Microplastic pollution – a serious threat to marine ecosystems

Text and photos copyright (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, all rights reserved

Pioneering research has shown that plastic waste entering the ocean may have more serious negative effects on marine life than what was previously thought. Two studies published in Current Biology focus on the ecosystem effects of microplastic fragments less than 1 mm in diameter. The very small pieces of plastic have been polluting the ocean for about half a century.

Previous research has concentrated on the effects of bigger plastic objects in the marine ecosystem. This time the focus is on the fragments, which are produced for example as a result of gradual breakdown of plastic bottles in nature.

The tiny plastic particles are so small that wastewater treatment plants cannot stop them from entering the sea. A serious challenge for waste management is that this pollution does not originate only in what we normally consider plastic. The sources include synthetic textiles e.g. polyester – many of our clothes release a high number of microscopic pieces of plastic fibre when they are washed. Microbeads from cosmetic facial scrubs are one more source of harmful plastic particles. On the shores and in the sea, the microscopic plastic waste sinks into the sediments in high concentrations.

An additional problem with microplastics is that, in addition to the direct effects, they transfer harmful chemicals to marine organisms eating them. This was shown to take place in the case of lugworms by Mark Browne and his colleagues (link to Abstract). Lugworms (Wikipedia Lugworm) are an example of a common North Atlantic species using the sediments as food source. Starfish and sea cucumbers have similar feeding strategies. Mark Browne’s work was completed at Plymouth University, UK.

Plastic waste entering the Atlantic via Rio de la Plata (River Plate), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Plastic waste entering the Atlantic via Rio de la Plata (River Plate), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The harmful substances within the microplastics include antimicrobials, hydrocarbons and flame retardants, which are often persistent and may reduce health and biodiversity. Furthermore, minute plastic particles concentrate substances from the surrounding water on their surface: to name two examples, detergents and pesticides can be detected. The chemicals may be carried over to the next predators in the food chain – lugworms are eaten by flounders and wading birds. The harmful substances could also accumulate in the top predators, perhaps even in us humans. If lugworms are seriously affected, as they are, the whole food chain could be subject to significant adverse effects.

In the study by Stephanie Wright, University of Exeter, UK, and her colleagues, it was found that those lugworms which (in laboratory tanks) were subject to varying levels of plastic contamination, gained less weight than the worms in a clean environment. Consequently, the worms suffering from the consequences of plastic pollution had less energy for growth and reproduction. The worms were also likely to be less efficient in their important ecosystem service, i.e. in eating and keeping the sediments healthy and oxygenated for other animals. The article by Wright et al. is here: http://download.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/PIIS0960982213013432.pdf?intermediate=true .

When interviewed by the BBC, Dr Browne summarised his earlier findings relating to 18 sediment samples from the beaches in several countries: “We found that there was no sample from around the world that did not contain pieces of microplastic.”

Based on these two ground-breaking articles in Current Biology, there seems to be an urgent need to develop the use practices and waste management techniques of plastic products in our societies. This is an important coastal and marine conservation issue.

In addition to the material published in Current Biology, summaries published by the British BBC and The Guardian, were helpful in the preparation of this Coastal Challenges’ article.

 

Ocean state alarming – policy changes are needed

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. 

Urgent measures are needed to stop ocean degradation related to climate change. The speed and negative effects are greater and more clearly felt that previously thought. These are the most important conclusions of recent work by an international marine scientist panel.

The results of the latest wide-ranging international review were made public by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) at the beginning of October 2013. Behind the work were the experts of IUCN and International Programme of the State of the Ocean (IPSO). The outcomes have also been published in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Evening in the South Atlantic.

Evening in the South Atlantic.

An IUCN press release highlights the contents by telling us the following preoccupying facts: The ocean is absorbing much of the global warming. Unforeseen levels of carbon dioxide are bound by the ocean. The cumulative impact of this, together with other ocean stressors, is much more threatening than past estimates.

The other contributing stressors include decreasing oxygen levels in the sea and runoff of nitrogen from land. Also chemical pollution and serious overfishing are hampering the ocean’s capacity to act as a balancing factor in what is called “carbon preturbations”.

