Overline: Catalogue of measures
Headline: A Rescue Plan for the Ocean

A comprehensive High Seas Treaty and extensive marine protected areas are urgently needed in the next decade to preserve life-supporting ocean function. These are just two of eight measures recommended in a study, to which Torsten Thiele from the Ocean Governance team at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) contributed.

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A comprehensive High Seas Treaty and extensive marine protected areas are urgently needed in the next decade to preserve life-supporting ocean function. iStock/ Javier Art Photography

International experts propose catalogue of measures to conserve our oceans

“There is an urgent need for action, because there are signs that the ocean is changing at a faster pace than even recent models predicted,” says Thiele, one of an international group of experts who prepared the study for the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

These experts highlight the following particularly worrying changes:

  • Ocean warming is accelerating, heating up 40 per cent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago;
  • Upper-ocean warming is changing the global wave climate, making waves stronger;
  • There are signs that the ocean might be starting to release some of that stored thermal energy, which could contribute to significant global temperature increases in the coming years;
  • Declining oxygen levels in the ocean, combined with chemical pollutants, is rendering vast areas uninhabitable;
  • Arctic and Antarctic ice is melting faster than scientists anticipated, and the subsequent sea-level rise has catastrophic consequences for cities around the world.
  • “Efforts to rigorously address global heating and limit surface temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2100 have to take priority,” stresses Thiele, “but measures should also be implemented to prepare for a temperature rise of 2–3°C.”

The multi-disciplinary team of marine scientists and experts in law, policy and finance, reviewed and synthesised the findings of 131 peer-reviewed scientific papers on ocean change in order to analyse the changes occurring and the consequences of inaction.

Their assessment warns of diminished marine food-chain production, reduced ability to store carbon, sinking oxygen levels, and the possible release of stored heat back into the atmosphere among the changes, either under way or evidenced as possible, in a global ocean under mass assault from human activity.

The IPSO Viewpoint Paper in Aquatic Conservation identifies priority actions that are needed in unison to avert worst-case scenarios for the ocean and potentially irreversible change. They include the development of a financing mechanism for ocean management and protection.

Other priority actions for the oceans are:

  • Securing a robust, comprehensive High Seas Treaty with a Conference of Parties and a Scientific Committee and reforming voting rights on bodies such as the International Seabed Authority to stop vested interests undermining the precautionary approach;
  • Enforcing existing standards for effective marine protected areas (MPAs) – especially for fully protected marine reserves – and extending full protection to at least 30% of the ocean, while also ensuring effective management of 100% of the rest of the ocean;
  • Putting an end to overfishing and destructive practices, including illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing;
  • Radically reducing marine water pollution, including nitrogen fertilisers and sewage as well as plastics;
  • Taking a ‘precautionary pause’ before any deep-sea mining begins in order to gather sufficient knowledge and enable sustainable management of those activities;
  • Scaling up scientific research on the ocean and increasing the transparency and accessibility of ocean data from all sources (i.e. science, government, industry). Increasing our understanding of heat absorption and heat release from the sea to the atmosphere should be a research priority. The UN Decade of Ocean Science beginning in 2021 is a key opportunity to achieve this step change.

Laffoley, D. et al.: Eight urgent fundamental and simultaneous steps needed to restore ocean health, and the consequences for humanity and the planet of inaction or delay, Ipso 07/2019.