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The Treaties - 31 - Minimizing Physical Alteration of Marine Ecosystems


1. Although most knowledgeable scientists and conservationists agree that the physical alteration of ecosystems is the greatest threat to biological diversity on land, few people realize that it is also a major threat in the sea. Because species are adapted to some physical conditions but not others, physical conditions are very important in determining the community of species that live in each ecosystem. By changing the structure of the substratum and characteristics of the overlying waters, humans are simplifying, fragmenting and even eliminating species' habitats, and thereby changing ecosystem processes. Some kinds of physical alteration are intentional, such as logging in mangrove forests, mining, dredging, filling, channelizing wetlands and dynamite fishing in coral reefs. Few people realize that bottom trawling can cause extensive, long-lasting damage to marine ecosystems. As with pollution, the greatest threats to marine ecosystems come from the land, including siltation from logging, agricultu re, aquaculture and road building, urbanization of shorelines, construction of sea walls and jetties, construction of harbors and marinas, and the building of dams, which alter the flow of freshwater and nutrients into marine systems and prevent diadromous species from reaching their spawning grounds. Anchoring and trampling are serious problems in heavily visited ecosystems, especially coral reefs. Loss of marine wetlands, including mud flats and salt marshes, is essentially complete along some coasts. In deeper waters, ecosystem loss is a less immediate prospect, but simplification and fragmentation can be widespread and severe. Few, if any, governments regulate physical alteration comprehensively. Rather, different agencies are often responsible for farming, logging, trawling, dredging and dam-building. This fragmentation of authority contributes to accelerated simplification, destruction and fragmentation of marine ecosystems.


2. The diversity of physical alterations of marine ecosystems creates special problems for governments seeking to protect marine ecosystems and sustain their use. Regulations need to be tailored to the different kinds of physically damaging activities, but there is also a need for comprehensive monitoring and management. It is important to maintain the volume and timing of freshwater flow into estuaries and coastal waters. For ecosystems, including kelp beds, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, coral reefs and shellfish beds, little more, if any, physical alteration should be allowed. These ecosystems are especially vulnerable to anything that increases turbidity, and they need protection from land based sources of siltation. But even sandy or muddy seabeds that seem featureless from above contain many subsurface, biologically diverse structures. These, of course, are the ecosystems most likely to be subjected to dredging, filling and severe, repeated trawling. Given the especially low resilience of most deep sea ecosystems, international treaties and governments should be specially careful about sanctioning deep sea mining.

Action Plan

NGOs should:

3. Urge nations to adopt environmental impact assessment procedures for any projects that affect physical conditions in their marine ecosystems and monitor the reliability of these procedures.

4. Work to minimize logging of mangroves, draining, dredging, filling and seawall construction in relatively undisturbed estuarine and coastal ecosystems.

5. Work to ensure that development activities that divert fresh water from rivers maintain the amount, quality and timing of flow into estuarine and marine ecosystems to minimize adverse effects on their species and ecological processes.

6. Urge the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to work with the World Bank and other international organizations and national governments to establish methods of assessing the cumulative effects of physical alteration from each proposed watershed, coastal or marine development project.

7. Encourage the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assemble available information on the local and regional physical and biological effects of trawling on the seabed, and convene an international workshop on impacts of bottom trawling to explore ways to limit its impact.

8. Convene an international forum to provide the United Nations (UN) with the necessary documentation and language for a global convention to ban inherently destructive and unsustainable fishery techniques that physically destroy the seabed, such as dynamite fishing and muro ami.

9. Encourage governments to establish and manage marine protected areas, within which physical alteration will be kept to an absolute minimum.

10. Call for an end to the harvesting of coral reef species for aquaria, curios and construction materials, unless these are shown to have been produced in an ecologically sustainable manner, while, at the same time, monitoring populations of harvested species to ensure compliance.

11. Urge governments to enact special laws relating to the construction of nuclear plants in the coastal zone, eliminating the problem of thermal pollution.

Commitment of Resources

NGOs should:

12. Initiate regional workshops, with assistance from international NGOs, in order to exchange and share scientific information and procedures to deal with environmental problems.

13. Form an electronic network to share information. This will be organized by NGOs with computer technical support and should include programs to train and assist NGOs in less developed countries.

14. Develop a complete list of NGOs with names of contact persons and areas of interest and expertise, organized by region, to encourage regional network-building and meetings.

15. Initiate a newsletter among ourselves to inform each other of actions taken to implement this NGO treaty.


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