Could the Ocean of Our (Not So) Distant Past Become Our Future?

14 March 2024 - // Features
Emma Finnamore
Junior Communication Officer at REVOLVE

Exploring the environmental decline of oceans and advocating for a return to a thriving marine ecosystem. 

Beneath the surface, aquatic ecosystems are facing a steep decline. The seas are emptying, the coral and oyster reefs are in critical condition, and aged fisheries are collapsing. Unrestrained human activity in pursuit of financial gain is the main culprit of this environmental decay, and in the European Union (EU), policy-makers, researchers, and academics alike make the case for a nature-led return to what once was: a thriving ocean full of wildlife.  

Gradual, slow violence such as biodiversity loss is hard to recognize from a human point of view. Harder still when the ecosystems affected are out of sight – underwater – and out of mind – only met when consumed on a plate. The ‘shifting baseline,’ first described by fisheries scientist Dr. Daniel Pauly in 1995, is the failure to process a change as the reference points continue to shift, themselves obscuring the original state of being.  

There are many issues concerning the assessment of what remains in our oceans. Sir Dr. Poul Holm, Professor of Environmental History and Director of the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities at Trinity College Dublin, elaborates further: “Fish stocks are monitored and managed by a short-sighted system that operates on the basis of very short baselines. When we look at the longer time frame, say since 1950, it is obvious that we have fished down the ecosystem and are nowhere near rebuilding valuable stocks. Single-stock management has left us with ecosystems that are out of balance.”  

Conservation experts argue that as people, we all have some connection to the ocean, no matter how far inland from the shore.

Many cannot fathom what is being lost as they do not know what was once there in the first place. Hauntingly, journalist Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs that “the next generation of children, who will never remember [what] once existed in the wild, will not hear anything eerie in the silence. Once a mass murder is complete, its victims tell no tales. When nobody is left alive who remembers…the loss is not felt.”  

Lack of awareness is not a good alibi.  

The citizens of the EU have a particular duty to the world’s ocean life. The Commission reports that the EU is the world’s biggest market for seafood, where each citizen consumes on average 24,4 kg of seafood a year. The structure of the Union itself could potentially act as a formidable tool in conservation policy, as it is in a more capable position to oversee its safeguarding in comparison to its member states whose policy-makers are inclined to prioritize their economic growth over sustainable ocean management. Regarding mobilization for action, conservation experts argue that as people, we all have some connection to the ocean, no matter how far inland from the shore.  

According to Dr. Aleksandre Gogaladze, Ocean Policy Officer at the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) EU office, “sustainable ocean management, broadly speaking, means balanced and responsible use of the ocean, to make sure that we reserve basically the rights of future generations to have access to the same resources that we have today. What we have today is what our ancestors saved for us. And we have a moral obligation to do the same for future generations.”

Coral reef. Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash

The current framework outlines the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which operate on a spectrum of strictness of human intervention. Dr. Gogaladze explains, “12% of EU seas are designated MPAs currently. The goal by 2030 is to have 30% covered, so an increase of 18% in six years. But it cannot just be designated without any guidance or change in human behavior.” Alluding to a ‘paper park,’ a term coined by the WWF meaning a region legally assigned as protected, but in practice, ineffective, Dr. Gogaladze advocates for better protected, stricter zones with less human interference.  

Holm feels similarly, arguing that “MPAs are likely a very efficient way to rebuild ecosystems if they are large enough and effectively policed and commercial fisheries limited or prohibited. The reality is that MPAs are often introduced in areas of low productivity or come with such a light touch that they do not fulfill their purpose.”  

In making a case for restoration and expertise to go beyond the hard sciences and receive multidisciplinary support, he added, “We also need to rebuild reef habitats that have been effectively ruined by trawling and stone-fishing for decades. Historical maps of lost habitats are much needed to inform management.”  

What we have today is what our ancestors saved for us. And we have a moral obligation to do the same for future generations.

Dr. Aleksandre Gogaladze

Conservation efforts regarding European reefs are already coming to fruition. Oyster reefs are the temperate equivalent of tropical coral reefs. Oysters themselves are a keystone species, filtering water and acting as a buffer against ocean acidification, like makeshift kidneys along the coast. They can also act as natural barriers preventing erosion, a nature-based climate adaptation that will mitigate the surges of sea level rise to come.  

The decimation of 99% of oyster reefs globally in the last 150 years is a result of fishing pressure, overharvesting, pollution, and disease imported through increasingly global trade, contributing to the steady degradation of native habitat.  

The Native Oyster Reef Restoration Ireland (NORRI) project, led by Steven Kavanagh, CEO of Marine Health Foods, and Dr. Anamarija Frankić, professor of ecology and biomimicry at the University of Zadar, works from an ecosystem-based perspective. Kavanagh assures that “the tide must lift all boats. We must all be involved for this to work properly.” With the improvement of environmental health, such as the growth of kelp forests, NORRI speculates that Ireland could sequester up to 2,6 million tons of CO2 a year.  

Oysters and clams underwater. Photo: Studio Philippines / Canva

“No species wants to live alone. They work with each other, they collaborate with each other to survive. If we restore one of those species, it’s not going to work as well as if we did all of them together in the habitat,” says Dr. Frankić. “Everybody’s asking me, you need to prove that…but isn’t that obvious? Why do we need to prove something that nature has already proved, for millions of years?” The group has secured a site and, in collaboration with a hatchery, will continue building an integrated restorative sanctuary for oysters, fostering coastal biodiversity.   

Overfishing, albeit the current global norm, will end, either by regulation or fishery collapse. While the reality of marine ecosystems is dire, change will come, and the future is as open and endless as the ocean itself. For aquatic life, experts in conservation agree that the best thing would be to leave the fish alone.  

“There is no sustainable fishing industry, at all,” Dr. Frankić reasons. “We need to start thinking about the fishing industry and seafood like our ancestors did.” Anything with the prefix “over” is not the answer – instead, let nature take the lead and show its resilience, inspired by the possibilities of the past, before trawlers and overexploitation robbed the water of life.  

Overfishing, albeit the current global norm, will end, either by regulation or fishery collapse. 

Conservation and restoration go hand-in-hand in the seas, allowing them to self-rejuvenate and increase their biodiversity. Scientists and researchers aim to build the conditions for species to balance themselves out within thriving ecosystems. The creation of strictly protected areas, with minimal to no human economic activity, requires cohesion at many levels (local, regional, EU), along with supplementary policies such as reducing pollution and eliminating bycatch, for robust success.  

True sustainable ocean management will be developed through the restoration of marine ecosystems. In this way, the coastal communities that take care of them have a special role in the future of our aquatic life. Seas are a communal resource, a shared heritage, and should be treated as such going forward into the deep blue unknown.  

The 1993 collapse of the cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, acted as the canary in the coal mine for the commercial fishing industry. A trade that shaped the societies of North American settler colonies for over 500 years shuttered overnight. In the early colonial era, European seafarers wrote of the Atlantic as so rich with sea life that they could reach into the glittering water and pull out fish without a net. 

In the 20th century, the cod population had been decimated, falling to about 1% of these original historical levels, owing largely to the introduction of trawlers and other harmful mass extraction techniques. When a moratorium on cod fishing was publicly announced, fishermen who simultaneously lost their jobs and way of life stormed the press room, devastated. Cod is not the only victim. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN estimates that 85% of commercial marine fish stocks are overfished or exploited. Overfishing and bycatch are pushing a myriad of species to the brink of extinction.   

Emma Finnamore
Junior Communication Officer at REVOLVE

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