The World Wildlife Fund has released their Living Blue Planet report for 2015, assessing the condition and health of our oceans, and the outlook doesn’t appear to be good. The report, which looks at a wide spectrum of marine life and habitats, came to a startling conclusion: nearly half of the planet’s sea life has disappeared between 1970 and 2012.
“The picture is now clearer than ever: humanity is collectively mismanaging the ocean to the brink of collapse,” Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, wrote in the report. “Considering the ocean’s vital role in our economies and its essential contribution to food security – particularly for poor, coastal communities – that’s simply unacceptable.”
The report uses the marine Living Planet Index (LPI), which is used in the measuring of populations of vertebrate species. In terms of the sea life itself, this year’s study looked at 5,829 populations spread across 1,234 species, with a focus on sea cucumbers, sharks and rays, and marine turtles as key indicator species in the report itself. And while sea cucumbers may seem like an odd species to single out, their multifaceted effect on the ecosystems where they live, including filtering water and acting as food for other species, make them an invaluable measuring stick of an ecosystems health. Over-fished as a delicacy, areas where they have become absent have seen other commercial species disappear. In one of the most extreme examples, the Galapagos saw a 98 percent decline in sea cucumbers between 1993 and 2004, after legal fisheries opened up around the islands.
A quarter of species of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, again due to over-fishing. The four species of sea turtle that are endangered (hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley) face other challenges beyond fishing, including climate change, bycatching, loss of nesting beaches, and debris littering the oceans.
It details the impact humans have had on our oceans through both over-fishing and man-made climate change. Some of the more alarming aspects of the report include the decline in coral reefs, one of the most vital pieces of real estate under the sea. Estimates have nearly a quarter of the world’s sea life calling these reefs home, despite them only collectively taking up an area half the size of France.
They find that these reefs have lost over half of their reef-building corals in a span of about three decades, as the habitat comes under threat from factors ranging from agricultural run-off and rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidity of the water.
Another threatened habitat is mangroves, a familiar sight in our own Estero Bay. Home to fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals, this ecosystem also protects the coast from erosion and provides a large amount of carbon storage. The report states that a fifth of the world’s mangrove forests were lost in the span of 25 years, starting in 1980, and the cause was primarily human, with the areas being converted for usage in aquaculture, agriculture, and accommodating growing human population density along the coasts.
***Possible quotes from Mote Marine Scientist or Captain Cain specific to Florida here***
The study cites over-fishing as a chief concern, stating that 29 percent of our fish stocks are being exploited beyond their capacity to sustain themselves, and that less than 10 percent of our fisheries have the ability to expand capacity. Reaching and exceeding the capacity of these stocks to survive with the pressures humans place on them is a long-term problem, as the study also reports that 3 billion people depend on fish as the primary protein. With the global human population estimated to grow through the year 2050, potentially reaching 11 billion people, this is a not a problem that will be going away anytime soon.
Other human impacts include the growth of dead zones along coasts, due to nutrient runoff caused by human populations. These zones are oxygen-starved aquatic deserts that stymie spawning, and suffocate sea life caught within it.
Also mentioned are the impacts of other forms of land-based pollution, with findings stating that the 250 thousand tons of plastic is floating around in the world’s oceans. Perhaps the most famous example of this debris is the Great Pacific garbage patch, a large stretch of North Pacific waters with large concentrations of plastics (roughly 4 particles per cubic meter), which conservative estimates have covering an area the size of Texas. The actual size is hard to gauge, as most of the mass is plastic particles suspended below the surface of the water.
The report was not all doom and gloom, though, as it did offer potential solutions to the wide variety of problems it detailed. These include calls to preserve natural capital, with a goal to place at least 10 percent of the world’s oceans under some form of environmental protection by 2020. Currently, only 3.4 percent of our waters fall under this designation.
Sustainable fisheries are another potential solution, as was better informed consumer demand, as this heavily influences what species are targeted for fishing.
The WWF also gave examples of conservation and restoration efforts currently underway across the globe. These include the United States efforts after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to restore oyster beds and wetlands in order to provide better protection for coastal resources for future storms.
They also gave the story of Belize, where in 2010, the Central American country’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute worked with WWF to develop long-term management of their natural environments, in order to protect them from the ever-growing tourism and development. The results of their efforts boosted revenue from their lobster fishing, and saw growth in several key marine habitats like reefs, mangroves, and sea-grass beds.
However, the WWF concludes that there must be more involvement from our leaders if real change is going to be effected, and the dire statistics are to be reversed.
“This year, world leaders are meeting to discuss two global agreements that could have profound implications for the future of the ocean,” John Tanzer, Director of WWF International Marine Programme, wrote at the end of the report. “In September, international heads of state and government will agree to a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 14 of the SDGs focuses specifically on the ocean. The targets must translate into action to address the issues outlined in this report, including habitat destruction, over-fishing, illegal fishing, and marine pollution, and the commitments must be backed by significant investment and implementation strategies.”
“At the end of 2015, governments will meet in Paris to try and reach a binding and universal agreement on tackling climate change,’ Tanzer continued. “This is of the utmost importance, as current international commitments fall far short of the action we need to stop levels of warming and acidification that would prove catastrophic to ocean ecosystems and the people who depend upon them.”
By Trent Townsend