Here’s Our Best Opportunity to Save the Oceans — and Ourselves

A dire report about our climate and oceans underscores the great need for action. A global oceans treaty could help save the future.

It’s been said we should thank the ocean for every second breath of oxygen we take. In fact, we owe it far more than that.

Ocean and climate are inseparable.

The ocean absorbs up to 30 percent of the CO2 emissions humans produce and stores 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere. It has borne the brunt of the climate crisis so far, taking in over 90 percent of the heat caused by the worsening greenhouse effect.

But not without consequence. A new special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that in a vicious feedback loop, this vital life-support system is under threat as the planet warms. As we feed our addiction to fossil fuels, levels of carbon dioxide continue to skyrocket, causing the ocean to become more acidic. As it acidifies, its capacity to act as a carbon sink falls.

And that’s very bad news. We need our oceans to help stabilize the climate. A healthy ocean, teeming with plant and animal life, fixes and stores carbon — a key survival tool for all of us.

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A Paris Agreement for the Ocean

Climate change isn’t the only crisis affecting the oceans. Since industrial fishing began in the early 1950s, 90 percent of the world’s large ocean fish — such as sharks, cod and swordfish — have been lost. And 90 percent of the planet’s fish stocks are now either fully exploited or overfished, according to the latest report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

A mass extinction of marine life is looming.

So what’s to be done?

Researchers say we’ll need to safeguard at least 30 percent of the oceans by 2030. But our track record so far is pitiful: Less than 4 percent of the ocean is protected. On the high seas, which lie beyond national jurisdiction, industrial exploitation continues almost entirely unchecked. These waters are home to some of the world’s most extraordinary wildlife — from the blue whale to the vampire squid — yet just 1 percent is protected.

This lack of regulation and transparency allows the lawless plunder of the oceans to continue, often driving with it the horrific abuse of fishing vessel crews ­— far from land and unable to escape.

But change could be on the way. As I write, the United Nations is hashing out the details of a new Global Ocean Treaty — due to be agreed in 2020. This legal framework would allow for the creation of high seas sanctuaries — a move that would be nothing short of essential for the future of our oceans and the survival of humanity.

Researchers have already supplied a protection plan that would work. By analyzing each hundred-square-kilometer area, of the 25,000 of these that make up the high seas, they have found the 30 percent that would be best for conservation and would help build the healthy and resilient sea that we need for the future of the planet.

Environmental Justice at Stake

There is, of course, much political maneuvering going on at the U.N. negotiations ­— who gets what and how each country can maximize their slice of the pie. But the truth is that proper protection for the high seas is the only fair solution.

Just as rich nations have reaped the benefits of carbon-fueled development, and now suffer fewer of the consequences of climate change, out on the high seas just 10 rich nations, including Japan, Korea, and Spain, take 71 percent of the catch.

Climate and ocean injustice again go hand in hand. For every degree Celsius of warming, caused mostly by wealthy industrialized countries, global fisheries catch potential will fall by more than 3 million metric tons. The impacts of this will be worse nearer the equator, where some countries may see their annual catches fall by half. Once again poorer countries will suffer —those more reliant on seafood protein, who have done far less to destabilize the climate and destroy ocean ecosystems.

Protection of the high seas is desperately needed for both ocean health and human well-being. It would mean havens for ocean wildlife that sustain and replenish the waters closer to shore. This would enhance fish stocks and food security, providing resilience to the challenges of a changing climate.

Time is of the essence. Change is already upon us. All around the world people are being forced from their homes, losing their livelihoods. The ocean does much to protect us from our own greed and insatiable need for growth; we need to protect it in return. This proposal would see just 30 percent of the ocean freed from the pressures of fishing, mining and pollution — surely the least we can do.

This article originally appeared on 1 October here in The Revelator.