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Perspective
 

A Time to Act

Since the 1960s Jacques-Yves Cousteau first raised the alarm over the deteriorating condition of the marine environment, most of us have come to realize what’s at stake: our fisheries – a primary source of food for many of us – our holiday beaches, our treasured coral reefs and speeches – rich coastal wetlands, even our health.

More recently scientists have cautioned us that the very survival of life on Earth may be vulnerable to our unwitting assaults on the atmosphere with ‘greenhouse’ gases and ozone-depleting chemical, on the land with our bulldozers and chainsaws, on our fellow creatures with pesticides, driftnets and asphalt.

Even our oceans, the great environmental buffers that keep conditions for life (temperature, atmospheric gases, water and nutrient cycles) on an even keel are threatened. The forces in play are enormous, and could bring about fundamental changes in our environment so rapidly that life would have little time to adapt. Deserts could form in the Great Plains, the world’s food baskets.

The great ocean and air currents could re-route, turning Switzerland into Siberia or Argentina into the Sahara. Entire temperature zones could shift hundreds of kilometers in a few decades. Island chains and coastal plains could disappear altogether.

Coastal Encounters

Seven out of 10 people around the globe live within 80 km of the shoreline. Almost half of the world’s cities with a population of over one million are sited near tide-washed river mouths. Coastal zones provide all but 10 percent of the world’s fishing catch, and the beach is the favourite playground for a large segment of humanity. The continental shelves are the ocean’s most biologically productive regions.

The coast is also where our activities have the greatest and most immediate effect; where developers clear mangroves and flush silt and sediment into previously clear waters, where urban and industrial wastes pollute estuaries; where tourists crowd around the very coral reefs where fish are harvested with dynamite or poison.

Growing Threats

Globalization has intensified many of the threats to marine life. Ships remain the cheapest form of long haul transport for goods in bulk, so thousands of tankers ply the world’s oil routes, with regular spills and discharges that can clog holiday beaches, killing off wildlife and destroying local tourist and fishing economies for months if not years. Invasive species are transported in the holds and ballast waters of ships threatening biodiversity around the globe by preying upon or out-competing native species of animals and plants.

On the Global Agenda

Coastal and marine problems were for long treated as purely local or national issues. With the rise of environmental awareness over the last 50 years they began to move up the global agenda.

The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment expressly underlined the “vital importance for humanity of the seas and all the living organisms which the oceans support”.

The Rio Earth Summit of 1992 embodied a new concern with sustainable development. Agenda 21, the international blueprint for the environmental and development community in the new millennium, devoted Chapter17 to the oceans and coastal areas.

The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change put marine activities in a new perspective, in which global and regional questions were closely linked.