Future solutions to ocean problems

20 December 2012

Interview with

Mark Spalding - The Nature Conservancy, John Bruno - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Enric Sala - National Geographic

Helen: And there's no doubt any more that tackling climate change is going to be a huge challenge:

Enric: We know what the solution is. We need to cut out greenhouse gas emissions. And the problem is that its very difficult to implement.

Helen: At the very earliest, a decision about a global treaty to bring down green house gas emissions will be made in 2015, with new targets to go into force by 2020 by which time, as many climate models predict, it may already be too late to avoid an average temperature increase of at least two degrees - and possibly a lot higher. And maybe by that stage the world will be forced to think about taking radical steps to deal with the problem. Here's Mark Spalding:

Mark: Climate change again is just too big. We know the problem we know the solution, but actually applying the solution is going to be huge. This maybe sticks my neck out a bit, but I think that climate change is going to keep advancing for some time to come and we're going to be forcing ourselves torwards thinking about geoengineering and that's not a solution we know yet. We've got some ideas which are quite frightening in themselves. But we're going to have to, I think things are moving so fast and by the time we turn things around temperatures are going to have changed, whole climate systems are going to have changed, the oceans are going to be changing. What will those solutions be? I don't know. Technology advances incredibly fast and so there's a sort of quiet optimist in me that thinks we might think of something, but that's a pretty tenuous thread to hang your hopes on.

Helen: So, climate change and all its scary ramifications, is looking to be the big problem the oceans will face in the coming decades.

Helen: You're listening to the last episode of Naked Oceans, as we take a look into what might lie in store for future of the oceans. As well as climate change other threats that we see in the oceans today will no doubt continue for some time to come - but at least or some of these, there are more tangible solutions already available. Mark Spalding.

Mark: We have many of the solutions in our tool kits particularly if you think about the local issues and the local threats, the issues of overfishing. Huge progress has been made in overfishing in some places. Really positive stories that are benefiting people as well as nature.

Helen: But as John Bruno points out, there's still a very long way to go.

John: I really still think overfishing is not recognized at the level of the problem that it is.

Helen: Recently, Jane Lubchenco stepped down as head of NOAA, the National Oceanic and atmospheric administration in the US, and when she left she wrote to her staff, discussing all the accomplishments they'd made over the last four years:

John: The first things she said was "ending overfishing". I had to laugh, ending overfishing? And what she meant was overfishing in the continuous US 48 states and buy the definition of NOAA's fisheries' manager, what overfishing is. Which to an ecologist or an ecosystems scientists or a conservationist is a ridiculous definition. Because you can have suppressed the population down to 10-20% of its initial size and declare it not overfished. Besides most species that are fished in US waters are not even considered by NOAA. You go to Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, they fish just about all the reef fish, so all the parrot fish, wrasses, a lot of things that are completely off NOAA's radar screen and those things are suppressed at least 50, 75, 90% below their baseline biomass. So I still don't think even our Federal administrators and fisheries managers really get the extent of the problem.

Helen: One thing that Mark Spalding, from the Nature Conservancy, brought up as we were chatting about the future problems of the oceans and what solutions may lie ahead, was that ultimately and perhaps quite surprisingly, he thinks saving the oceans may not come down to the work of conservationists like himself, but that a much more far-reaching change among people needs to take place:

Mark: I think the line I'm beginning to take is that we've almost got to get conservationists out of equation. The arguments we're beginning to make now are quite compelling on multiplied fronts. There are fishermen who will stand up in Belize and tell you they know what to do. They might have been taught it by conservationists, but they know the answer. And they're managing their own resources and there are systems like that around the world now where nature is holding its own int eh arguments. Actually we can say that nature is important for people. And if we can get people to grasp that and work is out and do the economics and believe then I think the whole things should start to snowball without nature conservationists. Of course we have a lot to contribute to the argument but we're such a tiny body of people. If you were to get all the marine conservationists in the world together we would probably make up the crew of one or two ocean cruise ships. That's it. We're tiny. And it's a david and goliath battle or worse. WE can't possibly win that on our own, we have to persuade people and one they've got the arguments they can persuade each other and we come out of the equation completely and I think that's the only way we'll really achieve traction and progress at the scale we need to.

Helen: And perhaps the most worrying thing about the changes taking place in the oceans, is that there is still a lot we don't yet fully comprehend:

Mark: The known unknowns. The sort of stuff that we're getting that may or may not be a problem, but if it is a problem god help us. Ocean acidification may not be quite as bad as it looks but if you read the worst predictions its really frightening. And there'll be other stories like that, deoxygenation of the deep oceans is another area that we're just beginning to start thinking about but it would turn into something massive that we just can't fathom. Declining productivity in the ocean surface waters seems to be already detectable, we don't really know what's driving it, that could turn into something that changes the entire atmospheric chemistry of the planet. Hopefully none of those things will come to fruition but if you start thinking about them, they can keep you awake at night.

Helen: Another worrying aspect to ocean threats is the fact that none of these problems occur in isolation. It's not the case of a bleached coral reef here and a depleted fish population there, but threats pile up, one of top of each other, often interacting in unexpected and complex ways, depleting the resilience and functioning ecosystems.

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