A new report on the state of the world’s oceans is gaining considerable attention this week. The report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature warns that combined threats to oceans are creating conditions where there is “a high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.” Dr. Alex Rogers, scientific director of the IPSO, calls the new findings “shocking.” While to some this language may seem extreme, the reality is that an unprecedented range of threats are coming together to challenge the health of oceans and underwater life. The report identifies the main drivers of these threats, including: climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss. The report also finds increasing hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and anoxia (absence of oxygen, known as ocean dead zones) along with warming oceans and increasing acidification are creating multiple stessors on the world’s oceans – and multiple stressors are, in their words, a precondition for other mass extinction events in the Earth’s history.
The bottom line is that these combined threats– much of it caused by human activity— are undermining the sustainability of our fragile ocean ecosystems, sea life and the value they hold. The World Resources Institute has been working on these issues over its 30 year history— particularly focused on the threats to coral reefs and issues around eutrophication and hypoxia (commonly referred to as “dead zones”).
Coral reefs are an essential part of ocean ecosystems – home to over 25 percent of all known species of marine life. The new IPSO report finds that in the past 50 years, activities related to “overfishing, pollution, and unsustainable practices” have led to severe declines in many marine species and an unprecedented level of degradation and loss of critically important habitat types such as mangroves, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. These pressures are being compounded by global warming, which leads to coral bleaching and related threats from ocean acidification.
These findings echo themes from WRI’s recent report, Reefs at Risk Revisited, which finds that 75 percent of the world’s reefs are already at risk. WRI found that the main local pressures include overfishing, destructive fishing and pollution are leading threats to coral reefs. Like the IPSO, WRI looked at global pressures as well, namely global warming, coral bleaching and ocean acidification. WRI found that unless these combined threats are turned back, more than 90 percent of coral reefs will at risk by 2030 and all the world’s reefs will be threatened by 2050. In addition, WRI found that in the past 10 years, threats to coral reefs increased by 30 percent – showing that the threats to reefs are increasing both in speed and intensity.
The new IPSO report identifies hypoxia as one of the factors which is threatening ocean life. Last year, WRI worked with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) to identify and map areas around there world that are showing signs of eutrophication and hypoxia. The new research identified 535 low-oxygen “dead zones,” only 56 of which can be classified as improving; an additional 248 sites worldwide were identified as areas of concern that currently exhibit signs of marine eutrophication and are at risk of developing hypoxia. According to our analysis, the number of eutrophic or hypoxic areas have increased from 42 known hypoxic or eutrophic sites in 1950 to the 783 sites we’ve identified today. This represents an 1800% increase in eutrophic and hypoxic areas over the past 60 years.
Dead zones are the result of over-fertilization of our coastal areas from sources such as runoff from agriculture, discharges from industry, and human sewage. When a dead zone forms, oxygen in the water is severely depleted– threatening animals, plants, and other sea life with it. A combination of stressors from climate change, fisheries, pollution and habitat destruction are leading to more dead zones, further comprising our oceans, including the fragile world of coral reefs.
Cause for Hope?
While these findings are grim, there are reasons for hope. The IPSO identifies some key steps that could help reverse the dire direction for our oceans to help restore and protect ocean ecoystems. Their recommendations include:
- Reducing carbon emissions,
- Restoring the structure and function of marine ecosystems
- Proper and universal implementation of the precautionary principle; and
- Urgent introduction by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly of effective governance of the High Seas
WRI’s research has made it clear that with growing awareness of the declining status of the world’s oceans and identifying the most urgent threats and primary drivers of ecosystem degradation, people can take steps to reduce our impact – especially at the local level. Engaging in sustainable business practices (including ecotourism), reducing local pollution (including the over-use of fertilizers), protecting coastal mangroves and establishing more fish sanctuaries and strengthening marine protected areas as well as improved fisheries management can all help to buy time for coral reefs.
Supporting comprehensive national assessments to identify the root causes of species declines and degradation of ecosystem services and mobilize support for urgently needed policy and institutional reforms, improvements in regulatory frameworks and market-led economic incentives can help to turn the tide.
On a global level, however, the threats from climate change looms large – more political will is needed along with more action by governments to prevent the worst possible forecasts of the State of Oceans Report. It is up to people, policymakers, and international leaders to make decisions today to ensure that the truly frightening predictions of mass extinction of sea life do not come to pass.