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Less visible but no less important than the terrestrial realm, the oceans support an extraordinary wealth of species, many of which scientists are only now beginning to encounter, as they explore beyond shallow, nearshore waters.
In October 2010 the Census of Marine Life published the results of a decade of investigation worldwide by over 2,700 scientists. They increased the number of known marine species to nearly 250,000, reaching every imaginable habitat. As they report:
“The Census found living creatures everywhere it looked, even where heat would melt lead, seawater froze to ice, and light and oxygen were lacking. It expanded known habitats and ranges in which life is known to exist. It found that in marine habitats, extreme is normal.”
Marine ecosystems have a crucial role in regulating climate, as marine plants absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and provide food and income for communities everywhere.
“More than a billion people around the world depend on fish as their primary source of animal protein. Freshwater and coastal pollution, destruction of mangroves that serve as marine nurseries, overfishing (particularly by large-scale commercial fishers), and unsustainable aquaculture practices are resulting in dramatic declines in fisheries and lost livelihoods and reduced protein consumption for the poor…
Communities do have considerable potential to manage their own resources, and local organisation has been found essential for sustainable natural resource management.”
UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger, 2005
Despite its biological richness and vital services, the marine realm was for many years neglected by conservationists and grossly abused by mankind as a whole. People assumed the oceans could absorb anything mankind could throw into them or extract from them.
Nowadays we realise that, to quote Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Council Member Professor Callum Roberts,
“The wholesale removal of marine life and obliteration of their habitats is stripping resilience from ocean ecosystems… and undermining the ability of the oceans to support human needs.”
So attitudes and actions are changing, but there is a long way to go – only a paltry 1 per cent of the oceans has protected status, over-exploitation and pollution continue, and major new threats are emerging, notably sea warming and acidification.
Responding to this global challenge, FFI has made it a priority to expand our marine conservation work, which until recently has concentrated mainly on threatened species, with our remarkably successful Nicaraguan turtle conservation programme being a highlight.
Whilst this important work goes from strength to strength (see, for example, the exciting new work on hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific), we are now investing heavily in the conservation of marine habitats, with special emphasis on empowering coastal communities to be the custodians of the marine resources on which they depend.
In Kenya, Indonesia and Ecuador FFI and partners are enabling local communities to manage new Marine Protected Areas, and this programme is set to expand. Adaptation to climate change is an integral part of these marine programmes, as many coastal communities are vulnerable to the loss of valuable species, reduced productivity and extreme weather that climate change will bring.
Thinking big, we have undertaken a comparison of different approaches to managing large marine ecosystems around the world, to work out how we can better connect large-scale inter-governmental initiatives to the reality of developing countries and the livelihoods of ordinary people. And on the radar are other global issues, such as plastics pollution, and initiatives based on FFI’s particular strength in engaging corporations that can influence, for better or worse, the marine environment.
These are exciting times for FFI’s work to reverse the degradation of marine ecosystems and ensure that they will continue to support the “unanticipated riot of species” that the Census of Marine Life has encountered and documented.
“The wholesale removal of marine life and obliteration of their habitats is stripping resilience from ocean ecosystems…and undermining the ability of the oceans to support human needs.”
Member of Council, Fauna & Flora International