The battle for our oceans has been ongoing for almost a century. In the past 40-50 years, the loss of oceanic species has accelerated, with nearly 10% of marine life at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We may have saved the whales, but the demise of many fish species spells big trouble for marine fishing and numerous species that depend on healthy fish stocks.
And now climate change and pollution are exacerbating the crisis. Melting glaciers pour freshwater into the oceans, reducing their salinity, and, as carbon dioxide levels rise, the seas are becoming warmer and more acidic. Add sewage discharge and the result is huge blooms of seaweeds and other algae. Currently, Sargassum (a genus of brown seaweeds) covers an area of the Atlantic roughly double the width of the United States, damaging sea life and tourism. A recent estimate suggested that our seas contain over 171 trillion pieces of plastic, some of which will get into the food chain with potentially catastrophic effects on nature and health risks for people.
What future for our oceans?
The new treaty includes an agreement to protect 30% of the oceans from pollution and exploitation by 2030. The high seas account for almost two-thirds of the oceans and lie outside the jurisdiction of specific nation-states. The plan is to have a vast series of Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) where fish stocks are protected and genetic resources are shared equitably amongst the global community. Signatory states to the treaty will vote on which MPAs go ahead, and a series of ocean-based Conferences of the Parties (COP) will parallel those on climate and biodiversity. The ocean COP will meet every few years to set targets, vote on new MPAs and monitor progress.
The UK’s focus will be on enhancing and enforcing the protection of its existing Marine Conservation Zones – there are over 90. The UK will also designate three Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA’s): Allonby Bay (Irish Sea), Dolphin Head (Eastern Channel) and North-East of Farnes Deep (Northern North Sea), where the main focus will be safeguarding habitats from climate change.
The critical issue, however, is how to monitor progress – and the lack of capacity of government agencies and charities to do that. The danger is that, on paper, up to 30% of our territorial waters will be protected, but it will be difficult to know if this is making a difference.
It must also be remembered that what nations release into the water from their own countries has an impact on the high seas and territorial waters. To fully protect the oceans we need appropriate national pollution targets and the policies and actions to achieve them too.
Having said all that, the new treaty is good news.
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