UN Report Offers Bleak Look at Human Toll on Oceans

Migrants on a dinghy boat wait to be assisted by the Ocean Viking ship, operated by the NGOs Sos Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, in the Mediterranean Sea on Aug. 12, 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/MSF/SOS Mediterranee via AP)

(CN) – Efforts to protect imperiled marine ecosystems – and the island nations and coastal communities that depend on them – must intensify to reverse a global decline in ocean health and biodiversity, the United Nations said in a report released Tuesday.

Earth’s oceans, which cover more than 70% of the planet’s surface, have connected people for thousands of years, representing immense value in terms of heritage, commerce and sustenance for nations around the globe.

But more than a century of activity from fishing, mining, tourism and other commercial industries has created “unsustainable levels of stress” for marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them, the report, titled “Oceans and the law of the sea,” said.

“Half of all living coral has been lost in the past 150 years and plastic pollution in the sea has increased tenfold in the past four decades,” the report said. “A third of all fish stocks are now overexploited, deoxygenated dead zones are growing in extent and number and ocean acidification, rising sea levels and other effects of climate change are taking a massive toll.”

Failing ocean ecosystems are visible tragedies experienced by all, the report said, but the effects of decline are most pronounced in low-lying oceanic nations and coastal communities.

As global temperatures rise, oceans – which help regulate climate worldwide – heat up, melting bodies of ice and decreasing marine animal and fish populations for people that depend on them for food.

Climate change adds to and multiples the damaging elements of declining ocean health, with rising ocean temperatures fueling increasingly powerful storm systems that ravage coastal communities.

The intergovernmental organization warned in another recent report that rising sea levels could mean between 31 and 69 million people will experience flooding by 2100 unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced.

But it isn’t too late to end the harm to Earth’s oceans or even reverse it.

U.N. members can fully implement plans for “peaceful and sustainable” ocean development required under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, including supporting small-scale fisheries, the report said.

Additionally, the charter – also called the “constitution for the oceans” – calls on nations to protect the civil right rights of workers in ocean-related sectors and to increase opportunities for women in those areas.

Migrants who travel by sea, including the more than 116,000 who entered Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2018, must also be protected and rescued, as is often needed, in “joint operations” by U.N. members.

Meanwhile, the reported incidents of “actual and attempted piracy and armed robbery” on the high seas ticked up slightly, from 204 in 2017 to 223 in 2018, the report said. Piracy hotbeds continue to be West Africa and the South China Sea, although the report noted the number of incidents involving Somali pirates operating in East Africa fell by half.

The U.N. also called on member states to prevent and respond to illegal activities in the fishing sector, particularly industry corruption.

“International cooperation is crucial for success in addressing the challenges facing the oceans, including those of the people who depend on the oceans,” the report said. “It is essential not to forget the human dimension and to ensure the protection of the human rights of people also at sea, particularly noting the needs of the most vulnerable, including women and children.”

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