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First comprehensive "real-time" way to observe state of world's oceans

Paris/Nairobi, 5 June 2002 - Amid mounting concern over continuing deterioration of marine and coastal ecosystems, several of the world's foremost ocean agencies, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have created an Internet-based Oceans Atlas with the goal to help reverse the decline and promote the sustainable development of oceans.

The pioneering Atlas, that provides users with continuously updated strategic data on the state of the world's oceans, maps, development trends and threats to human health from the deteriorating marine environment is being launched here in Paris on 5 June, World Environment Day. The Atlas can be accessed online at www.oceansatlas.org

"The Atlas is the first comprehensive real-time way to observe the state of the world's oceans," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director. Paying tribute to the other partners in the Atlas project and in particular the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that led the initiative, Toepfer said, "The atlas is the result of extensive cooperation in the UN and with leading scientific agencies. It is state of the art and an important source of information that will make a significant contribution to events like the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa."

The need for the Oceans Atlas was identified during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit in response to a call to identify and address the greatest environmental challenges facing the planet. The launch of the Atlas at a meeting of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in Paris on

5 June, comes less than 12 weeks before the Johannesburg Summit.

Making reference to UNEP's recently published third Global Environment Outlook report

(GEO-3), Mr. Toepfer said GEO-3 clearly shows the worsening state of the coastal and marine environment, and the urgent need to take necessary actions.

Highlighting the impact on fisheries, Toepfer said, "Just under a third of the world's fish stocks are now ranked as depleted, overexploited or recovering as a result of over-fishing that is fueled by subsidies estimated at up to US$20 billion annually. GEO-3 shows that marine harvests have risen to over 80 million tonnes a year, but many fisheries are in a state of collapse," he said.

GEO-3, online at http://www.unep.org/GEO/index.htm, also highlights marine pollution as a major concern, one that seriously threatens human health. And, it says the oxygen depletion of coastal waters due to excess nitrogen is becoming more frequent and widespread with major impacts on fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.

"Ocean-related issues will almost certainly dominate the international agenda later this century, if, as predicted, the Earth's continued warming accelerates sea level rise and adds up to 1 metre to the height of our oceans," Toepfer continued.

Low-lying regions of the world are frequently fertile, densely populated and invested with expensive infrastructure. The human and material costs of a 1 metre sea-level rise would be huge, affecting over 70 million people in coastal China, 10% of the population of Egypt and 60% of the people in Bangladesh. Among wealthier nations, over 60% of The Netherlands' population could be affected and 15% of the people and 50% of the industry of Japan would be threatened. In the US, 17,000 square kilometres of wetlands, and the same amount of dry land, could be lost - an area the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined. In low-lying countries like the Maldives or the Marshall Islands, the entire population is at risk.

More than 2 years in development after a decade of planning, the UN Oceans Atlas represents the most ambitious global scientific information collaboration ever online and an international consensus-building tool expected to assist negotiations of future marine-related agreements.

UNEP has been a founding UN agency partner of the Atlas project and one of the largest contributors to the uses of the oceans section, covering topics such as disposal of waste from land, human settlements on the coast, recreation and tourism. The organization's input has been coordinated by the Hague-based UNEP secretariat of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (UNEP/GPA) with Kenneth Korporal acting as the UNEP focal point and representative to the inter-agency UN Atlas Technical Committee.

"The compilation and development of appropriate content for the UN Oceans Atlas has been a large undertaking involving a number of experts in various UNEP offices and divisions scattered throughout the world," said Veerle Vandeweerd, Coordinator of UNEP/GPA. "The resulting information will ultimately feed into other UNEP initiatives," she said.

Salif Diop, Senior Environmental Affairs Officer with UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA) said the Atlas will serve as an important resource for a possible future global assessment of the state of the marine environment. A team from the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre helped write a large part of the UNEP input. According to Mark Collins, UNEP-WCMC's director, the Atlas should be the "first port of call for someone who wants to get an overview of oceans issues."

The Oceans Atlas is designed to be an encyclopedic resource but also the world's foremost information clearinghouse and online forum for experts in ocean issues.

To reach broader audiences and regions where Internet access is difficult the website will be supplemented by a CD-ROM and other media. More than 900 topics are currently covered with 17 founding editors. Further issues and several hundred designated topic editors will be added over time.

The Atlas contains an initial 14 global maps and links to hundreds of others, including 264 maps showing the distribution of fishery resources. A further 100 maps showing global ice cover, navigation routes, earthquake and volcanic activity, temperature gradients, bottom contours, salinity and other ocean characteristics are being contributed by the Russian Head Department of Navigation and Oceanography.

The National Geographic Society will likewise make a major contribution to the Atlas, including access to its map machine and marine-related information from its extensive portfolio of books and magazines. The Census of Marine Life, a global Washington-based organization working to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine organisms, will also make its resources fully available through the Atlas.

The UN Atlas of the Oceans is funded by the United Nations Foundation. In addition, six UN agencies (the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Maritime Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, UNEP and UNESCO/IOC) have committed financial resources to the project. Other partners in the project include the UN's Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

* * * * *

Background

The UN Atlas of the Oceans organizes information according to general subject areas:

Uses - disposal of waste from land, energy, fisheries and aquaculture, human coastal settlements, marine biotechnology, non-consumptive uses, ocean dumping and ship wastes, offshore oil, gas and mining, recreation and tourism, and transportation and telecommunications.

Issues - climate variability and climate change, economics, emergencies, food security, governance, human health, pollution and degradation, safety and sustainable development.

Background - including biology and ecology, how oceans were formed and how they are changing, monitoring and observing systems, and maps, statistics and online databases

Geographical - categorizes information according to geographic region.

Among the issues addressed:

Fishing: all 17 of the world's major fishing areas have either reached or exceeded their natural limits and nine are in serious decline, according to the FAO.

Piracy: the number of reported piracy attacks worldwide for 1999 rose nearly 40 percent compared with the previous year and almost tripled compared with 1991 according to the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Algal blooms: The number of poisonous algal species identified by scientists has nearly tripled since 1984, increasing fish kills, beach closures, and economic losses. Large parts of the Gulf of Mexico are now considered biological dead zones due to algal blooms.

Coral reefs: Although distributed in 101 countries and territories, where they are vital for fisheries, coastal protection, tourism and wildlife, they occupy less than one tenth of one percent of the oceans, according to the UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Coral Reefs

Invasive species: Marine bio-invasions have been identified as a major global environmental and economic problem with several thousand species estimated to be in the ballast tanks of the world's shipping at any one time. The Atlantic box jelly, believed to have been released in a ship's ballast water, helped wipe out life in the Black Sea. In San Francisco Bay, a new foreign species takes hold every 14 weeks, scientists warn.

For more information please contact: Robert Bisset, UNEP Press Officer and Europe Spokesperson on mobile +33-6-2272-5842, email: robert.bisset@unep.fr,

Kenneth Korporal, (UNEP focal point and representative to the inter-agency UN Atlas Technical Committee), UNEP/GPA, The Hague, tel +31-170-3114467, email: k.korporal@unep.nl, www.gpa.unep.org

Note to Editors: World Environment Day is an annual event celebrated on and around 5 June. This year's host city is Shenzhen in China. It will be celebrated in over 100 countries this year. http://www.unep.org/wed/2002/WED2002/Default.asp

UNEP News Release 2002/47