Archive Page 2

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.

Integrated coastal zone management: a specialist highlights the needs, benefits and techniques

Dr. Peter R. Burbridge is a well-known advocate of integrated coastal zone management (ICZM). In a recent Coastal Challenges interview he explained what integrated coastal management is and why it is needed. Here are some of the comments made by Dr. Burbridge, Emeritus Professor of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the U.K.:

“The development challenges facing humanity are most complex in the coastal regions. Why? Partly because the richness and diversity of the coastal resources’ opportunities to support economic and social development are much greater than in the terrestrial environment or the purely marine environment. It is that interface between the sea and the land where we find the most complex, the most rich and the most diverse forms of natural resources. And they sustain many different forms of economic development. And that means that there is much competition for access to and often exclusive use of the coastal area and coastal resources. Now, the challenge we face as managers is trying to maximise the potential use of these resources without damaging the very resource base which creates those resources in the first place.”


Dr. Burbridge being interviewed on integrated coastal management in Helsinki. Photography and copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

“You need integration in the sense that there are different economic and social groups wanting to have access to the coast. And what you have to do is to try to treat them equitably, so that everybody has an equal chance of access to the resource but without damaging the resource for other people to enjoy and use in effective ways.  And that means that you have to get the different economic sectors to try to coordinate their activities so that they don´t disrupt the potential flow of benefits from the coast – without destroying the natural systems. And that’s the challenge. And that’s why we talk about integration. It is integration of different economic sectors, different social demands from the coast and different political systems trying to coordinate the development process more effectively.  We are talking about development planning here. We are not talking about environmental conservation. The environmental conservation is one tool to manage the natural systems.”

“Integrated coastal management is a set of principles to guide development planning. It is meant to create a working environment where people see that there are ways of doing things that are less environmentally damaging and more economically responsible, and create a greater social benefit. And that’s difficult, to get people to think of the environment, the economy and social aspects in the same sentence. And that’s what coastal management is trying to do. We are not purely trying to protect the environment, we are not trying to maximise the economic activities at the cost of social equity.”


Coastal zone activities in Helsinki, Finland, in April 2012. Photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

“One of the problems we have is getting any political system to understand how complex the coastal resource pressures are, but also the great value of the coast, the strategic value of the coast in meeting social and economic pressures. And those pressures have to be managed. And the economic rationale behind that is that you can get greater social and  economic benefits by wise management than you can by totally unregulated free-for-all development. And that’s the challenge, this convincing people that the strategic value of the coast is important enough to invest in managing the coast effectively.”

The interview (“Dr. Peter Burbridge and Integrated Coastal Zone Management” on Youtube) addresses more coastal management topics than those mentioned above. Here is the direct Youtube link:

Coral conservation in Honduras: building on local roots is important

“We have got one of the best coral reefs in the Caribbean”, says Nelbin Bustamante from the Prolansate Foundation and Amatela reef conservation group of the Town of Tela, Honduras.  More in detail, Mr. Bustamante summarises the good news of a recent underwater study on the Tela reefs in the following words: “The live coral cover on our reefs is nearly 70 per cent per square metre”. This high number was registered on the Capiro Reef just seven kilometres from the city centre.


An offshore reef near Tela, Honduras. Photographer and copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

Nevertheless, all the evaluation results were not positive. Mr. Bustamante says: “It could also be observed that the number of herbivorous and commercial fishes had reduced. Their biomass had gone down.”

As regards the threats, two main threats were identified in the study. One was the loss of forest cover. The other one was the lack of wastewater treatment. The Tela wastewaters flow directly into the sea and coral reefs. In addition to soil, the runoff contains many chemicals including fertilizers. The nutrients in the runoff may facilitate algal growth on the reefs as, at the same time, the levels of herbivorous fishes consuming the algae are lower than normal. Overfishing is an additional threat which needs to be controlled in Tela.

In any case Tela is a good and encouraging example in a world where the coral reefs are threatened by high fishing pressure, global climate change and other side effects of the growth of human societies. Off Tela, fairly healthy coral reefs can still be found and new awareness is creating motivation to protect the reefs.

Mr. Marcello Dicunta Servellón, who operates a dive centre in Tela, is satisfied: “Healthy coral reefs represents incredible opportunities. One of the most obvious ones is recreational diving. A well-managed dive industry on healthy reefs can result in high economic growth for the community.”