A comment by Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford (also Scientific Director of IPSO) is cited in the IUCN summary paper: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Professor Dan Laffoley, from IUCN, commented the new interdisciplinary findings by saying: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.“

Dead fish on the beach of Bombinhas, Brazil.

Dead fish on the beach of Bombinhas, Brazil.

More in depth, the foreseen challenges and problems include the following:

Oxygen levels in the ocean are expected to decline between 1% and 7% by 2100.  Tropical  oceans and and the North Pacific have had a trend of decreasing oxygen levels during the past 50 years and this will continue because of global warming. In addition, lack of oxygen will be a serious problem in coastal seas commonly affected by eutrophication (sewage and agricultural runoff being the main reasons).

In case CO2 release by us planet Earth inhabitants continues at the current level, acidification of sea water will be a major factor affecting ocean life, marine food production and coastal protection. Acidification would be felt for example on coral reefs, where erosion in the near future could exceed reef formation (calcification). This in turn would degrade the reef habitat and result in the destruction of the natural breakwaters formed by corals – a serious consideration in coastal regions commonly hit by heavy storms.

As to the direct physical and geochemical consequences of global warming in the ocean by 2050, they include: reduced seasonal ice zones, increasing stratification (separation) of ocean layers leading to oxygen depletion, increased venting of methane from the bottom of the Arctic Sea, and more common low oxygen -events in the oceans.

Around the globe, fisheries management is still unable to stop overfishing. The decline of key species and damage to the ecosystems where the fish stock live continue. All this undermines the resilience of the oceans.

Unauthorised fishing in the national economic zone: Argentine coast guard proudly presents the foreign fishing vessels detained by its patrol vessel. Photo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

Unauthorised fishing in the national economic zone: Argentine coast guard proudly presents the foreign fishing vessels detained by its patrol vessel. Photo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

Urgent measures proposed by IPSO and IUCN include:

Reduction of global CO2 emissions to keep temperature rise in less than 2 degrees C.

Implementation of community- and ecosystem-based management and favouring small-scale fisheries. Harmful fisheries’ subsidies resulting in overcapacity would need to be eliminated. In addition, vulnerable ecosystems would need an increased level of protection. Finally, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing would need to to be combated.

Development of a more relevant global infrastructure for high-seas ocean governance is necessary. Especially a new implementing agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is needed (within the United Nations Law of the Sea – UNCLOS – framework).

Carbon sink and diversity oasis – Kelp forests are abundant in the coastal waters of all continents

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. 

Orange garibaldis, the “official” fish of California, are the first thing I see while entering the undersea kelp jungle of Santa Catalina Island outside Los Angeles. In front of me 50-60-meter long stalks of Macrocystis pyrifera rise from the depth of 20 meters to the surface. They get their buoyancy from gas filled bladders called pneumatocysts. When a diver explores the forest formed by the biggest kelp species in the world, not only the size amazes. Also the growth speed, which in the favorable conditions of southern California may reach 45-50 cm in 24 hours, seems unbelievable.

Diving in a kelp forest is an unforgettable experience.

Diving in kelp forests provides unforgettable experiences.

Even though most kelp areas in California are protected, some others are being utilized for kelp harvesting. Harvesting takes place also in the kelp beds of Baja California, Mexico. Algin, the chemical extracted, is used for getting the right smoothness and thickness, when chemical, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food processing industries make products for you.

A garibaldi in the waters of Santa Catalina.

A garibaldi in the waters of Santa Catalina.

Charles Darwin highlighted the biodiversity of Macrocystis habitats in the following words: “If in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would from the destruction of kelp.” In spite of being a statement before the ultra high diversity of the tropical rains forests was known to scientists, the comment still indicates something very basic about the importance of the kelp communities.

Gas-filled pneumatocysts give the kelp stalks buoyancy.

Gas-filled pneumatocysts give the kelp stalks buoyancy.

After the dive, together with diver colleagues we summarize our underwater experiences: the peak moments included encounters with a spiny lobster, horn shark and hawksbill turtle. From the shore I see an American blue heron searching for food on top of the floating kelp. Around the Macrocystis communities I also observe harbor seals and California sea lions. In the undersea jungles of Southern California at least 750 species of fish and invertebrates are known to live. A single kelp stalk may be the home to half a million critters.

Holdfasts anchor the kelp to the sea bottom.

