Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Extinction Underwater: The Endangerment of Marine Biodiversity

Leatherback sea turtles are threatened by entanglement in fishing gear when searching for jellyfish in New England waters. Image via NOAA/NMFS.

We’ve established a relentless demand on the world’s natural resources. This demand has accelerated the rate of extinction for wildlife to unprecedented levels, and it continues to degrade our natural surroundings and threaten the environment as we know it. For the ocean, the consequences are devastating, and the resulting harm could be irreparable.

The environment we depend on is neither infinite nor isolated from the impacts of human development. Natural habitats are inherently connected to the surrounding area – natural or man-made – and this connectivity creates a vast vulnerability for the many living organisms that co-inhabit the globe.

Whether we’re dealing with invasive species outcompeting native plant life or the unsustainable exploitation of once abundant fish stocks such as Atlantic cod, there’s no denying that the diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems is increasingly vulnerable and declining at an alarming rate.

A global decline in biodiversity

A United Nations report made headlines earlier this year when it revealed that up to a million species could be facing extinction within decades – probably within most of our lifetimes. The landmark report attributed this decline to five direct global factors: (1) changes in land and sea use, (2) direct exploitation of organisms, (3) climate change, (4) pollution, and (5) invasive species.

Notably, these factors apply tremendous pressure on marine species, and the impacts of habitat loss, pollution, and unsustainable fishing are compounded over time. The resulting decline of species is moving ecosystems closer to unknown tipping points that could imbalance marine life forever.

It’s daunting to try to understand the multiple interactions that maintain the ocean’s interconnected web of life, but it’s past time we do because the UN report presents deeply troubling facts. Here’s just a few:

  • In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being unsustainably harvested;
  • Over 55% of the ocean is covered by industrial fishing;
  • About 50% of coral reefs have been lost since the 1870s;
  • Almost 33% of reef forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, over 33% of marine mammals, and over 40% of amphibians are threatened with extinction;
  • 100-300 million people in coastal areas are at increased risk due to loss of coastal habitat protection;
  • There are 400 hypoxic, low oxygen coastal ecosystem ‘dead zones’ that have been caused by fertilizers;
  • 30 to 35% of critical global marine habitats such as seagrasses, mangroves and coral reefs are estimated to have been destroyed; and
  • By the year 2100, without significant changes, more than half of the world’s marine species may stand on the brink of extinction.

Reread those statistics and take a moment to let them sink in.

To address these losses, the UN report emphasizes the need for ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management, spatial planning, effective quotas, more marine protected areas, further protection and management of key marine biodiversity areas, and reduction of run-off pollution to ensure survival of our cherished marine systems.

The ocean is vast, and our response to these problems needs to be equally as expansive.

Threatened populations in New England’s waters

The decline in marine populations is a global issue, but we need to do everything we can to prevent further loss across the United States, and we can start in the waters off our New England coast.

In the New England/Mid-Atlantic Region, NOAA has listed 15 marine species as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These species range from the leatherback sea turtle to the North Atlantic right whale. Even important predatory species such as the oceanic whitetip shark are threatened. The number of listed species doesn’t appear high, but the ecological and evolutionary consequences of any one species going extinct are simply unknown.

What is known, though, is that New England has more overfished stocks than any other U.S. region and that overfishing, along with other stressors, is a serious threat to marine biodiversity. It drastically reduces the carrying capacity in the ocean and depletes stocks to a point that they might not be able to support the billions of people that rely on fish for protein. According to the UN report, close to 20% of the dietary intake of animal protein globally comes from fisheries.

The impacts of overfishing in New England and globally should give us pause. Marine populations, like all populations, have evolved over time. They’ve developed richly interconnected dependencies on the surrounding environment and species. Overfishing has the potential to transform complex food webs and fray the existing ecosystem. These transformations intensify the pressure on the marine ecosystem at large – driving greater future losses.

We need to address this extinction trend now

At the national level, it’s easy to see the evidence of these losses when you look what the government is doing. In April 2019, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced preparations to delist 23 species from the ESA because they are extinct. Extinct and never to return.

And now, the Trump Administration has taken steps to weaken the ESA, putting even more species at risk. Among a plethora of harmful policies, the Administration’s new rules, implemented jointly by the Interior and Commerce Departments, make it easier to remove species from the endangered list, weaken protections for threatened species, and make it harder for regulators to address the impacts of climate change when managing ESA species.

The trend towards extinction is a daunting problem, but for over 40 years the ESA has been a powerful tool for ending exploitation and tailoring species management of the nation’s wildlife. This is not the time to be weakening our bedrock conservation laws. Instead, conservation measures need to be implemented in an effective, timely manner, and private partners need to be incentivized to help species recover. We need to do more so that species are delisted because of recovery, not extinction – on land and in the ocean.

The marine environment is a critical element of Earth’s dynamic processes and is essential to a thriving economy and human health. The UN report on biodiversity should be enough to shock anyone; this extinction trend cannot be deferred to the next generation. We all need to make tangible commitments that will get us closer to a healthy, resilient marine and global environment.

Michael Anderson was a legal intern at Conservation Law Foundation.


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