The U.N. Says 1 Million Species Could Disappear. Pacific islands Have a Solution

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By Carlotta Leon Guerrero, a native of Guam and the executive director of the Guam-based Ayuda Foundation who served in the Guam Legislature from 1994 to 2000. Since 2018 she has been a Pew Bertarelli Ocean Ambassador. Originally published at Grist

Last week, a global scientific assessment found the business-as-usual approach to conservation is not delivering the critical action needed to safeguard the future health of our planet. Over the last 30 years, a growing global population has doubled the demand on our planet’s resources, according to the report, which was released by the United Nations, and nature just can’t keep up: As many as 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.

This is a threat well understood by the people of my island, the small Pacific territory of Guam. In the last few decades alone, development and invasives have led to the extinction of the Guam flying fox and several species of bird found nowhere else in the world. These were animals critical to our forest ecosystems and important to our indigenous culture, lost forever.

But all is not lost. The report identified several pathways for change, including the need to expand the current network of protected areas, both on land and in the ocean, which are critically important in the context of a changing climate. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that we’ll need to protect at least 30 percent of every coastal and marine habitat by 2030 if we’re serious about conserving the natural systems that underpin our quality of life.

That may sound daunting, but we have an example to follow — one that is gaining momentum across the Pacific.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest habitat on the planet, greater in size than the combined landmass of every single continent. Along the edges of this far-reaching marine ecosystem lie some of the largest cities on Earth — and dotted across its great expanse are thousands of islands, small and large. These islands are populated by the descendants of the great voyagers who traversed these waters in wooden canoes, powered by nothing more than the wind in their woven sails and the knowledge passed down through chants and songs.

Pacific Islanders have known for centuries that protecting parts of the ocean brings benefits to people and nature. For generations, we have set aside areas where fishing is not allowed, resulting in more fish, bigger fish, and greater biodiversity. It is considered the world’s oldest form of fisheries management.

But now, our ocean is changing. Sea levels are rising, warmer waters and changing ocean chemistry are altering the intricate balance of our natural ecosystems, and plastic waste is polluting the ocean from the seabed to our coastlines. These impacts are intensified when combined with overfishing; in much of the ocean, we are removing fish faster than they are biologically able to replenish. This is particularly true of vulnerable species such as sharks.

In response, Pacific leaders have acted with the same boldness that inspired our ancestors to cross the ocean. We have taken their ancestral knowledge and expanded upon it, designating vast ocean sanctuaries, which support healthy marine ecosystems and abundant fish populations, while ensuring the well-being of coastal communities.

In total, more than a dozen Pacific countries and territories have committed to designating and implementing strong ocean sanctuaries that restrict all commercial fishing. These actions bolster marine biodiversity, improve neighboring fisheries, and help ocean flora and fauna better withstand the impacts of the changing climate and overfishing.

The greatest biological outcomes come from fully protected areas where all forms of fishing are restricted, like in the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, which comprises 80 percent of Palau’s national waters. There are also benefits to restricting the most damaging forms of fishing, like on the other side of the ocean in Chile, where the Rapa Nui people recently agreed to restrict industrial fishing in the entirety of their biologically unique waters, and only allow traditional artisanal fishing.

At the same time, a group of Island Voices ambassadors has formed, coming from Palau, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Rapa Nui. The group includes artists, educators, fishers, former government officials, and traditional voyagers, who are committed to protecting the unique identity of the Pacific and its islands and are working together to link traditional values with modern decision-making.

It’s a start, but if we are going to save the rich ecological abundance of the Pacific for future generations, we will have to think even bigger, working toward protecting 30 percent of the Pacific. Today, just under 5 percent of the ocean is designated within the confines of a marine protected area, and only about half of that area is fully or strongly protected, ensuring the strongest benefits to people and nature. Much of this real estate stretches across the Pacific.

We have reached the point in human history where we can impact every inch of the ocean and at every depth. In the next decade we need to ramp up the area of ocean we protect, but we must also address sustainable fishing and environmental justice in the places where we allow fishing. And this will all be for nothing if we do not reduce carbon emissions and other forms of pollution — especially plastic.

It’s daunting, yes, but it’s possible: Just look at the example that has been set by the leaders in the Pacific, where a constellation of small Island nations is leading the way toward a healthy and resilient ocean for our generations to come.

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  1. Cal2

    A useful mission for our and other countries’ expensive militaries, and a cost effective extension fo their training which they do anyway, would be to detain poachers, sink their boats, and prevent illegal logging.

    If our military can be used to combat drug smugglers, then it can be used to combat poachers.

    Armed resistance, as in the Amazon and southern Mexico? Bring on the commandos and predator drones, let’s see how long the loggers last against that.

    I’m against capital punishment, but if someone is threatening the last of an endangered species, as in carrying firearms in a game preserve, annihilate them in the least ecologically damaging way. There are plenty of people.

    A few blocks walk from where I sit are shops selling shark fins, tiger penises, sun bear gall bladders and other rare and highly valued body parts of endangered species. Law enforcement is a joke because the trade continues unabated. Make anything that directly contributes to animal extinction a capital crime.

