How to protect the ocean – conservation, climate change and calling on world leaders

8 June is World Ocean Day, which supports collaborative conservation and the sharing of knowledge and actionable resources about the ocean. Ceri Webster, research postgraduate student at Imperial College London and the Zoological Society London studying how to measure biodiversity in the ocean, discusses ocean biodiversity decline, climate change and how to best protect the ocean.

Part of human nature is to sweep our problems under the rug. If you can’t see it, it’s not an issue anymore. But what if our problems were to worsen under that rug? What if that rug was a huge expanse of blue mystery, providing a home for over 200,000 of all known species?

In 1741, explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller discovered the Steller’s Sea Cow, a large, herbivorous marine mammal. Only 27 years later, in 1768, the last Steller’s Sea Cow was hunted to extinction. Humans have impacted the oceans for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first framework to conserve and sustain marine life was introduced. By this point, the abundance of marine life had already been greatly reduced, and ocean habitats were in trouble.

The ocean provides humanity with food, jobs, culture and acts as an international highway connecting our globalised planet. Yet our destructive attitude towards the ocean as an inexhaustible resource has led to overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. Coral reefs support 25% of ocean life, provide food for 1 billion people around the world and contribute $172 billion to the global economy, but rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and overexploitation have led to massive declines in coral reef ecosystems, with 50% of corals dying world-wide in the last 3 decades. However, it is not too late for us to change course and reverse the disastrous fate we have set for our ocean.

Earlier this year, 26 experts came together to produce a comprehensive study, providing a framework with recommendations that would enable the protection of biodiversity in the ocean. With only 7% of the ocean currently under some level of protection, human pressures remain high and biodiversity’s ability to recover remains low. This new study by Enric Sala and colleagues identified areas of the ocean that, if protected, will safeguard biodiversity, increase food security and prevent the release of additional climate change-causing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

With the 15th UN biodiversity conference (COP15) expected to take place later this year, scientists hope emerging research can inform new global conservation targets that will enable greater protection of the ocean. COP15 aims to set ambitious plans to develop a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, to ensure that a shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled by 2050.

A growing movement to protect 30% of the world’s oceans, which is now backed by a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, United States and Canada, is expected to make up part of the COP15 goals. Research suggests that protecting a minimum of 30% of the ocean is needed to benefit biodiversity, mitigate climate change and boost food productivity.

Enric Sala highlights key locations where human activity threaten some of the most diverse parts of the ocean. Expanding marine protected areas (MPAs) – where human activity is restricted – to cover these selected locations could result in significant gains for biodiversity conservation. Selecting specific regions to protect, including areas in China and Europe’s Atlantic coastal areas, could safeguard endangered species ranges by more than 80%, and banning fishing in these areas could boost seafood production by 8 million metric tonnes.

The study also investigates how fishing by bottom trawling releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This practice drags fishing nets across ocean floor, to catch different species of fish for commercial use. The process of trawling damages the ‘carbon-rich’ seabed, diminishing biodiversity and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it contributes to the progress of human-made climate change. However, this study reports that protecting only 3.6% of the ocean could eliminate 90% of the current risk of carbon from the ocean floor being disturbed and releasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Covering over 70% of the earth’s surface, with around 95% unexplored by humans, much of the ocean still remains a complete mystery. However, our actions have led to huge declines in ocean life and potentially the extinction of undiscovered species. Understanding the implications of our actions and identifying the areas of the ocean that hold the most diversity will help experts and policymakers to set focused goals to protect marine life and ocean health.

Although much of what needs to be done lies in the hands of distant decision makers, there are many things you can do to help protect our blue planet and the life that lives on it:

  • Reducing your consumption of seafood and selecting sustainable seafood products will help to reduce the pressures placed on global fish populations by overfishing.
  • Another pressing issue for ocean life is the rapidly increasing accumulation of plastic in the ocean, you can help to prevent plastic making its way into the ocean in the first place by choosing to buy products free from single use plastic.
  • And finally, let the world leaders know that you are calling on them to protect 30% of ocean by signing the 30×30 petition for nature.