Greenpeace & World Watch Report: Oceans in Peril

Feature story - September 20, 2007
Our planet's oceans are in deep, deep, peril, says a new report from Greenpeace and the World Watch Institute. The only road to recovery may be to declare 40 percent of the world's oceans off-limits to human exploitation to ensure the restoration of life in depleted areas.

Underwater banner reading "Marine Reserves Now!" next to octopus in Menorca, Spain.

The Earth's surface is 70 percent covered by ocean, and three-quarters of humanity live in coastal areas. We are hugely dependent on marine resources - yet our oceans are facing threats that include overfishing, toxic pollution, climate change and whaling.

A new report from the prestigious Worldwatch Institute, Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity, calls for these marine reserves - areas where all extractive and destructive activities, including fishing are prohibited - while giving an alarming snapshot of the shocking state of the world's oceans. It's a wake-up call that should jolt the complacency of policy makers worldwide.

Written for the Worldwatch Institute by a team of experts - this time from the Greenpeace Science Unit in the UK's Exeter University - Oceans in Peril updates an earlier study by the same team in 1998. They have been staggered by the scale and rate of destruction that has taken place in less than a decade in every ocean on Earth.

©Greenpeace/Grace Sharks entangled in a Japanese driftnet

The Science Unit provides crucial scientific expertise to our campaigns, and has a long history of working on oceans issues, including whaling, toxic pollution, climate change and overfishing.

"Recent studies such as the one which shows how 90 percent of the world's large predatory fish, which include the sharks, swordfish and tuna, have disappeared due to overfishing since the 1950s have helped expose what has been happening under the waves and have therefore been out of sight and out of mind to most people", says Paul Johnston, Greenpeace's chief scientist.

Oceans in Peril details new and emerging threats, such the increasing acidification of the world's oceans, and underscores how the race for ever-diminishing resources is forcing marine ecosystems to the point of collapse.

The report illustrates how 76 percent of the world's fish stocks are fully or overexploited, an estimate borne out by figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which suggest that 158 million tons of fish were harvested worldwide in 2005 - a seven-fold increase since 1950.  Catch records between 1950 and 2000 show the "collapse" of 366 out 1,519 fisheries worldwide, most famously the Grand Banks cod fishery off Newfoundland.

©Greenpeace/Grace Orange Roughy and bycatch in the Tasman Sea

Oceans in Peril also details the pitfalls of fish farming, the supposed magic bullet of marine resources with alarming statistics: producing carnivorous animals such as salmon or marine shrimp requires 2.5 as much fishmeal as the amount of saleable fish eventually produced. For tuna caught in the wild and fattened in "ranches", the weight of fish fed to the tuna is a shocking 20 times more than what is actually produced.

The damage to thousands of marine animals and entire ecosystems by the likes of longlining and bottom trawling, as well as overfishing off the coast of developing countries, is exacerbated the estimated 20 percent of the global catch that is illegal, unregulated or unreported, and worth somewhere between US$4-9 billion a year. While countries with enough resources to control their own waters stand some chance of putting measures in place to protect resources, there's little or no regulation of any kind of marine harvesting in international waters - an issue that needs to be urgently addressed at an international level.

500-year old Gorgonian Coral trawled from the sea bottom by a fish net. (Image ©Ministry of Fisheries NZ)

But it's not all doom and gloom - there is a beam of sunshine in the report, including a comprehensive package of measures that if implemented could reverse current trends, restoring the former productivity of our planet's oceans. That solution is the establishment of comprehensive marine reserves all over the world,  protecting vulnerable species and habitats, enhancing fisheries beyond the reserve boundaries, and buffering the worst impacts of climate change.

Marine reserves are the single most powerful tool available for arresting and reversing the decline of our oceans and are equally applicable to the high seas as they are to coastal waters. The oceans have immense powers of regeneration and wherever in the world marine reserves have been established marine life is flourishing. 

If we want fish tomorrow, we need marine reserves today.

You can help us convince governments and the UN that we need to protect our oceans by creating a global network of marine reserves by signing our petition:

Let the Oceans recover

I support the Greenpeace plan to protect 40 percent of the world's oceans as Marine Reserves.

(Optional) Sign up for action alerts

Take action

We can restore our oceans to abundance and ensure a sustainable future for fisheries communities by taking action now to protect 40 percent of our world's oceans with no-take Marine Reserves. Help pressure the UN to take action.


We need your help to continue defending our oceans. Become a financial supporter of Greenpeace today.