Environment: UN launches battle to save the oceans

The UN has declared 1998 the International Year of the Ocean to highlight the threats that seas face from pollution and over-exploitation, and their importance to man. Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, sees the World Wide Fund for Nature back the fight.

Forests have been called the ``lungs of the world'', but the oceans are just as deserving of this title. They absorb about half of the extra carbon dioxide which our accelerating consumption of gas, oil and coal are adding to the atmosphere. They play a crucial role in regulating and stabilising the climate.

They are also a larder for mankind, albeit one that is being grievously raided. ``There is overwhelming evidence that not just fish stocks but the vast bulk of the renewable resources of the ocean are being over-exploited,'' said Prince Philip at a WWF press conference in London yesterday.

It took three years for the first United Nations treaty covering fish stocks shared between nations to be negotiated. Yet only 12 of the top 20 fishing nations had signed the agreement and only four had gone on to ratify it since the agreement was reached in 1995. It therefore has no legal force as yet.

``The response has been disappointing, to put it mildly,'' said the Duke of Edinburgh. ``If ... governments do not implement the terms of the agreement as soon as possible ... there will be very little for the next generation of fishermen to catch.''

At the launch yesterday the WWF cited an estimate from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation that while some 80 million tonnes of fish were landed each year, 20 million tonnes were thrown over the side of boats, dead, because the nets bring up the wrong sort of fish - over quota, or undesired. But this "bycatch" is gradually reducing, for as the prized fish species become scarcer, markets are opening for what was once considered ``trash fish''. The bycatch includes huge quantities of juvenile fish as well as sharks, dolphins and turtles. A recent study estimated that more than 40,000 albatrosses are killed annually by tuna fishermen using lines up to 80 miles long, with as many as 3,000 hooks.

The WWF, along with food multinational Unilever, has supported the formation of a Marine Stewardship Council. Its task is to award eco-labels to fish, and fish products, which are caught without posing any threat to stocks. The hope is that such fish will attract a premium price, encouraging more of the industry to subscribe.

Marine biologist Sidney Holt, of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans, said: ``I read many of the publications for the fishing industries ... For every sentence there may be published about ... conservation, there will be a page or more about the building of more, bigger and more powerful boats, the construction of bigger nets ... Making profits now or soon is the name of the real game.''