- Population growth and demand for diminishing terrestrial resources are placing increasing pressure on the ocean.
- A new study highlights a sharp uptick in marine activity and defines the “blue acceleration” as the unprecedented rush for food, material and space taking place in the ocean.
- “[T]he ocean is not only crucial for sustaining global development trajectories but is being fundamentally changed in the process,” the study authors write.
Humanity has depended on the ocean for millennia. Today, however, the rush to the sea is occurring with unprecedented diversity and intensity, propelled by population growth and demand for diminishing terrestrial resources.
A study published in January in the new journal One Earth analyzed 50 years of data on 18 kinds of marine resource claims, broadly grouped as food, material and space. The authors, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, captured the results in a series of graphs showing the amount of activity since 1970 in areas such as marine aquaculture, shipping, deep hydrocarbons, and offshore windfarms. The graphs all show sharp upticks in the past 20 to 30 years.
The authors call this race for the sea the “blue acceleration.”
“The current narrative is that we are about to move into the ocean as the new frontier,” lead author Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, a Ph.D. candidate in sustainability science, told Mongabay. “However, when you look at the graphs, it has started already.”
Jouffray said he and his team are concerned about the increase in human activity in the oceans. They warn that the current approach could fundamentally alter the ecology not only of the oceans but of the global environment. “[Humanity hopes] the ocean will solve our need for food, freshwater, minerals, and will be the medicine chest for the future, but central to the blue acceleration is the idea that the ocean is not limitless,” he said.
Moreover, the current scale of activity in the oceans prioritizes the exploitation of ocean resources above scientific exploration, to the detriment of marine ecosystem health, Jouffray said.
Although some claims may complement each other, most will overlap and compete, creating potential conflict, he said. Some spatial claims are for marine protected areas, aimed at limiting resource exploitation, preserving ecosystem health and cultural and aesthetic values, and prioritizing some industries, such as tourism. There are calls for the global marine protected area coverage target, currently 10% of the ocean by 2020, to be increased to 30% by 2030. (About 5.7% is currently protected.) But these protected areas sometimes conflict with extractive claims, such as for hydrocarbons or minerals.
The case of the sea pangolin
To illustrate how the blue acceleration is playing out in the water, the paper examines three case studies. Among them is the scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum), an endangered gastropod known only from three sites, all of them deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems.
Several claims affect the scaly-foot snail, also known as the “sea pangolin.” Exploratory mining leases granted to China and Germany span two of its three home vent systems, both in international waters. The third vent system falls within the exclusive economic zone of Mauritius and is safe from mining — for now.
The U.S. Department of Defense has also sought out the snail itself, focusing biological-based modeling and design research on its unique, three-layered armor.
And the snail’s genetic material has been deposited in GenBank, an open-access database serving the biotechnology industry.
All these claims were made before a comprehensive study of the snail or its habitats was undertaken, and before a consensus has been reached on how to mitigate ecological damage by mining. The study points out that the scaly-foot snail’s survival as a species now lies in the hands of just three countries: China, Germany and Mauritius.
The authors argue that in recent years a significant geopolitical evolution has taken the form of a “seabed grab.” The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea permits coastal countries to claim an extended area of continental shelf beyond the limit of their exclusive economic zones, which end 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from shore.
To date, 83 countries have at least initiated claims to a total of 37 million square kilometers (14.3 million square miles) of seafloor, an area more than twice the size of Russia. In fact, the paper reports, the combined “seabed grabs” since 2001 are almost 80 times larger than reported “land grabs” since 2000.
These seabed claims raise questions about who benefits from the ocean as coastal states expand their sovereignty into maritime space formerly shared internationally. Overlapping claims to continental shelf areas have cropped up, with the potential to transform the geopolitical landscape.
“What I appreciated about this paper was the synthesis of all the ocean trends … while also talking about governance and geopolitical aspects,” said Fiorenza Micheli, a marine ecologist at Stanford University who was not involved in the paper.
One of the most important trade-offs the paper identifies relates to food, she said. “The challenge is how to ensure, as all these different demands of the ocean increase, that we still support the capacity to provide food through fisheries and aquaculture,” Micheli said.
Jouffray said he and his team are hopeful that the data synthesized in the paper will contribute to ocean governance discussions and guide the blue acceleration toward more sustainable and equitable trajectories. The timing is right, he said: The U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development will begin in 2021; a new international treaty to manage biodiversity on the high seas is in its final stages of negotiation; and in June 2020, ocean leaders will assemble for the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon.
“The awareness and interest in ocean sustainability are higher than ever. We need to be brave and collectively rise to the challenge,” Jouffray said.
Jouffray, J., Blasiak, R., Norström, A. V., Österblom, H., & Nyström M. (2020). The Blue Acceleration: The trajectory of human expansion into the ocean. One Earth, 2(1), 43-54. doi:10.1016/j.oneear.2019.12.016
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