Established during the first Rio conference in 1992, World Oceans Day is, 20 years later, an opportunity for us to look at the state of this important ecosystem.

Oceans give life

 Even though our oceans represent three quarters of the surface on the planet, they have the distinction of being the least protected of all our ecosystems. As an important food source for the global population, our oceans also provide half of the oxygen on Earth. The health of these waters is directly linked to our own well-being as they provide us with our most basic needs. Sadly an increasing amount of issues threaten the resilience of this biotope.

GEO 5: A summary of destruction

Published this week, Global Environmental Outlook 5, the UN environment program's report on the state of our planet, comes as a stark reminder of the dangers that our oceans face. The report gives clear examples of what is happening in our oceans:

Many tropical coral reefs could rapidly die by 2050 due to ocean acidification and warming. Coral reefs have declined globally by 38 per cent since 1980”

The proportion of marine fish stocks that are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion rose from 10 per cent in 1974 to 32 per cent in 2008”

Thankfully, the full report is not entirely depressing. Rather , the authors have also focused on solutions and provide substantive evidence that specific conservations tools, such as marine reserves, are an effective way of protecting biodiversity.

A review of 112 independent studies in 80 different protected areas found significantly higher fish populations inside the reserves than in surrounding areas”

Since 2004, Greenpeace advocates for the creation of a network of marine reserves that would protect 40% of our oceans by designating them as no-take zones. Specifically, these are areas where activities such as fishing, mining and oil drilling are completely prohibited. Eight years later, the realization of this massive undertaking is seeing signs of a significant breakthrough.

Rio +20: Time for action?

In two weeks, the governments of the world will be meeting in Rio, once more, to try and come together to solve our planets most pressing environmental problems. Although some assessments have already lowered expectations, there is real potential for lasting solutions at Rio. Within the discussions at the conference, there will be a suggestion to establish an international governance structure to effectively protect our common marine areas. Currently, only 1% of our high seas around the world are protected, and the international community has finally recognized this conservation gap by moving forward a proposition to put in place a mechanism that will effectively identify and protect ocean areas.

The final text being sent to Rio for negotiations includes an important section that puts the establishment of marine reserves within reach. Moreover, this paragraph is supported by the majority of nations, including the European Union as well as the G77. It is an unprecedented opportunity to make significant changes on how our ocean commons are managed and we have an obligation not to waste it.

World Oceans Day is a time for us to cherish this crucial ecosystem, but if our governments fail to act in Rio we will no longer be able to celebrate this day. Rather, June 8th will become a day of remembrance for our oceans, a time to think about what we were unwilling to protect for future generations.