4th Dec 2023


EU needs to act on the science to preserve oceans

  • If the ocean is to continue to sustain life on this planet and mitigate the effects of our reckless climate change then we must start to treat it not as a resource for (over)exploitation but as a climate-action solution (Photo: EUobserver)
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The importance of the world's ocean cannot be overstated: it supplies 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, feeds billions of people, and provides livelihoods for millions more.

The ocean is the great biological pump of global atmospheric and thermal regulation, and the driver of the water and nutrient cycles. As one of our most powerful tools for mitigating the effects of climate change, the ocean is a critical ally, and we must do everything in our power to safeguard it.

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This is all the more important, given the unprecedented and unpredictable threats that we currently face. Though the ocean has been integral to slowing climate change, absorbing over 30 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat generated since the Industrial Revolution, the cost has been huge.

Ocean acidification and warming has been occurring at alarming rates, and are already having a serious impact on some of our most precious marine ecosystems — an impact that will only intensify.

As a journalist, author, member of the European Parliament, an environment minister and vice prime-minister, I have spent many years advocating for ocean conservation and the welfare of fisheries dependent communities. I am still very much committed to arresting destruction of the ocean we rely upon and supporting social justice we as a global community desperately need.

This brought me to the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June, where there was much to celebrate, not least French president Emmanuel Macron's call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. But there was also much to lament.

As somebody who has had a seat at the table of power, in fact several seats at several tables, and always doing my absolute best to represent all the voters who want to protect our planet, I also know politicians sometimes prioritise other interests.

Macron 'clarification'

That was on display in Lisbon and afterwards, as evidenced by French officials "clarifying" their president's comments — that he didn't really mean a moratorium on deep sea mining.

The story goes that the 11th century Nordic King Cnut demonstrated his inability to halt the incoming tide so that his supporters would have more reasonable expectations of him. And so with the biodiversity and climate emergency we have unleashed a wave of calamitous change that will not be halted by the lofty promises of decision-makers about what must be done.

I know that in order to deliver the transformative change we need brave words followed up by courageous action. Words won't do it alone; we need informed and active citizens to vote and reward those decision-makers who take action towards ensuring a healthy and liveable future.

Fisheries management has a decisive impact on the state of marine ecosystems, and thus ocean health. If the ocean is to continue to sustain life on this planet and mitigate the effects of our reckless climate change then we must start to treat it not as a resource for (over)exploitation but as climate action and a nature based solution.

In Lisbon, I heard how this can be achieved in the EU, from the work being carried out by a group of pioneering scientists led by Dr Rashid Sumaila from the University of British Columbia.

These scientists have released a series of papers revealing how more responsible fisheries could restore ocean health, and so contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.

The scientists have explored how overfishing truncates the food web and weakens the system, making it more vulnerable to shocks like climate change. Fish are like people in this way; just as a healthy person is more likely to survive Covid, a healthy ocean will be better able to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The impacts of climate change are set to significantly lower the biomass of fish stocks, so specific conservation focused management to rebuild stocks is needed to ensure the marine ecosystem can be climate-adaptive.

EU missing in action

Yet the EU has been lazy in meeting its own targets for ending overfishing. This is not good enough, and it is not acting like we are in an emergency — it is more like telling the tide not to come in.

Studies have found that by reducing the overcapacity of the European fishing fleet, we could catch more fish: this means less boats, burning less fuel, contributing less to greenhouse gas emissions, and a better economy for the fishermen and women.

In the coming months, the European Commission will publish an action plan described in the EU's 2020 Biodiversity Strategy and an expected evaluation of the Common Fisheries Policy. These need to be bold and halt short-term economic interests destroying the ocean.

Just as Cnut was frustrated by the blind faith of his followers, so the European Commission needs to stop talking about all the things it could or will do, and just do them.

The tide is coming in on climate change and biodiversity loss, there is no point talking about what can be done to stop it, we need action, and fisheries management has a decisive role to play.

Author bio

Isabella Lövin is a former deputy prime minister of Sweden, former environment minister and former Green MEP.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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