OpinionFlourishing Oceans16 May 2019

Are you prepared to watch one million species go extinct?

The United Nations warns of a mass extinction in a comprehensive report assessing the health of our planet, including our oceans.

Trawler Fishing Off The Coast Of Shetland
Trawler Fishing Off The Coast Of Shetland. Photo Credit: Jeff J Mitchell .

75 per cent of land and 66 per cent of the world’s oceans have been significantly and negatively altered by human activity, putting one million animal and plant species at risk of extinction within decades. Nothing short of transformative change to the way we meet our material needs will stop this trend from worsening.

These are the conclusions of the UN’s Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, released last week.

The report was developed over three years, by 145 expert authors (and 310+ contributing authors) from over 50 countries making up the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It is the most detailed and comprehensive report on the earth’s biological health ever produced.

While there is a high level of awareness of the threat of climate change, this is the first time the global diversity crisis has been so comprehensively described.

All species, including humans, depend on the health of the ecosystems that surround them, yet we are actively destroying this biological fabric. The predicted mass-extinction would jeopardise many of the world’s development goals, including food security, poverty alleviation and health.

While our impact on land is visible – the clearing of rain forests, the draining of wetlands and the damming of river systems – our impact on the oceans, which make up 70% of our planet’s surface and contain up to 80% of its life, has been less visible. In the past 50 years, the human transformation of the world’s oceans has accelerated, both through the direct impacts of extraction and pollution and the insidious effects of human-driven climate change.

At Minderoo’s Flourishing Ocean initiative our focus is on changing humanity’s relationship with the oceans, so we have taken a close look what the Global Assessment identified as the main threats to life below the surface and considered how we are addressing them.


Only three per cent of the world’s marine areas are free from human pressures, with industrial fishing occurring in over half of the world’s oceans. One third of the world’s fish populations are being overexploited, and direct overfishing of marine life was the largest contributor to the decline of the health and biodiversity of the ocean.

Decimating fish populations also has negative flow-on effects within the oceans’ interdependent and fragile ecosystems, damaging their resilience to climate change and other stresses.


The report finds that ocean pollution, including fertilisers, heavy metals, solvents, plastics, and other man-made pollutants, is increasing with growth in industry and agriculture. Plastic pollution is singled out, with flows into the ocean ten times higher than in the 1980s, and affecting 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds, and just under half of the world’s marine mammals.


The report’s message is clear: the way we currently operate our societies and economies can not continue if we – and our oceans – are to survive and thrive. The Global Assessment provides specific recommendations to address the challenges facing our oceans, including several which Flourishing Oceans is working on.

  1. Address overfishing via subsidy removal, improved documentation and governance of fishing activity, and monitoring of fish stocks around the world. Flourishing Ocean’s Global Fishing Index will chart a course towards sustainable fisheries by providing policymakers and business leaders with an up-to-date country level assessment of fisheries around the world.
  2. Increase coverage of protected areas in key locations which both protect marine ecosystems from direct human influences and provide an opportunity for habitats and overfished species to recover. Flourishing Oceans’ marine research program will map out biodiversity hotspots in Australia’s Indian Ocean and Western Pacific “neighbourhood”, identifying the critical zones to protect.
  3. Manage marine plastic and microplastic, which flows into our waterways and oceans at an ever increasing rate. Developing effective waste management strategies, incentives to collect and dispose of waste responsibly, and innovations to remove plastic from our oceans are all part of Flourishing Oceans’ plastics strategy.

The report also recognises the unique role that indigenous communities play, through their values, knowledge and practices, in the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of the natural environment. Their ongoing inclusion and participation in environmental governance is vital for the health of our planet, and a key priority across Minderoo’s initiatives.

Everyone’s responsibility

Safeguarding the integrity of the intricate biological machinery on which we all depend is not just the concern of UN scientists and environmental NGOs. Everyone reading this has both a vested interest in seeing nature thrive, and the capacity to help this happen.

The UN’s Global Assessment challenges us all to make fundamental changes to the way we lead our lives, and collectively we can build a groundswell of change. Change at the larger scale will not be possible without the political will from our countries’ leaders. Ask your local member of parliament what their party plans to do to secure a sustainable future for Australia’s (and the world’s) biodiversity, on land and in the oceans.

To quote the Chair of the Global Assessment, Dr Bob Watson,

“The world needs to recognise that loss of biodiversity and human-induced climate change are not only environmental issues, but development, economic, social, security, equity and moral issues as well. The future of humanity depends on action now. If we do not act, our children and all future generations will never forgive us.”.