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Giving oceans a fighting chance

Mary Barton-Dock's picture

Last week I went swimming with manta rays, sharks and dolphins along some of the world’s most spectacular reefs. Well at least, it felt like I was swimming among them. With my special 3D glasses on, it was as if I was flying across coral atolls, plunging through clouds of jellyfish and darting in and out of brightly colored corals alongside hundreds of thousands of tropical fish.

In a new film by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas – The Last Reef 3D: Cities Beneath the Sea – viewers embark on a worldwide journey to explore coral reef habitats from Palau and French Polynesia in the Pacific to the Bahamas in the Caribbean.

As visually stunning as the film is, it carries a very sobering message: human activity is having a significant negative impact on the world’s oceans.

Many of us who work on climate change and oceans have known about the threat from ocean acidification and warming for a long time. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions have resulted in rising surface and air temperatures. Moreover, ocean acidity is rising owing to an increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Increasing acidity levels in turn make it harder for corals to grow and for shell-forming animals like mussels to build their protective housing, leading to knock-on effects of biodiversity loss in ocean called “dead zones”.

The movie’s message is reinforced by a recent report published in Science Magazine which says the oceans are acidifying at a pace not seen in 300 million years. Historically, ocean acidification has led to mass extinctions. What makes today’s situation particularly alarming is that the rise in CO2 is not due to volcanic eruptions or other natural occurrences but is the direct consequence of human behavior over the course of the last century or so.

The study points out that that the closest parallel to our current situation was 56 million years ago when the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere doubled, leading to massive species loss. Today the oceans are acidifying at least 10 times faster than what we understand to have occurred 56 million years ago. Continuing at this pace, most of the species and coral from my virtual undersea journey are not going to survive (studies show that acidification will cause reefs to be dominated by one type of coral). The authors of the study, like the directors of the movie, make a compelling plea for rapid policy action – adopting measures to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere.

Acidification and warming are just two of several threats facing the world’s oceans. They are under assault from all directions – habitat loss, over-fishing and marine pollution to name a few. Indications of ocean exhaustion are all-too-apparent: nearly half of our coral reefs have been destroyed or are in decline.

In spite of these sobering messages there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a growing impetus for action focusing on ocean welfare.

The World Bank Group recognizes the link between healthy oceans and the economic well-being of several of its client countries and sees this as fitting perfectly with its mandate to reduce global poverty. If properly cared for, oceans present huge opportunities for jobs, food security and economic activity. The World Bank estimates that about 350 million jobs globally are linked to the oceans through fishing, aquaculture, coastal and marine tourism, and research. Our oceans furthermore provide about 15 percent of all protein consumed around the globe; unlike beef, chicken or tofu, this source of protein has no carbon or freshwater footprint.

There is growing international momentum to include oceans when addressing economic challenges like economic growth and job creation. To help propel this momentum the World Bank Group has teamed up with a diverse coalition of governments, international organizations, civil society groups and private sector stakeholders to form a pioneer platform: the Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO). World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced the partnership at The Economist's World Oceans Summit in Singapore last month, and called for coordinated global action to restore the world’s oceans to health.

The partners are meeting in April to refine their agreed set of goals and pool their collective resources on finance, policy solutions and science to address the threats. The GPO gets to the heart of sustainable development enabling economic growth in tandem with sound environmental management. It gives me great professional and personal satisfaction to be working on the frontlines, helping ensure that a virtual experience of the ocean’s diversity is not the only option available to our future generations.