Restoring Marine Life Can Happen Quickly & Will Pay Enormous Dividends

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Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia have published a report in the journal Nature that claims the ability of the oceans to support an abundance of plant and animal life could be greatly increased in as little as 30 years.

The research was led by Professor Carlos Duarte, who tells The Guardian, “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. 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.”

Ocean sustainability
Image credit: Nature

Warming oceans, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification continue to present enormous challenges. But the message of this most recent research is that the plant and animal species that live in or near the ocean are showing a remarkable ability to thrive anew once factors like pollution and overfishing are reduced or eliminated.

The researchers report that humpback whales off Australia, elephant seals in the US, and green turtles in Japan are all recovering strongly after threats to their habit were removed. They say humanity now has the knowledge to create an ocean renaissance for wildlife within a generation. Such a renaissance will allow the seas to continue providing the food much of the world’s population relies on while strengthening coastal resilience to climate change.

Less Pollution, More Sustainable Fishing

What is needed are measures to protect large parts of the oceans from pollution and an increase in sustainable fishing practices. Such measures would cost upwards of $10 billion a year but would give a ten fold return on investment and create millions of new jobs. Surely even diehard conservatives would spend 10 cents to make a dollar, wouldn’t they? Sure they would, in a rational world.

Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York, who was one of an international team of researchers, tells The Guardian, “Overfishing and climate change are tightening their grip, but there is hope in the science of restoration. 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.”

Good News

The good news, the scientists say, is a growing awareness among scientists and government leaders 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. However, the escalating climate crisis must also be tackled to protect the oceans from acidification, loss of oxygen, and the devastation of coral reefs.

“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,” said Roberts.

“The Mediterranean is still pretty much a basket case,” says Roberts. “And there is horrendous over fishing 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.”

From The Fringes To The Mainstream

But recognition of the benefits of restoration initiatives is growing, Roberts says. “When I started working on the science of marine protected areas in the early 1990s. it was very much a niche interest. 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, with the UK among the early adopters of the target.”

The scientists’ review concludes that restoring the oceans by 2050 is a grand challenge that, with a global redoubling of conservation efforts, can be achieved: “Meeting the challenge would be a historic milestone in humanity’s quest to achieve a globally sustainable future.”

Global Heating Still Biggest Threat

Controlling the heating of the planet must still be the number one priority, however. Right at this very minute, all anyone can think about is the coronavirus pandemic. But global warming is a far larger threat, the difference being that it happens slowly, but it will be far more deadly in the long run. The odd thing is, mitigating climate change will be enormously expensive but, like being good stewards of the ocean, the return on investment will be huge.

It is long past time to stop calling climate action a communist plot or a socialist cabal and get on with doing what must be done — while there is still time.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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