Back in 2017, Blue Planet II broke viewing records – and almost broke the internet when half of China tried to download it. A global audience exceeding one hundred million sat spellbound while walruses were waylaid by ravenous polar bears. We were transfixed by the colour-changing cuttlefish hypnotising a crab. We held our breath as penguins tiptoed around recumbent elephant seals. We marvelled at the sartorial superpowers of the shell-suited octopus.

As we watched, enthralled, myriad questions swam into our heads. How can a mantis shrimp pack such a powerful punch? How many clownfish does it take to move a coconut? Was the nightmare-inducing Bobbit worm really named in honour of that gruesome amputation incident? Does the fearsome fangtooth have dental insurance? And – most burning question of all – what in Neptune’s name are we doing to our oceans?

Smashing mantis shrimp, Indonesia. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya

The answer provided by Sir David Attenborough, long-standing vice-president of Fauna & Flora International (FFI), was unequivocal. We’re treating them as a dumping ground, subjecting them to intolerable changes in temperature, hoovering up their bountiful resources as though they were inexhaustible, riding roughshod over delicate coral reefs and other fragile habitats, and pushing countless marine species to the brink of extinction.

FFI has had this global emergency on its radar for some time, and we have been addressing these challenges head on since we officially launched our marine programme a decade ago. The vital work being done by FFI and our partners around the world includes tackling issues such as marine plastic pollution, habitat loss and degradation, destructive fishing, illegal trade in marine species and other human activities that pose a growing threat to the future of our blue planet.

Signs of climate-induced bleaching even at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the very epicentre of coral diversity. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya

Trade deficit

Illegal trade is having just as devastating an impact on marine life as poaching for rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger parts has on terrestrial species. Millions of marine creatures are hoovered from the ocean and distributed wholesale around the world as food, medicine, curios and sources of live entertainment.

Over 100 million sharks are killed each year, largely to satisfy the demand for their fins, which fetch up to US$400 per kilo in Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, global shark populations have plummeted by an estimated 90% in the last 50 years.

Silky shark. Despite dramatic declines and increasing threats, oceanic sharks receive very little protection. Credit: Francois Baelen/Ocean Image Bank

According to Project Seahorse, more than 150 million seahorses are estimated to be caught every year, contributing to 50% declines in seahorse fisheries in recent years. Perpetually in demand for traditional medicine in East Asia, dried seahorses currently sell for up to US$600 per kilo.

An estimated 27 million live ornamental marine fish, 16 million corals and 10 million non-coral marine invertebrates (such as anemones) are traded annually, with collection largely unregulated. The illegal use of poisons or dynamite to stun and then scoop up the fish is commonplace, and hugely damaging to the marine environment.

Aquarium fish collectors in Kiribati catch 200-300 flame angelfishes every day. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya

Hawksbill turtles (main photo) play a crucial role in helping coral reefs to thrive by keeping sponge populations in check. They are also critically endangered, due partly to tourist-driven demand for jewellery and other products made from their exquisite shells.

Another direct threat to this and other sea turtle species is illegal harvesting of their eggs. In Nicaragua, for example, a culture of eating turtle eggs persists among coastal communities and urban consumers. At nesting sites where conservation management is absent, virtually every clutch of eggs is illegally collected.

Stemming the tide

These statistics are depressing, but the good news is that FFI is making tremendous strides in reducing the threats from illegal trade for a broad spectrum of marine species and, crucially, helping local people to take action against illegal activities that jeopardise their livelihoods.

On the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, direct conservation action is helping to protect around 98% of sea turtle nests at two of the three known leatherback nesting beaches and two key hawksbill nesting sites. Meanwhile, consumer-focused activities are helping to reduce demand for turtle products.

Heydi Salazar, FFI’s biological monitoring specialist in Nicaragua, with turtle hatchlings. Credit: Heydi Salazar/FFI

In Turkey’s Gökova Bay, FFI’s local partner Akdeniz Koruma Derneği has been spearheading a programme of conservation activities in this protected area since 2012, including community-led patrols aimed at minimising destructive and illegal fishing practices.

We are supporting national efforts in Myanmar to conserve sharks and rays by strengthening legal protection, improving compliance through awareness raising and enforcement, demonstrating solutions to reduce shark by-catch, and increasing protection of important habitats for threatened shark and ray species. In remote Cape Verde, sharks and other endangered species are benefiting from community-led protection measures.

In Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago we helped establish the country’s first marine protected area, which is already contributing to a reduction in illegal fishing and signs of recovery. In this hotspot for seahorse diversity, we are also researching local seahorse trade and developing strategic actions to protect them.

A recent survey revealed that seahorse populations have stabilised within the marine protected area at Koh Rong. Credit: Matt Glue/FFI

In the Indonesian province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, FFI has been helping local fishing communities to manage their waters, resulting in dramatic reductions in the use of environmentally destructive and personally hazardous fishing techniques at key sites.

These are just a few examples of the many ways in which FFI is tackling illegal wildlife trade and other threats to the health of our oceans. Obviously, we are not sailing this ship alone; right now, the marine conservation space is almost as crowded as the Suez Canal was in March. On the one hand, that augurs well for our collective impact, but it’s also a sad reflection on the world’s continued neglect and abuse of our blue planet.

All hands on deck

It’s fully four years since those entrancing episodes first aired and, sadly, we’re still oceans away from the sea change in behaviour that will be necessary if we are to avoid marine meltdown. We urgently need world leaders to unite behind a cohesive plan of action to safeguard this vital source of life and livelihoods.

Mangroves and coral. Credit: Matt Curnock/Ocean Image Bank

We need to recognise that those glorious technicolour reef ecosystems, the carbon-guzzling beds of seagrass, the protective natural barriers afforded by coastal mangrove forests, and the wide oceans that make up our predominantly blue planet are no less crucial to our survival than the lush rainforests, grasslands and other terrestrial habitats that have tended to receive the lion’s share of attention. And that, despite their vastness, they are just as vulnerable.

In worldwide conservation terms, the crisis in our oceans has been the whale in the cabin for far too long. Finally, it is too big to ignore, but merely pointing at it on World Oceans Day will not be enough. Procrastination is no longer an option. If we want to avert a tragedy of epic proportions, we need to collectively take up arms against this sea of troubles right here, right now.

This article includes content that has previously featured in FFI’s annual magazine.