Press release | 09 Dec, 2022

Human activity devastating marine species from mammals to corals - IUCN Red List

Montreal, Canada, 9 December 2022 (IUCN) – Today’s update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ highlights a barrage of threats affecting marine species, including illegal and unsustainable fishing, pollution, climate change and disease. Populations of dugongs – large herbivorous marine mammals – and 44% of all abalone shellfish species enter the IUCN Red List as threatened with extinction; the pillar coral has deteriorated to Critically Endangered due to accumulated pressures.

The IUCN Red List now includes 150,388 species, of which 42,108 are threatened with extinction. Over 1,550 of the 17,903 marine animals and plants assessed are at risk of extinction, with climate change impacting at least 41% of threatened marine species.

“Today’s IUCN Red List update reveals a perfect storm of unsustainable human activity decimating marine life around the globe. As the world looks to the ongoing UN biodiversity conference to set the course for nature recovery, we simply cannot afford to fail,” said Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General. “We urgently need to address the linked climate and biodiversity crises, with profound changes to our economic systems, or we risk losing the crucial benefits the oceans provide us with.”

Abalone species are sold as some of the world’s most expensive seafood, with unsustainable extraction and poaching primary threats compounded by climate change, disease and pollution. Twenty of the world’s 54 abalone species are now threatened with extinction, according to the first global Red List assessment of these species.

In South Africa, poaching by criminal networks, many connected to the international drugs trade, have devastated populations of the Endangered perlemoen abalone (Haliotis midae). Increasingly frequent and severe marine heatwaves have caused mass mortalities, killing 99% of Roe’s abalones (H. roei) in its most northerly reaches of Western Australia in 2011. Marine heatwaves have exacerbated abalone diseases worldwide, affecting the Critically Endangered black abalone (H. cracherodii) in California and Mexico, and the Vulnerable green ormer (H. tuberculata), found from the English Channel to Northwest Africa and the Mediterranean. Marine heatwaves also kill the algae that abalones depend on for food. Pollution from agricultural and industrial run-off cause harmful algal blooms, which have eliminated the Endangered Omani abalone (H. mariae), a commercial species found in the Arabian Peninsula, across half of its range. Toxins such as antifouling boat paint further deplete populations.

“Abalones reflect humanity’s disastrous guardianship of our oceans in microcosm: overfishing, pollution, disease, habitat loss, algal blooms, warming and acidification, to name but a few threats. They really are the canary in the coalmine,” said Dr Howard Peters, member of the IUCN SSC Mollusc Specialist Group and research associate at the University of York, UK, who led the abalone assessment. “The most immediate action people can take is to eat only farmed or sustainably sourced abalones. Enforcing fishery quotas and anti-poaching measures is also critical. However, we need to halt the changes to ocean chemistry and temperature to preserve marine life including abalone species over the long term.”

Dugong populations in East Africa and New Caledonia have entered the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered and Endangered respectively; the species remains Vulnerable globally. There are now fewer than 250 mature individuals in East Africa and under 900 in New Caledonia. The primary threats are unintentional capture in fishing gear in East Africa and poaching in New Caledonia, and boat injuries in both locations. In East Africa, oil and gas exploration and production, bottom trawling, chemical pollution and unauthorised coastal development are damaging and destroying the seagrasses that dugongs depend on for food. The degradation and loss of seagrasses in New Caledonia is the result of agricultural run-off, pollution from nickel mining and coastal development, and damage from boat anchors. The impacts of climate change present a threat throughout the dugongs’ wide range.

“Strengthening community-led fisheries governance and expanding work opportunities beyond fishing are key in East Africa, where marine ecosystems are fundamental to people’s food security and livelihoods,” said Evan Trotzuk, who led the East Africa Red List assessment. “Further, the creation of additional conserved areas in areas where dugongs live, particularly around Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, would also empower local communities and other stakeholders to find, implement, and benefit from solutions that halt long-term declines in dugong abundance, as well as in seagrass extent and quality.”

The pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus), found throughout the Caribbean from the Yucatan Peninsula and Florida to Trinidad and Tobago, has moved from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, after its population shrunk by over 80% across most of its range since 1990. The most urgent threat is Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which has emerged in the past four years and is highly contagious, infecting between 90 and 100 metres of reef per day. Bleaching caused by increased sea surface temperatures and excess antibiotics, fertilisers and sewage running into the sea have weakened corals and made them more susceptible to disease. Overfishing around coral reefs has depleted the number of grazing fish, allowing algae to dominate and putting further pressure on corals.

