The latest news from the world of sustainability, the latest views from the brains behind Best Foot Forward
Blog by Craig Simmons, Co-Founder and Director, 20 June 2012
The draft text to be presented at the first Earth Summit in 20 years, to be held in Rio this week, recognises the vital role that the oceans play in sustaining the Earth’s life support system and stresses the need for improved conservation, sustainable management, and the equitable sharing of marine and ocean resources. As land-dwellers, it is all too easy to forget that our planet is mainly water – 72% of the surface area to be exact. The huge contribution that the oceans make to our economic, social and environmental well-being should not be underestimated. Of the ten global ecosystem types listed in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, almost half are characterised by the presence of large bodies of water.
Whereas we have rich written records that tell the tale of our degradation and exploitation of our terrestrial ecosystems, the natural history of the sea remains a largely untold story. Whereas we are exposed almost daily to reports relating to the land on which we live, from studies on sustainable farming to news articles about local planning issues, far fewer column inches are given over to the state of our oceans. And it has always been so. There is little in our cultural or documented history against which to anchor our understanding of the oceans – no clear benchmark to determine what constitutes their ‘natural state’.
Yet, we know that the oceans are in serious trouble. Just as the numbers and diversity of bird species has been found to be a useful indicator of the state of our agricultural land, so we can consider fish stocks as a proxy for the health of our oceans. Such studies consistently show that the world’s major fisheries are in collapse. In some cases startlingly so. European catches have reduced by more than 80% in living memory. It is difficult to look back more than a few decades as fish stock assessments simply weren’t conducted before then.
Just occasionally, when an historical record is uncovered and analysed by some keen marine biologist, we get a tantalising glimpse of how abundant our oceans used to be. One such study by the Marine Conservation Society found that four times more fish were landed in England and Wales in 1889 than now.
It seems the task of restoring our oceans to a ‘healthy’ state is more of a challenge than we first thought. I have been slowly working my way through Dr. Callum Roberts’ epic work The Unnatural History of the Sea, that should form compulsory reading for all Rio +20 decision-makers.
According to Roberts, “few people really appreciate how far the oceans have been altered… even…professionals like fishery biologists or conservationists.” Even Roberts, though, remains optimistic. If there is concerted action to establish protected areas, a return to abundance is possible. The few marine reserves that exist today have been remarkably effective and offer, in Roberts’ words, a tantalising "window on the past".
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