Optimism for ocean recovery by 2050

Written by Louise-Océane Delion

Imagine if this morning while scrolling through twitter, you had read an article called “Our efforts to restore biodiversity will not make a difference”. An article based on a new scientific paper, saying that whatever we do, we are losing the fight to save our planet. That would be really daunting, wouldn’t it?

But what if instead, you had read an article called “We can restore marine life within 30 years, starting from now”? An article based on a very different scientific paper, saying that if we start now, we can rebuild marine life before 2050. That would be really encouraging, wouldn’t it?

I have good news for you, this article actually does exist. It is based on a new study, published in the journal Nature at the start of April, by an international team of researchers and appropriately titled – “Rebuilding marine life”. 

Taeyup Kim
Healthy oceans may seem like a dream right now, but this new paper turns that dream into a possible reality (photo by Taeyup Kim)

When I first read the title of this article as it was spreading everywhere on Twitter, I thought “is that a joke? April Fools? aha.” – but no. Carlos Duarte, lead author of the study was being really serious about it, you only have to read his Twitter bio to tell – “Marine ecologist convinced that we can rebuild marine life by 2050. Are we up to the challenge?”.

So, what’s that study about? How is it new and how is it different?

If you’re up for a read (23 pages in scientific language), please do it. This is the best way to get all the details and information they are sharing. However in a time where reading something longer than for five minutes discourages us or fails to capture our attention, then you might want to try and read what is next…

First, I want to explain on a side-note the reasons why I am writing this article. To the following questions: What is the most motivating scientific paper you’ve read? What’s the scientific paper you’ve read the most? What’s the scientific paper everyone should read? What’s the most optimistic (but realistic) paper you’ve read? This paper would be my response.

And I hope that in a few years’ time if someone asks me the following questions: What has been the most inspirational paper you read during your career as a marine biologist? What is the scientific paper that changed the game and really made a difference in the world of marine conservation? I hope this paper will also be the answer.

So, what can we learn from this article?

Rebuilding – not just maintaining

It is hard to go back to any past reference point, due to incomplete archives, but also due to the “shifting baseline syndrome” from generation to generation (explained well by Daniel Pauly in his TEDx talk). Hence, we need to stop focusing so much on the past and focus on what we want the future to be. Our focus should be on “increasing the abundance of key habitats and keystones species”, in order to achieve “restoration of marine ecological structure, functions, resilience and ecosystem services”.

“Rebuilding of depleted populations and ecosystems must replace the goal of conserving and sustaining the status quo.”

Damein Mauric
Why maintain current populations when we have the capacity to improve them (photo by Damein Mauric)

Recovery time

How did they asses that in 30 years we can make a difference? How can we be so sure? They propose three decades from today as a target timeline for a substantial (50-90%) recovery of many components of marine life based on annual recovery rates for species and habitats. This is perhaps the most inspiring part of this whole paper, ocean restoration within a single human generation where those who are instigating these changes can live to see the benefits come to fruition. It may seem overly ambitious and unachievable, but it is all based in facts and figures.

Roadmap to recovery

This is probably the most important part of the paper and every scientist, decision-maker, politician or any conscious person who wants to be involved in such a great challenge, should have a look at it. They created a straightforward table, explaining to us how we should go about this goal of rebuilding marine life. They clearly lay out, across just two pages, everything we need to know to take action now.

Anita Kainrath
It has never been clearer to see what we have to do than now (photo by Anita Kainrath)

Imagine if you were going to fix your bike and although you’ve never done it before, you’ve been given  everything you need – the tools, the instructions, the names of the people who can help you and even a list of benefits from fixing your bike. So now you’ve got your broken bike and you know and you have everything you need to fix it. What do you do next? You probably fix your bike.

That works the same here. The authors give us everything we need to know: the key actors, the key actions, the key opportunities, the key benefits, the roadblocks, and the remedial actions. They even do it precisely for different components of marine life: saltmarshes, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, kelp forests, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna and deep-sea habitats. We have our broken ocean, we know and have everything we need. What do we do next? We fix it.

“There is no single solution for achieving substantial recovery of marine life by 2050. Recovery requires the strategic stacking of a number of complementary actions.”

The climate change roadblock

The impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems are clear: rising sea temperature, acidification, deoxygenation, shifts in habitats and communities, sea-level rise, species displacements and mortalities from heatwaves. These impacts can delay recovery and, depending on emission pathways, may prevent recovery of some components altogether. Basically, don’t try to fix your bike if you’re planning on riding it on a road full of nails. First, take the nails out and then you’ll be able to ride your bike. Same with our planet, what’s the point of restoring beautiful habitats and managing fish stocks if they won’t survive rising sea-levels or temperatures?

“Climate change is the critical backdrop against which all future rebuilding efforts will play out.”

Investments & returns

Of course there is something else to consider, something that seems to rule our world… money. The authors estimate this will cost at least $10-20 billion per year, to extend protection actions to 50% of the ocean space and fund other restoration projects. Yet, they explain that the economic return from this investment will be considerable, with around $10 for every one invested, as well as well over one million new jobs. Whether it is through the development of eco-tourism, the future profits of fisheries or insurance companies saving money… the economic returns will be greater than our financial input.

We will require “sustained perseverance and substantial commitment of financial resources, but (…) the ecological, economic and social gains will be far-reaching”.

Action & Optimism

Back to the beginning of this article, and the two articles you could have read this morning – which one would you have chosen? The doom and gloom one, or the one filled with optimism and hope? I believe positive actions take roots in positive thoughts. As the authors suggest, we need to shift from that “wave of pessimism” that dominate our thoughts about the future ocean, to evidence-based ‘ocean optimism’. By sharing solutions, opportunities, positive stories and calling for action, we can drive positive change.

Tim Calver
Every single person has the capacity to create real change (photo by Tim Calver)

This enormous challenge of rebuilding marine life will require a global partnership, including governments, businesses, civil societies, NGOs, indigenous people, teachers, artists, scientists and families. It is for you, it is for me, it is for all of us. We all have broken bikes, but we also have tools, we can  fix our bike, we can help each other, support each other and believe in ourselves and our capacity to restore them… and by doing that, we can all ride our bikes again soon.

“In addition to being a necessary goal, substantially rebuilding marine life within a human generation is largely achievable.”

Louise-Océane Delion is a student in Marine Biology & Coastal Ecology at the University of Plymouth. Alongside studying marine ecosystems in order to protect and restore them, she is interested in connecting people to each other and to nature. She believes in a holistic approach to the protection of the environment, working in projects involving all types of stakeholders. Find more of her work & thoughts on Twitter @twosealions & LinkedIn.”

If you have an ocean story to tell then Marine Madness is here to help you tell it. If you would like to contribute check out the submission guidelines here.


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