World Oceans Day: What Are We Doing? – by Robin Kundis Craig

plastic pollution

Plastic octopus thrown back by the Pacific Ocean at Gray Whale Cove, California Coast, USA (Photo credit: Wonderlane via flickr cc)

What Is World Oceans Day?

Tomorrow (June 8th) is World Oceans Day. This is a relatively new event—the United Nations General Assembly decided in 2008 (United Nations Resolution 63/111, paragraph 171) that every June 8, starting with June 8, 2009, would bear the United Nation’s designation of World Oceans Day. The purpose in designating World Oceans Day was to call attention to the many problems facing the ocean and to raise global awareness of the many challenges facing both marine ecosystems and the humans that depend upon them.

In 2013, the theme for World Oceans Day is “Oceans & People.”

The interesting thing about this video is that it shows healthy, beautiful oceans teeming with life. The oceans themselves, however, are more often than not in much worse shape than that.

Humans’ Unsustainable Use of the Oceans

Whatever your definition of “sustainability” or “sustainable development,” humans’ use of the oceans is not it. The oceans have been subjected to multiple stressors from humans and are failing because of it. These human misuses include coastal development, pollution, and overfishing.

Humans like to live near coasts. In 1998, for example, over half the world’s population—3.2 billion people—lived within 200 kilometers (120 miles) of a coast, and fully two-thirds—4 billion people—lived within 400 kilometers (240 miles) of a coast. Currently, about half a billion people live within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of a coast, and that number is expected to double by 2050. Projections indicate that, by 2050, over 2.75 billion people world-wide will be immediately vulnerable to sea-level rise and increasingly severe coastal storms.

In the meantime, people living in the coastal zone means coastal development. This development, especially when unplanned, directly destroys coastal ecosystems such as estuaries, mangroves, and coral reefs. These are some of the most productive habitats on the planet, supporting fishing and tourism, and they also act as nurseries for species more generally found in deeper waters. Habitat destruction—in the coasts as on land—is the leading factor in species loss. Finally, as everyone in the United States should know after Hurricane Katrina, these coastal ecosystems also help to protect coasts from storm surge.

plastic pollution

Photo credit: epSos.de via flickr cc

Coastal development also leads to another stressor on the oceans: pollution. Contrary to popular conceptions based on disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, at least 80% of marine pollution comes from land. This pollution includes untreated runoff, which is the cause of marine “dead zones” (hypoxic zones) throughout the world; atmospheric deposition of pollutants such as nitrogen compounds, dust, and mercury, where air currents carry air pollutants out to sea and they settle into the water; and all forms of trash, especially plastics. Plastics constitute about 90% of the trash floating in the world’s oceans, and they concentrate in the oceans’ natural current gyres. For example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific Ocean concentrates plastic pollution over an area the size of Texas in a region of the ocean that includes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Finally, there is overfishing. Humans are good at fishing beyond the ocean’s capacity to supply targets. Whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries hunted most whale species almost to extinction, and most species of whale remain protected as endangered species under both United States and international law to this day. Atlantic cod and California sardines were fished to the point of economic collapse by the mid-20th century. In 2003, scientists estimated that fishing had reduced the number of large ocean fish—the apex predators—to just 10% of their natural levels; other scientists predict that all marine fish species will be commercially extinct by 2050.

Unfortunately, all of this destruction was taking place before we really knew what the oceans contained. The decade-long, world-wide Census of Marine Life was completed in 2010 and almost immediately added 20,000 new species to the known lists of marine biodiversity. Discoveries from this research are still being reported, with potential unknown riches for medicine and industry. However, the world is unlikely to know the marine species that were driven extinct before we ever knew they existed.

The Added Problem of Climate Change

Climate change is only adding to the oceans’ woes. As concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase, the world’s average air temperature is also increasing. As air temperatures rise, so do ocean temperatures, and both winds and ocean currents change. As a result, ocean species are already migrating poleward to cooler temperatures; changing ocean currents have caused new “dead zones” in several places across the globe; and marine “hot spots,” like the one off the coast of Tasmania, Australia, are interfering with mariculture.

Climate change also has an insidious “evil twin” effect for the oceans: ocean acidification. Oceans are naturally slightly basic. However, as the world’s largest carbon sink, they absorb tons of carbon dioxide—about 40% of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans. This absorption, in turn, induces a chemical reaction that, in effect, converts the carbon dioxide to carbonic acid. As a result, the pH of the oceans is changing and has already dropped by 0.1 to 0.3 pH units. While this may not sound like much, it is enough to begin to interfere with the shell-forming processes of many marine organisms such as clams—a physical reaction that is already interfering with mariculture in the states of Washington and Maine.

The ocean ecosystems hardest hit by all of these impacts are, and will continue to be, coral reefs. Coral reefs cover only about 1% of the ocean floor, but they support about 25% of all marine species. However, they tend to be near-shore marine ecosystems, rendering them vulnerable to coastal development and coastal pollution. They are also biologically rich ecosystems, making them large-time targets of fishermen. The corals are sensitive to both increasing ocean temperature and ocean acidification. As a result, the future of the world’s coral reefs is bleak. Scientists estimate that one-third of all reef-building corals are in danger of extinction, and coral reefs the world over are in serious decline.

Is There Hope?

It isn’t time to give up on the oceans yet. By reducing or eliminating the existing stressors on the world’s marine ecosystems—overfishing, pollution, and development destruction—we can make these systems more resilient to climate change. By enacting adaptable protections into law, such as through flexible and adaptable versions of marine spatial planning, and then strictly enforcing those protections, we can help to ensure that legal protections remain relevant despite climate change.

However, as long as climate change and ocean acidification continue, the oceans will go on to be altered in ways that humans generally don’t like. At stake are not only incredible biodiversity and beauty, but also a significant percentage of our food supply and, at the extreme, about 50% of the atmospheric oxygen we breathe.

On this World Oceans Day, therefore, it is worth thinking long and hard about the United Nation’s chosen theme—“Oceans & People.” We depend on the oceans much more than we acknowledge, and we ignore that dependency at our peril.

Related article: ‘Happy World Oceans Day . . . sort of’ (Environmental Law Prof Blog).

Robin CraigRobin Kundis Craig is the William H. Leary Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is also affiliated with the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment. Professor Craig specializes in all things water, including the relationships between climate change and water; water and energy; the Clean Water Act; the intersection of water issues and land issues; marine biodiversity and marine protected areas; water law; and the relationships between environmental law and public health.  She is the author or co-author of five books, including Comparative Ocean Governance: Place-Based Protections in an Era of Climate Change (Edward Elgar 2012). She has also written over 50 law review articles and book chapters.  She was appointed to three successive National Research Council committees on the Clean Water Act and the Mississippi River; has consulted on water quality issues with the government of Victoria, Australia, and the Council on Environmental Cooperation in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; and was one of 12 marine educators chosen to participate in a 2010 program in the Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument, spending a week on Midway Atoll.  Professor Craig also serves on the ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources’ Executive Council; as Supreme Court News Editor for the ABA’s Administrative & Regulatory Law News; and as a consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund.  At the University of Utah, she teaches Environmental Law, Water Law, Ocean & Coastal Law, Toxic Torts, and Property.


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