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Ocean Currents

Protecting Our Planet’s Biodiversity

The Global Biodiversity Outlook reveals we need to get to work, and fast

ReefRushHour_Matthew_Potenski
© Matthew D Potenski

There’s nothing quite like the first time you plunge beneath the ocean’s surface with SCUBA gear and become immersed in a world that was invisible to you just moments ago; a world full of corals and kelp, fishes and turtles, soft sands and cold muds and even sharks, stingrays, seals or whales, if you’re lucky. So, when my 8-year-old niece asked about becoming a certified SCUBA diver, I not only saw the opportunity to solidify my “Cool Aunt” status, but also was excited to share with her the awe that marine biodiversity in our ocean can inspire. However, the biodiversity found in our ocean, on the whole planet, is in crisis. My niece is only 8, and I can’t be certain what coral reefs will look like by the time she has all her diving certifications and we can plan that first plunge together beneath the waves.

Right now, Heads of State are convening at the United Nations (UN) for a Summit on Biodiversity and their words and commitments will determine a lot more than just the timing of my family SCUBA adventure. The Summit comes on the heels of the release of Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO5), a report card that tells us how governments are doing to reach targets that they set for themselves in 2010 to protect biodiversity. Their grade: Needs serious improvement. If we want to turn things around and pull off a Satisfactory by 2030 —before it’s too late —then it’s time to step up our level of ambition and seriously scale-up our actions.

Ocean Conservancy and our peer organizations are working hard to preserve the biodiversity of our planet and ocean. We can’t do it alone, though. We need ocean lovers and governments to help, and there are so many reasons to take action. Protecting marine biodiversity will not only preserve recreational diving and sustainable tourism, it will also preserve the livelihoods, food and nutrition security, and economies of many coastal communities. The benefits of protecting biodiversity come from the animals and plants themselves, whether we’re using them as resources for food, taking trips to see them or deriving medicines from them, as well as from keeping the soils, rivers or ocean they live in healthy. The same habitats and ecosystems that support biodiversity provide us with clean air and drinking water, and—increasingly importantly —they help regulate our climate by storing carbon. Protecting biodiversity and working to prevent catastrophic climate change go hand in hand. In order to achieve one, we have to achieve the other.

Of the 20 biodiversity targets (and 60 sub elements) that governments agreed to in 2010, many are specifically related to protecting marine biodiversity and coastal communities. Here are some examples of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (named for the Aichi Prefecture in Japan where they were agreed to) set in 2010 and the reported progress towards their achievement:

Target 6. Sustainable Fisheries: The target has not been achieved (high confidence).

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(Blue: exceeds target; Green: on track; Yellow: some progress; Red: no change; Purple: moving away from target)

Target 8. Preventing plastic pollution: The target has not been achieved (medium confidence).

Target 10. Reduce pressure on coral reefs: The target was missed by the stated date of 2015, and it has not been achieved by 2020 (high confidence).

Target 11. Conserve coastal and marine area: The target has been partially achieved (high confidence).

Target 14. Ecosystems that provide essential services…are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable: The target has not been achieved (medium confidence).

As you can see, it’s not all bad news. There are some areas of progress, like the fact that we are on track to protect 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. And, when you dig into the details and start looking country by country, there are bright spots and examples for each target that can and should be replicated to make more progress.

For example, despite the fact that sustainable fisheries have not been achieved globally—about one-third of fish stocks measured in global assessments are still overfished—stocks are being maintained or rebuilt in places where fisheries management polices include stock assessments, catch limits and enforcement, and as many as 80% of countries reporting on this target have demonstrated some progress towards achieving it. Additionally, reef sharks —which are keystone species for coral reefs and have completely disappeared from some nations due to fishing activity—can be protected using shark sanctuaries, closed areas, catch limits and bans on the use of some fishing gear like gillnets and longlines. This is good news for the sharks that keep the reefs healthy, the communities that depend on the reefs for food security and 8-year-old aspiring SCUBA divers everywhere.

Plastic pollution affects marine life and biodiversity all the way from whales and turtles at the top of the food chain to forage fish and plankton at the bottom. When it comes to transitioning to a circular economy to reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, Trash Free Seas Alliance member Danone is highlighted for their contribution to Target 4: Sustainable Production and Consumption.

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Reporting on Target 8 (efforts to reduce plastic pollution), the report notes that “…commonly reported actions were bans or restrictions on certain types of plastics (about 20% of national reports referred to this type of action), awareness campaigns and community clean-up events. Some reports also referred to increased efforts related to recycling.” Again, we see some positive trends.

However, the fact that the report found no progress towards achieving Target 14 (to restore ecosystem services while taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable) should be unacceptable to all of us. “There are numerous examples of the disproportionate impacts of a decline in ecosystem services on women and girls … For example, women are more impacted by wetland degradation than men, due their use of wetlands for firewood, handicraft materials, water and herbal medicine.” Despite the lack of progress globally, there are still local bright spots. “…Considering gender dimensions in biodiversity management can lead to positive outcomes for biodiversity and gender equality.”

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We should find hope in these bright spots and other emerging progress, but in addition we need increased ambition, strategic action plans and strong leadership. Authors of GBO5 and the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat have assessed the past decade and the reported progress and challenges and laid out a path for “the sustainable fisheries and ocean transition.” This includes integrated ocean management, sustainably managed fisheries and aquaculture, protection of critical habitats, reducing land and sea-based nutrient and plastic pollution and controlling invasive species spread. While these actions all have unique challenges, none of them are new concepts, and all of them are possible if we make biodiversity and the natural world we depend on a priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the deadline for agreeing to the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, the next set of targets, to the end of 2021. These will be the targets we aim to reach by 2030, alongside efforts to also achieve the better known Sustainable Development Goals 2030. With more time to get it right, and more time to appreciate our reliance on nature and to learn the lessons of the past decade, countries must come to the table prepared to do more … a lot more.

That’s why the Biodiversity Summit happening today at the UN is so important. Having seen their failing report card, what will governments commit to doing to improve their grade? What reefs will be there for my niece to see? What wetlands, what fisheries, what livelihoods will be left by 2025, by 2030 … by 2050?

As GBO5 has shown us, setting lofty targets isn’t enough. We have to put the work in to meet those goals.

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