Human Activity Pushing Marine Life to the Brink of Collapse

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International conservation group is calling on world leaders to make ‘profound’ changes to way ocean is managed and protected

Fish species essential to food security for much of the developing world have declined by more than half. (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images via WWF report)

Human activity is pushing marine life to the brink of collapse, warned a leading international conservation group, which found that overfishing, destruction of marine habitats, and climate change has led to the loss of almost half the world’s marine mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish within a single generation.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on Wednesday released an emergency edition of its Living Blue Planet Report (pdf) to highlight this dangerous trend ahead of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit later this month.

At the meeting, world leaders are expected to formally approve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and WWF is warning that without “profound changes” to the way the ocean is managed and protected the world may be facing an ecosystem “collapse.”

Among the report’s dire findings:

  • Around one in four species of sharks, rays, and skates is now threatened with extinction, due primarily to overfishing.
  • Tropical reefs have lost more than half their reef-building coral over the last 30 years.
  • Marine vertebrate populations declined 49 percent between 1970 and 2012.
  • If current rates of temperature rise continue, the ocean will become too warm for coral reefs by 2050.

Further, the study also highlights “an impending social and economic crisis” as fish and other marine life are critical for the food security of billions of people, a large sector of which live in developing countries.

Researchers found that “species essential to commercial and subsistence fishing—and therefore global food supply—may be suffering the greatest declines.” Populations of fish species most utilized by humans have fallen by at least half, with the critical family consisting of tunas, mackerels, and bonitos decreased by 74 percent.

“Overfishing, destruction of marine habitats, and climate change have dire consequences for the entire human population, with the poorest communities that rely on the sea getting hit fastest and hardest,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. “The collapse of ocean ecosystems could trigger serious economic decline – and undermine our fight to eradicate poverty and malnutrition.”

WWF is also looking to the upcoming COP21 UN Climate Summit in Paris where negotiations by world leaders to limit global warming “will directly impact the future of ocean health.”

“Current international commitments fall far short of the action needed to stop levels of warming and acidification that are proving catastrophic to the ocean systems all people depend on,” the group notes.

“The fortunate news is that solutions do exist and we know what needs to be done. The ocean is a renewable resource that can provide for all future generations if the pressures are dealt with effectively,” Lambertini added. “If we live within sustainable limits, the ocean will contribute to food security, livelihoods, economies and our natural systems. The equation is that simple. We must take this opportunity to support the ocean and reverse the damage while we still can.”

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