Deep seas in deep trouble

Decades of pollution, over-fishing and industrial exploitation have pushed the oceans to the point of no return and entire ecosystems are in imminent danger of total collapse, never to recover, according to the United Nations.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Conservation Union (IUCN) have published a joint report, Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas, which claims swift and wide ranging action is needed if major irrevocable damage is to be avoided.

Much of the problem says the report, stems from the fact that almost two thirds of the world’s oceans are not protected by the national laws that coastal waters enjoy and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation.

The report calls for lessons learned conserving national waters should be adapted and applied worldwide.

As well as the damage done by man-made chemicals and oil spills, rising CO2 levels are affecting the alkalinity of our oceans, shifting its pH level towards the acidic end of the scale.

It is unclear how much CO2 the oceans can soak up before this has a profound effect on biodiversity, but shellfish and coral are particularly sensitive to these changes in acidity.

Over fishing and bottom-trawling are having an enormous effect, as are those seeking commercial gain through bio-prospecting – seeking new species from the deeps that might have pharmaceutical or other applications.

Dumped waste is also becoming a massive issue, with UNEP estimating that the average square mile of ocean has over 46,000 pieces of litter floating in it.

In the Central Pacific, litter outweighs the local plankton by more than six times.

Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director and, until recently IUCN’s director general, said: “Humankind’s ability to exploit the deep oceans and high seas has accelerated rapidly over recent years.

“It is a pace of change that has outstripped our institutions and conservation efforts whose primary focus have been coastal waters where, until recently, most human activity like fishing and industrial exploration took place.

“We now most urgently need to look beyond the horizon and bring the lessons learnt in coastal water to the wider marine world.”

Well over 60 per cent of the marine world and its rich biodiversity, found beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, is vulnerable and at increasing risk.

“Governments must urgently develop the guidelines, rules and actions needed to bridge this gulf,” said the IUCN’s acting director general, Ibrahim Thiaw.

“Otherwise we stand to lose and to irrevocably damage unique wildlife and critical ecosystems many of which moderate our very existence on the planet.”

The report says conservation efforts need to be based on ecological boundaries, not political ones, and calls for a series of marine nature reserves, off limits for fishermen and other industries.

“Once limited largely to shipping and open ocean fishing, commercial activities at sea are expanding rapidly and plunging ever deeper,” said the IUCN’s high seas policy advisor, Kristina Gjerde.

“Deep sea fishing, bioprospecting, energy development and marine scientific research are already taking place at depths of 2,000 m or more.

“Throughout the oceans, shipping, military operations and seismic exploration have intensified with growing impacts on deep water and high sea ecosystems and biodiversity.

“The spectre of climate change and its impacts such as ocean warming and acidification underscore the need to reduce direct human impacts, because healthy ecosystems are better able to respond to changing oceanic conditions.”

Sam Bond

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