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Urgent action needed to conserve deep seas and open oceans: joint UN report

Urgent action needed to conserve deep seas and open oceans: joint UN report

Swift and wide ranging actions are needed to conserve the world’s entire marine environment amid fears that humankind’s exploitation of the deep seas and open oceans is rapidly passing the point of no return, according to a United Nations-backed report issued today that calls for urgent measures to conserve areas where more than 90 per cent of the planet’s living biomass lives.

The new study, ‘Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas’, which was issued jointly by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), argues that the many lessons learnt on conserving coastal waters should be adapted and applied right across the marine world, including in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

“Humankind’s ability to exploit the deep oceans and high seas has accelerated rapidly over recent years. It is a pace of change that has outstripped our institutions and conservation efforts whose primary focus have been coastal waters where, until recently, most human activity like fishing and industrial exploration took place,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director.

“We now most urgently need to look beyond the horizon and bring the lessons learnt in coastal water to the wider marine world,” he added at the report’s launch in New York, which took place as countries and experts are holding talks on the law of the sea.

With more than 90 per cent of the planet’s living biomass – the weight of life – found in the oceans, the report underlines the value of the deep seas and open oceans and highlights how science is only now just getting to grips with the wealth of life, natural resources and ecosystems existing in the marine world.

“Well over 60 per cent of the marine world and its rich biodiversity, found beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, is vulnerable and at increasing risk,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, Acting Director General of IUCN.

“Governments must urgently develop the guidelines, rules and actions needed to bridge this gulf. Otherwise we stand to lose and to irrevocably damage unique wildlife and critical ecosystems many of which moderate our very existence on the planet.”

The report, launched at the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) which feeds into the UN General Assembly, also highlights the way fisheries, pollution and other stresses such as those arising from global climate change are impacting and affecting the marine world.

Less than 10 per cent of the oceans have been explored with only one millionth of the deep sea floor having been subject to biological investigations but the report states that over half – 52 per cent – of the global fish stocks are fully exploited. Overexploited and depleted species have also increased from about 10 per cent in the mid 1970s to 24 per cent in 2002.

“Once limited largely to shipping and open ocean fishing, commercial activities at sea are expanding rapidly and plunging ever deeper. Deep sea fishing, bioprospecting, energy development and marine scientific research are already taking place at depths of 2,000 m or more,” says the report’s author, Kristina M. Gjerde, High Seas Policy Advisor to IUCN’s Global Marine Program.

Taking into account the discussions in various international meetings, she also outlines several options aimed at the conservation and sustainable management of the deep seas and open oceans. These include among other things, actions and measures that reflect an integrated approach to oceans management based on ‘ecological boundaries’ rather than just political ones and giving higher levels of protection to vulnerable species like deep sea fish.

Other steps include the creation of a “precautionary system of marine protected areas” along with improved impact assessments that reflect the full range of possible human activities across the total marine environment.

Electronic versions of the report are available on the home pages of the UNEP Regional Seas Programme and the IUCN Marine Programme).