NEW YORK, New York, June 9, 2014 (ENS) – Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 percent of the living space on the planet by volume. But human pressures, such as overexploitation, illegal fishing, unsustainable aquaculture, marine pollution, habitat destruction, alien species, climate change and ocean acidification are taking their toll.

June 8, World Oceans Day, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the day the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea entered into force. This treaty provides a comprehensive legal framework for all ocean activities and is critical to the sustainable use of the world’s seas and oceans.

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Sunrise over the Atlantic shore of Assateague Island, a barrier island off the eastern coast of Maryland and Virginia, USA (Photo by Grace Alone)

“We have to ensure that oceans continue to meet our needs without compromising those of future generations,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “They regulate the planet’s climate and are a significant source of nutrition. Their surface provides essential passage for global trade, while their depths hold current and future solutions to humanity’s energy needs.”

“On this World Oceans Day, let us reflect on the multiple benefits of the oceans,” said Ban. “Let us commit to keep them healthy and productive and to use their resources peacefully, equitably and sustainably for the benefit of current and future generations.”

But there are many threats to the oceans of the world.

Australian conservationists are alarmed because five mega ports will be allowed along the Queensland coast, mainly in areas near the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef and a UN World Heritage Site.

Abbot Point, one of the world’s biggest coal terminals, has been declared a port development priority area.

The declaration comes just six months after environmental groups lost a battle to stop Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority from permitting three million cubic metres of dredge spoil from being dumped within the reef’s marine park boundaries.

Expansions also will be allowed at other ports adjacent to the reef, including Gladstone, Hay Point, Mackay, and Townsville.

The UN’s World Heritage Committee has continued to express serious concern about Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef since 2011.

“There is a strong and disturbing possibility that, within the next 12 months, the World Heritage Committee will decide to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef’s status to an “In Danger” status.

“Countries campaign for years, sometimes decades, to make the World Heritage list. Not only would it bring shame to Australia if … the Great Barrier Reef [were] listed as ‘in danger,’ but it would damage our international reputation, our economy and the environment we leave to our children,” four of Australia’s most prominent environmental groups warn in a joint statement.

“Our World Heritage sites are part of what makes us Australian. We strongly urge the Federal Government to re-think its approach to Australia’s World Heritage sites,” write
Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO, Australian Conservation Foundation; Lyndon Schneiders, National Director, The Wilderness Society; Dermot O’Gorman, CEO, WWF-Australia; and
Glen Klatovsky, Director, Places You Love alliance.

Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 percent of the living space on the planet by volume.

Oceans generate most of the oxygen humans breathe. They absorb about 30 percent of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming. And oceans serve as the backbone of international trade, and are important economically for countries that rely on tourism and fishing.

But human pressures, such as overexploitation, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, destructive fishing, unsustainable aquaculture practices, marine pollution, habitat destruction, alien species, climate change and ocean acidification are taking their toll on the world’s oceans and seas.

Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions. More than three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods.

Along the Pacific coast of North America, there is a new threat to marine biodiversity.

Just in the past two weeks, the incidence of sea star wasting syndrome has exploded along the Oregon Coast and created an epidemic of historic magnitude, one that threatens to decimate the entire population of purple ochre sea stars, researchers say.

Before this outbreak, Oregon had been the only part of the West Coast that had been spared this devastating disease.

The ochre sea star, which is the species most heavily affected by the disease in the intertidal zone, may be headed toward localized extinction in Oregon, according to researchers at Oregon State University who have been monitoring the outbreak. As a “keystone” predator, its loss could disrupt the entire marine intertidal ecosystem.

Researchers say this is the first time that die-offs of sea stars, usually called starfish, have ever been identified at one time along such a wide expanse of the West Coast, and the sudden increase in Oregon has been extraordinary.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his World Oceans Day message, “Life as we know it wouldn’t be possible were it not for our ocean. We depend on the ocean for life’s essentials: the food we eat and the air that we breathe. It provides jobs for millions of people around the world, and a home for countless unique species.”

On June 16-17, Kerry will host the “Our Ocean” conference, a gathering of high-level representatives from governments around the world, scientists, the environmental community, industry, and other stakeholders to address the challenges of sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and ocean acidification, and how these issues can be resolved.

“The wonders of the ocean were impressed upon me at an early age in Massachusetts,” Kerry said. My father taught me how to fish, and my mother taught me what happens when trash dumped into the ocean ends back up on the shore or kills sea turtles. I learned much more as a Senator working for fishing families that saw their way of life threatened when the oceans weren’t properly protected.”

Kerry urged U.s. politicians to protect the oceans and welcomed the pressure from grassroots environmentalists that might motivate them to do so.

“It’s not lost on any of us that we haven’t yet achieved the political consensus necessary to spur action. And, frankly, we know there’s no way that governments are going to tackle these enormous challenges alone. We need grassroots action to push us over the finish line, and that includes action from businesses, students, community groups, and advocacy and research organizations.”

“We all have a responsibility to protect our ocean against the threats of overfishing, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. The entire system is interdependent, and we ignore that fact at our peril,” said the secretary.

“Every action counts. It’s our ocean to share and that means we each share the responsibility to act as its steward,” said Kerry. “So – please pause – enjoy – celebrate – and let’s commit to work together as we chart a new way forward for a healthy ocean and a secure, prosperous planet.”

More information can be found at www.state.gov/ourocean. Join the conversation using hashtag #OurOcean2014.

Some countries are acting to conserve marine species.

The British Virgin Islands moved on May 22 to establish a permanent shark sanctuary in its waters, joining The Bahamas and Honduras, which declared shark sanctuaries in 2011.

The designation by the cabinet of the British overseas territory prohibits commercial fishing of all shark and rays species throughout the full exclusive economic zone – an area of 30,933 square miles. The designation also bans the sale and trade of sharks and shark products within the territory. Many threatened or near-threatened shark species, including the oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, tiger, and Caribbean reef sharks, swim in the waters off the British Virgin Islands.

Worldwide, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species says that more than half of all sharks and sharklike species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction.

“Our people are committed to sustainably managing our resources,” said Deputy Premier and Minister for Natural Resources and Labour of the Virgin Islands Kedrick Pickering. “We recognize that sharks are important to our oceans and our reefs and that the best way to manage their populations is to let them fulfill their ecological role as apex predators.”

In her World Oceans Day message, Irina Bokova, director-general of the UN Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), emphasized that “at a time of rising threats, business as usual is no longer acceptable – we must change how we understand, manage and use ocean resources and coastal areas. For this, we need to know more about the ocean and draw on stronger science to craft sustainable, ecosystem-based policies for the ocean and coasts.”

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