Oceans in Distress
Pollution, destructive overfishing and increasing commercial exploitation
are threatening the planet’s cradle of life, warns the UN. Dr.
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Overfishing and pollution
Pollution and overfishing
are damaging the oceans, especially the deep oceans, the United Nations warns
in a new report [1-3]. Time is running out to save them, and urgent legislation
is required to halt this wanton destruction of the planet’s “cradle of life”.
More than 90
percent of the earth’s living biomass (weight of living matter) is found in
the oceans, and 90 percent of that is made up of single cell and microbial
species. With 90 percent of the oceans yet to be explored, the scale of devastation
already happening has become all too obvious
In 2005, 84.5 million
tonnes of fish were taken from the world’s oceans, 100 million sharks and
related species were butchered for their fins, 250 000 turtles got tangled
up in fishing gear and 300 000 seabirds including 100 000 albatrosses were
killed by illegal long-line fishing. Nineteen out of 21 albatross species
are now threatened with extinction.
During the same period,
6.4 million tonnes of litter was thrown into the oceans, and 38 000 pieces
of discarded plastic float on every square kilometre. There are up to 6 kg
of marine litter to every kg of plankton.
Just one percent
of the world’s 3.5 million fishing boats are large industrial vessels, but
they trawl 60 percent of all the fish caught on the planet. Industrial fishing
has depleted the world’s stock of tuna, cod, swordfish and marlin by as much
as 90 percent in the last century.
Adding to the strain
on the ocean’s fish stocks, the UN estimated that nearly $10 billion worth
of fish are caught illegally each year, up to 30 percent taken from unregulated
The water temperature
has risen while its alkalinity fell from soaking up extra carbon dioxide.
The coral reefs off Australia and Belize are dying, and newly
discovered cold-coral reefs in the Atlantic have already been destroyed by
The UN report covers
a wide-range of human activities damaging the oceans including naval sonic
radar exercises that kill whales in droves.
high seas policy adviser of the International Conservation Union’s global
marine programme, who wrote the report, said, “Once limited largely to shipping
and open ocean fishing, commercial activities at sea are expanding rapidly
and plunging ever deeper.”
As there is no international
agreement over the area, it is a free for all. Territorial disputes have been
growing between the eight countries with a claim to the Artic: Russia,
USA, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Greenland and Iceland.
A string of new exploitations of the deep oceans is in train, from deep seabed
mining, bio-prospecting for microbes with commercial interests, carbon storage
by injecting carbon dioxide into deep seawater or under the seabed, and siphoning
deep ocean waters up for air-conditioning, aquaculture, etc. (The blue revolution:
air conditioning and energy from deep waters of lakes and oceans, this issue).
All threaten the fragile, biodiverse deep-sea communities to different degrees.
At least half of the species there remain to be identified, many unique to each
of the deep trenches or underwater mounts, not to mention the hydrothermal vents
at 450 C harbouring some of the fastest growing and extremely rare species on
earth that thrive on chemical energy rather than depend on photosynthesis for
Climate change makes
conservation efforts all the more important, as 60 percent of the marine world
lies beyond the limits of national jurisdiction and is vulnerable to commercial
exploitation. Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN’s environment programme
called on governments to develop guidelines, rules and actions that are urgently
needed to protect the rich biodiversity of our oceans.
Pollution, overfishing and commercial exploitation are not the only threats
our oceans face. There are signs that marine life is failing right at the bottom
of the food web as the result of global warming, which could set in train a
series of aggravating feedback effects on climate change (Oceans
and global warming, Oceans
carbon sink or source? this series).
We must save our oceans now to save our planet: