By Lance Morgan, President of Marine Conservation Institute
“The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” – E. O. Wilson
Today is a day for celebrating all that biodiversity gives to humankind, and making a renewed commitment to protecting it. The year’s theme is “Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health,” but how often do we really make food choices that protect biodiversity? The seafood we eat has important consequences for biodiversity.
Bottom trawling is a method of fishing that creates lasting damage to the ocean and it continues to be widespread across the continental shelves of the world’s oceans. In 1998 our organization provided a special issue for the journal Conservation Biology that focused on the impact of bottom trawling in the ocean; the cover piece highlighted the similarity to forest clear-cutting. Continental shelves are some of the most productive areas of the ocean, but years of overfishing and habitat destruction – coupled with ocean warming and land-based pollution have greatly reduced catches and populations. This especially impacts species that are long-lived and slow to reproduce such as deep-sea sharks, rays and skates. Trawlers now repeatedly criss-cross, back and forth, across the continental shelves in pursuit of smaller and smaller fish – like sole, snapper, shrimp and cod – and their populations are dwindling. Biodiversity is being lost, trawl by trawl.
This is important because the seafloor is rich in corals, sponges and other structure-forming critters that create homes, nurseries and feeding areas. These ecosystems break down and sequester carbon from our CO2 emissions, hold untold secrets for future medical cures and support a vast food web that feeds us. Biodiversity is in serious trouble, as the most recent global analysis reports, and as a result, so are we. Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, concluded: “We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
Put another way – our blue planet is on life support.
“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean” – Arthur C. Clarke
The report indicates that up to a million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction as the result of human actions. What the report is clear about is that we can’t continue operating in a business as usual method. We should question the idea that dragging the seafloor for fish and discarding the bits we don’t want, while not considering the biodiversity that sustains not just the fish, but our planet, is no longer an acceptable means of feeding the world. You can add your voice to those of our colleagues at the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition calling on the New Zealand government to stop trawling deep sea coral forests.
There is still hope for biodiversity; many less damaging methods exist to capture fish. Working with diverse fishing stakeholders to find alternatives to trawling, we produced a report – “Shifting Gears” – which highlights the ecological impacts of different fishing methods. Today, some areas of the US are set aside in no-trawl zones by many of the regional Fishery Management Councils, and the international community resolved to stop damaging Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (octopus brooding grounds, coral forests, sponge gardens and other fragile marine life) in areas outside national jurisdictions, particularly on seamounts. Unfortunately, the biodiversity crisis requires us to rethink all of our activities – and put an end to destructive practices like trawling.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are another means to protect habitats and conserve biodiversity, but a recent study of European MPAs showed that 59% of these areas were being heavily trawled. To effectively protect biodiversity we must insist that protected areas prohibit activities like bottom trawling, and preferably, all extraction. A new effort that our Atlas of Marine Protection team guides, is providing a better understanding of the benefits of protection – stronger protections lead to better biodiversity outcomes. The highest levels of biodiversity protections are now recognized as true Blue Parks – a new innovative collaboration we are leading to ensure that MPAs meet the highest conservation standards. Blue Parks managers are recognized for their hard work to protect biodiversity, and as more MPAs reach this standard the world can move towards a truly representative system of Global Ocean Refuges that will safeguard life in the sea.
We need everyone to take action to save our Blue Planet and the biodiversity that sustains us all.
A few suggestions for this International Day of Biodiversity: