Our oceans are under serious danger. Its capacity to take up carbon dioxide is decreasing as steadily as its biodiversity, from the poles all the way to the coral reefs. Since scientific findings and warnings clearly aren’t enough our last hope is a global call for political action.
The ocean is the trademark symbol of our blue Planet, covered to 70% by seawater. Taking the deep sea into this equation the ocean turns into the largest habitat on earth. From bacteria all the way to whales, approximately 250.000 species have been discovered living in the ocean so far and the last “stock taking” revealed thousands of new species. “Census of Life” is a huge project of thousands of scientists, who have sent the last 10 years looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Current estimates state that there could be as many as one million species living in the ocean. This brings to show that there is so much more to discover about this ecosystem with a size of 361 million square kilometres and deep sea trenches that go down to depths of up to 11.000 metres.
On the other side we can see the developments of modern oceanography: temperature, salinity and current tracking via satellites or thousands of automated buoys that track annual changes and effects of climate change in the ocean. The intricate methods for monitoring fisheries as well as the current state of ocean pollution. However, the one aspect that seems to be left behind with all these results is the political will to protect this ecosystem for future generations. Whether this be as a source of protein for society or as protection against climate events – the ocean is “Heritage of Mankind” and desperately deserves protection.
War against fish
Over the past decades society’s dependence on the ocean and coastal zones as source of food has grown. Almost half of the world’s population is living within 100 kilometres of the coastline, 17 percent are directly dependent on the protein source fish. The hunger for ocean-sources food is rabidly increasing: mid-last century about 50 million tons of wild fish were being caught, 2010 it had already been 90 million tons. Aquaculture, too, has doubled its efforts in the past years and is now providing 128 million tons of fish. The so-called “Blue Revolution” of the 90’s, the subsidisation of aquaculture and fisheries in developing countries, was the driving force behind this. The shrimp cultures in India or the pangasius farms in Asia come to mind. This growth, however, is being carried out at a high cost for fisheries and the ecosystem, according to recent statistics of the FAO. (1) Today 30 percent of fisheries are considered overfished, 57 percent are being fully exploited. The global fish biomass is declining. With increasing speed we are heading into a direction which the biologist Daniel Pauly aptly states as: “We are at war against the fish and we are going to win.”
With the drying up of this oceanic source of food we will be faced with a multitude of legal and social problems, which can already be seen today in development policies – the overexploitation of vital fishing grounds in West Africa is only one example. States may try to manage their resources, but the industries interest will cancel out any sustainable approach. Adding to this the problem of illegal and unregulated fisheries – a 20 billion US-Dollar market, which can only be stopped on an international level.
Migratory species, such as tuna, brilliantly being forward the point of the short-sightedness of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea of 1984, which states that the management of the first 200 miles of ocean is entirely up to the member states. The missing management in other regions of the world, however, should not attempt to cover up that Europe, too, has a lot of work to do. In European waters almost half of all fisheries are drastically overfished and many Mediterranean species are not being monitored at all. More sensitive species, such as sharks and rays, are on the brink of extinction.
Recovery of the fisheries is (still) possible
Bad management could explain why landings in the North Sea decreased from 3.5 to 1.5 million tons between 1995 and 2007. Or why the average age of the North Sea Cod is 1.6 years, whilst it only reaches sexual maturation after 4 years. Researchers are estimating that 93 percent of Cod is being caught before it can reach sexual maturation, meaning that it comes as no surprise that the fisheries are declining so rapidly. The fisheries industry would not survive without subsidies, and is otherwise not a very lucrative concept.
The current discussions regarding new GFP-regulations should thus focus mainly on healthy fisheries, as requested by WWF, Greenpeace and Ocean 2012. By doing so, we could quickly achieve more profitable circumstances: If we implemented sustainable quotas by which the resources would be fished based on ecological and social criteria, and if the subsidies were used for common benefits and sustainability. Through a reducing of landings and fleets by half, as well as a ban on deep sea fishing and destructive trawling, we could, within a few years, see fisheries recovering through these protected areas.
The EU has a big impact on other aspects of marine protection as well though. 2008 the EU created a legally binging ocean strategy guideline in order to unite the protection and use of European waters. The guideline follows a holistic, integrative approach, which means that it all aspects of environmental protection bleed into ocean-relevant politics and decision making, such as agriculture, fisheries, energy and traffic, to name a few. For every region – whether it’s the Mediterranean or the Baltic – a fitting and applicable conservation strategy is to be developed, in collaboration with the bordering states. For this, the EU-member states had to rate the conditions of the ocean ecosystem as well as providing ideas for working towards good ecological standards. In the following 2 years a monitoring programme is being planned, and by 2015 actions are to be taken, in order to achieve this “good ecological standard” for the ocean.
Joining marine conservation with fisheries policies
This so-called “good ecological standard” that is to be achieved by 2020 won’t implement itself. Thus, 11 vital factors were stated, spanning from biodiversity to see floor ecosystems, eutrophication and chemical transport, as well as plastic and noise pollution, for which regulations have been set.
Germany has now forwarded its review of the ecosystem to Brussels. For all the stated factors the North and the Baltic Sea have shown clear deficits, both in terms of the awareness of as well as the ability to act against cross-sector threats.
Even with the implementation of the ocean conservation goals of the EU-guidelines some of the goals are bound to fail if they are not being followed through across all sectors and globally. So far the joining with other political guidelines, such as the strict Oslo-Paris-Commission (OSPAR) or the GFP, can barely be noticed. How can we protect rare species, if the EU fisheries policies still allow trawling or where the industrialisation of the oceans is being conducted without consideration for noise pollution and ecological standards?
“The oceans will play a key role in the development of society in the 21st century – it is now necessary to anchor this knowledge in politics.”
“The marine ecosystem is a precious heritage which must be protected and conserved, as well as – where possible – reconstructed, with the main aim being sustained biodiversity and having dynamic and versatile oceans which are clean, healthy and productive.” That is a statement made in the ocean protection guideline.
As far as the ocean protection guideline is planned, it remains to see whether it will also be implemented as stringently as needed in Europe. Germany, too, can no longer take a back seat in these matters, if the guideline should be successful in terms of ocean conservation. Criticism by environmental protection organisations makes evident that the joining of common fisheries policies and also agricultural policies is desperately needed, in order to avoid the EU water framework directive fiasco from happening again. (2)
Further, the prevention- and cause principle has to be strengthened. Users of the marine ecosystem must be put under the obligation not to harm the ocean habitats with their actions. In current discussions about the offshore expansions and the thus caused noise pollution this is still being disregarded. Whether international regulations, EU-law or national strategies – the changes in the ocean require more and faster political responses. For those who follow the daily usage of the ocean through the industry will have noticed that the glass is to be seen half empty, rather than half full, with how frequently it is being used.
But the price to pay is high: Sea turtles are being displaced through the development of touristic areas, hundred thousands of dolphins, sharks and the likes die in ringnets and long lines as by-catch of industrial fisheries in the open ocean, porpoises and sea birds die in gillnets in the Baltic Sea and the slow over-fertilisation and chemical transport destroys the equilibrium in the ecosystem. The oceans will play a key role in the development of society in the 21st century . it is no necessary to anchor this knowledge in politics.
• FAO (2012): The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012.
Download at: www.fao.org
Text: Onno Groß, 2016