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Radical change needed to protect marine biodiveristy

US - Around three-quarters of the world's fish stocks have been over-exploited, mainly by commercial fishing. Creating national parks of the sea may be the only effective way to reverse trends, says a study by the Worldwatch Institute.

The report 'Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity' says that global marine biodiversity is severly threatened. It is calling for a new implementation agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to establish and manage ocean reserves and protect the global marine environment.

The report’s authors, Michelle Allsopp, Richard Page, Paul Johnston, and David Santillo call for a radical change in fisheries management, from a single-species approach to one that is ecosystem-based and also includes the use of precautionary measures to tackle pollution and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions - factors that are changing the temperature and chemistry global waters.

There is currently no mechanism under existing international agreements to create a global marine reserve network that encompasses the high seas—areas beyond national jurisdiction.

“The oceans cannot save themselves and collective commitments to thriving ecosystems are needed to save over fished species from being systematically depleted from compromised habitats,” said Christopher Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute. “

Major reasons for the depletion of fish stocks include over fishing, the use of bottom trawling and other destructive fishing techniques, unsustainable aquaculture, and illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing.

Bottom trawling causes massive collateral damage to corals and other features that offer protection and habitat for many creatures. Bycatch is also a growing problem, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands of seabirds, turtles, marine mammals, and other marine species annually. IUU fishing accounts for up to 20 percent of the global catch and is worth $4–9 billion a year. As industrial countries see their own fish stocks fall and impose stricter controls, fishers often move to waters of developing nations where there are few if any effective controls. This jeopardises the livelihoods of fishing communities and effects fish stocks significantly, says the report.

Aquaculture adds pressure
Worldwatch also points out that while fish farming adds to the world’s fish supply, and is more controlled and market led, in some intensive aquaculture systems the weight of fishmeal inputs is greater than the weight of farmed fish produced. Producing fish like salmon requires huge amounts of fishmeal, sometimes up to five times the amount of fish produced, which it says is totally unsustainable.

The report's authors believes a well-designed global network of marine reserves, covering key ecosystems and habitats, could help reverse the devastating toll human actions are taking on the world’s oceans. They say that marine reserves are a proven method for restoring fish populations, and quote the success of the Soufriere Marine Management Area in St. Lucia and marin reserves in the Red Sea.

Three years of protection has tripled the biomass of commercial fish species within the closed reserves and after five years, in areas outside the reserves, biomass doubled with average catches per trip up by 46 per cent in some cases.

Marine reserves established in the Red Sea in 1995 increased the catch per unit of effort in surrounding areas by more than 60 percent after five years of protection.

The authors also recommend moving fish and fish products trade negotiations away from the World Trade Organisation and into other multilateral fora to halt commercial domination. They say an end to so called “sweetheart” agreements that allow industrial countries to fish liberally in developing-country waters would allow coastal states to manage resources more sustainably and ensure continued livelihoods for communities.

Current presumptions that favor freedom to fish and freedom of the seas will need to be replaced with the new concept of freedom for the seas.

Click here for a report summary and further information