Holdfasts anchor the kelp to the sea bottom.

The same kind of examples from the ocean´s forests are being told around the world. So it is no wonder that the environmental organization Oceana has started to defend the kelp beds, which are found close to shore in regions where the waters are cool – each continent, except the Antarctic, has thousands of kilometers of coast where kelp is an important part of undersea nature (see Kelp forest distribution map). In spite of this, internationally there is little environmental legislation protecting these undersea habitats. Of course all the underwater forests are not as mighty as those built by Macrocystis. In Europe, the kelp communities are formed by Laminaria species, which are common in Norway, to give one example. There they reach a height of two to five meters.

My dive continues with photography of sea urchins, which can be found under rocks at daytime. The urchins are the main enemy of Macrocystis. They eat and destroy Macrocystis´ holdfasts, the “roots” of the giant kelp. In the Santa Catalina waters there are only few urchins. In consequence, the kelp forest looks healthy. When I see a 60-centimeter California sheephead in the viewfinder, I feel grateful to it. The urchins are part of its diet. The fish, which regularly approaches divers and gives the impression of being intelligent, is well known to the Catalina visitors. This exceptionally big individual is easily recognizable and has gotten the name Oscar.

California sheephead keep the sea urchin populations under control.

California sheephead is a fish species which controls the sea urchin populations.

Like Oscar also Californian divers have supported the survival of kelp by removing sea urchins from key bottom areas. The urchin numbers had grown much higher than normal. This lack of balance had mostly resulted from the hunting and overfishing of their natural enemies. In addition to urchin control, in California techniques have been developed to help young and drifting kelp attach to the sea floor. The support actions have resulted in the return of kelp to areas where Macrocystis had disappeared.  For Santa Catalina, healthy kelp forests have become a major attraction which draws thousands of tourists to the island every year.

In Monterey I photograph the graceful sea otters. Here the good news is that the otter population of central and northern California, which was practically destroyed by fur hunters, has significantly grown. In 2013 an estimated 3,000 sea otters live in the region. The animal prays on sea urchins and, when abundant, keeps their numbers at an environmentally sound level.

When sea urchin populations grow in an uncontrolled manner, they can destroy entire kelp forests.

When sea urchin populations grow in an uncontrolled manner, they can destroy Macrocystis forests.

The value of the sea otters and kelp forests off the Pacific coast of North America got a new recognition some time ago. In the October 2012 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Christopher C Wilmers, James A Estes, Matthew Edwards, Kristin L Laidre, and Brenda Konar presented a study which covers the Macrocystis-dominated kelp forests from Vancouver Island to the western edge of Alaska´s Aleutian Islands.

Sea otters feed on sea urchins and can be extremely useful to kelp forest wellbeing.

Sea otters feed on sea urchins and support the survival of kelp communities.

The main conclusions include that in areas where the otters are abundant and at their natural levels, they suppress the sea urchin populations significantly, i.e. so much that the kelp forests flourish. Every year the additional kelp is estimated to capture as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the CO2 production of three to six million passenger cars in 12 months. In ideal conditions, the kelp forests’ capacity to store carbon equals that of a tropical rain forest of the same size.  Thus the kelp forests (especially those dominated by Macrocystis) are an important carbon sink slowing down climate change and global warming.

Progress in Tela reef conservation in Honduras

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. 

Some years ago the city of Tela in Honduras was only known for its beaches. No one was aware that underwater additional national heritage could be found. The coral reefs of the Tela Bay are this other treasure.

The Tela Bay in Honduras has coral reefs, the conservation of which needs attention. Photographer and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

The Tela Bay in Honduras has coral reefs, the conservation of which needs attention. Photographer and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Francois Ligeard, The Chamber of Tourism of Tela, says: “The good news is that we can offer a new site for both the national and international tourist. We have to highlight the fact that this place is very beautiful. It has high cover of live coral. We notice that always when we dive on this reef. One easily gets emotional because every time we go the local reef we find something new and more beautiful.”

Dennis Sierra, The Prolansate Conservation Foundation, Tela, sees the “newly discovered” coral reefs in the following way: “The best news is that in Tela we have many people both in the civil society, local government and the business sector who are very interested in the conservation of the coral banks of the Tela Bay. The preservation needs have an acceptance at the community level. Also at the level of the central government there is a lot of interest in declaring a marine park in the Bay of Tela.”

