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Rio +20 preview: Our oceans, ourselves

With the UN’s sustainability conference around the corner, we talk to the Blue Marine Foundation and other experts how to save our seas.

From June 20 to June 22, leaders, officials and advocates from both the private and public sector will meet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations' Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20. Topics up for discussion include how to solve global problems like poverty, social inequality and the destruction of the environment.

Easy peasy, right?

Hardly. But those in attendance say the gathering will make a difference--especially for marine advocates, the focus of this Metro Special Issue. "Rio can go a long way to help our oceans," says Charles Clover, chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation. His organization, which helped put together this package, was created in 2010, and aims to "create marine reserves and private sector solutions in the sea which enable fisheries to be restructured to promote sustainable fishing." Says Clover: "This is a vital task because the reserves give fish and other wildlife a haven safe from the destruction and pillage wreaked on them almost everywhere else in the oceans by the world's fishing fleets and by problems including climate change and pollution. Fishing sustainably is equally important and means fishermen can earn a living now and in the future.

"What we really want and need from Rio," he continues, "is a ratified system of governance for the high seas which would replace the present lack of fishing regulations. They encourage a devastating free-for-all. As part of this, we want Rio to make it possible to create marine reserves in international waters, something that just can't be done as things stand but which is desperately important."

Watch "The End of the Line," Blue Marine's documentary on ocean health, for free here

Blue Marine not alone




Another group with an agenda for positive change is the International Ocean Institute (IOI), based in Malta. The non-profit group is one of the co-facilitators in the NGO ocean cluster, which hopes to convince governments at Rio to adopt policies to protect our big blue wonders.

"Perhaps Rio can be the wake up call to the unconscionable attitude humans have toward the ocean and that our very survival depends on bridging the governance deficit in managing our ocean," says Dr. Awni Behnam, president of IOI.

Pollution is his main concern. According to Behnam, more than 46,000 pieces of plastic are floating in every square mile of ocean. The concentration is especially high in the North Pacific Gyre in an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Ocean currents push all the trash into this area, even if the pollution was deposited from other parts of the world. It's also why scientists see garbage in the most remote parts of the Arctic, more than 1000 kilometers away from major populations.

"The human trash problem is not just a cleanliness issue per se, but a really insidious problem," Steve Gittings, science coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Program — a U.S. government organization -- tells us. "They don't break down."

Worse, it's not exactly visible, points out Dr. Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre. "This isn't some big pile of bags and bottles which we can go and scoop up — it's microscopic dust particles as the bigger items break down mechanically," he says.

Also scaring oceanographers is the overall pollution in our environment, which leads to climate change. Ocean acidification — which occurs when the pH level increases making the water more acidic -- has been witnessed at alarming rates. According to Dr. Scott Doney, a senior scientist of marine chemistry and geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., it occurs when humans burn fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide is produced. A quarter of that byproduct is absorbed by the ocean and changes the seawater chemistry.

"There aren't any specific human health issues that have come up yet, but what concerning is that a lot of plants and animals that people depend on appear to be sensitive to changes," Doney says.

So, to sum up...




Overfishing, pollution, global warming. Heady stuff. The most important key is getting governments on board to help change laws to make regulation easier. Multi-sectoral management needs to be streamlined for effective law enforcement, accountability and policy enactment.

"Climate change, for example," says Gittings, "No one seems to want to step up and make the major policy decisions. It's a tricky and costly one."

Organizers hope the conference will provide the push governments need, and are even teaming up to be heard. The Marine Reserves Coalition, for example, organized one panel, and includes Blue Marine Foundation and Greenpeace UK, among others.

 
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