The New York Times last week ran a story on the front page about the threat of mass extinction in the ocean. For those of us who work on ocean conservation, this recent study is an interesting synthesis of the distressingly familiar data on decimated fisheries, bycatch and habitat destruction.
But to be a front page story in a mainstream paper â€“ that is big news for the ocean. Despite the ocean being such an important source of food and livelihoods for millions of people, and an economic engine for businesses around the world, its plight is largely unknown. Out of sight, out of mind. Or, when viewed by a holidaymaker from a beach or a boat, it simply looks lovely â€“ nothing wrong down there.
If lack of awareness is part of the problem, then any news about the ocean is good news â€“ even when the news is bad.
In many places, however, people are acutely aware that the ocean is in trouble, without the benefit of a scientific study or news article. These are coastal and island people all over the world â€“ often the poorest and most vulnerable populations. As individuals and as communities, they may be witnesses to the pillage of the sea, they may be perpetrators of the destruction or they may be champions in the fight to restore ocean health.
WWF is convinced that these coastal communities have a central role to play in ocean conservation. In Mafia, Tanzania, Issa, a fisherman told me of foreign fishing vessels coming in at night to fish illegally inside the marine park that was set up to ensure food and livelihoods for his community, and of dynamite fishing on the reefs where fish were once abundant. Clearly, we need solutions at different scales, from global to local; men like Issa must be part of those solutions if they are to be sustainable.
In Manta, Ecuador, a member of the artisanal fishing cooperative told me that fishers now go out to sea and stay about a week, in small boats, to catch as much fish as they used to catch closer to shore in a day. It is dangerous, but the absence of sustainable fisheries management has led the inshore fisheries to decline, so the fishers do whatâ€™s required to pay the bills and send the kids to school.
And while fishing has the greatest impact on ocean health, itâ€™s no good pointing the finger at people like Issa or the fishers of Manta. Pollution, aquaculture, oil and gas extraction, and seabed mining, as well as coastal and cruise tourism, and the effects of climate change and acidification all have negative and cumulative impacts upon the ocean â€“ and weâ€™re all to blame for these factors.
We need holistic solutions for the ocean, which is why I am at the United Nations in New York this week, working on agreements that may help us correct course.
The first pertains to biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. At this meeting governments will discuss and hopefully agree that the high seas â€“ half the planet! â€“ and seabed, which are open to every country, need protection and management if we are to ensure a healthy ocean both far out at sea and close to shore. The aim is a system where all states and actors are accountable to each other and where activities are monitored to avoid overuse and destruction of important habitats.
Iâ€™ll also be working on the Sustainable Development Goals. Here we are trying to shape a set of goals on issues as widespread â€“ but interconnected and interdependent â€“ as food, water, jobs, oceans, biodiversity, human rights, equality and transparency. If governments agree to strong goals and targets, we could actually set our planet and societies on a path toward a sustainable future â€“ and I can retire and head to the beach!
Until then, the work continues to bring the voice of coastal communities into the discussion, to ensure that natureâ€™s irreplaceable role is recognized in the quest for development and to fight for policies that will usher in a new era of good news about the ocean.
Jessica Battle is Marine Manager for WWF International.Â
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