A Spanish-speaking documentary (Corales para amar – Tela protege sus arrecifes) with the above-mentioned content can be watched on Youtube:

Important progress in shark conservation

In the past, sharks were not appreciated because their importance as ecosystem top predators was not understood. As a result of that and global over exploitation of marine fauna, most shark populations declined to low levels. What contributed to the decline of sharks specifically, were their reproduction levels, which are much lower than those of other fish, i.e. from 2 (two) to 300 (three hundred) juveniles per pregnancy and female shark. Several other fish species produce hundreds of thousands of eggs. Of course, all of these eggs do not get fertilised.

Lately, shark conservation has been slowly advancing, as the value of sharks, approximately 400 species in total, has been understood. Finally, real steps to save the remaining sharks are being taken. Especially the cruel fishing of sharks for fins only, up to 73 million sharks annually, had resulted in a lot of bad publicity. This negative publicity together with pressure from environmental groups made governments and inter-governmental bodies speed up shark conservation measures. Now there is new hope for the sharks worldwide.

As the global species conservation agreement CITES only prohibits the international trade (not fishing) of three shark species, i.e. the white, whale and basking shark, there has been much need for more efficient protection measures. For example Shark Conservation Trust has done a lot of lobbying lately to improve the management measures at the national and international levels. The Trust is a cooperation body of more than one hundred conservation organisations.

Finally there is new hope for the declining shark populations. The image is from Namibia, photographer and copyright (c) 2011 Erkki Siirila.

The recent advances include the following:

Palau, Honduras, Colombia, Mexico, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, the Bahamas, and the Federated States of Micronesia signed during the UN General Assembly in September 2011 a declaration in which they promise to establish shark conservation areas in their national waters.

In China and Taiwan, where shark fin soup is a highly regarded speciality of the local kitchen, progress also took place. In September a campaign against shark finning started in China. It features Yao Ming, a local basked ball hero, and Richard Branson, a British millionaire. As to Taiwan, towards the end of 2011, the country passed a law which will end shark fishing for fins only at the beginning of January 2012.

In the U.S., the legislative loop holes in the management of shark fisheries were eliminated in 2011. This followed the example given by Australia, where the legislation had been tightened earlier. The Australian observation has been that when the law forces the fisherman to bring to port the entire shark with the fins attached, the interest in shark finning nearly disappears.

Positive news have been heard also from the European Union countries. On 21 November, the European Commission proposed to prohibit, with no exemptions, the practice of shark finning aboard fishing vessels. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said: “I very much look forward to the Council and the European Parliament accepting our proposal, so that it becomes law as soon as possible.” The proposal strengthens the existing EU legislation banning shark finning: member states will not be able to issue special fishing permits, which earlier have made the continuation of shark finning possible.

Days of Eastern Caribbean reefs are numbered

The West Indies’ coral reefs will disappear in a few decades. This is the shocking result of a new scientific study. Individual coral colonies will survive in the region even in the future, but the coral reef ecosystem as we currently know it will disappear. All this will lead to significant economic losses, particularly for island and coastal people whose livelihoods are closely linked to coral reefs and the ecosystem services they provide.

Global climate change is the main reason for the dramatic changes. The powerful adverse effects were shown in the Eastern Caribbean already in 2005, when the health of the region’s reefs weakened and live cover dropped during an extensive coral bleaching.

The study by Buddemeier et al. tells that it is already too late to stop the reef death. The big changes in the coral reef environment will take place even if substantial emission cuts of greenhouse gases are implemented in the coming years.

Coral reefs of the Caribbean are facing difficult times: efficient conservation measures are needed urgently. In addition to global emission cuts of greenhouse gases, innovative local conservation actions would be important. Photo copyright (c) 2011 Erkki Siirila.

The study published in the journal Climate Change in 2011 focuses on Eastern Caribbean reef health and especially the Virgin Islands’ area. The COMBO (COral Mortality and Bleaching Output) model was used for the predictions. Three realistic emission scenarios for greenhouse gases were the basis for the simulation.

The results indicate that future bleaching episodes will be followed by the reduction of live coral cover on the reefs. (Most of the damage will be caused by the warming of sea waters and related bleaching. The decline in reef condition will take place even if the adverse effect of ocean acidification is calculated as minor.)

If there is no adaptation by the corals to the elevated mean water temperatures, the live coral cover on the West Indies’ reefs will decrease to less than 5% already by the year 2035. In a scenario where corals develop an additional 1–1.5 degrees Celcius of heat tolerance (through a shift in the symbiotic algae that live in the coral tissues) coral cover above 5% could last until 2065.

The researchers did not include reefs which are located more than 30m underwater. Live coral cover between 5 and 10% was considered a limit where the reef would not be able to regenerate itself and could not be called a real coral reef any more. For several of these modeling scenarios, the researchers used starting levels of coral cover of 7%, 15%, and/or 30%. These values are realistic values in the Eastern Caribbean.

