conservation environment food social justice sustainability

Out of sight, out of mind – Marine Conservation

We’ve looked at why conservation matters, and in the past we covered the importance of protecting the rain forests. We’ve also addressed pollution, focusing particularly on the oceans and “sea fill“. If you didn’t guess from the title, this is about marine conservation.

It’s worth a separate post because the challenges are very different. One of the major problems is that if lack of awareness affects conservation efforts on land, it is doubly so underwater. The seas are already in crisis. Since 1600 an estimated 81 species of fish have gone extinct. Out of the fresh water species, it is believed that at least 20% have already disappeared. This is thought to be because of over fishing, exploitation and invasive species. Throughout the 1900s a number of mass extinctions of endemic fish occurred because of habitat loss or severe degradation.

Jeremy’s previous post that tells us that we’ve lost over 90% of the global ocean’s large predators. Since 1972 there has been a 93% decrease in blacktip sharks, 97% tiger sharks, 99% hammerheads and dusky sharks. The majority of these sharks are killed purely for their fins (70 million a year). This does not include cetaceans or other sea creatures which are actively hunted for similar reasons. Even creatures like the beloved “common dolphin” is threatened by pollutants, hunting, by-catch and sonar to the point where populations are shrinking at an alarming rate. I can think of only one explanation for the name “common dolphin”, but that’s a name that might soon look rather ironic.

In 2000, the IUCN red list contained 156 critically endangered species all of which (at the rate things are going) are expected to be extinct in the near future. Not only that, but according to TESH (The Endangered Species Handbook), 41.1% of all the animals on the IUCN list are native to aquatic ecosystems. It seems we are actually losing our large sea creatures faster than our land ones and yet it’s the fluffy creatures that get the most attention. You see people on the streets, on television and on documentaries actively campaigning to get the funds to save the panda or the tiger but its not often you bump into someone on the street who says “Just £3 a week to save the Hammer-head Shark!”

Its not that these animals are any less worthy of saving than others, its just you never hear about them. The aquatic predators of the global oceans are what hold the entire food chain together. They’re not something we can afford to lose without a fight. In 1950 the global marine harvest was 20 million tonnes. Today, 20 million tonnes of marine species are discarded, thrown back into the sea because they were caught accidentally, too young or simply “over quota”. These by-caught species rarely survive the stress of catch and release, let alone the injuries sustained in the process.

The table below (from TESH) shows the number of species in each category that is under a high level of threat. Note the numbers of endangered fish compared to mammals.

(Higher Categories of Threat)

Marine Inland Water Total
Mammals 25 31 56
Birds 105 78 183
Reptiles 9 111 120
Amphibians 0 131 131
Fish 163 627 790
Crustaceans 0 408 408
Insects 0 125 125
Mollusks 13 420 433
Corals & Anemones 2 0 2
Worms 3 0 3
Total Animals 320 1,931 2,251
Plants 0 14 14
Grand Totals 320 1,945 2,265

Now this is the case for a number of reasons. By-catch is certainly a player but so is pollution, over-harvesting, habitat degradation and even just acoustic disturbance. People wouldn’t let you quad bike through a forest if everyone knew an endangered species of deer or squirrel lived there, but it seems alright to jet-ski and power boat in dolphin breeding grounds and no action is taken – out of sight, out of mind.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. This isn’t just the major predators either, the damage we are inflicting on the oceans is taking its toll at both ends of the food chain. Incidentally, it isn’t just fish for eating. Aquarium fish are in demand, but the supply is going down. Going into a pet shop you may see a number of beautiful fish species, some of which may actually be endangered. 98% of sea-horses are caught from the wild and 40 – 46 million aquarium fish and coral heads are harvested each year. There are 45 tropical countries involved in exporting aquarium fish. 50% of exported fish, and 80% of harvested coral goes to the United States. Next time you are in a pet shop looking for fish for your aquarium, make sure you know they’ve come from a sustainable source – a fish farm. Otherwise the export may have derived from a threatened source. One to look out for is the highly prized Banggai Cardinal Fish which has suffered an 89% decline in the last 12 years. The current population of 2 million breeding individuals is being harvested at 900,000 a year. You can do the maths on that one yourself.

For years people exploited plants, forests, land and animals, regarding them as a limitless supply of resources. We have proved ourselves wrong on that one. Lets not do the same with our oceans, thinking they are bottomless pits in which we can dump what we don’t want and pull out anything we fancy.


  1. Dear Paul
    Nice article, reefs are the productive ecosysem in the marine ecosystem, but we are not giving respect as in Andaman Island sea coast are heavily polluted the garbages are dumping in the sea, heavy earth movers are now in our island thus silts are directly depositing on the coral killing 90% of the reef,

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