Ocean warming signals climate change harm

Published on Tue 25 February 2020 6:50pm

In the face of these serious threats, what needs to be done? In short: boost the science, increase environmental protection, stop ocean pollution, put an end to harmful fisheries and take action on climate change.

Mr Wilson (6:50pm) — I want to take this opportunity to speak up for the oceans and for all the life that depends on the health of our marine environment. That means all the plants and animals in the sea from whales to gobies to giant kelp to phytoplankton, and of course it includes all of us Australians and all our fellow women and men the world over. We depend on the health of our oceans, and our oceans are in trouble. They are being damaged and we’re the ones doing the damage. We are doing it directly through harmful fishing and marine pollution, and we are doing indirectly in the form of dangerous climate change.

We have to stop or much of our marine life will be put at risk and, as a result, the way we live will be at risk. To be honest, it’s way past time to stop the damage that has been done, and we can do that. I’ve never thought it does much good to focus on serious problems in a way that makes solutions seem impossible, because that tends to leave people feeling hopeless, as if everything is already ruined, nothing can be done and engagement, activism and even democracy begin to feel pointless. But it’s not true. Yes, we need to act. We need to change, and we can. We’ve proved that in the past and even in the recent past. My home of Fremantle used to be a whaling town. Australia stopped whaling in 1978 and we continue to carry the fight against whaling. Fremantle is still very much a fishing town. It’s also the Australian home port of the Sea Shepherd,which draws on a volunteer effort and donations to fight illegal whaling, illegal fishing and marine pollution.

It was fantastic that in the last parliamentary fortnight Seafood Industry Australia was here to promote their pledge, which has as its first promise ‘to actively care for Australia’s oceans and environment and work with others to do the same’. I congratulate Jane and all those at SIA and all their members for taking that initiative. I want to note that Austral, based in Western Australia, is the first commercial fishing company in the world to be certified carbon-neutral and that’s just one aspect of their leading commitment to sustainability through action and global cooperation. I also note that last year when the Western Australia Octopus Fishery and the Western Australia Sea Cucumber Fishery each received certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, it brought to 10 the number of fisheries with MSC accreditation in Western Australia. That process began in 2000 when the West Coast Rock Lobster Fishery was the first in the world to be certified. It has since become the first fishery to be recertified as sustainable four times. That’s something to be proud of. I take this opportunity tonight to give a shout-out to all those in the rock lobster industry, because they are feeling the brunt of the coronavirus impact at the moment.

At the national level, we have belatedly adopted a network of marine parks, a process started under the Howard government and largely completed by Labor. Unfortunately, that network, and the science at its foundation, has been undermined late in the piece by the current government. Large and important areas had their level of protection downgraded or removed. I wish I didn’t have to say that; I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. That means there is more work to be done.

Of course, we know that Australia has played a special role in the protection of Antarctica. In recent years we’ve helped create marine protected area in the Ross Sea and we’re trying to repeat that achievement in the east Antarctic. At present, only five per cent of the Southern Ocean is protected. It is home to 10,000 unique and diverse species and it remains largely untouched by human activity.

So, while it’s important to be clear-eyed about the harm we’ve done and the harm we are doing to our oceans, we should remember that we’re quite capable of taking a different path. The truth remains that our oceans are under enormous pressure and our current trajectory is for that to keep getting worse. There is a global biodiversity crisis that’s being caused by overfishing and bad fishery practices. It’s been caused by marine pollution, not least in the form of plastic waste. And, above all, it’s been caused by climate change.

It’s understandable that we’ll tend to perceive the impacts of climate change more easily on land, especially when we’ve just experienced a set of unprecedented bushfires on top of a punishing and ongoing drought. We’ve just experienced our first national climate disaster, but we’re going to see that more clearly in the terrestrial setting than we will see it in a marine environment. The reality is that our oceans have absorbed 93 per cent of the additional energy produced by the rise in greenhouse gases.

The five years to 2019 were the five hottest on record for our oceans. Warming can now be observed at a depth of 1,000 metres. As the International Union for Conservation of Nature has noted, this causes changes in water temperature, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, leading to changes in oceanic circulation and chemistry, rising sea levels and increased storm intensity, as well as changes in the diversity and abundance of marine species.

Only in the last week we’ve been put on notice that the Great Barrier Reef is about to experience the third major bleaching event in the last five years, and there is no record of such events occurring prior to the last five years. It’s not as well known that in 2011 there was a marine heatwave off Western Australia which had a devastating impact on kelp forests. Once kelp forests get wiped out like that, they don’t recover—just as some of the forests that have experienced fires this summer will not return as forests. Warming has caused giant kelp to disappear altogether from parts of the Tasmanian coast. And Australia is home to six of the seven marine turtles species on the planet, and all are classified as vulnerable or endangered under the EPBC Act.

In the face of these serious threats, what needs to be done? In short: boost the science, increase environmental protection, stop ocean pollution, put an end to harmful fisheries and take action on climate change. We need to ensure that our scientific research capacity is properly resourced and appropriately focused on the marine environment. We can’t have cuts to the CSIRO and the department of the environment and expect anything other than substantive outcomes and more harm. If we continue to have the situation where recovery plans under the EPBC Act are not put in place and the plans are not better resourced then we’ll keep seeing species disappear and ecosystems collapse.

We need to ensure that our environmental protection framework and the work of related agencies are dedicated to their core purpose, and that is maintaining and even seeking to improve environmental values. We cannot have a situation in which those parts of government and the Public Service which are charged with environmental protection are made to feel it’s their job to bend or condition the interests of the environment in order to accommodate other interests. That is not their job.

Greater protection needs to be achieved through the current review of the EPBC Act. We need more resources for conservation and further improvement to the national marine parks network. When it comes to ocean plastic, we should lead by example. If we can’t eliminate harmful single-use plastic and do better than recycling 10 per cent of our plastic waste, which is the current level, how can we expect countries in South Asia and the Pacific to do any more? I note that recently British researchers who collect arthropods, which are small shrimp, from six of the world’s deepest ocean trenches, found that 80 per cent of them had microplastic in their digestive tracts.

When it comes to climate change, we need to overcome the policy and political paralysis of the last 10 years—we need that desperately. We need to resume what was, briefly, a position of achievement and even leadership in this country. Only by reaching net zero emissions by 2050 as part of our contribution to a coordinated global effort can we be confident of avoiding catastrophic warming on land and in the sea. Taking that path will not only allow us to avoid environmental disaster, with savage impacts on biodiversity and human health, it will lead us to what is the least-cost destination. It will lead us to a future with more jobs, higher wages and lower energy prices. The false choice between climate action and economic performance has been thoroughly exploded.

Those who cling to it do so only out of laziness or political self-interest. That’s why, if we look down the path of net zero emissions by 2050 we can already see the tail-lights receding on the electric bicycles of our largest resources company, our largest oil and gas company, our largest bank, our largest telecommunications company, all the states and 73 other countries. They’re all on the way to the only destination that makes economic and environmental sense, while our government twiddles its thumbs and fights itself.
In conclusion, of the ocean it can truly be said that everything is connected. As one of the greatest writers on the environment, Rachel Carson, put it:

… the life of all parts of the sea is linked. What happens to a diatom in the upper, sunlit strata of the sea may well determine what happens to a cod lying on a ledge of some rocky canyon a hundred fathoms below, or to a bed of multicolored, gorgeously plumed seaworms carpeting an underlying shoal, or to a prawn creeping over the soft oozes of the sea floor in the blackness of mile-deep water.

It’s up to all of us in this place to make sure that continues to be true as a picture of biodiversity and beauty in our oceans.

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