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What is climate change doing to our brilliant seas and marine wildlife?


I’ve been fascinated by the sea since I was a child. I remember standing on the shore as an eight-year old, wondering what lay beneath the dark and stormy waters. Living in Wales for the last nine years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of the best areas for marine wildlife spotting, including the bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay, the puffins on Skomer Island and even boat trips to tag blue sharks.

A dolphin seen in Cardigan Bay - a great area for spotting them! © Byrion Smith/Flickr Creative CommonsA dolphin seen in Cardigan Bay – a great area for spotting them! © Byrion Smith/Flickr Creative Commons

Unfortunately our seas now face a growing threat from the impacts of climate change, on top of increasing pressure from a range of different marine activities competing for space and resources in ever busier seas. Climate change threatens not just the animals that call the ocean home, but all of us. We depend on our seas for food and energy, leisure and well-being, and also for its role in maintaining a stable climate.

One of the main threats facing the marine environment from climate change is rising sea temperatures. This can affect where animals live, with knock-on impacts through the whole food chain.

A really important example – despite its size – is a tiny type of plankton called calanoid copepods. Measuring just 2 millimeters long (about the width of a needle), these little creatures are pretty much at the bottom of the food chain, and over recent years they’ve been on the move. Species preferring warmer waters are moving north while those that like cooler waters are shifting south.

Why is this so important? It’s because of the knock-on effect on other species. Fish rely on the copepods for food, and larger animals like seals, shark and whales eat the fish. So it’s clear that the impacts could be huge.

A healthy calanoid copepod © NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research LaboratoryA healthy calanoid copepod © NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

As we pump out more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more is sucked up by our oceans. This means their chemistry also begins to subtly change, becoming more acidic. This phenomenon, known as ‘ocean acidification’, is perhaps the greatest threat facing our seas. Animals that use the minerals in the ocean to form their shells or skeletons, such as mussels, oysters, corals and plankton, will find it increasingly difficult to do so.

The potential impacts of climate change are vast, varied and complicated and there is still a lot we don’t understand. Because of this, we should take a precautionary approach and ensure that we are doing all we can to reduce the impacts while also building resilience in the marine environment through ensuring they are properly protected.

The UN climate talks in Paris aimed to address the widespread impacts of climate change and the scale of the challenge that lies ahead in trying to tackle them. It’s clear that action is needed now.

The oceans are the largest ecosystem on Earth, but at previous climate talks they have largely been overlooked. This time was thankfully different, and the greater focus on oceans resulted in the Paris conference making a commitment to their protection. The talks in Paris give us some hope that, as the world moves to tackle global climate change, protecting the oceans won’t be forgotten.

Me while on a shark tagging trip in 2009 © WWFMe while on a shark tagging trip in 2009 © WWF

We must also manage our seas in a better way, so that they can adapt to climate change. We need all sea users – including fishermen, shipping firms, surfers and energy companies – to work together. And we need to leave space for nature through a well-managed network of marine protected areas. This should give them a better chance of dealing with climate change on top of the pressures we’re already putting on our marine environment.

I want the sea that entranced me as a child, and still love today, to be healthy and full of life for future generations too.

What do you love about our seas? Are we doing enough to protect them? Let us know in the comments below.

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