‘Remarkable’ Conservation Gains Show Oceans Could Be Fully Restored by 2050
A series of isolated but remarkable examples of biological resilience show that conservation efforts could fully restore the glory of the world’s oceans within 30 years if countries redouble their efforts to make it happen, according to a major international review published yesterday in the journal Nature.
“Overfishing and climate change are tightening their grip, but there is hope in the science of restoration,” said marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts of the University of York, one of the scientists on the international research team. “One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back. We can turn the oceans around and we know it makes sense economically, for human well-being and, of course, for the environment.”
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“We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver a healthy ocean to our grandchildren, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so,” added project lead Carlos Duarte, a marine ecologist at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. “Failing to embrace this challenge, and in so doing condemning our grandchildren to a broken ocean unable to support good livelihoods, is not an option.”
The Guardian cites rampant overfishing, pollution, and coastal destruction as the primary mechanisms by which humanity has inflicted centuries of “severe damage” on the oceans and their inhabitants. But based on successful conservation efforts to date, “the scientists say there is now the knowledge to create an ocean renaissance for wildlife by 2050, and with it bolster the services that the world’s people rely on, from food to coastal protection to climate stability,” adds Environment Editor Damian Carrington. “The measures needed, including protecting large swathes of ocean, sustainable fishing, and pollution controls, would cost billions of dollars a year, the scientists say, but would bring benefits 10 times as high.”
An immediate priority is to protect the oceans from acidification, oxygen loss, and devastation of coral reefs by tackling the escalating climate crisis, Carrington writes. But the scientists see good news in “a growing awareness of the ability of oceans and coastal habitats such as mangroves and salt marshes to rapidly soak up carbon dioxide and bolster shorelines against rising sea levels.”
The review “found that global fishing is slowly becoming more sustainable and the destruction of habitats such as seagrass meadows and mangroves is almost at a halt,” The Guardian notes, with habitats bouncing back from the Philippines to Tampa Bay, Florida. “Among the success stories are humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica to eastern Australia, whose populations have surged from a few hundred animals in 1968, before whaling was banned, to more than 40,000 today. Sea otters in western Canada have risen from just dozens in 1980 to thousands now. In the Baltic Sea, both grey seal and cormorant populations are soaring.”
Roberts attributed those successes to a shift in attitudes as well as practices. “We’re beginning to appreciate the value of what we’re losing, and not just in terms of intrinsic beauty of the wildlife, but in terms of protecting our livelihoods and societies from bad things happening, whether that be poor water quality in rivers and oceans or sea level rise beating on the doorstep of coastal areas,” he said.
At the same time, “progress is far from straightforward,” The Guardian warns. “Pollution from farms and plastics still pours into the oceans, the waters are reaching record high temperatures, and destructive fishing is still taking place in many places, with at least one-third of fish stocks overexploited.” Ocean warming has driven the few hundred remaining northern right whales toward the shipping lanes and lobster fisheries of the west Atlantic, where they die in ship strikes or tangled in ropes.
There are massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and “the Mediterranean is still pretty much a basket case,” Roberts told Carrington. He also cited “horrendous overfishing throughout large parts of southeast Asia and India, where fisheries are just catching anything they trawl on the seabed to render into fish meal and oil.”
But he still pointed to the growth in conservation and restoration efforts. “When I started working on the science of marine protected areas in the early 1990s. it was very much a niche interest,” he said. “Now it’s being discussed at the top level internationally, and we have many countries signing up to expand protection to 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.”
The Guardian says designated marine protected areas have grown from 0.9% to 7.4% of the ocean since 2000, though not all the plans have been fully implemented.