The Chickahominy Report

News about Earth, Atmosphere, Water, and Life

It’s Official: Today is World Oceans Day

Sunrise over Cape Lookout, N.C. (Copyright © 2009 David M. Lawrence)

Sunrise over Cape Lookout, N.C. (Copyright © 2009 David M. Lawrence)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Today, June 8, 2009, is the first official World Oceans Day.

Canada proposed holding a World Oceans Day in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The United Nations dithered initially, but the Canadian idea inspired many to unofficially celebrate the day since. Persistent supporters eventually forced the UN to take notice. In its 63rd session last year, the General Assembly included a small paragraph in its resolution 63/111 on “Oceans and the law of the sea” officially sanctioning the day’s observance.

Why is such a day needed? There are many reasons. The oceans cover nearly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. Marine organisms generate most of the oxygen those of use who are landlocked need to survive. Ocean waters absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide — such as that we emit by the combustion of fossil fuels — thus reducing or at least slowing the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Ocean currents play a vital role in controlling the Earth’s overall temperature by transporting excess solar heat from the tropics to the poles. They are a vital source of food — especially in many impoverished tropical and island nations — and compounds that are critical components of current and potential drugs as well as of products seemingly unrelated to oceans such as Jell-o.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered the following message (in italics) for today’s observance of World Oceans Day.

The first observance of World Oceans Day allows us to highlight the many ways in which oceans contribute to society. It is also an opportunity to recognize the considerable challenges we face in maintaining their capacity to regulate the global climate, supply essential ecosystem services and provide sustainable livelihoods and safe recreation.

Indeed, human activities are taking a terrible toll on the world’s oceans and seas. Vulnerable marine ecosystems, such as corals, and important fisheries are being damaged by over-exploitation, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, destructive fishing practices, invasive alien species and marine pollution, especially from land-based sources. Increased sea temperatures, sea-level rise and ocean acidification caused by climate change pose a further threat to marine life, coastal and island communities and national economies.

Oceans are also affected by criminal activity. Piracy and armed robbery against ships threaten the lives of seafarers and the safety of international shipping, which transports 90 per cent of the world’s goods. Smuggling of illegal drugs and the trafficking of persons by sea are further examples of how criminal activities threaten lives and the peace and security of the oceans.

Several international instruments drawn up under the auspices of the United Nations address these numerous challenges. At their centre lies the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It provides the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out, and is the basis for international cooperation at all levels. In addition to aiming at universal participation, the world must do more to implement this Convention and to uphold the rule of law on the seas and oceans.

The theme of World Oceans Day, “Our oceans, our responsibility”, emphasizes our individual and collective duty to protect the marine environment and carefully manage its resources. Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.

We face daunting challenges in trying to manage and restore our marine ecosystems, but we likewise face dire consequences if we fail to rise to those challenges. The evidence — from the collapsing ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay, from the degradation and erosion of our Atlantic coastline, from the idle fishing fleets — is pretty clear. Decisive action is needed to undo the damage we have done.

I hope that “Our oceans, our responsibility” turns out to be more than idle words uttered in the heat of marketing.

— David M. Lawrence

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