Striving to stave off marine extinctions

Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010 By JANE SINGER 
Special to The Japan Times
Although oceans cover 73 percent of the surface of the Earth, little is known about marine plant and animal biodiversity. To learn more about their future prospects for this special coverage of COP10 in Nagoya, The Japan Times spoke with Francois Simard, an expert on ocean fisheries at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world's largest and oldest global environmental network.

What are the major threats to ocean biodiversity? 

The threats to the oceans fall into two general categories. The first includes overfishing, illegal fishing and similar causes of species loss for fisheries, what we call "unreported and unregulated catches."

Also in the first category are marine pollution and the disruption of coastal ecosystems by ships that enter ports and release ballast water containing alien species.

Another problem is terrestrial pollution that is borne by rivers that lead to the sea.

We have developed many tools to fight these kinds of threats.

However, there is a second category that may be even more important, and that is the effects of climate change, and particularly ocean acidification. 

Marine absorption of rising emissions of carbon dioxide is causing the pH level of sea water to decline and it is becoming increasingly acidic. Many kinds of sea life form shells, and we have learned that acidification may disrupt shell calcification or dissolve shells.

Although we don't know what the exact impacts will be, some scenarios suggest that if this should worsen it will be the end of all shellfish, and the end of the sea as we know it.

How concerned are you about overfishing? 

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) says that more than 75 percent of all food fish species are fully exploited or overexploited. We don't know if we've reached a tipping point for certain species because some fish are more adaptable than we think. Tuna, in particular, because it's a warm-blooded species, can range from the tropics to polar areas. Still, even if we're not sure of a particular tipping point, we need to apply the precautionary approach here (and limit or ban fishing)

What are the major drivers of fisheries depletion? 

For one thing, the growth in the human population is putting great pressure on fisheries in developing nations. Fishing populations in coastal areas are also receiving impacts from coastal development.

Then you have the development of advanced technology in developed countries, such as large-scale factory ships.
I think, though, that badly managed small-scale traditional fisheries, where fishermen take more small fish than is allowed, are also unsustainable and can lead to a collapse in stocks.

There are some examples of well- managed fisheries. For example, the anchoveta fisheries in Peru are well managed and sustainable in terms of fish stock. In Japan, you have many coastal fisheries that are well managed, even though Japan has a poor reputation for overexploiting fish stocks outside Japan.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Japan, which is in charge of managing marine ecosystems, has not been very cooperative with organizations like ours, but I think they don't understand how we work and thus they don't want to work with us. This is in part due to the soured climate caused by the whaling issue. 

Is there consensus on the need for marine reserves? 

We lack a lot of (scientific) evidence to support marine protected areas (MPAs), but it's obvious that if you stop fishing in a certain area there will be more fish. People can understand that easily even without a lot of evidence. We are making a lot of progress on agreeing on MPAs, whether they are no-take or managed fishing zones.

There seems to be a consensus today among fishermen, scientists and governments that we need to stave off the extinction of marine life and stop biodiversity loss. Everyone also agrees that the scientific assessments of risk are more or less correct.

At COP10, I would like to see a commitment to achieve our prior goal of 10 percent of the seas being MPAs by 2012 — and then, I hope, set new goals, such as 15 percent by 2020. But just declaring MPAs without enforcement would result in what we call "paper parks." We need to work with countries to protect them, and we need to learn more about what kind of life exists in the millions of kilometers of ocean around us.