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Oceans in state of emergency, says UN chief

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Lisbon (AFP) – A long-delayed conference on how to restore the failing health of the world’s oceans kicked off in Lisbon on Monday, with the UN chief saying the world’s seas are in crisis.

“Today we are facing what I would call an ocean emergency,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told thousands of policymakers, experts and advocates during the plenary session. opening, describing how the seas have been hammered by climate change and pollution.

Humanity depends on the health of the oceans.

They generate 50% of the oxygen we breathe and provide essential protein and nutrients to billions of people every day.

Covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, the oceans have also mitigated the impact of climate change on life on Earth.

But at a terrible price.

The absorption of about a quarter of CO2 pollution – even as emissions have increased by half over the past 60 years – has turned seawater acidic, threatening aquatic food chains and the ability to ocean to absorb carbon.

And absorbing more than 90% of excess heat from global warming has spawned massive marine heatwaves that are killing precious coral reefs and expanding oxygen-deprived dead zones.

Oceans in trouble Emmanuelle MICHELAFP

“We are only beginning to understand how devastating climate change is going to wreak on the health of the oceans,” said Charlotte de Fontaubert, global head of blue economy at the World Bank.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), an endless torrent of pollution, including the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic every minute, is making matters worse.

On current trends, annual plastic waste will nearly triple to one billion tonnes by 2060, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Wild fish stocks

Microplastics – now found in Arctic ice and fish in the deepest trenches of the ocean – are estimated to kill more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year.

The solutions on the table range from recycling to global plastic production caps.

Global fisheries will also be in the spotlight at the five-day United Nations Ocean Conference, originally scheduled for April 2020 and co-hosted by Portugal and Kenya.

“At least a third of wild fish stocks are overexploited and less than 10% of the ocean is protected,” Kathryn Matthews, scientific manager of the American NGO Oceana, told AFP.

At least a third of wild fish stocks are overexploited, said Kathryn Matthews, chief scientist of US NGO Oceana.
At least a third of wild fish stocks are overexploited, said Kathryn Matthews, chief scientist of US NGO Oceana. Frederic J. BROWN AFP/File

“Destructive and illegal fishing vessels operate with impunity in many coastal waters and on the high seas.”

One of the culprits is nearly $35 billion in subsidies. Small steps taken last week by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to cut donations to industry will make little difference, experts said.

The conference will also see push for a moratorium on deep-sea mining of rare metals needed to drive the construction of electric vehicle batteries.

Scientists say poorly understood seabed ecosystems are fragile and could take decades or more to heal once disturbed.

Another major focus will be “blue food”, the new buzzword to ensure that marine harvests from all sources – wild caught and farmed – are sustainable and socially responsible.

Protected areas

Yields from aquaculture – from salmon and tuna to shellfish and seaweed – have increased by 3% per year for decades and are on track to surpass wild marine harvests that peaked in the 1990s, each producing around 100 million tons per year.

The Lisbon meeting will bring together ministers and even a few heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, but is not a formal negotiating session.

Microplastics are estimated to kill over a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals every year
Microplastics are estimated to kill over a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals every year Jean Aurelio PRUDENCE L’Express Maurice/AFP/File

But participants will push for a strong ocean agenda at two critical summits later this year – the UN COP27 climate talks in November, hosted by Egypt, followed by the the long-delayed UN COP15, recently transferred from China to Montreal.

The oceans are already at the heart of a proposed treaty to stop what many scientists fear will be the first “mass extinction” in 65 million years. A key provision would designate 30% of the world’s land and oceans as protected areas.

But the preparatory negotiations in Nairobi ended in deadlock on Sunday.

“The agreement risks collapsing on the issue of funding,” the head of environmental diplomacy at WWF France told AFP.

For climate change, the focus will be on carbon sequestration – enhancing the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2, whether by enhancing natural sinks such as mangroves or through geo-engineering programs .

At the same time, scientists warn, a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases is needed to restore the health of the oceans.