Buddemeier et al. summarise their study by saying that “coral reef communities are likely to be essentially gone from substantial parts of the Southeast Caribbean by the year 2035, given the current low cover values following the 2005 event” and that “the conversion of coral reefs to fundamentally different systems will have large implications for the provision of ecosystem services”. The authors add: “Given the modeling results presented here, urgent efforts are needed to identify and protect what appear to be the most resilient coral reefs in the Caribbean.”

The whole study (R. W. Buddemeier, Diana R. Lane and J. A. Martinich, Modeling regional coral reef responses to global warming and changes in ocean chemistry: Caribbean case study, Climatic Change, 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0022-z) can be found here: Study by Buddemeier et al.

Human wastewaters infect elkhorn coral

A human pathogen has been shown to contribute to the degradation of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) colonies in the Caribbean Sea. The pathogen Serratia marcescens is known to be present in human wastewaters, which enter the coastal marine areas untreated in many parts of the Caribbean. In the recent study by K.R. Sutherland et al., strain PDR60 of the pathogen was shown to cause disease signs in A. palmata colonies in as little as four or five days, when the surrounding waters were polluted with S. marcescens.

In the Caribbean the lack of wastewater treatment is a common problem. This colony of elkhorn coral looks healthy in spite of the fact that raw sewage enters the sea 100m from the reef. Photo taken in Utila, Honduras, copyright (c) 2011 Erkki Siirila.

In 2003 there was an outbreak of this coral disease called acroporid serratiosis (APS). During the episode, the corallivorous snail Coralliophila abbreviata and stony coral Sideastrea siderea were noticed to be play a role in the development of the disease. Now, in aquaria experiments, wastewater has been demonstrated to be a definitive, direct source of the disease, while C. abbreviata and S. siderea are known to act as vectors and reservoirs, which may also to contribute to the infection of A. palmata.

The research results by K.R.Sutherland et al. published in 2011 demonstrate for the first time that a human pathogen can be passed from us humans to marine invertebrates and infect them. The authors of the study “Human Pathogen Shown to Cause Disease in the Threatened Eklhorn Coral Acropora palmata” say that “these findings underscore the interaction between public health practices and environmental health indices such as coral reef survival”.

A direct link to the article is here:  Elkhorn and sewage

Coastal zone of Chile: ten management recommendations

Chile is a country with thousands of kilometres of coastline (the exact length of the coast depends on the definition applied). Naturally, moving towards integrated coastal zone management benefits a country like that.

The Coastal Challenges editor did a consultancy in the Fourth Region (Coquimbo Region) of Chile a few years ago. One of the results was a set of general guidelines for integrated coastal management in that region. In the ten conclusions/recommendations the local experiences were combined with the lessons learned in coastal management internationally.

A powerful tsunami in 2010 made Chileans aware of the need for sound coastal management. This Chilean government fax indicating there was a tsunami risk was not enough to result in massive coastal evacuations. As a result, lots of human lives were lost.

The conclusions and recommendations for integrated management of the Coquimbo coastal area are listed below:

  1. Integrated management of the coastal zone is a learning process with incremental implementation, feedback and adjustment mechanisms.
  2. At all levels of action, it is important to build the integrated management on a sustainable  financial and economic base, for example through self-funding.
  3. It is important to incorporate in the process the opinions of all the involved and interested parties, for example by applying conflict resolution mechanisms.
  4. It is essential that the actions keep focus on just a few issues which are understood by all the participants in the process. The focus on the issues means that an exact definition of the coastal zone is not a precondition for the action to begin.
  5. In general, construction on the local institutional roots is the safest option. E.g. the existing management systems, which are politically supported, can be modified instead of building totally new management institutions. Also in this case, the application of innovative ideas for real integration is important.
  6. A long-term vision is essential, and as part of this, opportunities should be left open for the future generations.
  7. The management should be based on good knowledge of the laws of nature. Implementation would need to be proactive instead of retroactive.
  8. It is important that the decision-making system is just and efficient.
  9. It is essential to understand that combining sustainable management with the poverty of resource users is difficult. Because of this, development of economic alternatives for the least favoured groups is needed.
  10. In sustainable coastal zone management, integration mechanisms are only one element. Specific action is needed also in the management of key species and habitats, pollution control, land use planning and environmental impact assessment. In addition to integration, sectoral activities in these and other action fields need to continue. (Naturally, sector-specific work needs to go on, but the sectoral actions should no more be implemented in isolation from other coastal zone activities.)