The former glory of the world’s oceans could be restored within a generation of 30 years, as per a major new scientific review. The rebounding sea life, from humpback whales off Australia to elephant seals in the US and green turtles in Japan, have been reported.
For centuries, humanity has inflicted severe damage to the oceans and its inhabitants through rampant overfishing, pollution, and coastal destruction. But conservation successes demonstrate the remarkable resilience of the seas while still isolated.
Now there is knowledge to create an ocean renaissance for wildlife by 2050 and also support the services that people rely on globally, from food to coastal protection to climate stability as per the scientists. The measures needed, including the protection of large swathes of ocean, sustainable fishing, and pollution controls, would cost billions of dollars a year. However, it would also bring benefits 10 times as high, the scientists say.
However, that would also require tackling the escalating climate crisis for protecting the oceans from acidification, oxygen loss, and the devastation of coral reefs. The growing awareness of the oceans’ ability and coastal habitats like mangroves and salt marshes to rapidly soak up carbon dioxide and strengthen shorelines against rising sea levels is good news, the scientists say.
“We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver a healthy ocean to our grandchildren, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so,” said Prof Carlos Duarte, of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, who led the review. “Failing to embrace this challenge, and in so doing condemning our grandchildren to a broken ocean unable to support good livelihoods, is not an option.”
Prof Callum Roberts, at the University of York, one of the review’s international team, said: “Overfishing and climate change are tightening their grip, but there is hope in the science of restoration.
“One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back. We can turn the oceans around, and we know it makes sense economically, for human wellbeing and, of course, for the environment.”
The review, published in the journal Nature, found that fishing is slowly becoming more sustainable globally, and the destruction of habitats such as seagrass meadows and mangroves has almost stopped. The restoration of habitats is taking place in places from Tampa Bay, Florida, to the Philippines.
The success stories include humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica to eastern Australia. Its populations had surged from a few hundred in numbers in 1968, before whaling was banned, to more than 40,000 now. In western Canada, sea otters have risen from just dozens in 1980 to thousands today. In the Baltic Sea, populations of both grey seal and cormorant are soaring.
“We’re beginning to appreciate the value of what we’re losing and not just in terms of intrinsic beauty of the wildlife but in terms of protecting our livelihoods and societies from bad things happening, whether that be poor water quality in rivers and oceans or sea level rise beating on the doorstep of coastal areas,” said Roberts.
However, progress is far from straightforward. Plastics and farm-generated pollution continue getting poured into the oceans, the waters are reaching record high temperatures, and destructive overfishing still practiced in many places, where overexploitation found in at least one-third of fish stocks.
“The Mediterranean is still pretty much a basket case,” said Roberts. “And there is horrendous overfishing throughout large parts of south-east Asia and India, where fisheries are just catching anything they trawl on the seabed to render into fish meal and oil.”
The few hundred surviving northern right whales have moved along the coast of the western Atlantic due to the global heating of the oceans. According to Roberts, amid this busy shipping lanes and lobster fisheries, they are killed by collisions or drowned in a tangle of ropes. However, new regulations are starting to help.
The Gulf of Mexico suffers massive dead zones owing to manure and fertilizer running off midwest farms in massive amounts, and elsewhere albatrosses continue to be snared by long-line fishers, despite there are simple solutions.
Roberts said the return of once-abundant oyster beds that can clean vast volumes of water to marine protected areas that can boost fishery catches nearby, such as by the Scottish island of Arran, is a growing number of examples of the benefits of restorative habits.
“When I started working on the science of marine protected areas in the early 1990s. it was very much a niche interest,” said Roberts. “Now it’s being discussed at the top level internationally, and we have many countries signing up to expand protection to 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, with the UK among the early adopters of the target.” Marine protected areas have increased from 0.9% of the ocean in 2000 to 7.4% now, though not fully implemented.
The review of the scientists concludes that restoring the oceans by 2050 is a grand challenge that can be achieved with a redoubling of conservation efforts globally: “Meeting the challenge would be a historic milestone in humanity’s quest to achieve a globally sustainable future.”