What is it about oceans? Ocean events seem to be getting bigger and broader in their participation. No matter whether the people in the room are representing government, seafood companies, private foundations, or conservation groups, they are unified by one thing: the need for serious action and soon.
There is hardly a better place to focus on the ocean than Cape Town, South Africa. With the dramatic Twelve Apostles mountain range as a backdrop, only a narrow street separated us from the Atlantic coastline embracing this city. On March 20, I attended the first meeting of the Global Ocean Commission, a new independent task force of international leaders looking for ways to protect the high seas.
When Minister Trevor Manuel of South Africa invited me to join as a commissioner, I did not hesitate. As an Indonesian, I understand all too well both the predicament and the value of the ocean. At the World Bank, we have been participating in the development of a Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO), a coalition of over 125 groups aiming to increase investment and collaboration in a healthier ocean that can do more to reduce poverty.
The Global Ocean Commission was launched on February 12, 2013, to develop policy ideas and build international coalitions to reverse the degradation of the high seas – the part of the ocean that is not under the jurisdiction of any one nation. For that reason, the commission is a powerful complement to the GPO, which focuses largely on supporting countries’ efforts to better manage their coastal waters.
If you were to ask me what our biggest challenge is, I would say it is to convince politicians who have to grapple with day-to-day domestic issues that the ocean matters.
During my stay in Cape Town, I listened to a lot of conclusive science and saw a lot of convincing economic data. Let’s be clear, the facts are stark. If we don’t act, the ocean’s future—and by extension ours—is bleak.
Here it is in a nutshell: One billion people in developing countries depend on fish as their primary source of protein, and 350 million jobs are linked to the health of the oceans. Yet 57% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited. Another 30% are over-exploited, depleted or recovering. An increasing share of important marine habitats like coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds are being destroyed or degraded. You can learn about the impact in this video.
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.