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Five reasons New Zealand needs global ocean sanctuaries

Opinion

Deep-sea bottom trawling is highly destructive to the ocean environment. Photo/Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace.

Why New Zealand needs global ocean sanctuaries.

Aotearoa is an island nation. We are tied, culturally, historically, physically, to our oceans.

And our marine jurisdiction is one of the largest on the planet, taking up an area of almost 600 million square kilometres.

But our oceans are in serious trouble. From climate change to plastic pollution, seabed mining to overfishing, the threats facing them are growing, and getting more urgent by the day.

And regional measures to save them have so far failed, meaning only a tiny percentage of our high seas are fully protected from human stressors.

That’s the thinking behind the latest co-ordinated, international effort to protect the oceans – that involves the creations of a huge network of ocean sanctuaries across the globe.

Read more: Why the growing alarm over catastrophic climate change is justified

In a report launched just last week, scientists have drawn up a rescue plan on how we do that. In it, scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of York propose a network of ocean sanctuaries across the globe, putting a third of the seas off-limits to destructive industries like bottom trawling and mining.

This would allow key ecosystems, migration pathways and other hotspots to recover and thrive as they once did, and protect precious biodiversity globally.

A humpback whale in the Indian Ocean. Photo/Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.

If this plan goes ahead, it’ll be one of the biggest conservation efforts in human history, creating millions of square kilometres of new protected areas. With governments around the world currently negotiating a Global Oceans Treaty, this is the chance for us to do something truly special.

But in New Zealand, this should have special importance to us. Here’s why:

We are a coastal community
A large percentage of our population live on the coast. As climate change worsens, our coasts will erode, with many low lying coastal areas of New Zealand becoming uninhabitable. People will lose homes, many will be displaced. Scientists have already told us - the scale of that damage is now up to us. Limiting climate change in the next ten years by moving away from fossil fuels and shifting rapidly to clean energy would mean limiting the damage to our coastal communities and beyond.

Read more: The impact rising sea levels will have on New Zealand

Ocean sanctuaries matter in this story because the international, deep waters where these sanctuaries are proposed help mitigate climate change. They suck up carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away. This regulates our climate, and is the reason our planet is still at a habitable temperature (without this Ocean carbon sink, there would already be 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere).

But human activities disrupt the ocean’s ability to perform this vital role. Creating ocean sanctuaries would give them the best chance of continuing to perform carbon sequestration and keep the Earth cool.

We’re a nation of fishers
Catching your own fish for dinner – it’s about as satisfying as it gets. But as our oceans are depleted by aggressive commercial fishing companies, it’s getting harder and harder for the ordinary person to catch a feed.

Ocean sanctuaries globally mean more fish in the sea, and that goes for locally too. It means healthier oceans and ecosystems that can feed communities both in Aotearoa and across the globe.

Only the few profit from the pillage
Big commercial fishing companies, from rich nations like New Zealand, are the only ones with the technology and the money to get out into international waters and pillage the oceans for profit. They make big bucks, but everyone else loses out in the long run. We all benefit from healthy, thriving oceans – every living thing on this planet.

We are unique and biodiverse
Our marine biodiversity, like that on land, is incredibly rich. We have a huge variety of marine species and differing ecosystems. A whopping 43 species and subspecies of whales and dolphins have been found off our coasts, and we are a world-renowned breeding ground for seabirds such as the albatross and penguin.

When our seas are depleted of certain species due to human activities, it has a knock on effect for others in the sea. What happens far off our coasts matters greatly to what happens closer to home.

Oxygen is sort of important
Our oceans produce every second breath we take. Specifically phytoplankton, tiny marine organisms, produce oxygen through photosynthesis - and are responsible for the oxygen levels we enjoy on land. Without them, we’d be pretty much screwed.

Increasing human pressures on our oceans has led to an alarming decline in wildlife and degradation of habitats. This should matter to us anyway, as we are a part of this planet and what happens to the oceans happens to us. But we should especially care because the degradation of habitats and loss of biodiversity compromises the ocean’s ability to deliver key ecosystem services that sustain us all.

New Zealanders are leaders when it comes to protecting our planet, and all life on it. In this crucial period, when the world is looking at what needs be done to protect the global oceans, we have a chance to step up and show the way once again.

We are calling on the New Zealand Government to support the strongest version of a UN Ocean Treaty. Join us in doing so here.

Ellie Hooper is a digital mobilisation specialist who works at Greenpeace.