IUCN warns of mass ocean extinctions

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The world's oceans may be faced with extinctions similar in scale to the mass extinctions of prehistory; a report produced by the IUCN has revealed.

The report, which was an update to a meeting of international experts held at Oxford University in April, found that marine life is under extreme threat from global warming, pollution, acidification, overfishing and habitat loss, with a high risk of major extinctions similar to the five great extinctions which at one point saw 96% of all marine life wiped out.

The meeting of IPSO (International Programme on the State of the Ocean) stated that a combination of such a wide variety of factors meant that the oceans are now facing a catastrophe "unprecedented in human history".

The panel of 27 scientists from 18 organisations also concluded that the speed and rate of the degeneration of the oceans is far faster than anyone had expected and that the negative impacts were worse than predicted, with some extinctions already occurring.

Dr Alex Rogers, professor of conservation biology at Oxford University and IPSO's scientific director said: "The findings are shocking. As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised."

"This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, in the lifetime of our children and generations beyond that."

The team made a number of recommendations to slow the impact, which included an immediate reduction of CO2 emissions, the introduction of a global enforcement body and proper impact assessments so that activities only go ahead if they are proven to not cause any damage to the oceans. They also stated that there should be urgent actions to restore marine ecosystems by:

  • reducing fishing and closing down all non-sustainable fisheries
  • a reduction of pollutants
  • the introduction of a range of Marine Protected Areas
  • improved land and river catchment management and sewage treatments so nutrient input into the oceans are better controlled
  • a reduction or eradication of mineral and oil extractions

Co-author Dan Laffoley said: "The challenges for the future of the ocean are vast, but unlike previous generations we know what now needs to happen. The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent."

For more information see the paper: Rogers, A.D. and Laffoley, D.d’A. 2011. International Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts. Summary report. IPSO Oxford, 18 pp.  

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