Ocean research plan seeks to preserve seas’ wealth

Seafood in the Pignasecca market, Naples. But how sustainable is it? Image: Bv Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, via Wikimedia Commons

A decade of ocean research is about to begin to try to save the planet’s richest habitat from human destruction.

LONDON, 9 December, 2020 − Humans need urgently to invest in ocean research and protection. In return, the ocean could repay them handsomely, by soaking up atmospheric carbon, delivering huge amounts of renewable energy, providing six times more sustainable seafood, creating millions of jobs and generating trillions in economic benefits.

The oceans cover 70% of the planet but, a trio of scientists warn in the journal Nature, “for much too long, the ocean has been out of sight, out of mind and out of luck.”

From the margins of the coast to the deepest seas, the oceans’ habitats and the living creatures in them have been threatened by excessive and destructive fishing, they say.

“Unsustainable development along coastlines is destroying coral reefs, seagrass beds, salt marshes and mangrove forests. These house biodiversity, sequester carbon, provide nurseries for fish and buffer coasts against storm surges.

Separate approaches inadequate

Plastics and nutrients washed from the land are also killing wildlife. All of these threats erode the capacity of the ocean to provide nutritious food, jobs, medicines and pharmaceuticals as well as regulate the climate.”

But something can be done. A new report − commissioned by Norway, Palau, 12 other nations and a UN envoy, collectively responsible for two-fifths of the world’s coastlines, almost a third of the exclusive economic zones and a fifth of the world’s shipping − argues that it is not enough for individual nations to manage their sectors or confront challenging issues separately. The largest and deepest continuous living space on the planet demands something more.

The report finds that − if the world co-operated in an holistic approach to care for the oceans, and protected at least 30% of them − then by 2050 the deep blue sea could account for 20% of the carbon emission reductions needed to match the Paris climate agreement target of no more than 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial levels.

Such an initiative could exploit the ocean to provide 40 times the renewable energy generated worldwide in 2018. It could provide six times the sustainable seafood, create 12 million jobs and generate US$15.5 trillion in net economic benefits.

“Managing these resources sustainably requires first that we understand deep-sea ecosystems and their role on the planet”

But to make all this happen, the nations of the world would have to co-operate to manage fishing and seafood farming in sustainable ways; and they would have to take steps to mitigate climate change.

The world would have to invest in a variety of ways of generating renewable energy. It would have to clean up the shipping business − 90% of global goods move across the sea’s surface − to reduce emissions and pollution.

And it would have to halt the decline of, and restore, salt marshes, seagrass beds and mangroves: these cover areas more than 50 times smaller than the world’s forests, but they can store carbon at 10 times the rate of land-based ecosystems.

The world would also have to seriously protect great tracts of the seas: at least 30%. Right now, only 2.6% is fully protected from fishing and other disturbance. The researchers argue that political action to deliver a healthy ocean has been lacking − until now. But, they add, “Our knowledge of the ocean is deep.”

Ten-year study

It may not be deep enough, though, which explains the emphasis on more ocean research. Right on cue, another team of scientists reminds the world that the deepest parts of the ocean cover 60% of the globe and most of this has yet to be properly explored.

So, 150 years after the history-making British research ship HMS Challenger began its first systematic measurement of the deep sea, a consortium of scientists from 45 laboratories and universities in 17 countries has called for a dedicated decade of systematic and detailed study of a saltwater habitat that begins at 200 metres and extends as far in a few places as 11,000 metres in depth.

This initiative, they argue in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, should happen during the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, from 2021 to 2030.

“The deep seas and seabed are increasingly being used by society, and they are seen as a potential future asset for the resources they possess,” said Kerry Howell, an ecologist at the University of Plymouth in the UK, lead author. “But managing these resources sustainably requires first that we understand deep-sea ecosystems, and their role on the planet, its people and its atmosphere.” − Climate News Network