Kerry: Global strategy needed to protect oceans

Secretary of state calls for plan to protect oceans under threat from acidification, overfishing and pollution

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday opened a two-day Our Ocean summit by calling for a global regimen to protect the oceans, which he said were under threat from too much fishing, marine pollution and acidification from climate change.

He called on nations to move beyond talks and studies to taking specific steps toward a global agreement to protect the oceans.

"We are not going to meet this challenge unless the community of nations comes together around a single comprehensive global ocean strategy," he said at the summit at the U.S. State Department.

Kerry, long an advocate of measures to address climate change when he was in the U.S. Senate, said current piecemeal national policies to protect the world's oceans have failed to address problems that will affect the entire planet.

"If we are going to be able to honor our shared responsibility to protect the ocean, the ad hoc approach we have today, with each nation and community pursuing its own independent policy, simply will not suffice," he said. "That is not how the ocean works."

Kerry also said that President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce his intention to use executive powers to declare additional ocean protections. 

Ocean acidification is caused by the same increase in carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming and can negatively affect marine life as well as humans who depend on fishing for their livelihoods. The world’s oceans are 30 percent more acidic now than in preindustrial times.

“We know the more CO2 we put in the atmosphere, the more will be taken by the oceans and the more acidic it will become,” said Carol Turley, a scientist from the U.K.-based Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who was speaking at the summit. “I call it the other CO2 problem.”

While acidification of the oceans can cause some species such as sea grass and phytoplankton to thrive, coral reefs and shellfish will be hard hit.

Coral reefs are among the planetary systems that, if pushed beyond their limit, could trigger a chain reaction of abrupt climate consequences, according to a March report by the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists. Other systems that could cause such global disruption include large-scale ice sheet melting, the collapse of the Gulf Stream and destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

Once started, those chain reactions become unstoppable even if humans do not add any more CO2 into the atmosphere, the scientists warned.

Only 2 percent of the world’s oceans are protected areas that limit human activity and protect marine life, and countries should strive to raise that to 10 percent, Kerry said on Monday, adding that any global effort to protect the ocean should include ways to enforce those policies on a global scale.

Joining Kerry was Kiribati President Anote Tong, who said the small Pacific nation would ban commercial fishing from its Phoenix Islands Protected Area by Jan. 1.

The low-lying state, like many other Pacific island nations, is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, one of the most severe effects of climate change. Most of Kiribati’s land is less than 80 inches above sea level.

He called climate change “the greatest moral challenge of our time” and said that “our hope of addressing climate change lies in the oceans.”

“This is about the survival of our people,” Tong said. “This is not about economics, not anymore. It is now about what we must do as responsible global citizens.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

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