Unveiling the secrets of the deep
05 January 2012 | Article
Everyone knows the oceans are in a trouble but how can we properly protect them when we don’t know much about what lives within them?
Kent Carpenter and his colleagues are on an ambitious mission to change the way we treat our oceans by learning more about marine species, what threats they face and what action is needed to protect them.
The oceans cover 70% of the planet but very few marine species have been assessed for their conservation status. The limited knowledge we do have points to a potential for an unprecedented rate of marine biodiversity loss.
“A key role of marine scientists is to shatter the widely held myth that the oceans, because of their size, are infinitely resilient. In reality, marine species are just as susceptible to extinction as terrestrial ones,” says Kent who is Manager of the Marine Biodiversity Unit of IUCN’s Global Species Programme and Professor, Old Dominion University.”
“Species can go extinct in the marine realm. A species being widespread is not necessarily protection from extinction. Take the Atlantic cod, this used to be one of the most common fishes in the Atlantic Ocean and was the basis of an entire economy. But in the 1990s, cod populations suffered a massive, and it seems, irreversible, collapse.”
|“It’s difficult to make direct observations like we can on land. And assessing marine biodiversity is a complicated and costly business.”|
In 2005 Kent’s team set the task of evaluating the extinction risk of 20,000 marine vertebrates, plants, and invertebrates. Now they are more than half-way there.
It’s an enormous task collecting and analyzing vast amounts of information held by specialists and organizations around the world. Workshops are held that bring the experts together to agree what category a species should be assigned (Critically Endangered, Vulnerable, Least Concern and so on).
“These people are passionate about ‘their’ species, and the situation can sometimes become tense,” says Kent. “And for some commercial species such as tuna, the process of assigning a category can be a long and nerve-wracking process.”
“We need to transform current conservation practices globally to become more effective and targeted. The information we collect will serve as a baseline to help tell us whether we are winning or losing the conservation battle and it’s already being used to guide conservation action.”
All of this work to boost the number of marine species assessments will be critical in influencing policies such as regional fisheries agreements and trade rules such as those under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
It’s a long haul but Kent relishes the challenge.
|“We continue to be amazed by the valuable information we uncover during the Red List Assessment process of marine species; the discoveries and the knowledge that this information will be used for conservation action makes the challenge worthwhile.”|