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It’s not too late to save the Earth’s oceans by 2050, scientists say

The world’s oceans and Earth’s marine life can be saved by 2050, scientists claim, but substantial rebuilding efforts will be required.

An international team of researchers say humanity is at a point at which it must choose whether to leave future generations a resilient, vibrant ocean or an ‘irreversibly disrupted’ one.

The team’s study lays out the essential roadmap of actions needed for the planet’s marine life to recover in full within 30 years.

This is based on the spectacular recovery of the humpback whale, which was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1960s but recovered by 2015 thanks to conservation efforts.

Protecting species, restoring habitats, reducing pollution and mitigating the worse of climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions are all major tasks that lie ahead, the researchers conclude.

Success also depends on the support of a committed partnership of global governments and ‘a substantial commitment of financial resources’, they warn. 

It estimates that it will cost $10 billion to $20 billion a year on restoration projects, but for every dollar invested, the expected return would be $10. 

A giant humpback whale off of Australia’s eastern coastline. Humpbacks decreased in numbers in the 1960s to just a few hundred in the wild, but recent conservation efforts have led to numbers of more than 25,000 

‘We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver a healthy ocean to our grandchildren’s generation, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so,’ said co-leader of the study Professor Carlos Duarte at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. 

‘Failing to embrace this challenge, and in so doing condemning our grandchildren to a broken ocean unable to support high-quality livelihoods, is not an option.’

The study, published in the journal Nature, lays out the essential actions required for the planet’s marine life to recover by 2050.

It documents recovery of marine populations, habitats and ecosystems following past conservation interventions, and provides evidence-based recommendations on possible solutions. 

By studying the impact of previously successful ocean conservation interventions and recovery trends, the researchers identified nine components integral to rebuilding marine life

Although humans have greatly altered sea life to its detriment in the past, the researchers found evidence of the remarkable resilience of marine life.

The study found that 47 per cent of 124 populations of marine mammals had increased, 40 per cent had increased and 13 per cent had decreased. 

They noted steep losses of life throughout the 20th century to a slowing down of losses, and in some instances even recovery, over the first two decades of the 21st century.

This includes particularly spectacular cases of recovery, such as the humpback whale, which was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1960s, with just a few hundred surviving in the wild, a result of commercial whaling.

However, conservation efforts and the introduction of the Endangered Species Act saw the humpback population almost totally recover by 2015, to more than 25,000. 

Humpback whales migrating from Antarctica to eastern Australia have been increasing at a rate of 10 per cent to 13 per cent per year, from just a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today.

Northern elephant seals – which were hunted extensively for their natural oil during Victorian times – have also recovered from about 20 breeding individuals in 1880 to more than 200,000 today. 

The study authors reckon the recovery of marine life can be accelerated to achieve substantial recovery within two to three decades for most components of marine ecosystems. 

The researchers identified nine components integral to rebuilding marine life – salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna and the deep sea.

An international study led by KAUST professors lays out the essential roadmap of actions required for the planet’s marine life to recover to full abundance by 2050

They also outlined six ‘recovery actions’ to protect and rebuild the nine components – harvesting wisely, protecting spaces, restoring habitats, reducing pollution and mitigating climate change.

‘Rebuilding marine life represents a doable grand challenge for humanity, an ethical obligation and a smart economic objective to achieve a sustainable future,’ said Professor Susana Agusti at KAUST.

‘The actions recommended include opportunities, benefits, possible roadblocks and remedial actions, giving a tangible roadmap to deliver a healthy ocean that would provide huge benefits for people and the planet.

‘If all recovery wedges are activated at scale, recovery timescales of previously damaged marine life show that the abundance of marine life can be recovered within one human generation, or two to three decades, by 2050.’

However, the impact of climate change already limits the scope for rebuilding tropical corals to only a partial recovery.

The Great Barrier Reef is facing the ‘most extensive’ and potentially devastating coral bleaching event following unusually warm recent ocean temperatures.  Climate change has already limited the scope for rebuilding tropical corals, the study says

Overall, the goal of rebuilding the abundance of marine life can only succeed if the most ambitious goals within the Paris Agreement are reached.

Success largely depends on the support of a committed, resilient global partnership of governments and societies aligned with the goal.

It will also require a ‘substantial commitment of financial resources’, but these will be worthwhile as the ecological, economic and social gains from rebuilding marine life will be far-reaching. 

The study brought together the world’s leading marine scientists, working across four continents, in ten countries from 16 universities, including the University of York. 


The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change.

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

It seems the more ambitious goal of restricting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) may be more important than ever, according to previous research which claims 25 per cent of the world could see a significant increase in drier conditions.

In June 2017, President Trump announced his intention for the US, the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, to withdraw from the agreement.  

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has four main goals with regards to reducing emissions:

1)  A long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels

2) To aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change

3) Goverments agreed on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries

4) To undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science

Source: European Commission 

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