On Earth Day: Three trends that affect the health of our oceans

Stephen Hall -

At the end of April, the international community will meet in the Hague for the Global Oceans Action Summit for Food Security and Blue Growth. The summit will bring together representatives from governments, international agencies, NGOs and the private sector. This is the third in a series of blog posts in the run up to the Summit.

In celebration of Earth Day, I would like to offer some thoughts on three trends that threaten the health of our oceans and a few of the steps we need to take to minimize their impact.

1. Over-fishing

As people become wealthier, they eat more meat and fish. With a rapidly increasing middle class in emerging economies, demand for these foods is set to rise markedly. In China alone, we can expect more than 600 million middle class consumers by 2022. Recent estimates by the World Bank suggest that by 2020 we will need to be producing another 18 million tonnes  of fish to satisfy global demands.

How we respond to that rising demand will have significant implications for the health of our oceans. Simply put, we need to increase supply in sustainable ways. This can be done by increasing aquaculture production while limiting its environmental footprint and by putting the right reforms in place to govern fisheries better that reduce overfishing and thereby improve fishery yields. Failure to take these steps will see coastal environments degraded through poorly managed aquaculture expansion, and depleted wild fish populations in both coastal waters and the high seas.

2. Climate change

In their recent book, Leadership 2030, George Vielmetter and Yvonne Sell of the Hay Group identify the environmental crisis as one of six megatrends that leaders will need to understand and respond to. They state: climate change is real and almost irreversible, critical resources are being depleted and the implications are potentially catastrophic.

For oceans, climate change will mean warmer seas, ocean acidification, and increasing extreme weather events.

Leaders concerned about the health of our oceans will need to consider how best to respond to these challenges in a coordinated way. There are obviously limits to our ability to mitigate ocean acidification, thermal stress to coral reefs, or extreme weather events, but we need to prepare for their consequences and limit their effects.

In particular, we need to plan for more extreme storm surge flooding. This will mean, not only establishing adequate coastal defenses to limit flooding and protect life and property, but also thinking about how to limit the large discharges of nutrients and other pollutants to the sea that flooding my cause.

3. Coastal development

Rapid coastal development in many emerging economies will bring with it industrial development, increasing coastal populations and urbanization. These, in turn, threaten the health of our oceans and they can only be mitigated if local and national governments effectively plan development and invest appropriately.

The effectiveness of measures to treat sewage and manage industrial waste and agricultural run-off will have profound effects on the health of our oceans. Particularly important is improving the water quality of rivers discharging to the sea that run through urban and industrial areas. Effective planning to preserve critical coastal habitats such as mangroves, sea grass beds and wetlands to preserve their coastal protection and nutrient filtration functions is also critically important.

Unfortunately, there are many stressors that will affect the health of our oceans, but for me, these are the big ones. Thinking and acting now to meet the challenges they present will be good for the oceans, the earth and our own future.

Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall

Stephen Hall's previous leadership roles include CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and Professor of Marine Biology at Flinders University, Australia. Stephen has served on several international advisory panels and, in 2010, was a member of a global team overseeing the reform of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Recognized as a leading scientist in his field, he has contributed more than 80 scientific publications on fisheries ecology and environmental issues as well as a highly cited book on the environmental effects of fishing. In 2004, Stephen was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and he continues to investigate and write on the roles and potential of fisheries and aquaculture for supporting international development objectives. In 2005, he was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal for leadership of AIMS. Stephen holds a Ph.D. in Marine Ecology from St. Andrews University and a B.S. in Marine Biology and Biochemistry from University of Wales, Bangor.

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