Ocean News

Threat of a “globally significant” marine extinction

24th June 2011

A high-level international workshop on the state of the world’s oceans took place at the University of Oxford earlier this year, where 27 participants from 18 organisations in 6 countries concluded that if the current trajectory of damage continues, the world’s ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.

The scientific panel looked at the latest research focusing on the primary threats to the marine environment and came to some stark conclusions:

  • The combination of stressors on the ocean is creating the conditions associated with every major extinction of species in the Earth’s history.
  • The rate of degeneration in the ocean is far faster than anyone has expected.
  • Many of the negative impacts previously identified are worse than anyone had predicted.
  • Although difficult to assess because of the unprecedented speed of change, the first steps to globally significant extinction may have begun with a rise in the extinction threat to species such as reef-forming corals.

Dr Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) which convened the workshop said:

“The findings are shocking. As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean the implications became far worse than we had individually realized. This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”

The group reviewed recent research by world ocean experts and found firm evidence that the effects of climate change, coupled with other human-­‐induced impacts such as over-­‐fishing and nutrient run-­‐off from farming, have already caused a dramatic decline in ocean health.

Increasing hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and anoxia (absence of oxygen, known as ocean dead zones) combined with warming of the ocean and acidification are the three factors which have been present in every mass extinction event in Earth’s history. There is strong scientific evidence that these three factors are combining in the ocean again, exacerbated by multiple severe stressors. The scientific panel concluded that a new extinction event was inevitable if the current trajectory of damage continues.

A summary of the workshop, including four case studies + videos, is online here. While the full report will be made available at a later date, a long PDF summary of the findings can also be downloaded here.