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Ocean benefits increasingly undermined by human activity, UN assessment reveals

The second World Ocean Assessment (WOA II) is the work of hundreds of scientists from across the globe and follows an initial report published in 2015.  

It warns that many benefits the ocean provides are increasingly being undermined by human actions, the UN chief said, describing the findings as alarming. 

Destruction and pollution 

“Pressures from many human activities continue to degrade the ocean and destroy essential habitats – such as mangrove forests and coral reefs – hindering their capacity to help address climate change impacts”, Mr. Guterres said in a video message. 

“These pressures also come from human activities on land and coastal areas, which bring dangerous pollutants into the ocean, including plastic waste. Meanwhile, overfishing is estimated to have led to an annual loss of $88.9 billion in net benefits”. 

UN Environment Programme
A beach clean-up in Mumbai, India, illustrates how plastic debris in the ocean leads to the deaths of millions of seabirds every year (file photo).

The Secretary-General added that carbon released into the atmosphere is driving ocean warming and acidification, which have destroyed biodiversity. At the same time, sea level rise is threatening the world’s coastlines. 

Rise in ‘dead zones’ 

Mr. Guterres reported that the number of ‘dead zones’ in the ocean has nearly doubled, increasing from more than 400 globally in 2008 to about 700 in 2019.  Around 90 per cent of mangrove, seagrass and marsh plant species, as well as more than 30 per cent of seabird species, are also facing the threat of extinction. 

“The experts attribute this to our general failure to achieve integrated sustainable management of coasts and the ocean”, he said.  “I urge all stakeholders to heed this and other warnings. Better understanding of the ocean is essential”. 

With the pandemic showing how human health and the health of the planet are linked, Mr. Guterres called for transforming our relationship with nature in efforts to recover better, achieve sustainable development and keep global temperature rise to the 1.5-degree Celsius target of the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

‘Green’ and ‘blue’ recovery 

“As the Assessment makes clear, ocean sustainability depends on us all working together – including through joint research, capacity development and the sharing of data, information and technology.  We also need to better integrate scientific knowledge and policy-making”, he said. 

This year marked the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which the Secretary-General said provides a framework for collective action to achieve this goal. 

“The findings of this Assessment underscore the urgency of ambitious outcomes in this year’s UN biodiversity, climate and other high-level summits and events”, he added. 

“Together, we can foster not only a green – but also a blue – recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and help ensure a long term resilient and sustainable relationship with the ocean”. 

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