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Marine environment damage ‘serious but unquantified’, says King

The ocean food chain is probably more seriously damaged than any other aspect of our biodiverse system, yet less is known about the scale of that damage than any other aspect of biodiversity, the former UK government chief scientist, David King, has said.

Speaking at the end of last week’s third annual World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment in Oxford, King told Research Fortnight Today, “The state of the marine system is the really big question. We know about land masses because people live on land. We have very little information about the state of the oceans.

“We know that acidification is taking place, and at a rate faster than at least for a million years. We know that temperatures are rising now faster than [in] at least a million years. And the result is we’re losing coral reefs, we’re losing quite a range of species, and we’re damaging the whole food chain of the ocean system.”

King gave the example of cod’s failure to return to Cape Cod on the US Atlantic coast, despite the presence of “a very successful marine protection area … probably because the food for cod, which is Arctic plankton, is no longer there because of global warming”.

Despite “significant” work at, for example, the Proudman Institute at the universities of Liverpool, Southampton and Portsmouth, he said, the effort to fill the knowledge gap was “not nearly” enough: “We simply need to look at how many ocean vessels we’ve got managing the observation of the state of the oceans, which are 70 per cent of the earth’s surface.

Earlier, Simon Stuart, chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission, told the forum that the bias towards terrestrial biodiversity monitoring was just one of many.

Global monitoring was still in its infancy, he said. Most information came from terrestrial ecosystems in wealthy countries. Forest biodiversity was better covered than the biodiversity of drylands or soils, and there were taxonomic biases, especially towards birds, mammals and other higher vertebrates.

Despite the evidence of “significant and largely irreversible changes to species diversity” even in species that were being careful measured, Stuart said, there was “no evidence yet of serious policy changes based on the finding of biodiversity indices.”

There had been little or no progress in subsidy reform, levels of overseas assistance for biodiversity, sustainable production and consumption plans, or climate-change policy.

The forum was organised by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.