Answers to an escalating ocean crisis

Marine pollution is devastating the world's oceans, of which less than 6 percent are protected in any way. Law and Commerce student Finn Dillon says we need to get past the politics and act now.

A piece of rubbish on a beach

The Earth is a complex ecological system that functions properly when each separate part is cared for and allowed to perform its function unimpeded.

If the Earth were a human body, the ocean could be described as the liver, constantly absorbing our carbon dioxide emissions, cleaning the air and providing a home to the most diverse range of species critical to the ecosystem as a whole. Even more than that, though, the ocean is the heart.

The ocean moderates the world’s climate, provides roughly 50 percent of the oxygen for the Earth's atmosphere and is the primary source of water vapour that returns to the land as rain. In other words, it performs functions vital to our ability to live.

While the ocean has some capacity to purify and recycle pollutants, it has been accepted that there certainly is a limit.

In some parts of the ocean, the limits have been well and truly tested – with devastating consequences. One only has to look to the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, where rising temperatures and the burning of fossil fuels have resulted in coral bleaching and the acidification of seawater.

To understand the absolute tragedy of the situation, marine pollution can be boiled down to three main categories: using the ocean as a sewer to dispose of and dump waste; overexploiting marine resources; and polluting the oceans with oil and other pollutants.

An often-overlooked yet significant source of marine pollution is land-based activity, which typically represents discharges into the ocean from on-shore industrial activity and the run-off of chemicals from agricultural activity snaking its way into the oceans via rivers.

A number of international conventions deal with climate change and marine pollution, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. However, these are not automatically binding and largely depend on individual nation states ratifying them into their own domestic legislation. Furthermore, these international conventions mainly cover sources of marine pollution such as discharges from ships, dumping of waste, and seabed activities, leaving land-based marine pollution (which is estimated to account for approximately 80 percent of marine pollution globally) to national regulation.

The excessiveness to which we have used the oceans as our dumping ground for sewage and agricultural run-off has resulted in many areas becoming what are known as “dead zones”.

These occur where a body of water is bombarded with too many nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen. The overabundance of these nutrients causes harmful 'algal blooms', and in the resulting hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions marine life cannot survive, leading to a collapse of some ecosystems.

There are estimated to be as many as 500 of these dead zones around the globe.

One recent concept, conceived of by American marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle, is gaining considerable traction and support: what she terms “hope spots”.

The basis of her idea is that while about 12 percent of the Earth’s land is protected (through things such as national parks), less than 6 percent of the ocean is protected in any way. She therefore called for the public to rally in support of establishing marine areas around the globe that would get fully protected status. These "hope" areas can act as vital life support to our great blue heart by helping to save and restore the ocean.

Today there are about 100 hope spots, either operational or proposed, around the globe.

One of the deepest ocean trenches in the world, the Kermadec Trench, is in New Zealand’s northernmost territory and is one of the most pristine and unique places on Earth. Home to a vast array of species, the Kermadec Trench is one such hope spot – or, at least, supposed to be.

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill, first championed by Green MP Gareth Hughes and then announced at the United Nations by then-Prime Minister John Key in 2015, was praised internationally and passed its first reading in Parliament unopposed. It would ultimately mean 15 percent of New Zealand’s ocean environment would be fully protected. However, since 2016 the bill has been stalled at its second reading, with the Labour–NZ First Government agreeing not to progress the legislation this term.

We need the ocean, and right now the ocean needs us. The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is something worthy of rallying behind and one way to restore some life to our blue heart.

As Earle says, no one looks at a national park and thinks, “Wow, this was a terrible idea”. It will be the same with our protected ocean areas – if we can just get past the politics.

The is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the latest, climate change-focused issue of  The Hive, a bimonthly publication where student volunteers of the Victoria University of Wellington-based Wellington Community Justice Project explore current social and cultural issues.

This article originally appeared on Newsroom.