Sey­chelles pres­i­dent: Pro­tect our oceans

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID KEYTON

DES­ROCHES IS­LAND, Sey­chelles — In a strik­ing speech de­liv­ered from deep below the ocean’s sur­face, the Sey­chelles pres­i­dent on Sun­day made a global plea for stronger pro­tec­tion of the “beat­ing blue heart of our planet.”

Pres­i­dent Danny Faure’s call for ac­tion, the first-ever live speech from an un­der­wa­ter sub­mersible, came from one of the many is­land na­tions threat­ened by global warm­ing.

He spoke dur­ing a visit to an am­bi­tious Bri­tish-led sci­ence ex­pe­di­tion ex­plor­ing the In­dian Ocean depths. Oceans cover over two-thirds of the world’s sur­face but re­main, for the most part, un­charted. We have bet­ter maps of Mars than we do of the ocean floor, Faure said.

“This is­sue is big­ger than all of us, and we can­not wait for the next gen­er­a­tion to solve it. We are run­ning out of ex­cuses to not take ac­tion, and run­ning out of time,” the pres­i­dent said from a manned sub­mersible 400 feet below the waves, on the seabed off the outer is­lands of the African na­tion.

Wear­ing a Sey­chelles T-shirt and shorts, the pres­i­dent told The As­so­ci­ated Press af­ter his speech that the ex­pe­ri­ence was “so, so cool. What bio­di­ver­sity.” It made him more de­ter­mined than ever to speak out for ma­rine pro­tec­tion, he said. “We just need to do what needs to be done. The sci­en­tists have spo­ken.”

The oceans’ role in reg­u­lat­ing cli­mate and the threats they face are un­der­es­ti­mated by many, even though as Faure pointed out they gen­er­ate “half of the oxy­gen we breathe.” Sci­en­tific mis­sions are cru­cial in tak­ing stock of un­der­wa­ter ecosys­tems’ health.

Small is­land na­tions are among the most vul­ner­a­ble to sea level rise caused by cli­mate change, and some have found cre­ative ways to ex­press their con­cerns. Faure’s speech came a decade af­ter mem­bers of the Mal­dives’ Cabi­net donned scuba gear and used hand sig­nals at an un­der­wa­ter meet­ing high­light­ing global warm­ing’s threat to the low­est-ly­ing na­tion on earth.

Land ero­sion, dy­ing co­ral reefs and the in­creased fre­quency of ex­treme weather events threaten such coun­tries’ ex­is­tence.

Dur­ing the ex­pe­di­tion, ma­rine sci­en­tists from the

Univer­sity of Ox­ford have sur­veyed un­der­wa­ter life, mapped large ar­eas of the sea floor and gone deep with manned sub­mersibles and un­der­wa­ter drones.

Lit­tle is known about the wa­tery world below depths of 30 me­ters, the limit to which a nor­mal scuba diver can go. Op­er­at­ing down to 500 me­ters, the sci­en­tists were the first to ex­plore ar­eas of great di­ver­sity where sun­light weak­ens and the deep ocean be­gins.

By the end of the mis­sion, re­searchers ex­pect to have con­ducted over 300 de­ploy­ments, col­lected around 1,400 sam­ples and 16 ter­abytes of data and sur­veyed about 11.5 sq. miles of seabed us­ing high-res­o­lu­tion multi­beam sonar equip­ment.

The data will be used to help the Sey­chelles ex­pand its pol­icy of pro­tect­ing al­most a third of its na­tional wa­ters by 2020. The ini­tia­tive is im­por­tant for the coun­try’s “blue econ­omy,” an at­tempt to bal­ance de­vel­op­ment needs with those of the en­vi­ron­ment.

“From this depth, I can see the in­cred­i­ble wildlife that needs our pro­tec­tion, and the con­se­quences of dam­ag­ing this huge ecosys­tem that has ex­isted for mil­len­nia,” Faure said in his speech. “Over the years, we have cre­ated th­ese prob­lems. We can solve them.”

Cur­rently, only about 5% of the world’s oceans are pro­tected. Coun­tries have agreed to in­crease the area to 10% by 2020. But ex­perts and en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paign­ers say be­tween 30% and 50% of the oceans out­side na­tions’ ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters should get pro­tected sta­tus to en­sure ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity.

Re­searchers hope their find­ings also will in­form on­go­ing United Na­tions talks aimed at forg­ing the first high seas con­ser­va­tion treaty, sched­uled to con­clude this year.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups ar­gue an in­ter­na­tional treaty is ur­gently needed be­cause cli­mate change, over­fish­ing and ef­forts to mine the seabed for pre­cious min­er­als are putting un­sus­tain­able pres­sure on ma­rine life that could have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for crea­tures on land as well.

Oceans will be one of the seven main themes of this year’s U.N. cli­mate sum­mit in Chile in De­cem­ber.

While sci­en­tists with the Nek­ton mis­sion are near­ing the end of their ex­pe­di­tion, much of their work is just be­gin­ning. In the next few months, re­searchers at Ox­ford will an­a­lyze the sam­ples and video sur­veys and put them to­gether with en­vi­ron­men­tal data.

“When we pull them to­gether we can un­der­stand not just what we see in the ar­eas that we’ve vis­ited but what we might ex­pect in other re­gions in the Sey­chelles,” said Lucy Woodall, the mis­sion’s chief sci­en­tist.

This is the first of a half-dozen re­gions the mis­sion plans to ex­plore be­fore the end of 2022, when sci­en­tists will present their re­search at a sum­mit on the state of the In­dian Ocean. Bil­lions of peo­ple live along the ocean’s shores in Africa and Asia.

PHOTO BY NEK­TON VIA AP

Sey­chelles Pres­i­dent Danny Faure, left, smiles af­ter speak­ing from in­side a sub­mersible from the ves­sel Ocean Ze­phyr, un­der the wa­ter off the coast of Des­roches, in the outer is­lands of Sey­chelles on Sun­day.

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