," reported on a major study, a review paper for which scientists gathered data from an impressive range of sources. "Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean,"1, published in the journal Science, presents evidence that our oceans are on the edge of a largely human-caused catastrophic extinction event. But there is also good news in the study...it may not be too late to fix it. These scientists believe the oceans still have the resilience to bounce back if we can provide the needed protection. But we have to act fast because the status quo is a path we now know is likely to lead to mass extinctions
The authors think that humans, who have brought about these potentially devastating conditions, have the power to fix the problem. Will that happen? This coming week, after nearly nine years of discussions, the UN will gather nations in New York to make recommendations on how to manage and conserve the life on the world's international waters. These discussions will lead either to major strides in ocean conservation or to maintaining the status quo. We know now that the status quo won't work.
Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to
the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity
beyond areas of national jurisdiction
UNHQ, New York, 20 to 23 January 2015
World Leaders, it is time to stop talking and take positive decisive action. Do you want to be known as the ones who failed the ocean, and consequently the entire earth?
Marine waters beyond the jurisdiction of any nation, the high seas, cover nearly half the planet's surface. This area, once used as man's dumping ground, is now understood to support an enormous reservoir of biodiversity that is just slowly being "discovered". We know more about the solar system than we do about our oceans. We can't afford to lose this biodiversity.
An important observation in this Science study is that large-scale loss of habitat is an even worse enemy for ocean life than over-harvesting . It comes as no surprise that bottom trawling destroys the ocean floor, while seabed mining and fish farming disturb delicate ecosystems. On an even larger scale, climate change and ocean acidification caused by carbon emissions are accelerating habitat loss. Let's not forget that the ocean is earth's greenhouse glass sponge. If we disturb it's ability to concentrate gasses, it's likely to spew them out into our environment, thereby accelerating change even more.
The new study supplies credible evidence that marine preserves, like national parks on land, are among the best tactics we have now to protect marine life from harmful human activity. It will also allow us to help ocean species adapt to a changing ocean environment (acidification and warming) by enhancing ecosystem resilience.
An important discussion scheduled for the UN meeting next week is the possibility of creating fully protected marine parks on the high seas, such as those established within national jurisdiction in countries such as the United States. At this time, however, half of the earth's surface lacks a mechanism by which to create these preserves. It will take a new international legal instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to forge the ability to protect our vast oceans.
It is time to stop talking and take action. I urge all nations to support a decision to develop a new legally binding agreement that would give the biodiversity of the high seas a fighting chance. Without that instrument, and the means by which to enforce it, we leave the oceans at risk of imminent collapse.
Those of us who sail the oceans know that the seas already have changed significantly in our lifetimes. We don't need studies to confirm what experience causes us to know for certain. Where we used to catch fish in abundance, there are now vast empty stretches with no signs of life. Stories like that of the decimation of the Patagonian Toothfish via longlining in such a short period of time makes it clear what man can and does do.
Yet with improving technologies, scientists like "Her Deepness" Sylvia Earle are starting to uncover the wonders that still exist beneath those vast waters ... waters in which a downed airliner can disappear from all detection by man. There are still reserves to be saved and nurtured. Scientists are finding strange new species of wildlife, previously unknown ecosystems, some of the oldest known living organisms -- 8,500-years-old cold-water corals, and undersea mountains taller than Everest. Scientific finds even hold great promise for lifesaving medicines. But technologies that allow the exploration of the world's oceans also allow for their exploitation. As human activity moves farther and deeper out, the same lack of regard will compound the problems on a far greater scale if allowed. The oceans are not an infinitely resilient resource nor a boundless recycling place for humanity's trash.
If there is one kernel of hope, it is that there may still be time for man to act responsibly. This is why stronger, conceptually forward-thinking high seas management is urgently needed. Sailors and all who love the sea, please urge your representatives in the UN to take immediate action to create the legal ability to set aside swaths of ocean in preserves for the sake of all life on earth.