Jean-Luc Solandt: The oceans may have already passed breaking point

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Our oceans are complex systems, about as well (mis)understood as the human brain. A census of marine life was published last year, and, although extremely insightful, only covered a small percentage of the ocean’s biosphere. In many ways, this led us to realize just how much we don’t know.

And there are huge uncertainties over the impact of human actions on a global scale. But an enormous population increase in the past century, coupled with the seriously advanced mechanisation and access to the oceans means one thing: pressure on resources. Society and science are always on catch-up in, firstly, understanding our impacts on ocean systems, and then in doing something about them.

The IPSO report points out that “The main causes of extinctions of marine species to date are overexploitation and habitat loss” and that climate change-related stressors are now taking their toll. While action is needed to reign in our impacts on climate, this fact must not be taken as a signal that we might as well reduce our attempts to address the more direct environmental harm; those which may be possible to directly address must be tackled.

Taking one thread, the report highlights the need to carry out assessments of seabed trawling activities and to assess the impacts of trawling on vulnerable deep sea habitats. Solutions can be adopted by nation states, and, with investment in satellite technology and good ocean governance, technological tools can be employed to monitor progress and reverse harm. We can upscale what has been done in the Isle of Man, where the fishing industry has decided, with the input of fisheries scientists, to adopt marine protected areas – areas where the sea is left alone to regenerate brood stock, to allow the spill-over of adjacent areas.

For all of the points raised in the report, this isn’t a question of ‘conservation for conservation’s sake’, but a fundamental necessity for the continued provision of vital life support for the population, of human and other living beings, that inhabit our ‘blue planet’. The oceans may have already passed breaking point; if that’s the case, we would never know – with scientific precision – until it is too late.

The report, however, cites the need to adopt precaution when information isn’t available. This idea is not new, but we need to adopt this ‘precautionary approach’ because, while we’ve already degraded vast tracts of seabed to a plough-cleared field, we cant afford still to ask later ‘what are the likely impacts’ – for the all the pollution, overfishing and biodiversity threats raised by the report.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt is a biodiversity policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society www.mcsuk.org

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