By Elise Garcon
Oceans are an invaluable resource on earth, acting as vital carbon dioxide stores, homes to hundreds of thousands of species, and as regulators of the Earth’s climate. They produce more oxygen than the Amazon rainforest and are responsible for at least half of the breaths you take. The photosynthesis of phytoplankton contributes 50 to 80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, depending on the shifting levels of these throughout the year.
However, for decades, the oceans have been exploited by humans, overfished, polluted, and poisoned. Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have steadily become more acidic as they absorb excess carbon dioxide from human activity, leading to coral bleaching and a rapid decrease of marine biodiversity. You need only look at this, and phenomena like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to see the incredible damage that has been done over the last few decades.
However, there is hope for our oceans. A new scientific review has uncovered that they are much more resilient to pollution and other human stressors than originally thought, and researchers argue that by building on this, they could recover their original state by 2050. Although fish and other marine species have been hunted almost to extinction, the review points out the rebound of humpback whale numbers after the ban on commercial whaling, and states that there has been a 6.6% drop in the number of marine species classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the past 19 years.
Lead author Carlos Duarte, a professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia said, “We have evidence that this goal can be achieved within three decades. Indeed, this requires that we accelerate our efforts, and spread them to areas where efforts are currently modest.” The team recommended key actions such as protecting species, harvesting wisely, and restoring habitats, to be especially focused on salt marshes, mangroves and coral reefs, to name a few.
An issue with meeting this target is climate change, which is a large factor in the destruction of marine biodiversity, rising sea levels, and warming waters. The coral bleaching that has already taken place, and the increase in temperature in areas usually suitable for coral, will make rebuilding reefs very difficult. The new study also estimates that this plan would cost $10-20bn a year to rebuild marine life by 2050. However, the expected return would be $10 for every dollar invested. Challenges of scaling up existing conservation are great and getting the international community to agree to these measures, never mind implement them effectively, are greater. There is a small window of action to achieve this goal, and the authors acknowledge that this task is significant, but maintain that it is achievable.
Although the cost and effort needed to clean the oceans by 2050 is large, the alternative is to leave our children with an ocean unable to support them, polluted and broken. The researchers stress that although governments may be distracted by other issues, the slim chance we have to save our oceans is fleeting. Professor Duarte said, “Failure to embrace this challenge is not an option” stressing that our oceans are not just important to us, but the generations ahead of us.
Illustration: Triffie Axworthy