Whale in the ocean

A Narrow Window of Opportunity

‘If you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back…’ Professor Callum Roberts, University of York

That’s the good news coming out of a major new report published in the science journal Nature and covered by Damian Carrington in The Guardian last week.

The report shows that conservation efforts are having a positive, restorative impact on the ocean and that they ‘could be restored within a generation’. Damian writes that ‘conservation success, while still isolated, demonstrate the remarkable resilience of the seas’.

Humanity is inextricably tied to the oceans – we depend on them for 70% of the oxygen we breathe, as a source of food and livelihoods and to regulate the weather and climate. But we also turn to the oceans for something less tangible, something for the soul.

The oceans are solace and comfort, adventure and thrill; they are inspiration for art, music and literature.

‘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 if makes sense economically, for human wellbeing and, of course, for the environment.’

Professor Callum Roberts, University of York

While this is certainly good news, it can’t make us complacent or draw back from the conservation efforts that are making a difference. There is still pollution from agriculture and aquaculture that create dead zones off the coasts, we are growing ever more aware of the plastic pollution clogging our seas and killing the wildlife, warming ocean temperatures are bleaching coral reefs and one-third of fish stocks are depleted.

Damian points out that ‘the measures needed’ to restore the oceans to a strong and safe habitat for wildlife by 2050, ‘including protecting large swathes of ocean, sustainable fishing and pollution controls, would cost billions of dollars a year, the scientists say, but would bring benefits 10 times as high’.

‘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.’

Professor Carlos Duarte, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Damian’s article highlights some of the positive findings from the report, and they are worth celebrating:

  • The global fishing industry is becoming more sustainable
  • The destruction of underwater seagrass meadows and mangrove forests has almost completely stopped and they are being restored
  • While there were only a few hundred humpback whales in 1968, they have made a strong recovery with more than 40,000 swimming in the seas today
  • The numbers of sea otters in western Canada have rebounded from a few dozen to a thousands today
  • Numbers are up for northern elephant seals in the USA, Guadelupe fur seals in Mexico, cormorants and grey seals in the Baltic Sea and leatherback turtles in the Virgin Islands
Guardian graphic. Source Duarte et al Nature 2020

‘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.’

Professor Callum Roberts, University of York

Damian ends his piece with this hopeful note: ‘The scientists’s 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”.’

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