Earth’s ocean is warming at the same rate as five Hiroshima atomic bombs dropping into the water each second, according to scientists, causing the ocean to run out of oxygen and endangering the future of millions of marine species.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered a grim projection for the future of the world’s ocean, revealing how glaciers and ice sheets are melting at an unprecedented rate, threatening frequent storms and regular flooding in countries around the world. What, in your opinion, is driving these changes?
The biggest driver of changes in the ocean at the moment is the climate emergency. The ocean absorbs more than 90 per cent of the world’s heat and a quarter of our global greenhouse gas emissions, and if it didn’t do so, then living conditions on land would be completely different for us right now so the ocean has acted as a crucial buffer against major climate changes.
The impact this has had on the ocean, however, has been severe. The Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans are all predicted to be much warmer than they have ever been this year which has major implications for the frequency of extreme weather such as storms and flooding.
We are also seeing the oxygen content of the ocean declining at an unprecedented rate as you mentioned. There was a huge report released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature last year which revealed the scale of the decline in ocean oxygen content. Oxygen is not uniform around the planet but depleting oxygen levels is going to have all kinds of implications for us since half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.
Depleting oxygen levels in the ocean will also have implications for marine species, for example, fish can’t grow as big when there’s not as much oxygen and that has implications for our food security.
Then, on top of that, the changing chemistry in our ocean from this deluge of CO2 has a significant impact on our coral reefs where dead zones are increasingly emerging from the warming and the deoxygenation.
If we then add the collateral damage caused from other human activities then the picture becomes much worse. Overfishing, for example, is a huge problem. We have fished out species including some of the smallest foraged species, like krill, sardines and pilchards, to some of the biggest fish in the sea, like tunas and sharks.
Bluefin tuna in the Pacific Ocean, for example, is down to around 3 per cent of its population size and we have done that over the last 50 years. This is having grave impacts on the health of marine ecosystems and ocean productivity.
Human activities in the deep sea, such as destructive fishing activity like bottom trawling, is also a huge problem, in addition to, habitat destruction in coastal areas including the destruction of mangroves, seagrass beds and coastal wetlands.
These are systems that have a triple bottom line: they sequester carbon, they are nurseries for baby fish and other marine species and they also are key to the resilience of coastal communities since these natural sea walls are critical to protecting us from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Finally, in case that toxic mix isn’t enough, pollution from the run-off of intensive agriculture on land and other industrial production processes has ecologically compromised the Earth’s natural systems and the signs are all showing us that we need to change what we’re doing before it’s too late.
Billions of people globally depend on the ocean for their livelihoods with more than three billion people dependant on fish as a major part of their diet. However, by the end of the century, a quarter of all fish could be gone, threatening food insecurity for billions of people. What could be the cost of not taking adequate action to protect the world’s ocean?
I think this is such an important question. Currently 50 per cent of the world’s population live in coastal areas and we can expect to see increasing flooding around some of the largest cities in the world as well as largescale displacement as communities move to find food and shelter.
The incredible thing about the ocean, however, is that it has the amazing ability to regenerate itself and we, as humans, can help it by doing four things.
The first is safeguarding the ocean by creating the equivalent of national parks which, the science shows, needs to cover at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.
The second is investing in nature-based solutions like protecting mangroves and seagrass beds. Mangroves can sequester four to 10 times as much CO2 as terrestrial forests but we are losing them at an alarming rate and, whenever we do, they release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere contributing to the challenges we are facing. In fact, experts estimate that the amount of CO2 released annually from degraded wetlands is equivalent to the annual emissions of the United Kingdom, yet it’s two and a half times cheaper to restore them then building artificial infrastructures, so it makes no sense to not invest in nature‑based solutions.
The third is ensuring that all human activities outside of protected areas are sustainable and, finally, and most importantly, the critical thing we have to do is tackle the climate emergency. We have to stick to the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees and move as quickly as possible to achieving the net-zero emissions target by 2050 at the very latest.
Currently, only 1 per cent of the world’s high seas are protected and, as you mentioned, scientists warn that in to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, 30 per cent would need to be safeguarded by 2030. The first international legally-binding treaty to preserve the high seas is expected to be adopted this year aiming to protect large areas of the world’s ocean from human activities. How has this agreement come into being?
Currently, countries govern up to 200 nautical miles of the water from their coasts but, beyond that, are the high seas and that’s what these negotiations at the UN are focusing on. The high seas make up the majority of the ocean but, as you mentioned, only about 1 per cent are currently protected.
Following the Second World War, as industrial fishing developed and technology evolved, countries started looking at operating their vessels in different places and fish out the waters adjacent to the coastlines of other countries.
The result of that was the negotiation, over a long period of time, of the Convention on the Law of the Sea which is a constitution for the ocean. It sets out all of the terms on which countries are supposed to co-operate together to manage the ocean and delimits which parts of the ocean fall within national jurisdiction and beyond national jurisdiction.
Following this, there was an agreement negotiated to establish an International Seabed Authority to govern the extraction of seabed minerals from areas beyond national jurisdiction and this is a huge issue at the moment because these minerals are now seen as a panacea for all of the resource shortages we have on land.
Then there was another agreement on governing high migratory and straddling fish stock. These are the fish species that migrate across the highways and byways of the ocean across national jurisdictions yet they don’t recognize borders but still have to be managed in some way.
Interestingly, all of these agreements look at how we can extract life from the ocean but there hasn’t been one to govern how we protect it until recently. Over the last 15 years, there has been a growing consensus that we need another implementing agreement under the Convention on the Law of the Sea that focuses on how we can conserve marine life in those areas beyond national jurisdiction.
The discussions have involved how to balance the rights and responsibilities of countries, particularly the exploitation of marine biodiversity against the responsibility to protect them, which has become critical as we have learnt more about how criticality endangered the ocean is.
International agreements, however, often don’t talk to one another, and so, the idea behind this new global high seas treaty is to focus on improving collaboration across the different agreements we have in place and, most importantly, improving coherence in decision-making.
The treaty is critical because it addresses a huge gap in international governance of the ocean – this is the biggest biosphere on the planet – yet there is little regulation over how countries can use it.
But international treaties are only as strong as the will of the member states who agree to sign up to them so it’s important that there is buy-in from around the world especially given the pressures on the high seas.
However, we have seen how apathy to sustainably managing this part of our planet has resulted in its degradation so we cannot wait too long to take action otherwise it will be too late.