Statement by Enric Sala (Washington DC)Friday, December 9, 2022Inter Press Service
WASHINGTON DC, Dec 09 (IPS) — Delegates from more than 190 countries don thick coats and winter boots to attend the long-delayed UN Biodiversity Summit in Montreal, Canada — the land of caribou, beluga whales and wolverines.
They gather there to iron out the final details of a global deal for nature that aims to halt the extinction of a million species and the destruction of the ecosystems they help shape.
I will join the delegates next week. As I trudge through the cold to speak to them about the urgent need for conservation, I think of the distant Southern Line Islands, a remote group of islands in the Republic of Kiribati, a nation known for its desperate fight against rising sea levels .
Their islands could be among the first to disappear if we don’t gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What is less well known, however, is that the southern line islands provide the strongest evidence that conservation can boost ocean resilience to global warming.
In 2009, a team of scientists and I first surveyed the marine ecosystems around the uninhabited Southern Line Islands. What we saw was like a world centuries ago. The abundance of fish was immeasurable; On each dive we saw plenty of large predators such as sharks – an unusual sight even for an experienced diver. Thriving, living coral covered up to 90 percent of the ocean floor. We thought the pristine and pristine corals were saved forever in 2015 when the Kiribati government protected 12 nautical miles around the islands from fishing and other harmful activities in what is now the Southern Line Islands Marine Protected Area.
But then disaster struck. In the same year, higher-than-average sea temperatures killed half of the coral on the Southern Line Islands. The news discouraged many. If the pristine reefs were to sink so quickly then all hope would be lost. Would they be able to recover? To answer that question, we returned to the islands five years after the coral died. I was scared about the first dive – not sure if we would see dead or recovering corals. But when I jumped in the water, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
Amidst huge schools of fish, the corals were back to their former glory – they had fully recovered. If we hadn’t known that half the coral died recently I would have thought nothing had changed since my first visit. They recovered faster than ever before, with millions of new coral colonies per square mile taking up space left by dead coral. This miracle was only possible because the reefs were completely protected from fishing. As a result, the fish biomass was enormous. Large parrotfish and schools of hundreds of surgeonfish kept the reef healthy and algae free by constantly grazing and grazing on the dead coral skeletons. Without algae to smother the dead coral, new coral could grow and restore the reef. Our discovery on this expedition clearly demonstrated that marine ecosystems can recover when given full protection from fishing and other extractive activities. Strong protection gives resilience and replenishes our overfished ocean. We’ve seen this again and again, in Mexico, Colombia and the United States.
The Biden administration has pledged to protect more oceans under its jurisdiction and even installed a new special envoy on biodiversity, currently held by Monica Medina. But there is more that countries around the world can do on a global and national scale. That’s why I’m sending Montreal a strong message: we must protect at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, and we must hurry. Protecting a third of the planet is crucial for biodiversity and all the benefits we derive from it, such as oxygen, clean air and water, and food.
But it is also indispensable for climate protection. Protecting vital areas of ocean – and land – will turn the tide on biodiversity loss and buy us time while the world phase out fossil fuels and replace them with clean energy sources. Ocean health is at stake at COP15 in Montreal. But we are already running out of time with the summit being delayed by two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, less than 8% of the ocean is under any protection, and only 3% is highly protected, such as the southern line islands.
We have eight years to quadruple the level of ocean protection ever achieved in human history. Some countries have announced new marine conservation measures, but we need a global action plan that targets the top priorities for protecting the oceans – for biodiversity, food and climate. That means delegates must roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of ironing out a strong global agreement that doesn’t dilute conservation goals. There is no more time for podium promises and empty speeches.
The only acceptable outcome of COP15 is a strong nature deal, including a serious commitment to protect at least 30% of our oceans by 2030. Enric Sala is National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Founder of National Geographic Pristine Seas. Hear an in-depth conversation with Sala about the Southern Line Islands expedition on the latest episode of the Overheard at National Geographic podcast.
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