World Wildlife Day 2019: Life below water, for people and planet

World Wildlife Day 2019: Life below water, for people and planet

March 3, 2019
Marcia González

This 6th World Wildlife Day is the first to highlight marine biodiversity, with plastics pollution and waste high on the agenda

Senior-level representatives from United Nations (UN) member states and international organizations are currently (3 March 2019) gathering at the UN HQ in Geneva to commemorate the United Nations General Assembly’s 6th Annual World Wildlife Day, the theme of which in 2019 is ‘Life below water: for people and planet’.

Organized jointly by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), speakers and expert panelists are sharing their experiences and views on the crucial contributions of life below water to sustainable development as well as the challenges faced in ensuring its conservation and sustainable use, while highlighting solutions to address them.

The benefits of marine and coastal resources are enormous. More than 3 billion people depend on these resources for their livelihoods globally. The market value of marine and coastal resources and related industries is estimated at US$3 trillion a year, about 5% of global GDP. Alarmingly, despite its critical importance, life below water faces many threats, not least plastic waste pollution. “This is the first World Wildlife Day that focuses on life below water,” commented Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary-General (pictured above).

Around 5 to 12 million tonnes of plastic now enter the ocean every year, threatening the health of countless species – from the smallest zooplankton to the largest whales

“Around 5 to 12 million tonnes of plastic now enter the ocean every year, threatening the health of countless species – from the smallest zooplankton to the largest whales,” added Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator (pictured above). “Moreover, around 90% of large predators have already been taken out of the ocean by overfishing, some 30% of fish stocks are overexploited, and more than 500 hypoxic areas have become ‘dead zones’ uninhabitable for most species. To reverse this, a literal ‘sea change’ is required in how we manage both ocean and land-based activities, across sectors ranging from fisheries to agriculture to waste management.”

Combatting plastic pollution has therefore been one of the key aspects of this campaign. Towards this goal, 57 countries from Argentine to Yemen (and 60% of global coastlines) have pledged to reduce their use of single-use and non-recoverable plastics via the UN Clean Seas Program, which launched two years ago. It’s not just governments that have come on board either. From shoppers refusing plastic-smothered goods to internet influencers inspiring others to share their zero-waste lifestyles, a worldwide awakening has taken hold, and it’s spreading.

A literal ‘sea change’ is required in how we manage both ocean and land-based activities, across sectors ranging from fisheries to agriculture to waste management.”

More than 100,000 people have taken the Clean Seas pledge to reduce their plastic footprint. Many use the hashtags #CleanSeas and #BeatPlasticPollution on Twitter and Instagram to urge others to follow their lead and cut single-use plastics from their lives.

Six-hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, the remote Galápagos islands offer a distressing reminder of the destructive power of our plastic addiction with horrifying images of iconic species struggling on rubbish-strewn shorelines. But these renowned islands also bear witness to what can be achieved when outrage is channelled into positive action.

Latin America and the Caribbean have been to the forefront of this global movement, and Ecuador is among 17 countries in the region that have joined the Clean Seas campaign.

“The countries and citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean are taking bold and exemplary steps to beat plastic pollution and protect their valuable marine resources,” noted Leo Heileman, UN Environment’s regional director in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Governments are regulating single-use plastics by passing several bans and citizens are taking action through massive clean-ups and campaigns. But we need more efforts from industry to find innovative alternatives to plastic,” he added.

For the rare species on the Galápagos islands, this is a matter of life or death. “We have seen pelicans, iguanas and sea lions caught in plastic bags, nets and ropes,” revealed Jorge Carrión, director of the Galápagos National Park.

We have seen [in the Galápagos islands] pelicans, iguanas and sea lions caught in plastic bags, nets and ropes

Island authorities have introduced laws to ban single-use plastic items, such as straws and bags. Volunteers and fishermen have helped clean remote beaches while waste management services have been reinforced.

Much of the waste that washes up on the Galápagos comes from other countries, illustrating the need for a global push against throwaway plastic.

On the other side of the world, India joined the Clean Seas campaign as it hosted World Environment Day last June, promising to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022 – a potentially game-changing move from a country of around 1.3 billion people.

Another plastic pioneer is Kenya, which joined the campaign in December 2017 and has also imposed one of the world’s toughest bans on plastic bags.

Businesses also have a role to play, particularly in leading moves towards a circular global economy that eschews the old take-make-waste model. The growing public outcry for more sustainable practices can no longer be ignored and the economic rationale for inaction is increasingly seen as false.

Often we blame businesses and we do not assume our own responsibility for buying plastics and then failing to recycle them

The Clean Seas campaign has sparked a global revolution in how we view and use plastic. But much remains to be done and time is not on our side. There is no silver-bullet solution and plastic pollution cannot be neutralized by one sector of society or a single country.

For Jorge Carrión, director of the Galápagos National Park, our gigantic plastic problem requires action from us all. “Often we blame businesses and we do not assume our own responsibility for buying plastics and then failing to recycle them,” he said. “These campaigns (like Clean Seas) help to raise awareness among people but it is also necessary to raise awareness among decision makers to adopt regional and sectional policies with greater reach.”

Heidi Savelli, program management officer from the United Nations Environment Program, will be giving a presentation at Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019, taking place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

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