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Our legacy: a dead ocean?

Our oceans are dying at an incredible rate. A scientific report was published today which shows that our oceans are not facing a number of different threats but that many aspects of human activity such as overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change are all contributing to a giant unstoppable force of destruction. What’s more, they are all speeding up the coming of a very significant extinction event.

For the last few centuries the ocean has given to humans in incredible ways. Mostly viewed as an inexhaustible source of food, nations the world over have exploited its resources. In the 1950’s fishing efforts began to take on industrial proportions. With the world economy experiencing globalisation and a new form of technological industrialisation fishing fleets became larger, more efficient and for the first time ever started fishing in every corner of the global ocean.

By-ctach, numerous species simply discarded as wasteRegion by region fishermen took from the ocean what they wished. Fishing techniques improved so new species of fish could be harvested, digging deeper in the oceans and further out into the vast areas of unexploited sea. Most vessels caught fish far away from their homeland, with companies catching, exporting and importing as they saw fit. By the 1980’s the world’s fishing industry had taken on astronomical industrial proportions, supplying all types of cheap fish right across the planet. It seemed like the party was never-ending. However it wasn’t before long that the cracks started showing and it became clear that overfishing of the seas had serious consequences. Certain fisheries such as the cod fishery off Canada collapsed and harsh lessons were learned by some.

Fisheries have continued to expand and the global fishing fleet now has the capacity to catch the world’s catch three times over. It is simply an industry gone out of control. All commercially caught species are currently overfished, with some species such as bluefin tuna, European eel and numerous shark species literally at the brink of extinction. Add to that the fact that millions in subsidies are still handed out annually to build new vessels, improve catch technology and increase efficiency and it is clear where the priorities lie. The political unwill to take any adequate measures towards the conservation of the marine environment is evident.

Dead albatross, its stomach filled with platicsDid you know that the European Union currently pays more in subsidies to fishermen than the total value of all annual catches combined? This actually means that we are paying fishermen to fish. And if we think they fish too much then we continue to pay them…not to fish. Our oceans are cluttered with fishing ships, large and small, hunting down every living creature in it. Most species are caught unintentionally and simply thrown overboard dead as waste. Fishing nets, kilometers in length are trapping highly migratory species such as tuna, turtles and whales. Dolphins are caught in European pair-trawler nets on a regular basis, sharks often find their end entangled in driftnets and birds get hooked to death on the indiscriminate longlines. And that is just to name a few.

Numerous international laws, treaties and regulations attempt to protect species or habitats in the oceans. Some of these rules have brought increased protection but most only have meaning on paper. Politicians are quick with their signatures to approve legislation yet are nowhere to be seen effectively enforcing it. The fact is that the world’s political leaders have done very little to stop the growing impact by human activity in the ocean. As much as the theatre of world politics is made up of all possible political colours one can think of, the one issue they all unite on is their unwillingness to seriously act on the issues of habitat loss, climate change and other aspects of environmental destruction.

Birds often die on the indiscriminate longlines, such as this unfortunate albatrossRecent years have seen an unprecedented rate of extinction. Some species are at the brink of commercial extinction due to relentless overfishing, other species are threatened by the loss of habitat or the effects of climate change. It is believed certain marine species would be able to adapt to certain changes caused by global warming and the subsequent effects of coral bleaching, current changes, dead zones, ocean acidification or algal blooms. But in combination with other threats such as pollution, the loss of predatory species and thus the collapse of food chains within the marine ecosystems, no species stands a chance.

The report published today shows us that for the oceans all issues are interconnected. It is important that we acknowledge that they are, in order to re-think our own personal consumption choices as well as how we decide to act in a wider sense. As much as it is important that as organisations we focus our campaigns on specific issues, it is vital we take note of the wider picture here. The overarching truth is that us humans are too clever, too advanced to live in harmony with the natural world while continuing our present levels of consumption. It is also a fact that we are too complacent, too lenient to the ongoing destruction of this planet we all share. We are too trusting of ‘sustainable fishing’ initiatives and lay too much power in the hands of politicians and corporations. We are currently allowing the greatest ecosystem on our planet earth to perish and die off, within our lifetime. The blue wilderness is what made earth the planet of water she is and gave us life. Is this life worth saving?

Is it life worth saving?As things stand now, our generation will be remembered for destroying life on earth. The next generations will look back on us as greedy, apathetic and incredibly wasteful beings. What we can do is ensure that this generation will also be remembered for those who stood up and fought. We all have a shared responsibility to protect the wonders of this world, it is not something we can simply leave in the hands of others. We need to be willing to take responsibility ourselves and act before this natural world is destroyed beyond the point of return. The alternative isn’t really an option: we need to act. Now.

The report published today is an outcome of the International Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts, organised by The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and convened at the University of Oxford earlier this year. It was the first inter-disciplinary international meeting of marine scientists of its kind and was designed to consider the cumulative impact of multiple stressors on the ocean, including warming, acidification, and overfishing. The report and other outcomes can be found on

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