Scientists urge action to protect Pacific Ocean

New Zealand marine experts have joined an international group of scientists in calling for urgent action to protect the health of the Pacific Ocean, which covers almost a third of the world’s surface.

The Pacific Ocean Scientific Statement carries the signatures of 350 researchers from 30 countries and outlines the major threats facing the Pacific, including over-fishing, nutrient and sediment run-off from land, habitat destruction and the impacts of climate change.

Local scientists have also called for New Zealand to play a more active role in marine resource management in the Pacific.

The consensus statement can be read here.

So what are the scientists proposing?

“Overall, solutions must significantly reduce pollution from human sewage, sediment and run-off from poor land use practices, flows of debris and toxic material into the sea from point and non-point sources, and unsustainable extraction of marine organisms,” the statement notes.

“Major reductions (some up to 95% of current rates) are probably required in discharges of nutrients and sediments from land to sea,” it adds.

The Science Media Centre asked New Zealand signatories to the consensus statement to comment:

Dr Mark Costello, Associate Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, University of Auckland, Leigh Marine Laboratory.

“The reason I accepted the invitation to participate in the drafting of the Pacific Ocean Scientific Consensus Statement is because I recognise that the Pacific Ocean, despite being the deepest and widest ocean in the world, suffers all the same problems of more enclosed seas; including over-fishing, pollution, and invasive species.“The special challenges in managing the Pacific Oceans natural resources reflect its large size, and diversity of countries, languages and cultures. Large areas of the ocean are so called “high-seas”, where international agreements and policing are critical to prevent over-harvesting of resources and habitat damage.

“There are a large number of widely-dispersed countries with small economies that cannot have the capacity to have all the educational, research and management infrastructures necessary for socio-economic development. For example, only about one fifth of the world’s species have been described, and perhaps 80% of the undiscovered marine species (i.e. about 800,000 more species!),  occur in the Pacific Ocean.

“So not only is the taxonomic expertise to know the present species in short supply, but it is impractical for countries to have the range of specialist expertise to understand and discover all the biological resources in their area.

“The first step in economic development is knowing what resources are out there, and how they function within the ecosystems that, directly and indirectly, provide the goods and services our society depends upon.

“I suggest that the solution to this challenge is that countries collaborate in the management of Pacific Ocean resources. In particular, this should involve:

(a) coordinating the availability of specialist expertise, and (b) developing online information system where facts, expert knowledge, and learning resources are publicly accessible.

“New Zealand is well positioned to play a leading role in working with its Pacific neighbours in all these areas. It is a world-leader in taxonomic expertise, detection and control  of invasive species, fisheries management, marine reserves, and education from primary to tertiary.

“Its scientists play world-leading roles in online resources such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Ocean Biogeographic Information System, Global Invasive Species database, and World Register of Marine Species. The University of Auckland has shown that it sees its future including an increasing role in research and education in the Pacific Ocean, by recently establishing a South Pacific Centre for Marine Science that will be based at the new facilities planned for Leigh Marine Laboratory.

“Instead of a piecemeal and reactive approach to development, we need a strategy where ‘all boats (i.e. country’s economies) rise on the same tide’. This strategy should reduce dependency on foreign aid and emigration, and provide a win-win solution for all countries in the region. Can New Zealand show further leadership in policy, research and education in ocean resource management?”

Dr Mark Orams, Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Massey University at Albany, comments:

“I am a New Zealander. I was raised in a nation which is surrounded by the greatest ocean on our planet and my interactions with the Pacific Ocean have shaped my life. I have surfed its waves, dived and explored its ecosystems, I have sailed over it and studied its inhabitants. The ocean that surrounds us is important to me, it is important for all of us.

“The Pacific Ocean is facing unprecedented challenges. Human activity is having widespread impacts; from climate change, fisheries activities, sedimentation of near-shore ecosystems, waste water discharges, to tourism and recreation – what we do matters.

