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Coastal management cooperation, enforcement key to avoid pending crisis for millions: U.N. experts

Current coastal management practices are ineffective and their continuation endangers ecosystems that support the economies on which over half the worlds population depend, United Nations University experts warn in a new report offering a major prescription for sweeping change.

In a blunt assessment, to be presented Weds. June 4 at UN Headquarters, New York, UNUs Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health warns of a looming, potentially terminal disaster in several coastal areas unless we introduce much more effective management immediately.

Coastal marine ecosystems have declined progressively in recent decades due to the growth of human populations and their demands on the marine environment and resources, according to the report.

Bays and estuaries, sea grasses, and mangroves and wetlands have suffered dramatically in the past 50 years. Shorelines have hardened, channels and harbors have been dredged, soil dumped, submerged and emergent land moved, and patterns of water flow modified. And today climate change is starting to add further stress, leading some scientists to predict the total disappearance of coral reefs in some parts of the world.

It is a recipe for disaster for the 40% of all people today who live within 50 km of fast-growing coastal areas, according to the report, co-authored by UNU-INWEHs Assistant Director Peter Sale and Programme Officer Hanneke Van Lavieren; Mark J. Butler IV, Old Dominion University, Virginia; Anthony J. Hooten, AJH, Environmental Services, Bethesda, MD; Jacob P. Kritzer, Senior Scientist, Environmental Defense Fund, Boston, MA; Ken Lindeman, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne FL; Prof. Yvonne Sadovy de Mitcheson, University of Hong Kong; and Prof. Bob Steneck, University of Maine.

It is past time to implement truly integrated coastal zone management around the world, says UNU-INWEH Director Zafar Adeel. Management must be scaled appropriately to ecology and political jurisdiction boundaries must be eliminated as borders for management actions.

According to the report: By 2050, 91% of the worlds coastlines will have been impacted by development, says the report, adding that much coastal development is poorly planned and all of it, as well as much inland development, impacts the coastal ocean.

The report cites several worrisome ongoing trends:

  • Intensification of large-scale agriculture, driven by global agricultural production, including now bio-fuels, contributes to over-nutrification and the creation of offshore dead zones.
  • Rising pollution and the influx of exotic species due to shipping and commerce;
  • Ill-planned tourism in ecologically sensitive areas, that often causes irreversible damage;
  • Development that destroys vital near-shore environments, alters patterns of water movement and disrupts ecosystem functioning;
  • Over-fishing of coastal and pelagic stocks which, in combination with damage to the coastal nursery grounds of many fishery species, is already causing far-reaching consequences for economies and ecosystems.

Says lead author Peter Sale: Important ecological processes that sustain coastal ecosystems are impeded by our careless alterations of coastal habitats fisheries decline, water quality deteriorates and so does human health and quality of life.

The report blames five causes:

  • Most people fail to understand the immense economic, cultural, and aesthetic value that a sustainably managed coastal environment provides, or the societal cost of allowing them to degrade;
  • Coastal impacts grow and change in tandem with population and demands for environmental goods and services, making the task of management ever more difficult. What worked yesterday will not be adequate tomorrow;
  • Management is fragmented across and within jurisdictions, while ecosystems obey no such boundaries. Truly integrated coastal management is both logical and necessary, but has proven difficult to achieve;
  • Coastal management in most places is insufficiently science-based and proactive, and does not use available tools effectively to reduce human impacts and monitor effectiveness. Consequently, managers and societies adapt poorly and slowly as conditions deteriorate;
  • Management programs frequently are not adopted by the local community that depends on the coastal environment for both livelihood and well-being, resulting in a lack of compliance. No management agency has the resources to control human environmental impacts if the people do not support the management goals.

The authors say the lack of scientific underpinning for policy making has made integrated coastal management difficult. In poorer countries this failing can be ascribed to a lack of resources, including trained management agency staff.

But in richer countries, the failure is also widespread, and the consequences are the same management agencies that often treat management exclusively as a game of enforcing regulations, more or less, with little regard to whether the regulations actually do anything useful to address the human and ecosystem impacts of concern.

The report says a great majority of the 4,600 marine protected areas (MPAs) worldwide today, covering 1.4% of the global coastal shelf area, are paper parks legal creations that are not based on scientific understanding of ecosystem protection with little if any regulatory enforcement.

