Will a Global Network of Marine Reserves Reverse Troubling Trends in the Sea?

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As a sombre reminder that the oceans too are suffering the grave effects of over-exploitation and widespread pollution, a new report released by the Worldwatch Institute indicates that 76 percent of world fish stocks are either fully or over-exploited. The report suggests that in order to protect marine biodiversity and human livelihoods, marine reserves or "national parks of the sea" should be set up and precautionary procedures taken to curb the pollution disrupting oceanic temperature and chemistry.

"The oceans cannot save themselves," says Worldwatch Institute president Christopher Flavin. "Collective commitments to thriving ecosystems are needed to save overfished species from being systematically depleted from compromised habitats." The exhaustion of global fish stocks can be traced to over-fishing, the use of harmful fishing methods such as bottom trawling, unsustainable aquaculture and illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing.

Marine pollution is another culprit — and can originate from chemical, radioactive and organic sources — from oil spills to marine debris (plastics, junked fishing gear) to agricultural and sewage runoff — the latter two in particular are responsible for so-called oxygen-poor "dead zones that are made inhabitable by an excess of nitrogen.

The report, titled Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity, outlines solutions to reverse this over-exploitative trend, wherein fisheries move from a single-species approach to a holistic, ecosystems-based outlook to conservation, as part of a well-connected global network of marine reserves protecting vital habitats.

The report notes successful precedents of marine reserves in the Caribbean and the Red Sea as positive models where fish populations rebounded.

Currently, there is no framework under existing international treaties to create a global system of marine reserves in the high seas — which are areas beyond the usual governmental jurisdiction. Instead, the report proposes a new implementation agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to create and manage the reserves.

Even more tellingly, the report also points out that the commercial and trade bias of the WTO in fishing negotiations are hindering conservation efforts — and that the so-called "sweetheart" deals which allow developed nations to over-fish in the waters of developing nations are economically unfair, environmentally and socially unsustainable and should come to an end if marine biodiversity and the livelihoods that depend upon it are to be protected. Ultimately, the report cautions that "current presumptions that favor freedom to fish and freedom of the seas will need to be replaced with the new concept of freedom for the seas."
::Worldwatch Institute

See also ::The 10 Solutions to Save the Oceans

Image: National Geographic