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18.11.11

THE CONSERVATION COLUMN: Our oceans, our future...

Dr Sam Burgess, Senior Research Manager for Oceans at Earthwatch, shares her thoughts on the recent World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Aberdeen...

Most divers have more than a passing appreciation for biodiversity in the marine realm. In fact, divers are often incredibly knowledgeable about biodiversity at local dive sites and go out of their way to observe or photograph rare and cryptic species.

Marine biodiversity is a surprisingly young field of scientific endeavour. Late this summer, I presented at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Aberdeen. This conference was only the second one ever held (the first was in Spain in 2008). The by-line of the conference was ‘our oceans, our future’ and it attracted almost 1200 presentations from scientists and people passionate about marine biodiversity from 74 countries.

The conference covered a broad range of themes - everything from bioinformatics – the use of computer software in scientific research - to policy and law. It focussed on four main objectives: to review the state of knowledge, assess threats, improve sustainable development, and management strategies. Instead of just the usual crowd of scientists in tweed jackets this conference also engaged artists, explorers and teachers in the conversation.

Life in the oceans suffers from a lack of public visibility. Where marine life is concerned, it is often out of sight (under the surface of the ocean), out of mind. From a scientific perspective, there is a paucity of data, what we do have is often patchy in spatial extent and of variable quality. This is where ‘citizen science’ initiatives come to the fore. Earthwatch was in good company at the conference with several other organisations which involve the public in collecting data about marine biodiversity and habitats. These organisations engage people directly in surveying reefs (Reef Check); whales and dolphins (WDCS); sea turtles (MCS) and jellyfish (Jellywatch).

A key aspect of the discussion during the conference was valuing biodiversity in economic terms. The concept that we can put a price-tag on life on Earth may be surprising to many people. The research invested in this field is growing. Biodiversity has its own intrinsic value and its perceived worth increases with the ‘services’ it provides to humanity. For example, coral reefs provide coastal protection against flooding and sustain a valuable food source. They support coastal communities with thousands of jobs in the tourism sector and they perform a vital role in carbon sequestration - removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - thereby mitigating the impacts of global warming.

One economic estimate published by Conservation International in 2008 (www.coastalvalues.org/work/coralvalues.pdf) values the worlds coral reefs at almost $USD30 billion. Of course these values contain a high level of uncertainty especially when extrapolating from a small study to a global context. Nevertheless, attaching economic value to marine habitats and biodiversity may provide a political incentive for the conservation of threatened habitats in developing countries.

Closer to home, presentations on the new UK Marine Bill generated a sea change in perception on the value of British coastal waters. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are regions of the coast or ocean where habitats and marine species are protected from damage and disturbance. These zones provide the most effective conservation and habitat recovery strategy when they are planned in a coherent network. The UK government has committed to establishing a network of well-managed marine protected areas in British seas by 2012. Many local communities are currently concerned about the potential economic impact of marine protected areas, rather than welcoming the benefits to fish stocks and habitat recovery. The guidance of scientific institutions and non-government organisations is generally trusted by society, and these organisations are well placed to lead the dialogue with the public about the benefits of MPAs to local communities.

Everyone stressed the fundamental need to involve local communites in management decisions that will impact their livelihoods, and to make sure that any impact assessment studies encompass social science as well as environmental science.

The next marine biodiversity conference will be in China in 2014. Here’s hoping it attracts an even broader spectrum of society to get involved in the conversation about the future of our oceans!

www.earthwatch.org

 

Dr Sam Burgess

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