The world must pull together to stem the urgent crisis in our ocean

fishes

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tetsuji Ida, Senior Staff Writer and Editorial Writer, Kyodo News


  • The oceans are increasingly threatened by a host of different factors.
  • To tackle these threats will require a fundamental change in the way the international community works and responds.
  • This response must be based on science, cooperation and raising awareness.

The world’s oceans are now facing a multidimensional crisis, of which human-made climate change, overfishing, plastic pollution and ocean acidification are all factors. There is an urgent need to step up our efforts to protect the marine environment by averting this crisis. This is a matter of national security.

The protection of the marine environment is an urgent issue for Japan as well, an island nation surrounded by the sea, but its policies are fragmented and insufficient, and lag behind those of many other developed countries.

We need to fundamentally change the structure of policy-making and to strengthen efforts to achieve a sustainable marine environment, as well as making a positive contribution to the international community.

As a maritime nation, as a large consumer of marine products, and also as a country that is heavily dependent on marine ecosystem services, it is Japan’s international responsibility.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) compiled a Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which showed us a clear picture of the ocean’s current state and grim future.

The oceans contribute to climate stability by absorbing 90% of the excess heat stored in the global climate system thanks to the use of fossil fuels. As a result, however, sea surface temperatures continue to rise and abnormally high water temperatures persist for long periods of time, sometimes for more than a year, resulting in ‘ocean heat waves’.

The ocean has absorbed 20%-30% of the CO2 generated by human activities since the 1980s. The result is ocean acidification. There are concerns that this increased acidity of seawater will have significant negative effects on many organisms important in the marine food chain, including plankton and crustaceans with calcium carbonate shells, as well as shellfish and sea urchins.

Rising sea surface temperatures are also intensifying stratification between surface and sub-medium seawater, leading to the spread of ocean regions around the world in which oxygen concentrations are very low and life is difficult to sustain.

As the oceans have absorbed more CO2 (green), they are growing more acidic (blue)
As the oceans have absorbed more CO2 (green), they are growing more acidic (blue)
Image: NOAA

We must understand that human activity has altered the temperature, acidity, and distribution of oxygen in the world’s 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of ocean.

The crisis goes beyond that, however. Overfishing is becoming a serious problem, and if the current trend continues, combined with the climate crisis, it will have a major negative impact on the food security of many countries. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, ignoring international regulations and agreements, is rampant in the world’s fisheries, According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), IUU accounts for an annual landing of 26 million tonnes of fish, 30% of the total annual catch worth up to $23 billion in value. This has become a huge burden for poor fishermen mostly in developing countries.

Plastic pollution is another growing crisis. It has been estimated that, by 2050, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean will be heavier than the total amount of fish.

Not up to scratch

While there is an urgent need to step up efforts to prevent a multidimensional ocean crisis, international efforts to-date have been insufficient when measured against the magnitude of the problem.

Last year, the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Spain was positioned as a ‘Blue COP’ at the request of the Government of Chile, the presiding country, which put the relationship between the oceans and climate change at the top of the agenda. However, it is far from the case that marine environmental conservation was properly addressed.

Negotiations on an international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of ‘marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are now coming to a close, but the interests of each country are complex and there is no prospect of a positive conclusion anytime soon. Negotiations have been postponed in the wake of the new coronavirus epidemic.

A number of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been established to oversee sustainable management of endangered fish stocks like bluefin tuna. Although some have contributed to the recovery of resources, others have performed disappointingly. Efforts to protect marine biodiversity and endangered species under environmental treaties, such as the Washington Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, are also very limited.

Although marine plastic contamination has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, it is very sad to see that there is no international framework for promoting measures to reduce ocean plastic pollution. The Blue Ocean Vision, which Japan spearheaded at the G20 meeting in Osaka in 2019, offers very little in the way of concrete measures to reduce plastic waste.

Start talking

Using the discussions at the BBNJ as a starting point, it will be necessary for the international community to establish a forum for comprehensive discussion and decision-making systems on the conservation and sustainable use of the marine environment. It must cover everything from the climate crisis, biodiversity and fishery resource management to plastic waste, by promoting the participation of multiple stakeholders, including industry and civil society.

This is a major challenge for Japan as well. While recognizing itself as a maritime nation, it cannot be said that the Japanese government has played an active role in international efforts to protect the marine environment. Japan has always taken an opposing stance on the protection of endangered marine life under the Washington Convention, and even after the decision is made, has filed a ‘reservation’ indicatingit will not accept international regulations for many marine species. Japan’s Fisheries Agency, which participates in the RFMO meetings, has based its actions on its position as the representative of domestic fishermen and has always backed away from strong regulations; those participating in the BBNJ negotiations are not high-level persons, and politicians have shown virtually no interest. Here, too, the Japanese government has remained reluctant to establish marine protected areas on the high seas.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without healthy oceans – but they’re more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

At the UN General Assembly in December 2017, the UN decided to designate 2021-30 as the UN Decade of Marine Science for Sustainable Development to strengthen scientific input for the sustainable use of the oceans. Many Japanese marine scientists have been involved in the resolution and are expected to contribute in the future. A number of research institutions in Japan have advanced ocean research tools, as well as long-term observation data about climate change, acidification and so on. Some policy recommendations have been made by scientists, but unfortunately, these have not been accepted by policy-makers. On the contrary, marine research funding is in a sharp decline.

In order to continue contributing to increasingly important international research and policy formulation, the Government of Japan, together with other like-minded countries, must promote science-based policy development as well as increased investment in scientific research.

And most importantly, Japanese citizens should have an understanding and clear view of the worsening marine environmental, should raise their awareness, and also raise their voices to demand stronger actions.

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