“There are also examples of actions we have taken that have improved marine ecosystems; marine reserves and other marine protected areas, marine education initiatives, actions to protect and assist important marine species and marine science that has improved our understanding of the seas. All are cause for hope and demonstrations that our actions can be a mechanism for positive change.

“The health and viability of the Pacific Ocean is of critical importance for this country. Our quality of life, our sense of who we are, our pride in our islands nation is shaped by the ocean around us. The Pacific connect us to our Polynesian heritage, it connect us to the rest of the planet.

“Nga kaitiaki o nga taonga nei e tuhono koutou te moana

“The Pacific Ocean Scientific Consensus Statement is an initiative which brings together a diverse range of marine scientists who, collectively, have significant concerns regarding the state of the Pacific.”

Professor John Montgomery of the Leigh Marine Laboratory & School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland comments:

“New Zealand has the world’s fifth largest marine estate and should be making a comparable contribution to ocean sustainability and solutions.  The Pacific Ocean Scientific Consensus Statement identifies the four most serious threats to the health and productivity of the entire Pacific Ocean: pollution, over fishing, habitat destruction and climate change.

“New Zealand has an international reputation for innovation in coastal fisheries management and marine protection but needs to do more to understand coastal and ocean ecosystems and prototype workable solutions.

“Recognising the importance of our New Zealand marine estate, the University of Auckland has recently established the South Pacific Centre for Marine Science to support a wide interdisciplinary approach to marine science.  The Centre will foster science, international collaboration, education and educational outreach to help address the threats identified in the Consensus Statement.”

Dr Mike Barker Associate Professor, Department of Marine Science, University of Otago comments:

“As a marine scientist who works in both warm and cool parts of the Pacific, I have noted with growing concern the changes that have been taking place in our region, particularly in some Pacific Islands who are our near neighbours.

“My concern is based both on scientific reports from reputable sources on practices such as the use of explosives and toxic compounds to collect fish and marine invertebrates for the aquarium trade, overfishing for pelagic species such as tuna etc.

“However in addition to the observations of other scientists, I have also recently visited a number of Pacific Island groups such as Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands in the course of my own research, and I have observed first hand some of the damage that has taken place to reefs that were, not many years ago, quite pristine.

“For example in Fiji the inner reefs of Laucola Bay, once clean and highly diverse, have been quite severely degraded by siltation and chemical pollution from local rivers and a sewage treatment plant.

“The reef close to Nuku’alofa in Tonga is lovely, and not affected by the same problems just described for Fiji, but this reef is polluted from another source, large numbers of plastic supermarket bags and other plastic debris that washed into the shallow coral habitat.

“Two of my M.Sc. research students (one just finished, one still writing her thesis)  have been investigating population biology and reproduction in sea cucumbers in Tonga and Samoa.  In both of these Island groups the fishery for cucumbers has been severely depleted by overfishing.

“In Tonga a moratorium for the last 10 years on sea cucumber harvesting has still not resulted in much recovery of the fishery. I have observed coral bleaching, much of it locally severe, in Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands in the last 3 years.

“It is these types of issues that mean it is important for governments, especially in small developing countries, to protect their local ecosystems, especially when artisanal fisheries are still so important to local communities.

“In New Zealand while parts of the coastal ecosystem are locally affected by human exploitation the threat is, I believe less serious than in the tropical Pacific.    That is not to say that we can ignore threats to biological diversity from easily controlled activities such as deep sea bottom trawling and poorly regulated fisheries.

Associate Professor Andrew Jeffs, of the Leigh Marine Laboratory & School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland comments:

“To me the major issue is that the New Zealand government needs to be seen to be more actively participating in addressing the well documented declines in the Pacific Ocean including the seas around New Zealand.  The present government came into power on promises of delivering significant new coverage of marine protected areas and a new ocean policy for New Zealand and there is clearly more work to get these areas advanced.”

To talk to these experts or others about this issue, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email:

Notes to Editors
The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at