Experts Call for Action on Ocean Preserves

UNITED NATIONS - The report, called "Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity", outlines the factors causing damage to the ocean, namely fishing, pollution and climate change, and also suggests a set of solutions.

"Loss of marine diversity will have a disproportionate impact on the poorer nations, where fishing communities will be seriously affected. In the rich countries, people will start to see certain species of fish disappearing from the supermarket," David Santillo, a senior scientist with the Greenpeace Research Laboratories and one of the authors of the report, told IPS.

While the situation has been getting worse over the last few decades, Santillo said, "We are now at a political crossroads." The U.N. Division of Sustainable Development implemented a plan to eliminate destructive fishing practices and the establishment of marine protected areas consistent with international law by 2012, "but little has still been done, and there are now only five more years to go until the deadline," said Santillo.

"But I am an optimist and believe that it's not too late to do something. We just need the political will of individual countries," he said.

Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, said that, "Collective commitments to thriving ecosystems are needed to save overfished species from being systematically depleted from compromised habitats. The oceans cannot save themselves."

The report cites overfishing, use of bottom trawling and other destructive fishing techniques, unsustainable aquaculture, and illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing as one of the major reasons for the depletion of fish stocks.

Bottom trawling has been likened to forest clearcutting. As fishers drag heavy nets and other gear across the sea floor, this causes massive collateral damage to corals and other features that offer protection and habitat for many creatures.

Bycatch is a growing problem, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands of seabirds, turtles, marine mammals, and other marine species annually. In some cases, industrial fishers discard nearly half their dead or dying catch back into the sea.

IUU fishing accounts for up to 20 percent of the global catch and is worth 4-9 billion dollars a year. As industrial countries see their own fish stocks fall and impose stricter controls, fishers often move to developing-country waters where effective control is absent, jeopardising the livelihoods of fishing communities.

Human-induced climate change, predicted to increase sea-surface temperature, raise sea levels, and reduce sea-ice cover, is also harming the world's oceans. In one sector of the Southern Ocean, krill densities fell by an estimated 80 percent between 1976 and 2003, correlating with losses in the extent and duration of sea ice the previous winter and leaving penguins, albatrosses, seals, and whales especially vulnerable. In parts of the Arctic, the impacts of climate change on sea ice and snowfall may be affecting the breeding success of ivory gulls, ringed seals, and polar bears.

The third cause, says the report, is pollution from chemical, radioactive, and nutrient sources; oil spills; and marine debris as the third cause that is contaminating the marine environment, killing organisms, and undermining ecosystem integrity. Of particular concern is the effect on marine wildlife of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), especially those chemicals not yet regulated under the 2001 Stockholm Convention.

Marine debris, including plastics and derelict fishing gear, is responsible for causing death and injury to many marine species, among them seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals. Large oxygen-depleted "dead zones," made worse by excessive nitrogen runoff from fertilisers, sewage discharges, and other sources, are further signs that the oceans are under severe stress.

The authors of the report, Michelle Allsopp, Richard Page, Paul Johnston, and David Santillo, all environmental experts, suggest marine reserves as one of the solutions to this problem. A well-designed global network of marine reserves, covering key ecosystems and habitats, could help reverse the devastating toll human actions are taking on the world's oceans, note the authors. Marine reserves are a proven method for restoring fish populations:

For example, in the Soufriere Marine Management Area in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, three years of protection tripled the biomass of commercial fish species within the closed reserves. After five years, in areas outside the reserves, biomass doubled and average catches per trip increased 46 to 90 percent depending on the size of trap used. Also, marine reserves established in the Red Sea in 1995 increased the catch per unit of effort in surrounding areas by more than 60 percent after five years of protection.

"There is currently no mechanism under existing international agreements to create a global marine reserve network encompassing the high seas-areas beyond national jurisdiction," said Santillo.

The authors are also suggesting a new implementation agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to establish and manage such reserves. They call for an integrated, precautionary, and ecosystem-based approach to the conservation and sustainable management of the marine environment in the high seas.

The authors also recommend moving negotiations on fish and fish products out of the World Trade Organisation and into other multilateral fora where commercial and trade interests do not dominate.

"By synthesising all the research in this report and providing solutions, the report hopes to bring the oceans to people's minds," Santillo told IPS.

(c) 2007 IPS - Inter Press Service

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