Taking Stock of Our Oceans -- A Guest Commentary

Today is World Ocean Day, a day to pause and take stock of our marine resources and our personal connection to the sea, even for all those who are landlocked or haven’t had time to go to the beach this summer.

Today is World Ocean Day, a day to pause and take stock of our marine resources and our personal connection to the sea, even for all those who are landlocked or haven’t had time to go to the beach this summer.

Considering the sad state of our oceans these days, it seems that there is not much to celebrate. Many marine species are threatened with extinction, coral reefs are being destroyed, the waters are polluted and overfished, and the list goes on. Sadly, oceans, the largest living space on Earth — oceans cover 71% of our planet’s surface — are fast deteriorating.

In fact, much of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited or overfished. And each year billions of unwanted fish and other animals — like dolphins, marine turtles, seabirds and sharks — needlessly die from inefficient, illegal and destructive fishing practices. As many as 90% of the ocean’s large fish, such as tuna, swordfish and marlin, as well as numerous shark species, have been fished out. Today, poor fisheries management is probably the largest threat to ocean life and habitats, not to mention the livelihoods and food security of over a billion people.

The impacts of declining fish catches are being painfully felt by many coastal fishing communities around the world. Newfoundland in Canada provides a sobering example of what happens to communities when fish populations are fished to commercial extinction. For centuries the cod stocks of the Grand Banks seemed inexhaustible, but today the fishery has all but collapsed with thousands of people out of work. In Senegal, fishermen no longer catch prized barracudas and red carp, but instead go after smaller and less appetizing species because most of the time there is nothing else. Similar scenarios are being observed throughout the world.

So what can we do to conserve the future of our oceans? Protect them.

Less than 1% of the world’s oceans are under some form of protection compared to almost 13% of the planet’s land area. And the vast majority of existing marine parks and reserves suffer from little or no effective management.

But with the introduction of marine protected areas, things are starting to change. Marine protected areas — which include marine reserves, areas closed to fishing or oil and gas exploration, and locally-managed marine areas — are an essential insurance policy for the future of both marine life and local people. They safeguard the ocean’s rich diversity of life and provide safe havens for endangered species, as well as commercial fish populations, and can offer sources of income for local communities, such as through tourism and park management.

WWF, together with its partners, is working towards a network of effectively managed, ecologically representative marine protected areas that will cover at least 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. This is an ambitious goal, but a goal that is achievable. In the last few years alone, we have helped achieve protection for more than 200,000km2 of marine areas, including coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass beds, fish breeding grounds and deep-sea habitats. This is but a drop in the ocean, but some countries are heeding the call. Just last year, Fiji announced that it will establish a marine protected network covering 30% of its waters by 2020 — one of the largest areas of protected ocean in the world. Other island nations have made similar commitments, including Australia, Micronesia and Granada.

Protected areas do not simply mean maintaining biodiversity and providing refuges for species — although this is a significant goal within itself considering increasingly high levels of biodiversity loss — but it is also intended to support sustainable fisheries. Protected marine areas can be used to provide areas where fish are able to spawn and grow to their adult size, increasing fish catches (both size and quantity) in surrounding fishing grounds, and helping maintain local cultures, economies, and livelihoods which are intricately linked to the marine environment.

Marine ecosystems are very complex and our knowledge of them limited. We are still discovering new species and new habitats. But we do know that if we continue to fish and use the world’s marine resources at the rate we are now, there won’t be too much left for future generations, let alone the next few years.

Fortunately, many within the fishing industry and seafood sector are aware of the crisis at sea and are working with environmental organizations and forward-looking governments towards a healthy, more sustainable marine ecosystem. They are trying to find ways to improve fisheries management, reduce the impacts of destructive fishing, and promote sustainably caught seafood. In other words, tying to change the way fish are caught, marketed and bought.

Whether you are a fisherman, a seafood retailer or a fish consumer, whether you live inland or on the coast, we are all connected to the ocean in some way or another. World Ocean Day may only come around once a year without much fanfare, but it is precisely because we take our oceans for granted that they are in the poor state that they are now in. It is time to pause for a moment to take stock about how the ocean affects you, and how you affect the ocean.

* Dr. Simon Cripps is Director of WWF’s Global Marine Programme, based in Gland, Switzerland.

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