EARTH’S OCEANS ARE IN TROUBLE. BUT THE 2010CENSUS OF MARINE LIFE—THE FIRST EVER ATTEMPT TO DOCUMENT ALL THAT LIVES IN THE SEA—WILL KICK-START THE RECOVERY EFFORT
The ocean—our major life-support system—is endangered. And it cannot be reimagined or redesigned, as it is too vast and complex for us to re-create
from scratch. It must be restored to sustainable levels.
The only reason that our planet is habitable (and a great place to live) is because of the innumerable goods and services that the ocean provides: more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, regulation of the climate, carbon sequestration, food security, and huge recreational and commercial opportunities. But in the past century we’ve taken much of this for granted, harvesting from its waters the things we like, especially the large and small animals we love to eat, and throwing in the things we dislike—sewage, garbage, and invisible pollutants such as mercury and PCBs. In addition, because of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, we are changing the very chemistry of the global ocean, warming the seawater and making it more acidic. All of the above results in loss of biodiversity, collapsed species and fisheries, loss of jobs, health issues, and huge economic losses. Just a few years ago, for example, who could have imagined any of the following new realities: 90 percent of the ocean’s large predators, which keep the ecosystem healthy, have been removed by fishing, and scientists predict that all fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. Bluefin tuna and swordfish now have so much mercury in their tissues that women and children are recommended not to consume them. A fifth of the world’s coral reefs have almost no corals left, which means they are home to fewer fish, and our coastlines have less protection. Bacteria reign in coastal areas downstream of agricultural basins, creating oxygen-free dead zones, and jellyfish have become so abundant from overfishing, nutrient pollution, and global warming that they can capsize fishing boats and disable coastal nuclear power stations. Plastics, meanwhile, continue to accumulate in the ocean, killing tens of thousands of marine animals each year.
In just a few generations the rules of the game have changed dramatically—and continue to do so at an unprecedented rate. The consequences are detrimental, and although we can expect more negative ecological “surprises,” we cannot predict what they will be or when they will occur. If current ocean degradation trends continue, will commercial fisheries become extinct? Will the ocean produce less oxygen? Will it be safe to swim at the beach? Will we turn our backs to the ocean if it does not inspire us anymore?
We cannot re-create what the ocean does for us, but we can still keep it from slipping through our fingers. How? By restoring the ocean to a state in which it can deliver an optimum provision of ecosystem services. Already we know that good fisheries management, market-based strategies, and marine reserves have beneficial consequences for the ocean ecosystem, and for the communities and the economies that depend on it. What we need now is a global policy to value and restore ocean ecosystem services, with clear global targets. It took more than 10 years for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to agree on global emission-reduction targets. Do we know enough to set global ocean-restoration targets?