IUCN Director General's statement on World Oceans Day

Where did life on Earth begin? The fact is, no one really knows. Charles Darwin imagined a “warm little pond”, while some scientists today speculate about tide pools and hot springs. Increasingly, however, scientists are narrowing in on one hypothesis: that life began around a deep sea hydrothermal vent. So it is likely that the Ocean is our Garden of Eden.

School of bar jack in the Tortugas ecological reserve Photo: NOAA CC BY 2.0

Today, life on Earth continues to depend on the ocean. Covering almost three quarters of the Earth’s surface, the ocean contains 97% of its water and supports every life form that inhabits it. It produces over half of the oxygen in the atmosphere and regulates the Earth’s climate.

We humans, regardless of how far we may live from the coast, are intimately tied to the ocean. It provides billions of people around the world with protein-rich food, protection against disasters, and sources of income. The ocean is crucial to the global economy, supporting key industries such as fisheries, transport, trade and tourism. The ocean drives our creativity and innovation and awes us with its mysteries.

In many ways the ocean has shaped humanity as we know it. Throughout human history, it has been the foundation of our very existence and a driving force of our development.

We, in turn, have been the driving force of its destruction.

Our impact on the ocean is immense. Take fishing. Unsustainable fishing practices are decimating marine resources on our watch. According to a 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, more than 30% of global fish stocks were classified as overfished.

Just today, IUCN announced the results of its latest IUCN Red List reports assessing marine biodiversity in Oceania and the Caribbean. The conclusions are clear: overfishing and the degradation of coral reefs in these regions are pushing many fish, including important food sources, towards extinction. Another recent IUCN report shows that many species off the coast of western and central Africa are also in danger, threatening food security in the region. More effectively managed protected areas, better regulation and enforcement of marine fisheries and improved monitoring of marine biodiversity must be part of the solution.

The effects of human-induced climate change are also shocking. The ocean has absorbed 30% of the anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and a staggering 93% of the added heat caused by human-driven changes to the atmosphere. As a result, the average temperature of the ocean has gone up, as has its acidity, producing devastating effects.

Coral reefs are among the most visible victims, with bleaching events rising to alarming levels. Additionally, a 2016 IUCN report revealed that marine species and ecosystems are already experiencing potentially irreversible damage. We are seeing changes in species growth, reproduction and distributions, which affect the abundance and diversity of marine life. Ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses are being destroyed, and their ability to act as natural carbon sinks and protect our shorelines – lost.

The Paris climate change agreement is our beacon of hope. Backed by almost all nations, it now needs rapid implementation for it to be effective. This is why the news that the US government would be pulled out of the Accord was so disconcerting. Thankfully, the response from other countries, and even regional and local governments, has been overwhelmingly positive. The need to stick to Paris is evident, and we can only hope that the White House follows this leadership and reconsiders its recent decision.

Then there’s plastic.

At least eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Plastic has been found on the shorelines of all continents, causing severe injuries and deaths to marine species across the globe.

The calamity of plastic pollution conjures up images of empty water bottles and discarded plastic bags. But the reality is far more complex. Much plastic pollution is not even visible to the naked eye. Recent IUCN research demonstrates that tiny plastic particles from synthetic clothes and tyres are a very significant source of marine plastic pollution. This is hugely problematic because these particles are easily ingested by marine life.

Yet this damage that we inflict on marine life is also an incredible act of self-destruction. It poses a serious threat to our health: chemicals used in the production of plastic materials are known to be carcinogenic and to interfere with the body’s endocrine system, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders. These contaminants enter the digestive systems of marine organisms that ingest them, and accumulate in the food web.

We must come together to find innovative ways to address the devastating problem of marine plastic pollution. Collective action is the only way forward. While each one of us – as a consumer of plastics – has a role to play, this will address only the most visible part of the problem. Governments and businesses must work together to address plastic pollution at every stage of a product’s value chain. Proper waste management and recycling efforts must be planned for at the earliest states of product development. Attacking plastic pollution is everybody’s responsibility and must not be pinned solely on the consumer.

Today, we are waking up to the consequences of the short-sightedness with which we have been treating our oceans. And the extent of our damage is telling us that we must act fast if we want to stand a chance of surviving.

In 2015, the world agreed on an ambitious plan to secure our ability to develop – and our planet’s capacity to sustain us. A healthy ocean is a central element to this plan. It underpins much of our sustainable development efforts, including those to eliminate poverty, hunger and ensure health and well-being for all. The United Nations Ocean Conference to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14, “Life below water”, currently taking place in New York, is a testament to how seriously the world is treating this challenge.

The ocean is very likely where we came from, and where our future begins. We need healthy oceans to help us tackle climate change. We need healthy oceans to feed our populations and fuel our economies. We need healthy oceans for their intrinsic value. And we need to understand that to destroy this ancestral home is to destroy ourselves.

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