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April 22, 2020

Earth Day reflections on the ocean

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This Earth Day is unlike any other. It comes at a time of global uncertainty, leaving many facing challenges and hardships unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetime. 

I do, however, remain hopeful and optimistic about the future. We are all in this together around the world. Because of this unifying experience, I see reasons for hope and optimism for the collective future of the planet, and in particular the oceans, which make up 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface. 

This Earth Day, I’m hoping we all can escape the anxiety of the present for a moment to reflect on what a positive future for our oceans looks like. Canada has the longest coastline in the world, touching three oceans. The health of the ocean will always be directly linked to our well-being, our economy and our everyday lives. This is especially true for coastal communities. 

Our hope for a future with abundant oceans and prosperous coastal communities was recently buoyed by new research published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The study shows that oceans could recover to abundance in as little as 30 years: by 2050 we could save the oceans and help feed the world. We can do this if we take immediate action and invest now.

A future with healthier oceans and more fish 

According to the international study, if world governments invest approximately $10 to 20 billion USD per year in restoration, marine life that has been depleted by years of overfishing and pollution could see a substantial recovery in just one human generation. 

The authors highlight the sustained financial, social and political investments – and collaboration – required to rebuild marine life to abundance, and also illustrate that if successful, the benefits would be enormous. Economic returns are estimated to be $10 for every $1 invested, with more than a million jobs created. These investments could spark a resurgence in the global seafood and ecotourism industries and bring billions more per year into the Canadian fishing industry.

The inspiring study, co-authored by two professors from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, clearly illustrates the need – and real value – for rebuilding marine life. Boris Worm, who is also an Oceana Science Advisor, and Dalhousie colleague Heike Lotze were part of the group of authors that reviewed hundreds of case studies on revitalized marine ecosystems, including a study that showed a rebound of fish populations during both world wars due to a decrease in fishing, and coral reefs that recovered from nuclear tests in the South Pacific. We could point to Canadian examples too: In Atlantic Canada, rebuilding efforts have led to a rebound of redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Canadian case 

There is more opportunity in Canada. A fisheries economics study commissioned by Oceana Canada last year revealed that a rebuilt northern cod fishery could provide 16 times more jobs and have a net present value worth up to five times more than today. With low fishing pressure and favourable environmental conditions, the fishery could recover in as few as 11 years, supporting economic activities worth $233 million in today’s dollars.

During this time of great change, there are opportunities to invest in the future we want for generations to come.

The Nature study included a global meta-analysis of overfished stocks. They showed that most stocks that had been subjected to moderate levels of overfishing remain resilient and if rebuilding measures are not delayed, offer the possibility of swift recovery. However, prolonged and intense overexploitation can erode that resilience and make recovery potential uncertain. Taking quick action to rebuild declining stocks, protecting critically important habitats and curbing climate change are among the major pressures we can successfully tackle to rebuild fisheries and marine life.

There is clearly an urgent need to intensify Canada’s fisheries rebuilding efforts: Of 33 fish stocks assessed as being in a critical state, only six have rebuilding plans. The science is clear. Our long-term focus must be on rebuilding depleted populations and ecosystems, not simply on maintaining what remains.

Substantially rebuilding marine life, so that populations rebound to abundance, within a human generation is achievable if we take action at scale, including reducing global carbon emissions, protecting vulnerable habitats and species, stopping overfishing and reducing pollution, such as the glut of dangerous plastic in the oceans.

Countries around the world committed to safeguarding 10 per cent of their ocean territories by 2020, through marine protected areas and other means. Canada has surpassed this commitment, thanks in part to federal leadership and collaboration between Indigenous communities, governments, conservation organizations, and industries. From our expeditions we’ve seen and helped contribute to this protection, for example in the American Bank, which was designated as a marine protected area last year. We continue to advocate for more protection, including for seamounts off the coast of British Columbia, knowing that with habitat protection comes healthier oceans and more fish. 

But, as this new study definitively shows, we can do more, and abundant oceans and a prosperous collective future is achievable. We encourage Canadians to stay focused on a hopeful future.

Clearly, the current global health crisis has introduced unique and urgent challenges. We must support vulnerable communities across Canada who are being hit hardest, including many coastal communities. There has never been a greater need to work together. Let’s keep that spirit of togetherness to pull through the current crisis, and build a prosperous, resilient and abundant future for our oceans and all who rely on them.