Oceans at Dire Risk, Team of Scientists Warns

By DAVID JOLLY

June 21, 2011

The state of the oceans is declining far more rapidly than most pessimists had expected, an international team of experts has concluded, increasing the risk that many marine species — including those that make coral reefs — could be extinct within a generation.

The scientists, who gathered in April at the University of Oxford, cited the cumulative impact of the stresses on the oceans, which include ocean acidification related to growing carbon dioxide emissions, a global warming trend that is reducing the polar ice caps, pollution and overfishing.

‘‘This examination of synergistic threats leads to the conclusion that we have underestimated the overall risks and that the whole of marine degradation is greater than the sum of its parts, and that degradation is now happening at a faster rate than predicted,’’ they wrote in the report, released on Monday.

The April workshop, organized by the International Program on the State of the Ocean in concert with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, brought scientists from a broad range of disciplines together to talk about the problems in the marine environment and what steps can be taken to arrest the collapse of ocean ecosystems.

Chris Reid, a professor of oceanography at the Marine Institute of Plymouth University who took part in the workshop, described the report as ‘‘a synthesis of existing work.’’ ‘‘When we added it all up, it was clear that we are in a situation that could lead to major extinctions of organisms in the oceans,’’ he said by telephone.

The scientists said that studies of the earth’s past have indicated that global warming, ocean acidification and hypoxia, or reduced oxygen content in the seas, are three symptoms of a disturbance in the carbon dioxide cycle that have been ‘‘associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth.’’

While speaking in the measured language of science, the report calls for a complete rethinking of humans’ relationship with the oceans. ‘‘It is clear that the traditional economic and consumer values that formerly served society well, when coupled with current rates of population increase, are not sustainable,’’ it said.

“Deferring action will increase costs in the future leading to even greater losses of benefits,” the scientists added.

They warned that in addition to steep declines in the populations of many commercially important commercial species, the oceans are at risk for ‘‘an unparalleled rate of regional extinctions of habitat types,’’ including mangroves and seagrass meadows. ‘‘We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,’’ the report said.

Mr. Reid said corals were particularly at risk because they were suffering both from the bleaching effect caused by rising sea temperatures and from acidification, which deprive the tiny organisms of the calcium carbonate they need to build their homes.

The authors call for immediate action to take the pressure off ocean ecosystems, including measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ‘‘coordinated and concerted action’’ by governments in national waters and on the high seas to enact sustainable fisheries polices and reduce pollution.

They also called on the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly to create a global body that would have the power to ensure compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other statutes and treaties and to establish new rules and procedures for acting in “a precautionary manner.’’

Mr. Reid said that action by the United Nations was vital because there was effectively no protection at all for most of the ocean.

‘‘Once you’re outside the 200-mile limits of the nation states, it’s an open field,’’ he said. ‘‘So we’re calling for the U.N. and national governments to come up with some kind of agreement to protect the open oceans. At the moment, we’re not doing anything in the oceans sustainably.’’