Marine life – deep sea heroes fighting climate change


Most efforts to address carbon emissions focus on land-based solutions such as conserving or replanting forests. However, marine life may be unlikely heroes in our fight against climate change and in avoiding the major global disasters warned of in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To raise awareness about the exciting role ocean life plays combatting climate change, a Fish Carbon short video has been produced by UN Environment/GRID-Arendal and Blue Climate Solutions, a project of The Ocean Foundation, with support from the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI), Norwegian Government and The Curtis & Edith Munson Foundation. These partners have also produced an Oceanic Blue Carbon story map, which illustrates the various fish carbon mechanisms and the latest scientific research on the subject.

Fish carbon is a general term that describes the natural life processes of marine vertebrates that enable the ocean to play a central role in world climate by absorbing and storing the atmosphere’s carbon. The video, created by cartoonist Jim Toomey – of Sherman’s Lagoon fame – uses animation and humor to explain in clear and simple language the roles that marine vertebrates play in oceanic carbon capture and storage. One example is how whales can help trap carbon.

“Whales feed deep in the ocean and return to the surface to breath, digest, and, well… poo,” said Heidi Pearson, a marine biology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast and Fulbright Scholar at UN Environment/GRID-Arendal. “The buoyant fecal plumes produced by whales are rich in the nutrients that phytoplankton need to grow and thus, importantly, absorb carbon dioxide in surface waters, allowing for more carbon to be naturally drawn into the oceans from the atmosphere.”

“In addition to being the largest animals on the planet, whales are among the longest-living, with some living over 150 years,” Dr Pearson added. “This extended lifespan means that a lot of carbon is trapped in a large whale for a long time. Then, once these animals die, their carcasses sink to the seafloor, bringing a lifetime of trapped carbon with them. Carbon on the seafloor is then essentially buried for thousands to millions of years.”

“This video is a key step in increasing our understanding of the ways that marine life contributes to the global carbon cycle, one of the vital functions of our ocean,” stated H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). “Acknowledging the importance of marine life in oceanic carbon storage may not only provide much needed opportunities in the fight against climate change, but could simultaneously support sustainable fisheries, marine conservation and help safeguard biodiversity across the globe.”

“The fish carbon concept is not without precedence in conservation policy,” said Steven Lutz, Blue Carbon Programme Leader for UN Environment/GRID-Arendal. “Just last month in support of sustainable whale management, 41 nations of the International Whaling Commission endorsed two resolutions recognising the value of whales in carbon storage and their potential role in climate change mitigation.”

“Recognising the role marine life may play in mitigating climate change may help small island developing states, especially those who are large ocean nations, include ocean actions in their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement,” stated Ronald Jumeau, Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador for Climate Change for the Republic of Seychelles. “Seychelles believes that the sustainable management of life in our ocean is critically important in our fight against climate change. Given the dire warnings from the recent IPCC report, can we afford not to explore this option?”