As countries meet in New York this week to discuss marine environmental protection efforts, campaigners are demanding a fresh global treaty to tackle the problem

Calls continue to mount for a global treaty to protect oceans ahead of a major UN marine biodiversity conference this week, amid further evidence of the plight of marine life and ocean environments caused by industrial fishing practices worldwide.

A report released today by Greenpeace claims that unregulated squid fishing has growing 10-fold over the past 70 years to almost five million tonnes annually, which it argues is jeopardising marine ecosystems around the world.

Squids are regarded as vital species for sustaining marine environments, as they are both predator and prey, which gives them a key role in food webs. Declining numbers of squid therefore risk “catastrophic consequences” for ocean wildlife and coastal communities which depend on fishing for their livelihoods and food security, Greenpeace warned.

Current demand for squid “has no historical precedent” with some areas of the world’s oceans experiencing an 800 per cent increase in the number of active squid fishing vessels in just the past five years alone, according to the green campaign group.

In some areas, it claims that over 500 vessels cam be engaged in such practices at any one time, and that the collective lights of these “armadas” are visible from space, yet there remains no specific regulatory or monitoring system for the global squid trade.

Will McCallum from Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said a strong, robust global ocean treaty was urgently needed to help prevent further depletion of squid numbers, as well as to stop future fisheries from unrestricted expansion.

“The lack of control over the huge and growing squid fisheries worldwide is a glaring example of why the current rules to protect the oceans are failing,” he said. “We all rely on the oceans whether we know it or not: to help tackle climate change, ensure healthy ecosystems and to ensure food security and livelihoods for millions around the world. We urgently need a strong global ocean treaty that allows us to create a network of ocean sanctuaries around the world and put the brakes on the expanding industrialisation of our global commons.”

The intervention from Greenpeace comes just a week after the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided a series of stark warnings on the impact of a warming climate on marine habitats and the resulting threat to fisheries that are crucial to food and economic security in many parts of the world.

“The geographic patterns and the regional and local abundance of plants and animals are changing, with potentially severe impacts for herders, farmers, fishers, hunters, foragers and other people who directly rely on nature’s services,” the report stated. “As an example, the sustainable potential for fishery catches of several marine fish and shellfish is estimated to have decreased by 4.1 per cent globally in the 70 years between 1930 and 2010 due to ocean warming. Regions like the North Sea and Celtic Sea have experienced even stronger decreases in fisheries productivity primarily due to warming, but other human activities such as overfishing have played a role as well.”

It added that under a hugely optimistic 1.6C warming scenario fisher people in Africa’s tropical regions are projected to lose between three and 41 per cent of their fisheries’ yield by the end of the century due to local extinctions of marine fish. “Fisheries provide the main source of protein for about one-third of people living in Africa,” the IPCC said. “It supports the livelihoods of 12.3 million people. Declining fish harvests could leave millions of people vulnerable to malnutrition.”

Governments around the world are set to meet this week in New York to discuss the drafting of a possible treaty on ocean conservation, at the UN Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).

Ahead of the meeting, Greenpeace alongside other campaigners and scientists have been calling for what would be a historic agreement to protect international waters. If designed properly, they argue such a treaty could create a legal framework for the creation of highly or fully protected Marine Protected Areas, or ocean sanctuaries, across at least a third of the planet by 2030.

The NGOs’ proposals are aligned with existing commitments from 100 countries worldwide to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean environments by 2030, a move scientists believe is essential to avoiding the worst climate impacts.

It follows calls last week from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in the UK for a ban on damaging fishing such as so-called seabed ‘bottom trawling’ across England’s offshore Marine Protected Areas.

MCS argues such practices are deeply damaging to fragile seabed habitats, while also potentially disturbing carbon-storing soils on the bottom of the ocean.

While bottom-towed fishing gear is still permitted in MPA sites such as Dogger Bank, more carbon is being released from the seabed into the ocean, which in turn reduces its ability to buffer the effects of climate change, explained MCS.

Moreover, the region has been heavily fished for decades, with over 5,000 hours of fishing such as bottom trawling having been recorded over the past year, according to the MCS, which called on the government to take action to ban such practices in MPA areas.

“For the sake of humanity, society, climate, food security, clean waters and indeed the law – we need action immediately,” said Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, principal specialist in MPAs at the Marine Conservation Society. “There have been countless international commitments to deliver well-managed protected areas across Europe since 2010. But here we are, 12 years on, with little to show for it.”

The case for bolder action to protect marine habitats has never been clearer and there is mounting evidence that ocean sanctuaries and protection zones can actually benefit the fishing industry by allowing more space for declining fish stocks to replenish. Policing such zones remains a major challenge, but last year’s COP26 Climate Summit saw the number of countries commit to delivering on the 30 per cent protection goal expand significantly. Following last week’s UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, which saw a surprising number of new resolutions to ramp up environmental protection, hopes are riding high that diplomats in New York can deliver meaningful progress to protect the world’s increasingly threatened oceans. 

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