State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Healthy Oceans: Charting A New Course

The world’s oceans play a crucial role in maintaining the health of both humankind and the planet. The oceans provide about 20 percent of all protein in the human diet, support a $500 billion per year industry that employs 2.6 billion people, and help regulate the Earth’s climate by absorbing some 22 millions tons of carbon dioxide every day.

Rio+20 The Future We Want banner at entrance to the the United Nations

But despite their importance in supporting life on our planet—and the fact that 95 percent of them remains unexplored—the world’s oceans today are facing collapse. Overfishing, energy extraction, pollution, and increased acidification due to climate change have all exacted a toll on the world’s marine environments. Though scientists have for decades warned that action must be taken to protect the Earth’s waters, a nexus of complex, international issues has effectively stymied progress. Today the high seas remain largely unmonitored and unregulated.

Leading up to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, on April 25th the United Nations hosted a panel discussion on the fate of the world’s oceans and what can be done to protect them. Sponsored by the UN, the Pew Environment Group and TARA Expeditions, “Healthy Oceans: Charting A New Course” brought together experts from both the public and private sectors to examine the issues and help re-energize conservation efforts.

Panelists from left to right: Ray Menell, Carrie Brownstein, Mark Kurlansky, Lisa Speer, Paul Greenberg, Fabien Cousteau, Julian Barbiere
Panelists from left to right: Ray Menell, Carrie Brownstein, Mark Kurlansky, Lisa Speer, Paul Greenberg, Fabien Cousteau, Julian Barbiere (click to enlarge)

The panel included filmmaker and oceanographic explorer Fabien Cousteau, best-selling authors Paul Greenberg and Mark Kurlansky, and Carrie Brownstein of Whole Foods, which recently stopped selling “red listed” species such as octopus and Atlantic Halibut in it’s stores. The wide-ranging conversation addressed aquaculture, the establishment of new marine protected areas, curbing the use of single-use plastics, which account for 60-80 percent of marine litter, and goals for the upcoming Rio+20 summit.

“I think one of the key issues is that we need to raise the awareness of people,” said Julian Barbiere of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. “In a sense, education, awareness with populations, and trying the make the link—to make them understand that they are also linked with what is going on out there—is critical. I think this is something we can try to do together in Rio.”

Watch the Video

Highlights from the Discussion

  • Fabien Cousteau: “If we don’t work together, if we don’t realize that the oceans are the lifeblood of the planet—and without healthy oceans there is no such thing as a healthy economy, there’s no such thing as a healthy people—if we don’t start restoring the health of our planet through MPAs, through restoration initiatives, through the engagement of the general public right now we won’t be having this discussion in 10 years.”
  • Fabien Cousteau: “We have to move away from being hunter-gatherers in the ocean—it doesn’t work. We stopped doing that 30,000 years ago on land. Why aren’t we farming instead? It’s the only solution to be able to provide the protein that’s required by a growing population around the world.”
  • Carrie Brownstein: “Individual companies are developing sourcing policies because they have to. If there were extremely good programs at an international level—good policies in place, good international agreements that were actually functioning and actually enforced—then we wouldn’t need to do this… So what I hope is that we see agreements and we don’t just think they look good on paper but we know that they function.”
  • Paul Greenberg: “All these subsidies that right now are going towards fisheries, towards unsustainable fleets—what if we took all that money and put it into oyster farms? What if we put it into coral reef development? What if we put it into mussel rafts? All these things that sequester carbon, create protein, build reef structure, fight against sea level rise. This would be a tremendous thing to do, and it would benefit your economies. I personally would like to see that on the agenda at Rio.”
  • Mark Kurlansky: “The problem in all poor countries on these environmental issues is poverty. The desperateness of poverty tends to make environmental issues—although you may see them and I may see them as immediate problems for survival and for the economy—they [the poor] tend not to. Environmental issues have to be presented as part of a larger development plan—a positive developmental plan that environmental concerns are put into rather than just as a separate thing.”
  • Lisa Speer (Moderator): “If I had a magic wand I would wave it over those countries that have objected to trying to come up with a regime to manage activities on the high seas in the same way we try to manage things within our zones. The high seas is half the planet’s surface—so at the earth summit we’re talking about half the earth—and right now it doesn’t enjoy the same kinds of controls and regulations that we have closer in to our zones. And the most important of those in our view is the ability to establish multi-sector marine protected areas.”
  • Ray Menell: “You’ve got to make the fishermen part of the solution. Often we just kind of push them aside. In those protected areas they could help provide research, and support research of those areas. So I think it’s important to get them involved and make them part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem.”
  • Fabien Cousteau: “There are a lot of solutions out there. They’re already there, we just need to implement them. It’s not just creating solutions—we’ve been creating solutions. Many countries have the solutions in their very hands. But, as a governing body here, we have to encourage implementing those solutions in great swaths. ”

Full List of Panelists

  • Julian Barbiere, UNESCO, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission
  • Carrie Brownstein, Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator, Whole Foods Market
  • Fabien Cousteau, Filmmaker and Oceanographic Explorer
  • Paul Greenberg, Author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food”
  • Mark Kurlansky, Author of “Cod” and “A World Without Fish”
  • Ray Menell, Fisherman
  • Lisa Speer, Director, International Oceans Program, National Resources Defence Council (Moderator)
Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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