Only fishing was done on the local Capiro Reef in the past. Nowadays, divers come here to see the angelfish and the many species of coral. For example, black coral is found here.

The coral bank of Capiro is the best known reef area in the Tela waters. Photo and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

The coral bank of Capiro is the best known reef area in the Tela waters. Photo and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Dennis Sierra: “Logically we look toward the future generations. We need to implement conservation actions in the Bay area, if we want to leave this ecosystem as a heritage to our children. Tela has been favored by God. We have to remember that the natural richness we have in Tela contributes in a positive way to tourism opportunities here. Tela has its future in the resources of that Bay.”

Francois Ligeard: “The biggest challenge we face is to take care of the reef both for our generation and the future generations. We need to get the fishermen and other local people involved to be able to preserve this reef. We have been working already by installing permanent mooring buoys. In this way, we need not anchor the boats and we can stop the damage that has been caused to the reef by anchors in the past.”

The mangroves of the Bay may not be forgotten as reef conservation is promoted. The mangroves produce nutrition for marine life. In addition, among the roots, many species of coral reef fish live during their juvenile stage. The mangroves also protect the coast from the waves of the sea.

The seagrass beds in the Tela waters have functions similar to those of the mangroves. In addition, many reef fish migrate to the seagrass areas in order to eat.

When forests are preserved, there is only little erosion on land and less mud enters the sea via the rivers. This is crucial in reef conservation as the corals need clean and clear water. Related to the above, it is also necessary to develop the treatment of sewage and waste waters.

In the Tela Bay there are very healthy coral colonies. It is important to take care of the reefs, because climate change threatens them, through the elevated sea-water temperatures and through the acidification of the sea.

Coral reefs will be more resistant to global environmental changes, when at the local level there is no overfishing and when the other pressures are kept at the minimum level. In this way, the coral reefs of Tela will produce economic and environmental benefits to us also in the future.

The following Youtube video was shot and produced by the Coastal Challenges’ Editor. It tells the above story of the Tela coral reefs in Spanish. The original is in high definition; this lower-resolution Youtube version can be best seen be adjusting the image resolution under the Youtube window to 480 p.

Manatees, a challenge for coastal management

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. (The article below is a short version of a more complete magazine article published elsewhere.)

There were about 2,500 manatees in Florida 30 years ago. In 2013 the number is approximately 5,000. “We have learned to live together with these animals”, says Visitor Services Specialist Ivan Vicente from the Crystal River office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The conservation measures have lead to visible results in spite of the fact that boat propellers, fishings gear and toxic algal blooms (red tides) still threaten the population of the West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus, in the U.S.

As manatees do not have any thick layer of blubber (unlike whales) under their skin, in autumn the U.S. manatee population migrates to the warm water areas of Florida. All the animals spend in the State the months between November and March. In spring and summer, some manatees migrate to other states while others stay in Florida most or all of the year.

A Florida manatee leaving  the strictly protected zone in the Three Sisters' Springs protected area. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

A Florida manatee leaving the strictly protected zone in the Three Sisters’ Springs protected area. Photo from Crystal River, copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Of the 2,800 manatees on the West Coast of Florida during wintertime, about 550 stay in the Crystal River wetlands. The reason is the underwater springs, the water temperature of which is higher than that of the sea and rivers in winter. Another 2200 manatees stay on the East Coast of Florida during the coldest months. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico populations never mix in spite of the fact that together they are considered the Florida manatee, a subspecies (Trichechus manatus latirostris) of the West Indian manatee.

Even in winter, the manatees sometimes leave their favorite warm-water spots. They do this in order to feed on sea grass, which does not grow in fresh water. Processing sea grass results in a lot of gas in the digestive system. This is one reason why the manatees look so fat.

On the West Coast of Florida, manatees have become an important attraction for nature tourism. In the Crystal River area, 34 companies have a license to arrange paddling or snorkeling tours to the protected areas. The number of customers per year is around 150,000. Numerous boats of the tour companies can be observed in the most popular destination Three Sisters’ Springs from early morning to late afternoon. Most of the time there are 20-50 snorkelers in the water. An approaching manatee may be touched, but disturbing a sleeping manatee may result in a fine. Boaters are fined when they do not respect the manatee-related speed restrictions while navigating the rivers and canals. Still, accidents do happen and it is common to see propeller cuts on the backs of manatees.