As a consequence, the deterioration of the coastal environment goes on as rapidly inside most MPA boundaries as it does outside, and the effort to establish and then to maintain protected sites is largely in vain.

As well, the authors say, successful local community level actions are seldom replicated or scaled up, while regional-scale actions frequently fail at the local level where most concrete effort takes place.

The report acknowledges the very substantial efforts of multinational agencies, donor countries and foundations, and large international environmental NGOs to help nations most in need of guidance and help.

However, the assistance is often hampered by poor coordination amongst competing organizations and typically involves short-term (3-5 year) projects, which rarely build management activities sustained by internal resources after the project ends.

The report says multinational agencies need to commit to longer time-frames and demand real results in the form of demonstrably improved management, rather than be satisfied that nations are signatory to, and are planning to implement obligations under treaties, conventions and similar legal documents.

Improved Management of the Coastal Ocean

The authors say their work was undertaken to help identify problems that impede progress, and to suggest practical and doable steps to both fill gaps in scientific knowledge and improve management approaches.

To be successful, according to the report, coastal management improvement efforts need to be comprehensive and holistic, with regionally scaled programmes comprising replicated local projects, and enthusiastically adopted by local coastal communities.

Greater transparency to government decisions is needed as well, given the worldwide prevalence of economic / governmental structures and procedures that tend to discount environmental costs when evaluating the benefits of coastal development projects.

Greater transparency can also become effective armor in combating effects of widespread public-sector corruption on environmental decisions. Management agencies of poorer nations, lacking financial resources or scientifically trained staff, and frequently faced with greater levels of corruption and more degraded coastal environments than wealthier nations, will not be able to make significant improvements without effective outside help.

A transparent and holistic approach to coastal management may also improve acceptance of truly difficult decisions, such as the need to reduce the catch of wild fish, the authors say.

There is no question that the great majority of coastal environments are overfished at present. Reducing that catch can only be achieved when local communities recognize the greater overall value of a sustainably managed coastal ocean, and when the plan put forward also addresses the employment and other societal needs of the population.

Reducing catches requires integration across jurisdictions, an integrated view of fisheries management, and close, effective interaction between managers and local populations.

The international community can help build greater success by:

  • encouraging and publicizing up-to-date, comprehensive economic valuation of coastal environments at national, regional and local scales,
  • fostering truly integrated coastal zone management, and
  • rigorously holding national and local governments accountable for their management failures.

Many government agencies, meanwhile, need major structural and procedural changes, including realigning responsibilities to ensure effective collaboration across departmental, developing and using valuation tools to inform short-term and long-term economic / environmental tradeoffs, and fostering an internal scientific culture. And capacity building efforts need to include appropriate jobs for people eventually trained.

Science and management communities must be strengthened to give decision-makers logical options in the face of high uncertainty.

Eliminating inappropriate economic subsidies for enterprises and enforcing penalties for regulation violators are also prescribed by the report.

Say the authors: We believe that use of scientific and traditional knowledge, together with better understanding of the economic value of healthy coastal ecosystems, can help change the political discourse that eventually determines societal pressures.

Although the situation is dire, there is reason for hope. Our understanding of the ecological functioning of the coastal ocean is quite good, and we have a basic kit of useful management tools at our disposal.

Good examples of well-managed coastal environments, and sustainably harvested coastal fisheries occur around the world. The reversal of negative trends and the improvement of water quality in some areas indicate that decline of coastal ecosystems is neither inevitable nor always irreversible.

None of these steps are impossible, but taking them will require a major commitment to change.


According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, 52% of 441 global fishery stocks are fully exploited, 17% are overexploited and 7% are depleted.

Independent assessments indicate that total global fishery yield has been falling since the late 1980s, and that larger species are being progressively fished out.

Some 80% of ocean pollution originates from land-based activities, and, outside Europe and North America, over 80% of sewage enters the coastal ocean untreated. Coastal pollution is of growing concern because coastal populations, their associated cities and industries are rapidly expanding.

Nutrient over-enrichment of coastal waters is growing. In some locations, it results in seasonal or permanent anoxic dead zones, the largest at present in the Gulf of Mexico (70,000 square km, seasonally) and the Baltic Sea (a permanent zone up to 100,000 square km in area).


Contact: Terry Collins
United Nations University

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