Why the Oceans Matter by Tony Juniper
Campaigner, writer, sustainability advisor and leading British environmentalist.
When it comes to the major sustainability challenges that face us we have tended to focus on issues that are mainly about how we use land, air and freshwater. We are finding, however, that if we are to chart a course toward a secure human future then issues linked with the health of the oceans must also be urgently addressed. The pressures are many and varied, and rather fundamental in nature.
Despite our tendency to relatively neglect marine issues, one that has been prominent in recent years is overfishing. Most wild marine fish stocks are exploited at a level far beyond what they can indefinitely sustain. This is not only a problem for the fish and the ecosystems that sustain them. Some 278 billion dollars of global GDP is dependent on catching sea fish, so are the jobs of many tens of millions of people and the food security of hundreds of millions more.
Ocean productivity is also being impacted by the release of greenhouse gases. This is leading to warmer seas, changing ecosystems in the process, and causing higher levels of carbonic acid to accumulate. More acidic conditions are causing major shifts in how marine systems function, not least among shell-forming animals and plankton, causing potentially profound knock-on effects.
Plankton capture a vast amount of carbon (including that released from fossil fuels and deforestation) that they transport into deep ocean sediments, while phytoplankton also recycles oxygen and is responsible for replenishing at least fifty per cent of what you are breathing now. If the physiology of these vital microorganisms is affected by more acid seas then their roles as planetary regulators might be affected too.
The health of the seas is also being hit by vast amounts of waste arriving from the land, including some 12 million tonnes of plastic that finds it way there each year. This causes damage to marine wildlife populations in a variety of different ways. For example seabirds and mammals eat plastic waste mistaking it for food with more than half of all marine mammals now having plastic in their guts. The overall economic costs arising from marine plastic pollution has been estimated at US$13 billion per year.
On top of plastics, millions of tonnes of nutrients are being discharged down rivers and into the seas. Nitrogen and phosphorous escape from fields, industry and sewage works and in some coastal waters cause so-called ‘dead zones’ where oxygen is depleted to the point where fish and other animals are killed, in turn damaging businesses dependent on fishing and tourism.
Coastal habitats that provide a range of different valuable services are also being used in ways that makes little economic sense. For example coral reefs, mangroves and saltmarshes are vital fish nurseries, they protect coasts from extreme weather and tidal surges while looking up carbon. Damaged by pollution and coastal development, the benefits people gain from these habitats is being progressively diminished.
These gloomy trends are, however, matched by a compelling suite of solutions, if only we’d adopt them. We know, for example, that it is possible to achieve sustainable fish stock management because in some parts of the world that has already been done, such as in waters around Norway and Namibia. Many businesses and countries are cutting carbon dioxide emissions through conserving forests and switching to lower carbon energy sources. Sustainable farming can reduce nutrient loss while steps toward a more circular use of resources such as plastics can eliminate wastes.
All of this can be done so long as the right kinds of technology, policy and behaviour all line up. That in turn relies on awareness, which often follows effective communications, and not only to reach people’s minds, but also their hearts.
That is why His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales has launched this new photographic competition, so that more of us might appreciate the wonders of the seas and how the mounting pressures up on them ultimately affect we land-dwellers. This is especially important for the countries of The Commonwealth, over half of which are island states and that in total control half of the world’s Economic Exclusion Zones.
In November this year the leaders of these countries will come together at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This gathering could provide a timely reminder of the falsehood that lies behind the impression that we must sacrifice the health of the oceans to achieve growth and development. It is hoped that images submitted to the photographic competition will portray a different reality, and how in the end we’ll do better for people by looking after the seas, rather than taking them so much for granted.