Outside the Crystal River wetland parks, many of the  Florida manatees spend the winter months in the warm-water discharge spots of power plants. As some of the State´s power plants will be shut down in the near future, there are plans to continue discharging warm water into the wetland areas where the manatees are used to spending the coldest months. If this is not done, manatee deaths from exposure to cold water could be expected. There is a problem even in the natural wintering areas: the growing human population of Florida consumes so much groundwater that the freshwater outflow in the “manatee” springs is adversely affected.

A manatee resting in a freshwater spring in the Crystal River wetlands. Photo copyright (c) Erkki Siirila.

A manatee resting in a freshwater spring in the Crystal River wetlands. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

An additional challenge for the Florida manatees is that genetically they are not well-equipped for future challenges. Their genetic heritage is narrow and diversity low, because the whole population has its origin in just a few West Indian manatees which swam to Florida from the Caribbean. In spite of the threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects the endangered U.S. manatee population to double another time during the next 20 years. In 2033 there would be 10,000 individuals of these aquatic mammals in the U.S. waters if everything goes well.

The three species of manatees and their relative the dugong are a specific coastal management challenge in the tropical and temperate waters of our planet. When the populations of these friendly animals are well managed, they have a high potential of becoming a major attraction for nature-oriented tourism.

Shipwrecks support coral conservation in Egypt

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. (The article below is a short version of a more complete magazine article published elsewhere.)

In popular diving areas like the Red Sea, sunken ships can take diving pressure away from the heavily used coral reefs. This is the story of five recently located wrecks in Egypt. They do not only relieve the pressure caused by divers on the reefs, they are even in the process of becoming reefs by themselves. Fish and coral have started to colonise the remaining ship structures already.

Four of the new dive sites are 100-250 kilometres north of Hurghada in the Gulf of Suez, one is just a day trip from the city shores. Recently innovative dive guides and underwater photographers like Kimmo Hagman, a Finn based in Hurghada, have initiated week-long live-aboard expeditions to these little-known sunken ships.

Egypt34-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

The northernmost of the “new” wrecks is SS Turkia (part of the propeller pictured above). The construction of this British ship was completed in Hull, U.K., in 1910. The 91-meter long vessel sank on its keel after a fire and explosions onboard. Everything was not destroyed, and there is a lot to explore, as the image (below) demonstrates.

Hurghada-wreck40-c2013-ErkkiSiirila

The disaster took place off Zafarana in 1941. The reasons for the events (air attack or an “ordinary” explosion of hazardous cargo of military material) are not clear. On this wreck the dive depths vary between 15 and 24 metres.

Egypt25-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

Another little-known wreck, which is extremely interesting to explore, is SS Scalaria (image above), a Shell oil tanker from Britain. The vessel was launched in Newcastle, U.K., in 1921. While being anchored in the Ras Gharib oil production area, close to the western shores of the Gulf of Suez, the ship was attacked by German war planes and destroyed by powerful explosions in 1942. 11 men lost their lives.

Egypt23-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

Of the main hull structures of this 125-metre long vessel, only the bow (photo above)  and stern can be identified by divers. The ship sits on its keel and most of the dive will be spent at only 10 to 12 metres.

Egypt26-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

The third big and rarely visited wreck in the Gulf of Suez is the Egyptian cargo vessel MV Aboudy (image above). The 76-metre long ship was constructed in Ville de Tenes in the Netherlands and  launched in 1959 or 1960. Aboudy met its destiny during a storm in 1988. The disaster occurred in the shallow waters of Ras Gharib.  The hull of the vessel, which lies on its port side, is in a good condition. Aboudy is an enjoyable dive: the maximum depth is 12 metres and visibility about 25 metres.

Egypt33-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

MS Bakr is an easily dived small wreck (foredeck visible above) close to surface in the Ras Gharib area. The vessel was built in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1964, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Before sinking in an attack by Israeli fighter planes in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Bakr functioned as a survey vessel in the Egyptian oil exploration. The hull is still quite intact in spite of the missile attack.  The maximum depth is 10 metres. You can explore the whole ship during one visit, as it is only 49 metres long. Visibility  is 10 to 15 metres.

