29 September 2020 | 8 minutes.

Ocean protection: Vital to conservation and climate action


Alexandre Cornet
Ocean Policy Officer, WWF European Policy Office

Alexandre Cornet, Ocean Policy Officer, WWF European Policy Office

In partnership with WWF

This autumn, the global policy agenda for our ocean kicks into high gear. As world leaders convene to agree on actions for emissions reductions and biodiversity restoration as part of a wider green recovery, the European Union (EU) must turn failed promises into tangible actions. A key tool which decision-makers already hold in hand is effective marine protection, as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are scientifically demonstrated to fight both the climate and biodiversity crises.

MPAs not only alleviate the negative effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, capture carbon, protect coastlines from erosion and reduce water acidification, they also constitute vital sanctuaries for many threatened species. In turn, they support our communities by contributing to food security and safeguarding the landscapes many of us call home. However, poor management and lack of sound planning of our seas continue to render the vast majority of MPAs to mere lines on a map. To ensure the resilience of our ocean in the face of unprecedented changes, it is imperative for the EU to deliver on its commitment to marine protection, setting a global precedent that will ultimately benefit both people and planet.

Climate: A crisis for our seas

A year ago, the 2019 IPCC’s report on the Ocean and Cryosphere highlighted the poor state of our ocean and alerted us to its compromised future. Since 1980, the ocean has absorbed up to 30% of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions, which acidifies our seas, making them inhospitable to life. Having taken in up to 93% of excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere since 1970, the water is also getting warmer. The results include the melting glaciers and rising sea levels which fill our headlines, but also less visible consequences like reduced oxygen which suffocates marine life. As if this was not enough of a challenge, global overfishing combines with climate change to make things even worse for marine ecosystems, and we now face the disappearance of up to 15% of the global biomass of marine animals by 2100. The impacts on our societies would be extensive: fishery industries, for example, could lose up to a quarter of the fish needed to ensure populations remain large enough for us to continue harvesting seafood sustainably.

The ocean has absorbed up to 93% of excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere since 1970.

Although the European Union (EU) likes to think of itself as a climate and biodiversity leader on the global stage, it’s easy to see that we’re falling short when we look at what’s happening in our own backyard. For generations, we’ve been captivated by fantastic stories of mysterious creatures filling an immeasurable blue expanse, but what actually remains after decades of overexploitation are the very real dangers of polluted waters and plastic-contaminated seafood – where overfishing hasn’t already left us with nothing to catch. In June 2020, the European Environmental Agency confirmed that marine biodiversity is continuing to decline in Europe’s seas, with around 12% either threatened or near-threatened. About 84% of biodiversity in assessed European marine areas and nearly 80% of marine ecosystems are in “problematic” conditions. The European Commission reached a similarly bleak diagnosis in its analysis of how the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) – a key piece of legislation meant to deliver “clean, healthy and productive seas” – is being implemented by EU countries, admitting failure to reach the legal requirement of “Good Environmental Status” of all EU seas by 2020. Both reports point to human activities driving overexploitation, overfishing and pollution. The socio-economic consequences are unequivocal. The EU’s Blue Economy was worth around €750 billion in 2018, employing roughly five million people in sectors including fisheries and maritime tourism. The prosperity of these activities relies upon a thriving ocean, the foundation of which is resilient marine biodiversity.

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