World Wildlife Day on 3 March 2019 focuses for the first time on marine species
Did you know that the giant manta ray—up to nine metres across—has the largest brain of all the world’s fish? Or that dugongs, sometimes referred to as sea cows due to their shallow water grazing (and perhaps looks), are more closely related to elephants than to whales or dolphins? Or that thresher sharks use their super-long caudal fin to whack shoals of fish, stunning or killing their prey in a process known as tail-smacking?
The existence of these wondrous creatures offers proof of a rich, mysterious underwater world that we still do not fully appreciate or understand. In fact, we know more about the moon than the deepest oceans. However, their vulnerable status also constitutes an indictment of our thoughtless exploitation of the world’s seas.
The threats faced by these iconic marine species—and many more—are ringing alarm bells. But are we listening? How many of us realize that if their world is threatened, so is ours?
This year, for the first time, World Wildlife Day is dedicated to our oceans, with the theme: “Life below water: for people and planet”. The aim is to raise awareness about the diversity of marine life and the importance of marine species to human development, and to explore how we can ensure that our oceans will continue to provide these services for future generations.
Covering two-thirds of the planet, our oceans produce 50 per cent of the oxygen on Earth. They regulate our climate, provide food for over 3 billion people, and absorb 30 per cent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and 90 per cent of the heat from climate change. Despite this, human activity threatens this unique, critical environment.
Today, manta rays, which feed on plankton and control the abundance and diversity of these tiny organisms, are threatened by overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change and habitat degradation. The giant manta ray has also become highly valued for its gill rakers, which are used in Chinese medicines.
The manta ray is among the threatened species that are part of the Wild for Life campaign to protect marine life on World Wildlife Day. Photo by UN Environment
Dugongs are threatened by illegal hunting, ocean pollution and climate change, while the thresher shark is at risk from overfishing, rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and microplastics. Many other marine species also face the same menaces and the level of risk demands urgent action.
This World Wildlife Day, UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign against plastic pollution and its Wild for Life campaign, which fights illegal trade in wildlife on land and in the seas, have joined forces to drive a global awakening on the need to protect our oceans.
Under the motto Saving Seas Just Got Personal, this fresh drive for ocean protection seeks to encourage individuals to do what they can to protect our life-giving oceans.
“On this World Wildlife Day, let us raise awareness about the extraordinary diversity of marine life and the crucial importance of marine species to sustainable development,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “That way, we can continue to provide these services for future generations.”
This is an urgent task because we are now using the ocean’s resources faster than they can recover. As much as 40 per cent of the ocean is now affected by overexploitation of marine species, pollution, loss of coastal habitats and climate change. We are consuming around 30 per cent of fish stocks at unsustainable levels, largely due to illegal, unreported or unregulated activities.
Some estimates say that up to half the world’s coral reefs have already been lost. These vital ecosystems are being rapidly degraded as a result of warming sea temperatures due to climate change, overfishing, destructive fishing, ocean acidification and a range of land-based activities.
Skeleton-like colourless coral reefs are an indicator of failing ecosystems and a devastating sign of climate change.
But these changes need not be irreversible. Each individual’s actions can have an effect and this World Wildlife Day, UN Environment hopes to spur people to get involved.
We have the international frameworks needed to retake control and turn the tide towards ocean conservation. Trade of marine species must also be restricted according to the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 14, which states that we must conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
Fifty-seven countries have joined the Clean Seas campaign, pledging to cut back on single-use plastics, protect national waters and encourage more recycling. The campaign now represents the world’s largest global alliance for combatting marine plastic pollution with commitments covering more than 60 per cent of the world’s coastlines.
“In celebration of World Wildlife Day… I would like to highlight the incredibly important issue of plastic pollution in our seas and oceans, and the devastating impact that this is having on marine ecosystems, on marine wildlife and on biodiversity,” said María Fernanda Espinosa, president of the UN General Assembly.
Sea horses up close and personal. Photo by Yen-Yi-Lee.
UN Environment and its partners have also pushed for the creation of marine protected areas to conserve fish stocks and marine biodiversity. Around 143 countries have joined the Regional Seas Programme, launched in 1974, to promote sustainable management and use of marine and coastal environments. The idea is to engage countries to protect their shared seas or common marine environments.
As part of a range of actions for World Wildlife Day, the Wild for Life campaign will introduce 16 new celebrity backers and nice new marine species, including the thresher shark, mako shark, sperm whale, manta ray, dugong, sea horse, polar bear, penguin and coral.
These new advocates, including renowned wildlife photographers and celebrities with a total of over 320 million social media followers, will join a team of impassioned UN Environment ambassadors including Adrian Grenier and Aidan Gallagher, who champion the sawfish, and Gisele Bündchen, who has adopted the sea turtle as her “spirit animal”.
Each one of us can play our part. If you want to ensure the survival of species like the manta ray, the dugong and the thresher shark, avoid buying foods, jewelry, crafts and traditional Asian medicines that use their body parts, choose sustainable seafood and, of course, avoid single-use plastics. Spread the word on social media so that you too can become leaders of the change you want to see. Our oceans gave us life. Now it’s our turn to pay that forward by ensuring their survival.
World Wildlife Day is organized by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora with support from UN Environment and the United Nations Development Programme.
About Clean Seas:
Launched in February 2017, the Clean Seas campaign urges governments to pass plastic reduction policies, encourages industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products, and calls on consumers to change their throwaway habits before irreversible damage is done to our seas.
About Wild for Life:
The Wild for Life campaign aims to conserve wildlife on land and in the oceans. Much of its work is geared towards combating the illegal trade in wildlife through awareness-raising, to prevent and reduce demand for illegally trafficked products. The 2030 UN Agenda sets out Sustainable Development Goals which have an explicit focus on protecting the integrity of our ecosystems by targeting environmental crimes on land and at sea.