Egypt29-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

The fifth virgin dive site, which takes dive pressure away from the heavily visited “old reefs”, is MS Hebat Allah (photo above), built in Ingrandes, France in 1985. This 44.5-metre wreck is a small cargo ship which was damaged during a storm and intentionally sunk in order to make it Egypt´s first artificial reef for scuba divers in 2004. Accidentally the ship went down into deeper water than planned and never became everyman´s dive site. Now Hebat Allah can be found sitting upright on sand in the marine area between Small Giftun Island, Gota Abu Ramada and Hurghada City. The bottom depth is 46 metres, and 40-metre visiblity is common (see the second image below).

Egypt35-copyright2013-ErkkiSiirila

More information on the new Egyptian wreck attractions can be found on the web sites mentioned below. In addition to several dives on the sunken ships, these internet addresses were used as information sources for this article:

http://www.aquatours.com/

http://www.shipwrecksofegypt.com/

http://www.deeplens.com/

http://www.facebook.com/KimmoHagman.Photographer

UN Conference on Sustainable Development: highlights of the Rio+20 final document

At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (June 2012), binding new international agreements were not agreed upon, which was disappointing. Nevertheless, the final document is worth summarising in order to highlight the most important common views of the world´s governments as regards sustainable development and the marine environment. Luckily, in the management of seas and oceans important progress was achieved. The following is a summary – with special reference to coasts, seas and oceansof  the final document “The Future We Want”:

The document states that for sound development in general, holistic, integrated and sustainable management of natural resources needs to be promoted. At the same time, economic, social and human development should be supported.  Also, the international community is asked to move the sustainable development agenda forward, through the achievement of internationally agreed goals including the existing Millennium Development Goals. Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is mentioned as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The achievements of the meeting were minor. Only in the “seas and oceans” action area important progress was achieved. Aerial photo of Rio (c) 2012 copyright Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants recognise the key role that improving energy efficiency plays. This includes the increasing share of renewable energy and cleaner, more energy-efficient technologies. Climate change as a persistent crisis is acknowledged: the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective international response. Naturally, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is needed. Also the related urgent needs of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are mentioned in the final document.

The need for effective, transparent, accountable and democratic natural resources´ management institutions is mentioned in the document. So is the need for contributions towards sustainable development by both the public/private sectors and the scientific/technological communities. We are also reminded of the important role of citizens at the grass-root level, e.g. fishers, in the development of production activities which are environmentally more sound. The valuable contributions by  NGOs in promoting sustainable development are acknowledged.

The establishment of UNEP as a permanent UN organisation (instead of being a non-permanent programme) was not achieved, but it was decided that UNEP would be strengthened. In addition, the participants decided to establish an intergovernmental high-level political forum replacing the current UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

In the final document, the participating states recognise the severity of global biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems: this underlines the importance of biodiversity conservation, enhancing habitat connectivity and building ecosystem resilience.

In the Oceans and Seas chapter of The Future We Want, important progress can be observed. To begin with, the participating states commit to protect and restore the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, and to maintain their biodiversity for the conservation / sustainable use by the present and future generations. Furthermore, the participants agree to apply an ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle in marine management.

The Rio conference delegations recognise the importance of UNCLOS (Law of the Sea) in advancing sustainable development and they emphasise the need for cooperation in marine scientific research. The states also support the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment (established under the UN General Assembly) and look forward to the completion of its first global integrated assessment by 2014.

In Rio de Janeiro, the participating states supported the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment. The states look forward to the completion of the first global integrated assessment by 2014. The marine image was taken off Callao, Peru, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

In the seas and oceans chapter, the importance of the conservation / sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction is recognised. Building on the work of an international working group (and before the end of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly) the Rio participants commit to address this issue on an urgent basis.

The states also note with concern that the health of the oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution. The final document mentions marine debris, plastic, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and nitrogen-based compounds. The sources mentioned include marine and land-based sources, including shipping and land runoff. The participants commit to take action to reduce the incidence and impacts of such pollution on marine ecosystems. The relevant measures would include implementation of IMO conventions and the follow-up of relevant initiatives such as the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities. With the help of scientific assessments, the states further commit to take action to significantly reduce marine debris by 2025.

