Nagoya 22nd-23rd October 2010 – “We must save marine diversity for our children’s, children’s children”.

We arrived in Japan and were immediately thrust into the crowded Japanese railway system. The train from Narita airport took about an hour. Then at Tokyo station, which occupies a building with about five floors, we caught a bullet train to Nagoya. I had wanted to go on one of these since being a child but managed to fall asleep for most of the 2 hour journey. I arrived at Nagoya at about 2 o’clock and checked into the hotel which was part of the same building, an enormous double tower, which contained the station. After working all afternoon on talks for the meeting in my hotel room I met up with the other scientists from the GLOBE International Commission for Land Use Change and Ecosystems. After looking at the staggering prices of the hotel restaurants we ventured out into the streets. The area outside Nagoya Station was teaming with people. We managed to locate a building with a restaurant on several floors on a neon-lit street opposite the station. The buildings surrounding the streets here are enormous and you get more of an impression of being dwarfed by the architecture than cities like New York. We had a lovely meal of a mixture of vegetables and meat skewers, served by polite and friendly waiters and waitresses. The English translation of the dishes on the menu caused some hilarity – I’m still wondering what “Stir-fried hormone with lettuce” actually was.

Thanks to jet lag I was up at 04.00 and working again on talks. Today I was to attend Oceans Day at the Convention on Biological Diversity and tell everyone what it was like, as a scientist, working with legislators at GLOBE. A word on this organisation is probably appropriate here. “GLOBE” stands for Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment. It is an organisation of legislators from the G20+ states that get together to informally discuss environmental problems in an informal (free from state political position) environment. The International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems (ICLUCE) is a programme within GLOBE aimed at putting together the GLOBE Legislators with scientists, economists and legal experts to discuss environmental problems in marine and terrestrial ecosystems.  I am the leading marine scientist of ICLUCE which has been going for nearly two years. During this time we have communicated to legislators on the dire problems faced by the oceans arising from overfishing, pollution, invasive species and climate change. In response to this legislators, scientists and other experts in ICLUCE have developed a Marine Ecosystems Recovery Strategy. This focuses on three areas: (a) the sustainable management of fisheries, (b) action to protect coral reef ecosystems and (c) protection of coastal marine ecosystems from the effects of coastal runoff and other forms of pollution.

The Oceans Day meeting organised by the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands began with a very powerful and moving speech by Ambassador Ronald Jumeau, Permanent Representative of the Seychelles to the United Nations. He described how the people on the Seychelles are so dependent on the oceans and his memories of the seas and shores around the islands as a child. He then described the very disturbing news that in 2010 the Seychelles were witnessing another dramatic mass coral bleaching event. This phenomenon, first seen in the late 1970s / early 1980s, is a direct result of global warming. Reef-building corals grow relatively quickly because of a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae. These are the tiny algae that live in the tissues of tropical reef-building corals which provide their hosts with much of their energy requirements through photosynthesis. Under conditions of anomalously high temperature the zooxanthellae go into overdrive and produce excess superoxide molecules. These damage the zooxanthellae, and the coral host, and lead to the algal cells being ejected from the coral tissue causing the bleached appearance of the corals. They literally look like bright white coral skeletons. If warm conditions persist the bleached corals usually die. In 1998 a single mass bleaching event killed 16% of the world’s coral reefs. The event now unfolding in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and Caribbean may be of a similar order of magnitude to the 1998 event or may even exceed it in severity. Even the world’s southern-most coral reefs on Lord Howe Island off Australia have been affected.

Ambassador Jumeau went on to describe how the oceans were now “vomiting up” rubbish on the shores of the Seychelles, particularly plastic debris, which has become a major issue globally. Mr Shoichi Kondo followed Ambassador Jumeau in voicing his extreme concerns for the oceans stating that we “must save marine diversity for our children’s, children’s children”.

The rest of the day followed in similar vein. Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault gave a particularly lucid and progressive speech stating that “The generosity of the sea which was seen as with no limit has now reached its limit” and that it was a matter of urgency to protect the oceans. Dr Thomas Lovejoy really summed up the situation saying that “Action taken over the next decade will determine whether ecosystem services on which humans have depended for millennia will last beyond the end of the century”. A grim statement given our progress on climate change over the last twelve months.

There were some positive stories bringing light to what was a dark and sobering message. The Census of Marine Life project, in which my research team and I participated described life from all over the oceans including many new species. It was revealing hitherto unsuspected marine biodiversity with 30 million records of species in the oceans. Some large projects including the Coral Triangle Initiative, the Micronesian Challenge and the Caribbean Challenge were being funded. I spoke to the audience about our work with GLOBE and how it represented a new way for scientists to communicate directly with legislators to help formulate policy to deal with the many problems we face in the oceans. This was well received and immediately we found ourselves involved in a controversy that had arisen in the CBD meeting over the last week, but more of that later.

Following Oceans Day we returned to the hotel in Nagoya where the entire GLOBE team were gathered planning the following days’ activities. We followed this with a wonderful meal as guests of our hosts from GLOBE Japan.

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