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Marine scientists alarmed about increasing threats to ocean ecosystems

Elephant seal with a satellite tag and a field team putting a tag on a northern elephant seal male

©IOC/DanielPCosta (Elephant seal with a satellite tag and a field team putting a tag on a northern elephant seal male)

Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO

©UNESCO/P.Chiang joo (Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO)

22.02.2012

Oceans cover nearly three quarters of the earht’s surface and contain 96 per cent of its living space. They produce oxygen for every second breath we take. However, the acidification of the oceans, caused by the absorption of huge volumes of carbon dioxide, is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, threatening marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of tens of millions of people.

Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO talks about the situation in Asia and the Pacific.

Q: What particular challenges is the region’s marine environment facing?

Ms. Watson-Wright: The Asia and Pacific region accommodates more than half of the world’s population, with about 60 per cent living in coastal areas. As coastal areas have shown the highest rate of economic growth in all regions of the world, people have been migrating from inland areas to coasts for more financial, social and cultural opportunities. In 2011, worldwide there were 26 megacities, which are usually defined as metropolitan areas with a total population in excess of 10 million people. Twenty-two of them are located in coastal areas, most of them in this region.

With rapid economic growth and population concentration, the coastal and marine environment has been experiencing increasing pressure from human activities. In the last 30 years, coastal resources such as mangroves, coral reefs and fishery resources have become depleted on a large scale. For example, more than 60 per cent of Asia’s mangroves have already been converted to aquaculture farms (ESCAP and ADB, 2000). The region is losing its resource bases to support people’s livelihoods and sustain future economic development.

“In the last 30 years, coastal resources such as mangroves, coral reefs and fishery resources have become depleted on a large scale. For example, more than 60 per cent of Asia’s mangroves have already been converted to aquaculture farms...”

Additionally, climate change induced by increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will exacerbate the threat to the coasts and ocean. Higher air and seawater temperature along with changes in precipitation, tropical cyclones, seal level rise, and ocean acidification all exert pressure on the coastal and marine environment.

Q: Is it possible to have a low-carbon economy, particularly for developing countries in the region?

Ms. Watson-Wright: Transforming the energy system and reducing carbon emissions without jeopardizing the economic growth is a challenge. The solution requires a large portfolio of energy options and a different perception of the problem; not only looking for innovations from the supply side, but also innovating by reducing the demand for energy by consumers in all possible uses - industry, domestic use, transportation, etc.  However, the financial constraints to such a transition are an issue as is the fact that there is no ‘sufficient’ amount of funding to find a global solution to this problem.

Q: With the levels of atmosphere carbon dioxide (CO2) increasing in our oceans at rates not seen for the last 20 million years, oceans are not only becoming warmer but also more acid. How severe is the region impacted? 

 “…there is no ‘sufficient’ amount of funding to find a global solution to this problem [reducing carbon emissions without jeopardizing the economic growth].”

Ms. Watson-Wright:  Many countries in Asia and the Pacific depend heavily on protein harvested from the sea, possibly more than in other regions. In this part of the ocean, we find extensive coral reefs, which are economically important for fisheries, tourism and coastal protection. The deep water of the Pacific Ocean naturally has the lowest pH (highest pCO2) of all oceans, because it is the oldest water. As a consequence, the carbonate compensation depth (the depth horizon below which seawater becomes corrosive for calcium carbonate) is shallower than in others. When those waters are upwelled, surface water pH can go as low as pH 7.6 (see e.g. Feely et al. 2008 Science 320; Send et al. 2012 PlosONE). In other words, it is possible that countries in this region could be impacted sooner and more heavily than other parts of the world; more research clearly needs to be done.

Q: What actions need to be taken urgently and on mid and long-term?

Ms. Watson-Wright: We have seen during this Conference [Global Land-Ocean Connections Conference in Philippines in January 2012] that we have the opportunity to stop the accelerating degradation of the world’s oceans and coastal areas through the sustainable management and use of the marine and coastal environment, by engaging the countries in comprehensive and specific actions, including the development and implementation of protocols on land-based sources and activities, through integrated coastal zone management, or the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), among other actions. 

For example, the delimitation of MPAs appears to be one of the few alternatives to actually protect the resilience of marine ecosystems and preserve biological diversity in the oceans and ensure the sustainable use of those resources. Although some efforts have been taken in the delimitation of MAPs within the exclusive economic zones, there is still a vast forgotten oceanic area with abundant and rare biodiversity which lies in the deep ocean and high seas, beyond the national jurisdiction of coastal states.  Some effort has been given to identifying a legal framework to support and enforce the creation of these special areas, and this is a clear example where the cooperation of different states is needed and where the UN can play a lead coordination role.

In this sense, it is crucial to urgently advance action on effective implementation of international and regional agreements relevant to the attainment of the goals approved by intergovernmental conventions and conferences.

 “…it is possible countries in this region could be impacted sooner and more heavily than other parts of the world.”

Q: How can the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO drive change?

Ms. Watson-Wright: Greening the economy will be science and politically driven and the IOC is working in both approaches, at least in terms of the ‘blue-green’, i.e. ocean and coastal economy.

On the scientific side we are convinced that the scientific community has a responsibility to provide the knowledge needed to move society towards effective management of our global environment for sustainability. In this regard the IOC is at the forefront of different processes, including the implementation of a Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment (GRAME), including socio-economic aspects. We expect that this process will improve monitoring systems at all levels to enable all relevant stakeholders to contribute to building a common understanding and knowledge of the damage being caused to the marine environment and the measures needed to protect it through the implementation of a Global Programme of Action.

Also other IOC programmes are essential to implement ideas and techniques and to guarantee that new findings are delivered at global scale in a timely manner, as well as to empower marine managers to implement best policies based on proven science to address complex issues such as climate change, ecosystem health and environmental hazards. 

On the political side, the IOC is working very hard to prepare for the next United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) [in Brazil in June 2012], at which global leaders will meet to reaffirm their commitments to sustainable development, to tackle emerging challenges, and strategically advancing the stewardship of oceans, coasts and islands. In this regard, IOC-UNESCO, together with other UN agencies (IMO, UNDP and FAO) launched a plan to improve the management of the ocean and coastal areas. “A Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability” was prepared for consideration by the UN conference on sustainable development; it sounds the alarm about the health of the ocean and proposes a series of concrete measures based on four main objectives and 10 targets.  We know that the full implementation of many of these goals and targets will require further efforts by States, intergovernmental organizations and the international community.  Final success will clearly depend on sound policy processes and effective institutional arrangements.

 Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO is the United Nations body for ocean science, ocean observatories, ocean data and information exchange, and ocean services such as Tsunami warning systems. Its mission is to promote international cooperation and to coordinate programmes in research, services and capacity building to learn more about the nature and resources of the oceans and coastal areas, and to apply this knowledge to improved management, sustainable development and protection of the marine environment and the decision making processes of States. 

 


Related links:
  
www.rtcc.org/nature/unesco-oceans-could-be-150-more-acidic-by-2100/

www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/about-us/single-view/news/oceans_could_be_150_more_acidic_by_2100/