Monday, January 9, 2012

Research Effort Aims to Tap Ocean's Solutions by Carlos Duarte

The wealth in the Indian Ocean drove the first Dutch visitors to accidentally sail to WA's shores, in their pursuit of a faster route to reach the Spice Islands. Four centuries later, its turquoise blue waters offer a sea of opportunities just within our reach.

There is still a lot we don't know about the Indian Ocean, which is arguably the least explored of the world's oceans. But we do know that it - like many other oceans around the world - is under stress from overfishing, pollution, climate change and sea level rise.

There are many good reasons why we should step up our efforts to explore the Indian Ocean. First, it will help us solve some of the problems outlined above. But excessive emphasis on the problems of the oceans conceals the role they must also come to play as a source of untapped solutions and new streams of wealth.

The Indian Ocean already provides us with a big part of our livelihood through fisheries (both professional and recreational), tourism, and the offshore oil and gas industries that are fuelling the growth of WA's economy. By harnessing the ocean's energy and resources we can address some of humanity's greatest challenges such as food and water security, clean energy supplies and healthy marine ecosystems.

While we live on a planet mostly covered with water, we get most of our resources from land. We need to reverse that thinking. The world's population recently reached seven billion people, and is expected to swell to nine billion by 2050. We must turn to the oceans to meet the needs of this growing global population. Let me give some examples of how the Indian Ocean can provide us with solutions to help us face future challenges.

The first example comes from the increasingly realised potential to use genes of marine organisms to solve problems in bioenergy, food, pharmaceutical and human health. Realising these potentials must be a driver to explore marine biodiversity, with WA being one of the global marine biodiversity hot spots. Yet only some 10 per cent of named species are marine species and the rate of discovery of marine species is so slow that it will be 200 to 1000 years before a complete inventory of marine species is available.

Secondly, many West Australians have visited the World Heritage area of Shark Bay and admired its stark beauty. What they may not know is that the extensive seagrass meadows at Shark Bay act as a giant sponge soaking up vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and can help mitigate climate change, similar to the way trees in the Amazon rainforest can soak up carbon dioxide. The extensive seagrass meadows in WA can also mitigate the impacts of rising sea level on our coast and beaches, by dissipating wave energy and trapping sediments.

The role of seagrass in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigating the impacts of climate change is the subject of a recent new scientific initiative referred to as Blue Carbon, which you will probably hear more of in coming years.

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