Albion Monitor /News

World Scientists Say Marine Life in Trouble

"Scientists who study the earth's living systems are far more worried than the public and our political leaders"
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Marine scientists around the globe, declaring there is a serious threat to life under the sea, have called for decisive action to end the destruction of the world's oceans.

More than 1,600 scientists signed a statement, released on January 6 at the outset of the U.N.'s International Year of the Ocean, that urges the international community to take concrete steps to combat threats to marine life.

These measures include the ending of government subsidies that encourage overfishing, increasing the number of marine sanctuary areas and modifying or halting fishing methods such as bottom trawling which threaten species and disrupt marine ecosystems.

The signatories of the statment, who represent scientists working in 65 countries, also called on President Bill Clinton to host a White House conference on the marine environment to highlight the growing crisis in the seas.

"Because few of us spend time below the surface, it is easy to overlook signs that things are going wrong in the sea," said Dr. Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), which spearheaded the effort. "But scientists who study the earth's living systems are far more worried than the public and our political leaders."

Norse said the scientists' statement, entitled "Troubled Waters: A Call for Action," should serve as a "wake-up call that nobody can afford to ignore."

Only 15 countries -- half the number of countries needed for the Agreement to take effect -- have signed the pact in two years
The majority of signatories are North American, but also include marine scientists from nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The scientists represent countries whose fish stocks have been sharply reduced by overfishing, pollution, atmospheric change and other threats to marine life.

The statement echoes warnings voiced during the first World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers held in New Delhi two months ago. At that meeting, traditional fish harvesters from rich and poor nations complained that deep-sea fishing fleets, supported by more than $50 billion per year in government subsidies, were devastating fish stocks and marine ecosystems on which local fishing communities depend for their livelihoods.

In November 1997, the United Nations General Assembly reported on the slow progress toward ratifying the "U.N. Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks," the first global effort to regulate fish stocks to ensure sustainability.

But only 15 countries -- half the number of countries needed for the Agreement to take effect -- have signed the pact since it was first opened for signing two years ago.

The statement released last week sets a much broader agenda, stressing that life in the world's estuaries, coastal waters, enclosed seas and oceans is increasingly at risk from a variety of threats which must be addressed urgently.

Those threats include the over-exploitation of commercial species of fish, the physical alteration of ecosystems, pollution, and changes in the global atmosphere.

Over-fishing has decimated commercial fish populations and caused the collapse of fisheries worldwide, including cod and swordfish, while sea lion populations have fallen as competition for food has intensified. At the same time, cyanide and dynamite fishing are destroying the world's richest coral reefs, while bottom trawling is "scouring continental shelf seabeds from the poles to the tropics."

According to the statement, mangrove forests are vanishing, while logging and farming on hillsides are exposing soils to rains that wash silt into the sea, killing kelps and reef corals, just as toxic waste from sewage and chemicals are poisoning estuaries, coastal waters and enclosed seas.

"If it's business as usual," noted Patricia Morse, a marine biologist at Northeastern University in Boston, "we'll see more declines in corals, fishes, marine mammals and seabirds. That spells disaster for industries like fishing and tourism that depend on healthy marine life, and for every human on earth because we all use goods and services provided by the sea every day."

She pointed out that oceans help regulate the global climate, provide a breathable atmosphere, and break down wastes. "When we destroy these ecosystems, we lose both their products and services."

Bottom trawling for fish to the "clear-cutting" of forests on land
MCBI also pointed to recent epidemic diseases that have swept through a number of marine species, from corals to dolphins, as an another indication of the urgency of taking action.

Mass deaths of long-spined black sea urchins in the Caribbean in 1983-84, harbor seals from the Baltic to the British Isles in 1988, dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean recently, monk seals in the Mediterranean and of corals in the Philippines and the Caribbean suggest that the immune systems of many of these animals are being seriously weakened by pollution cause by humans, the paper said.

To reverse these trends, the international community must take urgent measures to ensure the sustainability of threatened species, the scientists said in their statement. These include increasing the marine areas protected under law from far less than one percent to 20 percent of nations' exclusive economic zones and the high seas by the year 2020.

In a background paper released with the statement, MCBI compared bottom trawling for fish to the "clear-cutting" of forests on land.

"The area of seabed trawled worldwide (each year) is at least 15 times the area of forest that is clearcut," according to the paper, which notes that trawling not only catches fish "faster than they can replace themselves," but also profoundly alters the habitats of the world's continental shelves.

"The situation is so serious that leaders and citizens cannot afford to wait even a decade to make major progress towards these goals," the statement insisted.

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Albion Monitor January 12, 1998 (

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