Report warns oceans near mass extinction tipping point

June 22, 2011
Sea life under threat of mass extinction

An interim report released Tuesday by a panel of international scientists has concluded that ocean life is "at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history."

The report, compiled by experts from different disciplines convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) characterizes the state of the oceans as "shocking" and says they are deteriorating faster than scientists have been warning, by a factor of years.

It says a deadly trio of factors - warming, acidification and lack of oxygen - are creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth's history.

The urgent warnings emerged from the first-ever interdisciplinary international workshop, held April 11-13, to consider the cumulative impact of all stressors affecting the ocean.

"This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level," said Dr. Alex Rogers, scientific director of the IPSO, who specializes in the ecology, biodiversity and evolution of deep-sea ecosystems, with emphasis on cold-water corals, seamounts, hydrothermal vents and seeps.

According to the scientists, the first steps to globally significant extinction may have already begun with a rise in the extinction threat to marine species such as reef-forming corals. They emphasize that "the unprecedented speed of change" makes accurate assessment difficult.

"We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children's and generations beyond that," said Rogers.

The 27 marine scientists from 18 organizations in six countries, who gathered at Oxford University under the auspices of the IPSO and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, produced a grave assessment of current threats.

The group reviewed recent research by world ocean experts and found firm evidence that the effects of climate change, coupled with other human-induced impacts such as over-fishing and nutrient run-off from farming, have already caused a dramatic decline in ocean health.

According to the report, over-fishing has reduced some commercial fish stocks and populations of by-catch species by more than 90 percent.

Dan Laffoley, senior advisor on Marine Science and Conservation for IUCN, and co-author of the report, said: "The challenges for the future of the ocean are vast, but unlike previous generations we know what now needs to happen. The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent."

The IPSO panel urges, "Immediate reduction in CO2 emissions coupled with significantly increased measures for mitigation of atmospheric CO2 and to better manage coastal and marine carbon sinks to avoid additional emissions of greenhouse gases. It is a matter of urgency that the ocean is considered as a priority in the deliberations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change."

The panel members point out that the rate at which carbon is being absorbed by the ocean is already far greater now than at the time of the last globally significant extinction of marine species, some 55 million years ago, when up to 50 percent of some groups of deep sea animals were wiped out.

The report sets out a series of recommendations and calls on states, regional bodies and the UN to enact measures to better conserve ocean ecosystems, and in particular demands the urgent adoption of better governance of the largely unprotected high seas which make up the majority of the world's ocean.

The authors do give themselves an out, however, saying that it was still too early to predict the outcome definitively.