On our watch: the race against time for the ocean

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The ocean’s story is our story. It’s personal. As a child, I still remember vividly when the much-anticipated Whitbread (now Volvo) ocean race arrived in Cape Town, where my family lived for a time. I was able to meet some of the leathery-skinned sailors with their exotic accents, and explore their purposeful boats; inspiring dreams of ocean adventure. What strikes me now, as this year’s around the world race finishes and the latest ocean science comes in, is how much humans have changed the ocean – even in the short time since that childhood experience.

Dense school of brown striped snapper, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.     © / David Fleetham / WWFDense school of brown striped snapper, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.                   © / David Fleetham / WWF

Consider just some of the evidence: in the last 30 years, about half of the world’s tropical reef-building corals have gone, from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia and even large parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Under current rates of temperature rise, coral reefs are predicted to disappear by around 2050, just 35 years from now.

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are already fully exploited, with nearly a third overexploited. Seagrasses and mangroves that serve as nurseries of the seas, providing food and protection, are being destroyed fast.

This is happening on our watch. We are already seeing the impacts, and clearly we do not have the luxury of time to turn these trends around.

For many people, the intrinsic value of the ocean and its extraordinary wildlife are sufficient grounds for action. Others need to see the numbers, which is why WWF launched a report, Reviving the Ocean Economy, showing that the ocean is an economic powerhouse. If it were a country, the ocean would be the world’s seventh biggest economy based on annual output – but it is facing steep decline because the natural asset base that generates most of its value is being eroded fast. These ocean assets also support the lives of hundreds of millions of coastal people for whom the ocean is the provider of food, livelihoods and hope for a life beyond poverty for their children.

This is why 2015 is no ordinary year for the planet and its ocean. Negotiations are in full swing in the United Nations around the detail of 17 ‘sustainable development goals’ which will guide the world in facing up to its most serious problems, including overexploitation of the ocean, and to commit to bold actionable solutions. The stakes are high and all eyes will be on the final deliberations in New York in September. Success would help galvanize international cooperation – so important for the interconnected ocean – and target investment to where it will have the most impact.

It would mean, for example, getting serious about protecting ocean habitat, from the coast to the high seas. Less than 4 per cent is conserved now, so the world is still way behind reaching the modest internationally-agreed target of 10 per cent by 2020. WWF’s analysis shows that protecting habitat now can pay big dividends in future.

Split level of a shallow coral reef and mangroves, West Papua, Indonesia ©Jurgen Freund / WWFSplit level of a shallow coral reef and mangroves, West Papua, Indonesia                                             ©Jurgen Freund / WWF

Then, in December, leaders will convene in Paris for the high-stakes global climate change negotiations, and of course the implications for nature and people are profound. We simply must see progress to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce the impacts of climate change and acidification, or the other efforts we take to revive the ocean will be sharply reduced in impact.

Back to Cape Town in 1981, just as we thought the ocean race couldn’t get any more exciting, as the fleet was leaving shore, local sailors got word that one of the crew members had failed to depart with his boat. Desperate attempts to find him in town came to no avail. The searchers began to fear for the worst. Meanwhile, the yachts tracked out towards the thunderous southern ocean seas en route to New Zealand.

Then the crew member turned up, fighting fit, but by then the yachts were well on their way. Organizers rushed him into the fastest speed boat they could find and were eventually able to drop him on the yacht.

Sometimes in conservation it can feel like we’re in that boat, crashing through heavy seas, chasing a departing fleet. Will we catch up with it in time?

In spite of the worrying trends, I remain buoyed by a profound sense of hope. Just in the last couple of years, those of us who’ve been around for a while in conservation have been seeing ocean advocacy resonating more than ever among leaders in government, media and business. The tide is beginning to turn for ocean action, but it’s just the start.

If this is our generation’s problem and our story, it is also our opportunity to set things right and to explain why fixing the ocean will help the world deal with some of its most pressing human needs. We can all be the ocean’s ambassadors.

Paul Gamblin, manager of the global ocean campaign at WWF International, spoke at the finish of the Volvo Ocean Race in Gothenburg, as a guest of WWF-Sweden. This is an abridged version of his speech, delivered to an audience of government, business, academia and civil society.

(The Volvo Ocean Race organizers and local port cities supported WWF conservation seminars in key stopovers along the race route in 2014-2015.)

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