It is an open secret that the planet’s oceans are in a very precarious state: pollution, overfishing, climate change and other negative factors associated with humans (such as the oil spill) are transforming our precious oceans at such a discouraging pace that their inhabitants cannot cope with them. We’ve been exploiting them for centuries, although our brand is deeper than it has been for about 50 years. The result is a decline in fish stocks, bleaching of coral reefs and a palpable reduction in biodiversity, as documented in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) annual report.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to fix it.
An international team of researchers from 16 universities and institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that humanity is at a point where it must choose whether to leave to future generations a resilient and vibrant ocean or one "irreversibly disturbed".
Experts have established a roadmap of actions needed to ensure that the planet’s marine life fully recovers in 30 years, based on previous conservation efforts. Protecting species, restoring habitats, reducing pollution and mitigating the worst of climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions are among the important tasks ahead.
It will require a substantial effort from everyone
Conservation efforts are bearing fruit and could help to restore ecosystem damage, if applied on a larger scale, as the resilience of these ecosystems has been demonstrated, despite the damage that occurred during the twentieth century. While the task is extremely ambitious and full of major obstacles, the study, published in Nature, shows that a full recovery is possible if global action is taken.
Recovery of the seas
The report concludes that the number of humpback whales, which were close to extinction in the 1960s, has recovered since the ban on commercial whaling and the proportion of marine species assessed as threatened with global extinction by IUCN has fallen from 18% in 2000 to 11.4% in 2019.
Grey seal populations have also increased by 1.410% in eastern Canada and southern sea otters have grown from a few dozen individuals to several thousand since 1911. Green turtles have also increased their nesting populations by four to 14% per year, according to some estimates. However, much remains to be done.
What are the solutions?
The researchers identified nine components that are key to the reconstruction of the oceans: marshes, mangroves, seagrass, coral reefs, seaweed, oyster banks, fishing, megafauna and deep ocean. They need to focus on six types of interventions (or "recovery wedges"): protecting species, making wise and rational use, protecting spaces, mitigating climate change, restoring habitats and reducing pollution.
If we do, "it shows that the abundance of marine life can be recovered within a human generation, two to three decades, by 2050," says Duarte.
It is a great challenge that would involve not only meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement but also regulating hunting, poaching, overfishing and greater regulation of industries that exploit the depths of the sea. It is a great challenge, but this work suggests that the complicated situation of the ocean might not be as desperate as it seems.
"We have a small opportunity to leave a healthy ocean to the generation of our grandchildren, and we have the knowledge and the tools to do so. We cannot condemn our grandchildren to a shattered ocean without high-quality livelihoods; it is not an option,” states Carlos Duarte of the Red Sea Research Center at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
Reference: Rebuilding marine life, Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2146-7 , https://nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2146-7