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Marine experts came together for the latest Policy Lates event to discuss the importance and challenges of protecting ocean biodiversity.

The world’s oceans are key components of our global ecosystem - from the food it provides to the role it plays in climate and weather regulation, ocean health is intrinsically linked to human health.

Ocean health was on the agenda at COP26, with the UK Presidency calling for world leaders to take ambitious steps in preserving ocean health. The UK made a number of funding pledges as part of Ocean Action Day, but more is needed to address the damage already done to marine ecosystems.

Members of the panel included Professor Carole Llewellyn, professor in applied aquatic bioscience at the University of Swansea, Steven Lutz, senior programme officer of blue carbon lead at GRID-Arendal, and Professor Elisa Morgera, professor of global environmental law at University of Strathclyde.

oceans speakers

From left to right: Professor Melanie Austen FRSB, Professor Carole Llewellyn, Steven Lutz, and Professor Elisa Morgera

The event was chaired by Professor Melanie Austen FRSB, professor of ocean and society at the University of Plymouth.

Melanie is also a member of the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, honorary professor at Exeter University, Chair of the Partnership of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in North Devon, and a member of the Board of Canadian Healthy Oceans Network.

She leads and advises on interdisciplinary marine environment research at the interface of social and natural science in the UK, EU and internationally.

Professor Llewellyn kicked off her talk by explaining the importance of phytoplankton in maintaining the health of our oceans, due to the role they play in carbon cycles and contributing to global oxygen production.

Phytoplankton are essential in sequestering carbon and provide food for a wide range of organisms, but can grow out of control and form algal blooms if an ecosystem becomes imbalanced.

She discussed how phytoplankton diversity is negatively affected by ocean acidification, pollution, and other effects of climate change, and the impact these changes can have on ocean health.

She also noted how enclosed systems developed to farm algae can produce products from animal feed and medicinal products through to biofuel, and this process can be carbon neutral.

Professor Llewellyn was followed by Lutz, who joined the virtual event from Norway.

Lutz explained the concept of “blue carbon”: carbon fixed and stored in marine and coastal ecosystems, including the organisms that live along the shore and in the deep-ocean.

He discussed how organisms store and move carbon around the ocean, with one whale equivalent to about 1,000 trees in regards to the levels of carbon they absorb throughout their life.

However, due to excessive fishing and other unsustainable activities, the depletion of biomass in the ocean has become a cause for concern, with knock-on effects for the carbon cycle and carbon sequestration.

Lutz was then followed by Professor Elisa Morgera, who covered the challenges of establishing international regulatory frameworks to help protect ocean ecosystems.

She explained how marine biodiversity is intrinsically linked to the rights, health and wellbeing of humans, and the need for new legal frameworks to protect both ocean health and human health.

She stressed the need for a continued dialogue between people such as researchers, including social scientists and those with local expertise and experience, and policy- and law-makers, to help establish legal protections for marine ecosystems, and noted the challenges in establishing laws at a local, national and international level.

The panel then took questions from the audience, discussing topics such as alien species management, adverse effects of ocean warming, sustainably balancing climate change mitigation solutions with protection for biodiversity, and more.

This event was organised with support from the Policy Lates Working Group: the Biochemical Society, the British Pharmacological Society, the Society for Applied Microbiology, the Society for Experimental Biology, and The Physiological Society.

The event will be available to watch on the RSB’s YouTube channel.