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“The pillar coral is just one of the 26 corals now listed as Critically Endangered in the Atlantic Ocean, where almost half of all corals are now at elevated risk of extinction due to climate change and other impacts,” said Dr Beth Polidoro Associate Professor at Arizona State University and Red List Coordinator for the IUCN SSC Coral Specialist Group. “These alarming results emphasise the urgency of global cooperation and action to address climate change impacts on ocean ecosystems.”

“With this latest update of the IUCN Red List, the total number of native trees assessed for Papua New Guinea reaches over 2,500 or 88% of the country’s native tree flora. Over 140 Critically Endangered, endemic trees have been identified. Without these assessments, conservation efforts could not be targeted towards the most threatened species, but with them there is now a road map to prioritise conservation of the country’s unique and rich tree diversity,” said Megan Barstow, Conservation Officer, Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

"With this devastating IUCN Red List update on the status of marine species, it is clear that business as usual is no longer an option,” said Ashleigh McGovern, Vice President, Center for Oceans at Conservation International. “Human activity has had devastating effects on marine ecosystems and biodiversity, but it can also be harnessed to drive action as a matter of survival, equity and climate justice. If we are to secure a new future for the world's oceans and the essential biodiversity they harbour, we must act now."

“This update reinforces IUCN’s urgent call for a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will be ambitious enough to cease destruction of our life support system and catalyse the necessary action and change to secure life on this planet,” said Dr Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Science and Data Centre

“Most of the Earth’s biosphere, 99% of all liveable space on our planet, is under water. Humanity acts as if oceans were inexhaustible, capable of sustaining infinite harvest of algae, animals and plants for food and other products, able to transform vast quantities of sewage and other pollutants that we pour in coastal areas, and absorb the CO2 generated by land-use change and burning fossil fuel. This Red List update brings to light new evidence of the multiple interacting threats to declining life in the sea,” said Professor Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

“The awful status of these species should shock us and engage us for urgent action. These magical marine species are treasured wildlife, from the wonderful abalone to the charismatic dugong and the glorious pillar coral, and we should safeguard them accordingly. It is vital that we manage fisheries properly, constrain climate change and reverse habitat degradation,” said Professor Amanda Vincent, Chair of the IUCN SSC Marine Conservation Committee.

“The compounding effects of human activity on wildlife populations is undeniable,” said Dr Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of Nature Serve. “This Red List update provides the latest evidence of how humans are failing to meet our responsibilities as stewards of the Earth and how unprecedented levels of climate change are threatening biodiversity. We must work together to make science-based decisions that prioritise conserving our natural world.”

“Reversing these downward trends requires a holistic ecosystem approach, one that takes into account the critical benefits of protecting and restoring land—such as an island—to the marine environment around it,” said Dr Barney Long, Re:wild Senior Director of Conservation Strategies. “Re:wild, Island Conservation and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego launched the Island-Ocean Connection Challenge to restore at least 40 globally significant island ecosystems to benefit islands, oceans and communities by 2030. We call on others to join us.”

“Several dugong populations are now listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. The dugong is the largest surviving species of Sirenians, an ancient order of mammals that possess unique adaptations and a deep evolutionary history. It is critical to provide protection to the dugong to avoid the fate of the Steller’s sea cow, which was discovered in 1741 and extinct within 27 years. We know that human activities can impact these species negatively and quickly, thus the urgency of providing immediate conservation action,” said Dr Thomas Lacher, Jr., Texas A&M University.

“While COP15 participants debate whether to set aside 30% of land for biodiversity conservation, the results of ongoing work in Mozambique’s Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) highlight the great potential of even incremental increases in Protected Areas coverage. Completion of IUCN Red List assessments of Mozambique’s endemic species to inform TIPAs designation indicates that over 80% of the country’s known threatened plant species could be safeguarded by formally protecting just 3% of its land area,” said Dr Iain Darbyshire, Research Leader - Africa Team at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

“Earlier this year, we published a study that found the Chinese dugong population is functionally extinct – now two more dugong populations are one step closer to disappearing forever,” said Professor Samuel Turvey, Zoological Society of London. “From habitat pollution to warming oceans, ongoing human impacts continue to prevent marine ecosystem recovery, threatening the future of both these iconic animals and the many other species they live alongside. We need urgent action to fight climate change and biodiversity loss, as these two crises simultaneously threaten life on earth as we know it.”