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Can We Win the Race Against
Marine Biodiversity Extinction?
Dr. Heather D. Rally,
Oceanic Preservation Society
Donald C. Baur,
Marine ecosystems are the Earth’s most vital life support systems. They contain 97 percent of the world’s water, generate over 50 percent of its oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, shape climate and weather, provide food, natural beauty and recreation, and serve as economic engines that sustain billions of people. As Dr. Sylvia Earle has said about the oceans: “No water, no life. No blue, no green.”
We nonetheless take oceans for granted, and marine ecosystems are declining at a catastrophic rate. Because oceans are vast, deep, dark and difficult to study, the response to declining ocean health is often doubt and denial. But the evidence of collapsing marine ecosystems is now clear through the loss of biodiversity, caused by overexploitation, pollution, habitat destruction, non-native species, acidification and climate change. Indeed, up to 90 percent of all large predatory fish such as cod, sharks, halibut, grouper, tuna, swordfish and marlin have been depleted. Since 1950, the fisheries resource base has been reduced to less than 10 percent worldwide.
The decline of marine species is tragic in its own right, but it has a multiplier effect by diminishing ocean productivity and resilience. Coral reefs illustrate this problem. They are among the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Covering less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, they harbor 25 percent of all life in the oceans and provide $375 billion in goods and services. Yet we have already lost about 50 percent of coral ecosystems, a loss that is not only a detriment to our oceans, but to our own lifeline.
Maintaining diverse biota within an ecosystem results in habitat protection, waste removal, resistance to invasive species, food production, and other environmental benefits. Reversing the loss of marine biodiversity therefore is an ecological, economic, social and moral imperative.
How do we meet this challenge? To be successful, we need a new value system for human interactions with nature. The standard rhetoric is that the loss of biodiversity is acceptable if required for sustainable development and human benefit. Yet making this sacrifice is dangerously short-sighted. Along with a change in rhetoric, we need a change in perspectives, attitudes and actions. True sustainable development exists in balance with nature such that progress helps sustain human livelihoods, while economic infrastructure and social and political institutions are used to reverse ecological damage.
In the effort to inspire, empower and incentivize humanity to contribute to saving species and wild places, creative messaging and innovation are paramount. If we can reconnect the human spirit with nature, expose the hidden impacts of our commodities, present sustainable alternatives, and change the definition of reward, we will be able to reverse the trajectory of biological diversity decline.
This formula has been used successfully before. Public awareness of the destruction of dolphin stocks in the tuna fishery led to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, regulatory proceedings, lawsuits and international agreements that forced scientific research and technological innovation and changed fishing practices. Combined with changed consumer behavior from the marketing of dolphin-safe tuna, dolphin mortality has declined from over 400,000 a year in the early 1970s to about 1,000 today (although still a high level as the world’s largest documented cetacean bycatch).
We are fortunate to live during a unique time in history, when social media spreads messages like wildfire and everyday actions have far-reaching effects on the planet. The oceans are sentinels for the health of the biosphere, and they are undoubtedly suffering. As Dr. Earle says, we “need many things to keep and maintain the world as a better place. But nothing else will matter if we fail to protect the ocean. Our fate and the ocean’s are one.” This fate is in our hands. Human beings should feel empowered by this paradigm of technological innovation and conscious consumerism. Every product has a footprint, and every dollar spent is a vote for the kind of future we hope to see. The time has come to act.