Friday, December 30, 2011

Act Now to Save Life In and Above our Seas Author: Kate Sugar

The UK may not boast the gaudy coral reefs and balmy water temperatures of the tropics, but we can (and should) still be justly proud of the rich diversity of our marine life. However, nowadays pressures at sea are mounting with burgeoning ambition for the development and use of our marine environment and resources. So why is it so hard to persuade our Government of the need to act swiftly and decisively to protect what we still have, while we still can?

Anyone lucky enough to dip beneath the surface of our (admittedly chilly) waters can discover another world entirely. Silver fish flash between elegant fronds of kelp that reach up to the sunlit surface. Bright jewel anemones lie carelessly scattered on the rocks like sunken treasure. While above it all, seabirds dip and wheel, one eye always on the underwater realm, where their next meal waits.
Gannet colony
Gannet colony from Bartlet Nab viewpoint, Bempton Cliffs

Far from the empty, cold, dark and murky scenes that one might imagine, our seas are fantastically important for a whole range of wildlife. Whales, dolphins, basking sharks and more all congregate in our food-rich seas. Our waters are also hugely important for seabirds, with the UK and Ireland together supporting most of the world’s Manx shearwaters (up to 90 per cent of the global breeding population) and 60 per cent of the world’s northern gannets.

Wildlife enthusiasts or not, our lives are all touched and enriched in one way and another by that other world, whose borders lap at our shores. An economic analysis of the UK Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009) found that the protection of the marine environment through the provisions of the Act would yield benefits to society worth at least five, and up to 26, times the value of initial investment. 

Marine ecosystems and the organisms within them provide vital environmental services worth billions of pounds per year, such as waste removal, carbon storage and nutrient recycling. Our marine environment has long supported us in many ways, providing food, resources and livelihoods: for some, artistic inspiration and a wealth of recreational pursuits for others. Now it’s time to return that support, by setting up adequate marine protection.

Threatened seas
Sadly, we are guilty of taking our marine environment very much for granted. Thinking it inexhaustible, we have plundered the depths for centuries, and only recently have we begun to recognise its limits. Realisation is dawning that our seas are a precious resource, and must not be squandered.

Climate change is already impacting our seas, with warmer sea temperatures upsetting the delicate balance of chemistry and biology.. For example in the North Sea, the last decade has seen significant changes in the composition of the food supply, with rising water temperatures triggering changes in the plankton species that form the base of the food chain for all marine creatures. This has had dramatic knock-on effects around the North Sea area, with stocks of sand eels (key prey species for many seabirds) severely affected, and subsequent negative effects on seabird breeding success at many colonies, as seabirds like the kittiwake struggle to find enough food for themselves and for their young.
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