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TIME FOR SOLUTIONS 1998: U.N. International Year of the Ocean

By Traci Hickson

The United Nations has declared 1998 the International Year of the Ocean as a celebration of this source of life and civilization. But this International year is also a reminder of the need to protect this most precious of resources, an affirmation of our commitment to safeguard the rights of future generations, for which we hold our planet and its life-sustaining oceans' in trust. (Frederico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO, 1997)

The United Nations International Year of the Ocean signals the need for a stronger commitment toward safeguarding the health of the world's oceans. Despite current efforts to regulate fisheries and protect marine habitat, "life in the world's estuaries, coastal waters, enclosed seas and oceans is increasingly threatened by:

  • the overexploitation of species,
  • physical alterations of ecosystems,
  • pollution,
  • introduction of alien species, and
  • global atmospheric change (Marine Conservation Biology Institute, 1998).

According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), 11 of the world's 15 major fishing areas and 69 percent of the world's major fish species are in decline and in need of urgent management" (McGinn, State of the World, 1998). Eliminating these ecological threats, which also have grave socio-economic implications, poses a serious challenge to citizens and governments throughout the world. Solutions will require fresh thinking, open debate, and increased awareness. Over 400 marine scientists and conservation biologists recently announced five recommendations necessary for protecting marine species and ecosystems. Citizens and governments worldwide need to:

  • Identify and provide effective protection to all populations of marine species that are significantly depleted or declining, take all measures necessary to allow their recovery, minimize bycatch, end all subsidies that encourage overfishing and ensure that use of marine species is sustainable in perpetuity.
  • Increase the number and effectiveness of marine protected areas so that 20% of Exclusive Economic Zones and the High Seas are protected from threats by the year 2020.
  • Ameliorate or stop fishing methods that undermine sustainability by harming the habitats of economically valuable marine species and the species they use for food and shelter.
  • Stop physical alteration of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems that harms the sea, minimize pollution discharged at sea or entering the sea from the land, curtail introduction of alien marine species and prevent further atmospheric changes that threaten marine species and ecosystems.
  • Provide sufficient resources to encourage natural and social scientists to undertake marine conservation biology research needed to protect, restore and sustainably use life in the sea (Marine Conservation Biology Institute, 1998).

Although the threats and needed solutions are as vast as the ocean itself, many solutions depend on individual choices. Individuals have the responsibility to "buy fish products that have been produced sustainably, ask where a fish came from and how it was raised, and demand that policymakers support the recommendations of scientists to close fisheries and reduce fishing effort" (McGinn, State of the World, 1998). Consumer choices are also critical to campaigns such as the one initiated by the Mangrove Action Project to fight the spread of destructive industrial shrimp farming. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of low-lying coastal Mangrove forests have been cleared to make room for commercial shrimp ponds that have enormous social and environmental costs. The Mangrove Action Project has united with the recently formed Industrial Shrimp Action Network to ask organizations to take a "shrimp break" and refrain temporarily from purchasing or serving shrimp.

Besides making consumer choices, individuals also have the power to influence their fellow citizens and governments. One individual, Bill Ballantine, was instrumental in raising support for a system of "no-take" marine reserves in New Zealand. New Zealand now has 13 no-take marine reserves which have diverse conservation, economic, educational and recreational benefits. Ballantine, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner, traveled throughout New Zealand talking at Rotary Clubs, schools, meetings of fishermen and farmers, and reaching out to anyone who would listen. His passion and his logic were convincing.

Even though you may feel a bit overwhelmed with the enormity of the problems, remember not to underestimate the impact of your own personal actions. Take some advice from Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who thinks that everybody can really make a difference by just focusing on one thing. "We should ask ourselves everyday -- how am I making an impact? Is it a positive one or is it a negative one? I'm not saying you have to go out and sink a whaling ship in order to make a difference; you really have to do what you do best....You just have to ask yourselves a question: How can I apply myself to doing my planetary duty to uphold my responsibility to future generations to try and make a better tomorrow. If we start looking at things that way, I think that we can maybe try to turn this around" (Interview on Every Living Thing).

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