A long-delayed conference on how to restore stalled global ocean health began in Lisbon on Monday, with the head of the UN saying the world’s oceans are in crisis.
“Today we face what I would call a maritime emergency,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told thousands of policymakers, experts and advocates in the opening plenary, describing how the seas have been ravaged by climate change and pollution.
Humanity depends on healthy oceans.
They generate 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe and provide essential proteins and nutrients to billions of people every day.
The oceans, which cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, have also mitigated the effects of climate change on life on land.
Uptake of about a quarter of CO2 pollution — even with emissions increasing by half over the past 60 years — has acidified seawater, threatening aquatic food chains and the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon.
And sucking up more than 90 percent of the excess heat from global warming has spawned massive ocean heatwaves that are killing valuable coral reefs and expanding dead zones without oxygen.
“We are just beginning to understand the extent to which climate change will have devastating effects on ocean health,” said Charlotte de Fontaubert, the World Bank’s global head for the blue economy.
Making things worse, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), there is an endless barrage of pollution, including a garbage truck’s worth of plastic every minute.
Given current trends, annual plastic waste will nearly triple to 1 billion tons by 2060, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
– wild fish stocks –
Microplastics – now found in Arctic ice and in fish in the ocean’s deepest trenches – are estimated to kill more than a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals each year.
The solutions on the table range from recycling to global caps on plastic production.
Global fisheries will also be in the spotlight during the five-day UN Oceanic Conference originally scheduled for April 2020 and co-hosted by Portugal and Kenya.
“At least a third of wild fish stocks are overfished and less than 10 percent of the ocean is protected,” Kathryn Matthews, senior scientist at US NGO Oceana, told AFP.
“In many coastal waters and on the high seas, destructive and illegal fishing vessels operate with impunity.”
One of the culprits is nearly $35 billion in subsidies. Baby steps taken by the World Trade Organization (WTO) last week to reduce handouts to industry are unlikely to leave a dent, experts said.
The conference will also see a push for a moratorium on deep-sea mining of rare metals needed for a boom in electric vehicle battery construction.
Scientists say poorly understood seafloor ecosystems are fragile and could take decades or longer to heal once disturbed.
Another key focus will be ‘Blue Food’, the new buzzword to ensure that all source seafood – wild caught and farmed – is sustainable and socially responsible.
– protected areas –
Aquaculture yields — from salmon and tuna to shellfish and seaweed — have been growing at 3 percent annually for decades and are on track to overtake wild marine harvests, which peaked in the 1990s and were about 100 million tons a year at a time year produced.
The Lisbon meeting will be attended by ministers and even some heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, but it is not a formal negotiating session.
But participants will be pushing for a strong ocean agenda at two crucial summits later this year – November’s COP27-UN climate talks being hosted by Egypt, followed by the long-delayed COP15-UN biodiversity talks recently brought by China to Montreal were relocated.
The oceans are already at the center of a draft treaty tasked with halting what many scientists believe will be the first “mass extinction” in 65 million years. A cornerstone provision would designate 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans as protected areas.
But the preparatory negotiations in Nairobi ended in a dead end on Sunday.
“The deal is in danger of collapsing on the financial issue,” the head of environmental diplomacy at WWF France told AFP.
With climate change, the focus will be on carbon sequestration – increasing the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2, whether through enhancement of natural sinks like mangroves or through geoengineering programs.
At the same time, scientists warn that drastic reductions in greenhouse gases are needed to restore ocean health.
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