In recent years’ conservation news has been filled with information on the negative impacts of humans on marine ecosystems, including overfishing, by-catch, seabed mining and climate change impacts. This makes for a pretty dismal outlook, but it looks like there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

A new scientific paper, published in Nature in April 2020, states that immediate action could reverse much of the damage done to marine ecosystems within 30 years, while also protecting oceanic ecosystem services such as fisheries, tourism and climate regulation.

The study brought together some of the world’s leading marine biologists, working across four continents in 10 countries from 16 different universities, including KAUST, Aarhus University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Colorado State University, Boston University, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Sorbonne University, James Cook University, the University of Queensland, Dalhousie University and the University of York.

The study identified nine components integral to rebuilding marine life: salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp forests, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna and the deep sea. The paper then identified six complementary interventions which list broad themes of species protection, namely harvesting wisely, protecting spaces, restoring habitats, reducing pollution and mitigating climate change.

The conclusion of the paper is that marine biodiversity can recover, if the right approach is followed, that values both people depending on the ocean and marine ecosystems, using the principles of sustainable development.

The paper not only looked at what needs to be done to rebuild marine life, but also cited conservation success stories. The researchers found that measures, such as international agreements, marine protected areas and habitat restoration efforts, have been successful in partially or completely restoring marine ecosystems. Based on this evidence, the researchers could make recommendations to apply the proven solutions to a global scale.

The paper outlines actions that must be taken to rebuild marine life in diverse environments, as well as listing groups that should be involved in these efforts. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, and the scientists estimated that it will require sustained effort and financial support of approximately $10 billion to $20 billion per year to achieve a self-supporting, sustainable and healthy marine ecosystem by 2050. This money will be used to rebuild fish stocks, protect areas of the ocean in marine protected areas, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sooner Rather Than Later

The world is at a critical moment in time. The global human population is becoming increasingly dependent on ocean resources as well as services provided by marine ecosystems. These resources and services are in decline due to pressure placed on them by humans. The world is now facing a key moment, where the legacy of future generations can be decided: an irreversibly destroyed ocean, or an ocean filled with resilient and dynamic ecosystems.

Although the results are dependent on many factors, such as the extent of environmental damage and the types of species in the area, the study suggests that global marine ecosystems could mostly recover if urgent action is taken. Ongoing climate change could be a roadblock to success, and the scientists highlighted the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement targets. There is already an urgent need to address climate change for the future security and health of human life, food provision and land-based ecosystems – the ocean will be a beneficiary to any actions taken.

An Achievable Grand Challenge

A large and sustained financial, social and political investment would be required to rebuild marine life by 2050. Governments, industries, corporations and civil society will all have to work together, and there must be cooperation at all levels of decision-making, from local to international level.

The expected benefits, should this endeavor be successful, are great. Economic returns due to the industries the ocean supports, such as fisheries and tourism, are estimated to be $10 for every $1 invested, and many jobs will be continuously created. The economic, ecological and social gains from rebuilding marine life will be far-reaching. The key actions required will have to be species and habitat dependent. Where corals are mostly threatened by climate change and plastic pollution, marine vertebrates and deep-sea habitats are significantly impacted by unsustainable fishing practices. There thus will not be an umbrella approach, but rather individual strategies must be applied and enforced.

Generally, maximum recovery rates of marine populations vary from 2% to 10% per year, however the scientists estimated that should action be taken immediately, it is possible that 50% to 90% of marine life could be recovered within 30 years, by 2050. Thus, the recovery rate of marine life could be accelerated to achieve sustainable recovery within three decades, but only if issues such as climate change are tackled and efficient large-scale interventions are deployed. Efforts to rebuild marine life might not be able to restore the ocean as it was in the past, however the world must move forward towards new templates.

It is important that governments align their policies to meet this target. Governments failing to meet commitments to reduce greenhouse gasses and environmental pressures, such as the Paris Agreement targets, could affect the 2050 target and pose a continued threat for the future of the ocean. It is important that, despite persistent challenges and ongoing pollution, positive initiatives intensify. Emphasis should be placed on preservation and recovery of key species and ecosystems.

The paper provides decision-makers with a roadmap to ensure a healthy environment, and includes benefits, opportunities, roadblocks and remedial actions. Although the 2050 target is an achievable Grand Challenge for humanity, it can only be realized through a collective effort to deeply change humanity’s habits to allow nature to fight back. Rebuilding marine life is doable, is an ethical obligation, and provides a smart economic objective to achieve a sustainable future.