State of the Ocean Report Reveals the World's Ocean is in Dire Straits

The world's oceans are in dire straits and urgent action is needed to prevent further degradation. Scientific studies conducted as part of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) under the auspices of the IUCN reveal that the rate, speed, and impact of changes occurring in our oceans are much greater and are occurring more rapidly, with impacts being felt far sooner than previously suggested.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently acknowledged that the oceans are bearing the brunt of carbon impact, and that much of the anthropogenic carbon emissions and excess heat being generated is being absorbed by the world's oceans. While this may temporarily lessen the impacts of carbon emissions and temperature increases on land, offering us some reprieve in terms of warming, this will be short-lived, as the cumulative impact on oceans, exacerbated further by other impacts that place even more pressure on ocean ecosystems, has been shown to be far worse than previously estimated. The State of the Ocean Report delves deeper into the consequences of the continued input of anthropogenic stressors on the world's ocean, and the future does not look good.

The ocean's capacity to withstand the current 'carbon perturbations' is being severely compromised due to decreasing oxygen levels as a result of nitrogen run-off from land and climate change factors. Pollution and overfishing are exacerbating the problem further, severely reducing the ability of the oceans to serve as a 'buffer' to the Earth for much longer.

Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford, and Scientific Director of IPSO said: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

The results of the studies were recently published in a special edition of the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin (September, 2013), titled: The Global State of the Ocean; Interactions Between Stresses, Impacts and Some Potential Solutions.

The research team, consisting of scientists specializing in a range of marine science disciplines, identified the following factors as being of utmost concern with regards to the future health of the oceans:

De-oxygenation: It is becoming apparent that ocean oxygen levels are steadily declining, with oxygen levels predicted to decline by up to 7% by the end of this century. There are two factors that are causing this: firstly, warmer waters hold less oxygen, so global warming is a major contributing factor, affecting primarily the oxygen content of tropical waters and certain parts of the North Pacific; secondly, coastal eutrophication due to nitrogen run-off from fertilizers, animal waste and sewage causes oxygen within the water to be depleted, leading to coastal hypoxia or ocean dead zones – large bodies of coastal water that are low in oxygen, and are thus unable to support life.

Acidification: If CO2 emissions continue at the current levels the consequences for marine life will be severe. Atmospheric CO2 levels are projected to rise to 450-500 ppm between 2030-2050, at which point erosion of coral reefs will exceed calcification and coral reef formation, which will cause certain species to become extinct and lead to decline in ocean biodiversity. As marine organisms provide humankind with a significant source of protein, together with other services, such as coastal protection from severe storms, any threat to ocean life is also a threat to human life.

Warming: The world's ocean is bearing the brunt of global warming and is experiencing physical and biogeochemical effects as a result. Over the next four decades continued warming is projected to have multiple impacts on ocean ecosystems, including: reducing the amount of seasonal ice cover – Arctic summer sea ice is expected to disappear by 2037; increased stratification of ocean waters, resulting in oxygen depletion; an increase in methane released from the Arctic seabed – methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than CO2; and an increase in anoxic and hypoxic conditions, which will reduce the ability of the ocean to support life.

The combination of the above three factors – de-oxygenation, acidification and warming – significantly impairs ocean productivity, as they affect ocean temperature, ocean chemistry, stratification of water layers, as well as availability of oxygen and nutrients. As the ocean environment undergoes these changes, many marine ecosystems will transform so drastically that they will no longer be able to support the species that currently reside there. This will not only impact the species concerned, but will also have knock-on effects for entire marine food webs and the ocean ecosystem at large.

Overfishing: Over exploitation of marine resources at unsustainable levels further compounds the problems listed above. Overfishing has not only caused the collapse of key marine species, but indiscriminate fishing practices have also caused widespread devastation to non-target species and to ecosystems that support a rich web of marine life. According to a 2012 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 70% of global fish stocks are unsustainably harvested, 30% of which have collapsed to less than 10% of their original unexploited levels.























The IUCN’s Professor Dan Laffoley said: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.”

Download the Report:
The findings were published in Marine Pollution Bulletin Volume 74 Issue 2 and can also be downloaded from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean website.


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As a matter of urgency, the marine scientists say that world governments must:
  • Reduce global CO2 emissions to limit temperature rise to less than 2 Degrees C, or below 450 CO2e. Current targets for carbon emission reductions are insufficient in terms of ensuring coral reef survival and other biological effects of acidification, especially as there is a time lag of several decades between atmospheric CO2 and CO2 dissolved in the ocean. Potential knock-on effects of climate change in the ocean, such as methane release from melting permafrost, and coral dieback, mean the consequences for human and ocean life could be even worse than presently calculated.
  • Ensure effective implementation of community- and ecosystem-based management, favoring small-scale fisheries. Examples of broad-scale measures include introducing true co-management with resource adjacent communities, eliminating harmful subsidies that drive overcapacity, protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems, banning the most destructive fishing gear, and combating IUU fishing.
  • Build a global infrastructure for high seas governance that is fit-for-purpose. Most importantly, secure a new implementing agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the auspices of UNCLOS.
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