Overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change and other human-made stressors have dealt massive blows to the planet's ocean and marine ecosystems.
Numerous coral reefs are dying in acidifying tropical waters. Vast tracts of the oceans have become oxygen-deprived dead zones. Iconic species such as the Atlantic bluefin tuna are being fished almost to extinction. Mass tourism has wreaked havoc in previously unspoiled coastal waters.
Time of despair? Not necessarily.
The state of marine life in much of the planet is precarious, but there is still time to save besieged ecosystems. Marine life has shown remarkable resilience and, with improved protection measures, fragile marine ecosystems can recover in a relatively short period of time.
Take Maya Bay in southern Thailand, which rose to fame as the location for the 1999 Hollywood film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, after becoming a popular tourist destination with thousands of fun visitors daily, the marine ecosystem of the small beach was seriously damaged. However, once local authorities closed the area to tourism in 2018, the marine life began to noticeably recover within a few months.
Similar feats of conservation and preservation can also be carried out on a much larger scale. Restoring the health of the oceans will take foresight and dedication, but it is doable. In fact, in just three decades we could "rebuild" marine life, argue the authors of a new study published in the journal Nature.
"We are at a point where we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disturbed ocean," said lead study author Carlos Duarte, a marine scientist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia .
The study provides examples of the successful recovery of marine populations, habitats and ecosystems as a result of effective conservation. Building on these successes, we can implement similar measures across the globe. As an example, experts cite humpback whales, which have recovered from critically low population levels since the ban on whaling was imposed in 1985.
Around the oceans, according to the authors, effective conservation measures could help restore depleted marine ecosystems to or near their previous state by mid-century. Marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp forests, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna and deep-sea habitats could benefit from increased protection.
“We have a narrow window of opportunity to bring a healthy ocean to our grandchildren's generation, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so,” Duarte explained. "Not accepting this challenge, and condemning our grandchildren to a broken ocean that cannot support high-quality livelihoods, is not an option," he added.