Unveiling the secrets of the deep

05 January 2012 | Article

Everyone knows the oceans are in a trouble but how can we properly protect them when we don’t know much about what lives within them?

Kent Carpenter and his colleagues are on an ambitious mission to change the way we treat our oceans by learning more about marine species, what threats they face and what action is needed to protect them.

The oceans cover 70% of the planet but very few marine species have been assessed for their conservation status. The limited knowledge we do have points to a potential for an unprecedented rate of marine biodiversity loss.

“A key role of marine scientists is to shatter the widely held myth that the oceans, because of their size, are infinitely resilient. In reality, marine species are just as susceptible to extinction as terrestrial ones,” says Kent who is Manager of the Marine Biodiversity Unit of IUCN’s Global Species Programme and Professor, Old Dominion University.”

“Species can go extinct in the marine realm. A species being widespread is not necessarily protection from extinction. Take the Atlantic cod, this used to be one of the most common fishes in the Atlantic Ocean and was the basis of an entire economy. But in the 1990s, cod populations suffered a massive, and it seems, irreversible, collapse.”

Kent believes that an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality is partly to blame for the neglect of marine biodiversity.

“It’s difficult to make direct observations like we can on land. And assessing marine biodiversity is a complicated and costly business.”
There are around 250,000 known marine species, but it’s thought there could be more than two million. Very few of these have been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a flagship tool for conservation action. But we do know that 25% of the important habitat-forming groups of species such as corals, mangroves, and seagrasses are at a higher risk of extinction. These groups are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and coastal development.“The IUCN Red List is very useful in promoting conservation action for terrestrial species; we want it to do the same for marine realm,” says Kent.

In 2005 Kent’s team set the task of evaluating the extinction risk of 20,000 marine vertebrates, plants, and invertebrates. Now they are more than half-way there.

It’s an enormous task collecting and analyzing vast amounts of information held by specialists and organizations around the world. Workshops are held that bring the experts together to agree what category a species should be assigned (Critically Endangered, Vulnerable, Least Concern and so on).

“These people are passionate about ‘their’ species, and the situation can sometimes become tense,” says Kent. “And for some commercial species such as tuna, the process of assigning a category can be a long and nerve-wracking process.”

“We need to transform current conservation practices globally to become more effective and targeted. The information we collect will serve as a baseline to help tell us whether we are winning or losing the conservation battle and it’s already being used to guide conservation action.”

In the Eastern Tropical Pacific region, for example, IUCN Member Conservation International carried out more than 1,400 species assessments (only 200 had been done previously) and looked at where the most threatened species occurred. It then looked at where protected areas such as marine reserves existed and did a ‘gap analysis’ which pinpointed where conservation action was needed.

All of this work to boost the number of marine species assessments will be critical in influencing policies such as regional fisheries agreements and trade rules such as those under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

It’s a long haul but Kent relishes the challenge.

“We continue to be amazed by the valuable information we uncover during the Red List Assessment process of marine species; the discoveries and the knowledge that this information will be used for conservation action makes the challenge worthwhile.”