Dan Laffoley's point of view: why is it urgent to protect the oceans?

fishes in the ocean

© Johnny Chen

Year after year, more and more voices are raised in the public debate to make us aware of the role that the oceans play in our societies, and of the threats to the marine environment. SUEZ has opened the pages of open_resource magazine to two personalities, known for a long time for their involvement in ocean’s defence: Isabelle Autissier, seafarer, author and the current President of WWF France, and Dan Laffoley, scientist and Marine Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

                                                                                                                  © Dan Laffoley

It is time to respect the ocean

Galileo Galilei, the famous 16th century astronomer and scientist once said “nature is relentless and unchangeable, (…) and it is indifferent as to whether its hidden reasons and actions are understandable to man or not.”
We have in some ways come a long way since those early days of science. We now understand much more about how intimate and central nature, and especially the ocean, is to our lives, welfare and future. And yet in some ways we are stuck with the indifference Galileo describes. We know more about the ocean, but does this make us care enough to properly protect it?

We now have the technology to look back from far away in our solar system at our home. What confronts us is a blue marble, because from afar the daily challenges and conflicts that confound our lives merge into the single vision of an ocean world. The ocean plays fundamental roles that support life, it is a reservoir of life that outstrips what we see on land in both scale of diversity and functions. Yet as much as we see the ocean, we have not valued it commensurate with the support it has given us.
The reality is that if we didn’t have an ocean to buffer living conditions, climate change would have simply run out of control, perhaps already increasing surface temperatures by a staggering 36°C. If scientists and politicians are worried about keeping increases to the surface temperatures below a rise of 2°C, or even 1.5°C, then surely we should all worry about keeping the ocean, which supports all of us, in a healthy state.

Stop the damages

That buffering role has come at a cost to alterations of the ocean’s physics and chemistry that have led to ocean warming, acidification, de-oxygenation and consequently sea-level rise. We already record impacts on entire ecosystems from polar to tropical regions, predicted to increase further in scale, stretching from accessible coasts to the deep ocean seabed; entire groups of species such as plankton, jellyfish, fishes, turtles and seabirds are being driven, by up to 10 degrees of latitude, towards the Earth’s poles to keep within reasonable environmental conditions; we see loss of breeding grounds for groups such as turtles and seabirds, and impacts on the breeding success of birds and sea mammals; and seasonality shifts by plankton, leading to potential mismatch between plankton species and their predators, such as fish and other marine wildlife.

If that were not enough our direct impacts have reduced the resilience of the ocean to resist long-term damage, and to recover. The obvious pressures are known well enough—extractive fisheries, and pollution from land. But we can now add to that the pervasive impacts from plastic pollution The problem is that the more we look, the more we research, the more we realise the deep respect we need to hold for the ocean.

                                                                                                                                                                        Fish caught in ghost nets ©vikaskanwal

Rebuild ocean resilience

What becomes urgent in all this is to address the underlying imbalances, mentioned above, which we are building up and that are damaging our lifesupporting ocean. Clearly there are massive knowledge questions we need to understand, but the fact is when we think of the ocean, when we think of our very finite home called Earth, we actually find ourselves in a global experiment where, rather than being a casual observer in the laboratory, we have all unwittingly placed ourselves inside the test-tube. So more knowledge is important to better guide us in the future, but action to stop damage and to rebuild ocean resilience is what is needed today.

I am often asked “so what should the priorities be? More ocean protection, better spatial planning, political join-up across global climate and biodiversity Conventions, great awareness, more education, more knowledge?” These days, with what we know about the whole Earth system and especially the ocean, my answer is simple: “We need them all, we need them now, and we need more action in a similar vein.” So it is, or should be, no longer a question of ‘them’ or ‘us’, or ‘you’ and ‘me’, but the fact that we are all in this together.

The reality is that we know what many of the solutions are, it is just that we need to put aside the desires of today, and put them into play at greater scale and with greater sincerity than never before, to ensure all our future tomorrow. We need to look beyond our own inbuilt insecurities, to raise our collective games, to properly recognize the direct and indirect support nature provides via the ocean, which is now critical to support. So let’s be busy with our lives, but busy knowing that we have taken the right actions to protect the ocean, which in turn protects all of us.


This article was published in the third issue of open_resource magazine : «The oceans, future of the blue planet»

Discover the point of view of Isabelle Autissier, President of WWF France.

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