Marine life hit by perfect storm as revised red list shows accelerating species loss

Cop15: Talks running out of time to ensure key conservation decisions are agreed, WWF warns

Marine species across planet Earth are in the throes of a perfect storm which is accelerating their decline, according to an update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list issued at the Cop15 UN biodiversity summit on Friday.

Illegal and unsustainable fishing, fossil fuel exploration, the climate crisis and disease are pushing marine species to the brink of extinction, it confirmed. The revised list confirms populations of dugongs, abalone shellfish and pillar coral at risk of disappearing forever.

Marine life continues to be undermined by “human overconsumption”, threatening the survival of some of the world’s most expensive seafood, according to the conservation organisation, which publishes the most up-to-date data on the health of wildlife and plant populations on Earth.

Twenty of 54 abalone species are now threatened with extinction, and, because of their value, are being exploited with distribution through illicit drugs supply channels, according to the first IUCN scientific assessment of the species group.


The IUCN has moved pillar coral’s status from vulnerable to critically endangered following a dramatic drop in its population in the Caribbean as it has shrunk by more than 80 per cent since 1990. The decline was caused by extreme heatwaves, diseases linked to global warming, bleaching from the climate crisis and fertiliser runoff.

In east Africa and New Caledonia, dugongs – marine mammals that largely feed on seagrass – are close to extinction, damaged by oil and gas exploration, bottom-trawling, chemical pollution and mining.

A post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF) must be ambitious enough “to cease destruction of our life-support system and catalyse the necessary action and change to secure life on this planet”, said Dr Jane Smart, director of IUCN’s science and data centre.

Representatives of 196 countries including the EU are attempting to forge a GBF for the next decade in a summit hosted by Canada and China.

“If we don’t address conservation of species, the global biodiversity framework cannot succeed,” warned Dr Smart. All the parties were present at Cop15, she noted; “all we need is the political will to make it all happen.”

If Cop15 passes a controversial offsetting mechanism being proposed, it will give businesses the right to destroy nature under the guise of planting it elsewhere, said Pakistani climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa. “They will get to decide the metrics they use and in turn cause more damage to our planet, and displace [indigenous] people.”

Under the international mechanism there is no official definition of nature, which leaves a lot of space for groups to exploit the definition of “nature-based solutions”.

“Nature can mean anything, and propagating it at the expense of native peoples becomes okay,” she said.

There is also greenwashing being done here under the guise of “nature-positive” solutions. These initiatives, she said, are the equivalent of “carbon markets” in the climate space, where “nations and corporations are planting biodiversity in one area to make up for killing it in another”.

Nele Marien of Friends of the Earth International criticised “greenwashing measures presented at Cop15 as biodiversity measures”. Too many “nature-positive measures” were mathematical exercises being deployed by corporations to say “we are a green company”, she said.

In addition, “nature-based climate solutions” reflected “severe incoherence”, she added, in a scenario where nature was declining and being presented as a solution.

Marco Lambertini, director of World Wide Fund For Nature, said at a press conference it was time for governments to agree on a strong and clear GBF that is able to deal with the dangers of accelerating species loss, while mindful of the critical need to also contain average global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees.

But negotiating teams had to stop focusing on technical issues to ensure there was enough time to agree on critical outcomes including protection of 30 per cent of lands and oceans by 2030 backed by global targets to deliver on ambition, he said. “This ambition is not clear and has to be set at Cop15,” he added.

Commitment was evident but this had to be converted into strong actions while providing clear signals to the business community and investment sector. This was especially the case, Mr Lambertini said, as there was such a weak outcome at Cop27 – the climate change conference – in November.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times