Sir David Attenborough urged world leaders to adopt international laws to protect the oceans at the World Bank’s Spring Meetings in Washington, DC, on Thursday.
The environmental advocate said climate change is killing coral reefs, overfishing is driving crucial marine species like bluefin tuna to oblivion, and ocean acidification is making it hard for fragile animals to survive. Overall, if the oceans decline, then the rest of life on Earth will be imperiled, he said.
The only solution, he added, is to enact laws that will severely curb greenhouse gas emissions, overfishing, and pollution.
Sir David Attenborough at World Bank Spring Meetings: Nature has its extraordinary power of resilience and it will come back. Let us get together and organize it! #BeatPlasticPollution#PROBLUE#WBGmeetingspic.twitter.com/Ym26VPCs89— Karin Kemper (@kkemperwb) April 11, 2019
“[The oceans] absorb carbon dioxide, they provide jobs for coastal communities, and they feed us,” he said. “Yet we not only allow their destruction, but we often subsidize it and incentive it.
“There should be some law for the oceanic commons,” he added. “The longer we leave it, the more difficult the problem becomes, and the more expensive, and eventually it becomes so big it’s unsolvable.”
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Attenborough, who previewed clips from his new Netflix series Our Planet, highlighted the plight of coral reefs as emblematic of the oceans as a whole.
“The oceans are now rapidly warming with devastating consequences on marine communities,” he said. “Nowhere is this seen more clearly than on our coastal reefs.”
Coral is extremely sensitive to temperature increases and as the oceans become warmer, reefs are undergoing a process known as bleaching, which is when they expel the symbiotic plants that give them life and turn white.
When corals experience multiple bleaching events, they can die. By 2050, scientists worry that this trend will destroy the great majority of coral reefs.
Attenborough also spoke about how bluefin tuna are being caught at such high rates around the world that they could go extinct. In fact, a third of all fish species are being perilously overfished.
“In our drive to catch more fish, we are mining the capital of our seas, rather than harvesting the surface, or in your terms, the interest,” he said. “It’s both unsustainable and damaging.”
Attenborough said that little of what he’s seen happening in the oceans gives him hope, but he provided one example that could suggest a path forward.
In recent years, humpback whales near Antarctica have surged back after being hunted to less than 10% of their historic levels.
“The one thing that does strike me in this context is the astonishing resilience of the seas," he said. “In this very short period of time, whales have gone from doom to burgeoning life — it is fantastic."
He added: “The capacity of the seas to regenerate is even better than life on land."
Attenborough was part of a session co-hosted by Global Citizen at the World Bank Spring Meetings called “From Source to Sea,” in which experts and government leaders examined how marine pollution is harming the oceans and discussed possible solutions.
“Marine pollution is a lot more than plastic,” said Peter Thomson, a Fijian diplomat. “It’s about sewage, pesticides, excess fertilizer, industrial waste.”
Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister, urged countries to adopt the plastic charter that her country developed, and Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norway’s minister of international development, said that only a global approach can protect the oceans. He stressed the importance of international frameworks like the World Bank’s PROBLUE Initiative.
“We have to stop treating the ocean like a dump,” McKenna said. “We have to stop polluting our oceans, land, and air — only then will we get the solutions.”