In the seas and oceans chapter the participants note the significant threat which alien invasive species pose to marine ecosystems, and commit to implement measures to prevent their introduction. The management of the adverse environmental impacts will be improved including those alien species adopted in the framework of IMO.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion are noted as serious threats for many coastal regions and islands particularly in developing countries. International action to address these challenges is called for in the final document.

The participating states also call for support to initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources. They reiterate the need to work collectively to prevent further ocean acidification, as well as to enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems and of the communities whose livelihoods depend on them. The importance of marine scientific research, monitoring and observation of ocean acidification and of particularly vulnerable ecosystems through international cooperation are mentioned.

In the Rio final document the participating states stress their concern about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization. They recall the decisions related to ocean fertilization adopted by the relevant intergovernmental bodies, and decide to continue addressing ocean fertilization with utmost caution. The precautionary approach will be applied.

In Rio the participating states promised to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis. The photo of the fishing vessel is from the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants commit, on an urgent basis, to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. The foreseen time frame is “the shortest time feasible”. To achieve this, the states commit to urgently develop and implement science-based management plans. Fisheries reduction and suspension are listed as management methods. The importance of by-catch reduction and the control of destructive fishing practices are mentioned as well as the importance of impact assessments.

Relating to UNCLOS, the Rio delegations urge states to fully implement the 1995 Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. Furthermore, all States are called upon to implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the corresponding FAO International Plans of Action and technical guidelines.

The final document acknowledges that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing deprives many countries of a crucial natural resource and remains a persistent threat to their sustainable development. A recommitment to eliminate IUU fishing is presented. Reference is made to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which aims at preventing and combating these practices in the following ways: a) by implementing national and regional action plans in accordance with FAO’s international IUU combat plan, b) by identifying vessels engaged in IUU fishing, c) by depriving offenders of the benefits accruing from IUU fishing, and d) by cooperating with developing countries to systematically identify needs and build capacity (monitoring, control, surveillance, compliance and enforcement systems).

The Rio delegations recognise the need for transparency and accountability in fisheries management by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). The efforts already made by those RFMOs that have undertaken independent performance reviews are recognised. A call is presented on all RFMOs to regularly undertake such reviews, publish the results and implement the recommendations.

Furthermore, the Rio final document reaffirms the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation as to elimination of subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and overcapacity, mentioning the importance of this sector to developing countries. Reference is made to the WTO Doha Development Agenda and the Hong Kong Ministerial mandates for more vigorous control of fisheries subsidies. Prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing is mentioned as a control measure. States are also encouraged to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, to refrain from introducing new such subsidies and to refrain from extending or enhancing existing subsidies.

A commitment to ensure access to fisheries and corresponding markets by fishers (subsistence, small-scale, artisanal) and women fish workers and indigenous peoples is also presented, highlighting the needs of these communities in developing countries and small island developing states.

The importance of coral reef conservation and marine protected areas is highlighted in the final document of the Rio conference on sustainable development. Image from a Red Sea coral reef in Egypt, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

As to coral reefs and mangroves, the Rio delegations recognise the significant economic, social and environmental contributions of coral reefs, in particular to islands and other coastal states, as well as the significant vulnerability of the reefs and mangroves to impacts including from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, destructive fishing practices and pollution. Support for international cooperation is expressed in order to conserve coral reef and mangrove ecosystems and to realise their social, economic and environmental benefits. Facilitation of technical collaboration and voluntary information sharing are mentioned as supporting measures. Surprisingly, sea grass beds are not separately mentioned in the Rio final document. (The importance of healthy sea grass beds as carbon sinks in fighting global climate change has recently been acknowledged by the marine science research community).

In the seas and oceans chapter of The Future We Want, the delegations reaffirm the importance of area-based conservation measures, including marine protected areas, consistent with international law and based on best available scientific information. The participants note decision X/2 of the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, that by 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are to be conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Finally, it may be considered surprising that the importance of managing the sea-land interface as a special area was not mentioned in The Future We Want. As the coastal zone is an area of many opportunities, user conflicts, resource degradation and lost opportunities, it would have been natural to say something in the Rio final document about the need for integrated coastal zone management.