Oceans on a knife edge

“Urgent system change and a transformation of our treatment of the natural world are essential to the restoration of health, and to our own survival.” Green peer Natalie Bennett reflects on the need to protect the natural marine environment on World Oceans Day.

An image of ocean pollution
An image of ocean pollution
Natalie Bennett

It was in Year 8, about age 12, that I can distinctly remember really grasping for the first time the concepts of ecosystems and ecology. Like most people, I don’t remember much detail of the many acres of subjects laboriously driven into my head at school for the purpose of exam regurgitation. However, a visit to the intertidal zone in Sydney Harbour and seeing the mix of species inhabiting each niche at each tidal level, each microclimate mix of water and air, stuck with me as an object of wonder – of natural, sophisticated, beautiful complexity.

I don’t remember being taught much else about the seas, despite Australia’s status as an ocean continent. Family taught me a sense of human weakness and smallness against the immensity of the ocean’s power, to beware the so-called “rogue wave”, to never go too close to the edge of the rocks, but I gained no sense that the oceans themselves were already on a knife edge as a result of human actions.

Yet now, we seem to hear little else. How the oceans have been turned into a plastic soup, with the weight of that pervasive, persistent, dangerous material set to exceed the weight of fish by 2050. 

How marine environments are poisoned, with factory farm-linked dead zones at the top of a long list of contaminants. 

How they are being smashed up, literally, by bottom trawling that casually demolishes ancient corals thriving since before the Normans landed on English shores. Moreover, the threat of deep sea mining looms; we were reminded last week by the continuing damage of fossil fuel extraction by the enormous Russian Arctic oil spill.

Essentially, the entire system is on a knife edge – and we need systems thinking to prevent absolute disaster in oceans on which all of our lives depend.

Today (8 June) on World Oceans Day, it is possible to make one simple, effective call. A call that was contained in the Green Party’s 2019 election manifesto; to promise to fully and properly protect 30 per cent of our national and the world’s oceans by 2030, what’s known as the Love30x30 pledge.

That means stopping fishing and mining. It means giving the seas and oceans a chance to heal themselves.

The seashore that I was taken to as a child was easily accessible, and so is probably the best studied part of the oceans. So much of the rest we have scant understanding of; although we’ve come to realise that, just as on land, no part has been untouched by human action, from heavily contaminated Mariana Trench crustaceans to microplastics in ocean breezes.

From the immensely complex cognition of octopuses, to the astonishing biodiversity of the deepest oceans, there is much that we don’t understand.

Oceans cover 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface. If we protect 30 per cent of that, there’s the space for regeneration and recovery.

In the UK, at first glance the figures don’t look too bad: up to 25 per cent of UK waters covered by Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with 37 per cent of inshore areas.

But, as the Wildlife Trusts diplomatically said: “Designating an MPA is only the first step towards protecting the precious wildlife and habitats within.”

Lundy Island is a rare stand-out success story for UK marine protection, a no-take zone that goes the distance needed for full protection.

Of course, better protection needs to be extended to the other 70 per cent of the oceans as well. Stopping treating them as a dump and abandoning the dangerous idea of mining.  Refighting a battle against fish discards, that had been thought won – something to pick up when, again, the Fisheries Bill comes back before Parliament, and we confront the serious risks and concerns of a crash-out Brexit at the end of the year.

The Environment Bill, too, will be important, when so much of the existing protection for marine areas, as on land, currently comes from EU standards.

And, of course, there’s the issue of ocean acidification, already up 30 per cent since the Industrial Revolution. It’s one more massively threatening impact of our addiction to fossil fuels. 

On land and in oceans, urgent system change and a transformation of our treatment of the natural world are essential to the restoration of health, and to our own survival.

You can read more about World Oceans Day on its website.