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World leaders' 'slow progress' on protecting global oceans

Posted on 15 June 2012

A University of York academic is part of an international team of researchers which has reviewed commitments made by governments to protect the world's oceans and shown that there has been little success over the past 20 years.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2002, heads of 192 governments agreed on key issues - including targets for protecting vulnerable species and marine habitats and managing fishing sustainably in national waters. Ten years on, none of these targets have been met, and in some cases the situation is worse than before, according to research, which involved Professor Callum Roberts, of the Environment Department at York.

The research, which is published today in Science, was led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), whose Director of Conservation, Professor Jonathan Baillie, says: "Our analysis shows that almost every commitment made by governments to protect the oceans has not been achieved. If these international processes are to be taken seriously, governments must be held accountable and any future commitments must come with clear plans for implementation and a process to evaluate success or failure.''

According to the study, global depletion of fish stocks is threatening the integrity of ocean ecosystems. Risks posed by climate change, disease, and other pressures will have a huge impact on ecosystems already destabilized by overfishing, pollution, and other damaging activities. The collapse in the Newfoundland cod fishery – once the largest in the world – came as a complete surprise and has not recovered in the 20 years since the population crashed.

But a few areas have seen improvement. The recent creation of large marine reserves around remote islands such as the Chagos Archipelago, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and South Orkney Islands is encouraging, and there have been improvements to the fishing gear used in some areas to reduce its impact on seabird populations.

The damage that deep-sea bottom trawling is inflicting on vulnerable ecosystems is irreparable on any meaningful human timescale

Professor Callum Roberts

The study says that, in general, the situation remains critical, and there is little or no protection for vulnerable marine habitats which continue to be fished in destructive ways.

Professor Roberts adds: "The damage that deep-sea bottom trawling is inflicting on vulnerable ecosystems is irreparable on any meaningful human timescale, despite the supposed global moratorium passed by the UN General Assembly in 2006 which still hasn't been properly implemented."

ZSL's Marine Policy Officer Liane Veitch says: "There are large scale changes occurring in the oceans that weren't known to be a problem in 1992 or 2002, such as ocean acidification or mass coral bleaching, which we now know will make sustainable ocean management even more challenging.”

The research will be showcased at Rio+20 - United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development later this month.

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