    1. Tony Wright

      Well said. There are not plenty of people though, there are too many people. This is the fundamental problem which is not being called out, let alone addressed. Calling out the utter immorality of human overpopulation appears to be the last taboo.
      Poaching is the sharp end of a much broader problem of species extinction as outlined in the recent UN report. Most species extinction occurs by habitat destruction in favour of human interests – effectively competitive exclusion of other species via the destruction of their life support systems.

    2. wilroncanada

      Great call Cal2. the death penalty, administered by whom? US government sponsored private security companies in another kind of invasion? When much of the problem, even the population one, are the result of US plutocrats who have bought the US government, and having bribed a few local plutocrats, stripping the resources from those “sh**ho** countries, so all the peasants have left is to “illegally” poach, or deforest, for mere subsistence. Your solution is the one the US govern is telling your own people in medical care: GO DIE.

  2. Susan the other`

    30% of the oceans needs to be strictly protected against fishing. That almost doesn’t sound like enough. Set it at 50% to see if it is enforceable at that level. And if it is, then enforce it properly. I just saw a Greenpeace (?) documentary done in 2009 about the killing coves in Japan where they lure dolphins and slaughter them. The dolphins sound like they are screaming. Strange noises. The kicker was that a when the Japanese fishermen were confronted and told not do do such an awful decimation of the dolphins they replied that they were doing it for “pest control.” The dolphins posed too much competition for the same fish that the fishermen were hunting. So the dolphins had to go. Japan is also guilty of bribing other nations to be lenient toward Japanese fishing expeditions and thereby trying to prevent the measures of protection discussed in this post. Maybe other countries are equally aggressive, but Japan seems to have a clear track record of egregious overfishing whenever (remembering their whaling) they have been confronted. Heaven forbid they should run short of sushi. Their situation might be even more dire now for their fishing industry since they have made their own fisheries and coastlines as intensely toxic as Fukushima Daiichi. It’s actually a little surprising that they continue to eat so much fish.

  3. rd

    It starts at home. People are generally unaware of their place in the ecosystem and how the impact of millions of people like them impact the environment and bio-diversity in a huge way. You can see it in yards and nurseries where most plants in American gardens (especially in suburban lawns) are non-native and provide little ecosystem value. There is no point someone railing at people who live somewhere else if they, themeselves, are having a negative impact that can be remedied easily be themselves.

    We need much more awareness training in how little impacts by individuals add up to a large impact. Most great changes come from the bottom up started at the grassroots level.

  4. juliania

    The issue of plastics in the ocean is one area we all affect. I am very glad to see that straws are now back to being made of paper in local restaurants. If indeed there are too many of us on the planet, we each can at least be more careful how we ourselves purchase and discard what ends up in our environment. We have affected the production of organic foodstuffs – changes come because of what we prefer to purchase. Now our concern has to be not only for what we put into our bodies but what we put into our environment.

    My thought on this headline was also about the small ecological environments that are islands – New Zealand has also found a way to protect native species by isolating them from their predators on island sanctuaries where they can rebuild their populations. It’s yet another way to prevent extinction, and it is being reported as having succeeded in some cases.

    1. Tony Wright

      Yes, New Zealand is actively trying to maintain native habitats. A great example is the 12,607 Fiordland National Park, which is crisscrossed by traplines to capture the stoats introduced from Europe by some ignoramus back in colonial days, and which of course predate the already limited native birdlife which is ill adapted to predators, having no native ones.
      The Island you refer to is Stewart Island, which has been successfully rid of introduced predators in favour of the Kakapo, a charming 2kg. Flightless parrot. One hand raised individual named Sirocco is designated NZ ambassador for conservation, and featured in Stephen Fry’s TV program on endangered species a few years ago, much to the embarassment of his cameraman at the time.
      But even ‘InZud’, with its relatively low human population, has suffered severely from human encroachment. Before the Maori arrived some 1500 or so years ago there were 11 species of flightless Moas (flightless birds related to ostriches and emus) varying in height from 2-12feet tall. All were eaten by the Maori hunters well before the pakeha(europeans) arrived to further degrade the natural habitat by land clearing in favour of grazing for umpteen millions of sheep and also dairy cattle. The stupid introduction of Australian possums to facilitate a fur industry in the 19th century has also had a terrible impact upon remaining native forests – possum populations have exploded in the absence of native predators, and they prevent many forest trees reproducing because they eat their fruits and flowers.
      Like Hawaii, NZ is made up of geologically young , volcanic islands, so the flora and fauna are limited in diversity anyway – I have occasionally seen more different insect species on one window of my house here in northern NSW than are displayed in the entire collection at the Auckland museum!
      Speaking of which, John O Sullivan writing in Principia Scientific International on 18 March 2019 , citing the work of a Professor Pall of Washington State University, raises alarming concerns regarding the impacts of the impending rollout of 5G networks on human health, and in particular insect populations, already well documented to be variously suffering massive declines. Insects , in their amazing but rapidly diminishing diversity, are the pollinators and recyclers essential to any semblance of ecological health that we humans have not already destroyed.
      I believe a discussion of the adverse impacts of 5G is essential, and I implore NC to initiate one – the mainstream media certainly is not.

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