NGO Documents for the Earth Summit, 1992
Non-Governmental Organization Alternative Treaties
at the '92 Global Forum
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Treaty 31. Minimizing Physical Alteration of Marine Ecosystems
1. Although most knowledgeable scientists and conservationists agree that the physical
alteration of ecosystems is the greatest threat to biological diversity on land, few
people realize that it is also a major threat in the sea. Because species are adapted to
some physical conditions but not others, physical conditions are very important in
determining the community of species that live in each ecosystem. By changing the
structure of the substratum and characteristics of the overlying waters, humans are
simplifying, fragmenting and even eliminating species' habitats, and thereby changing
ecosystem processes. Some kinds of physical alteration are intentional, such as logging in
mangrove forests, mining, dredging, filling, channelizing wetlands and dynamite fishing in
coral reefs. Few people realize that bottom trawling can cause extensive, long-lasting
damage to marine ecosystems. As with pollution, the greatest threats to marine ecosystems
come from the land, including siltation from logging, agriculture, aquaculture and road
building, urbanization of shorelines, construction of sea walls and jetties, construction
of harbors and marinas, and the building of dams, which alter the flow of freshwater and
nutrients into marine systems and prevent diadromous species from reaching their spawning
grounds. Anchoring and trampling are serious problems in heavily visited ecosystems,
especially coral reefs. Loss of marine wetlands, including mud flats and salt marshes, is
essentially complete along some coasts. In deeper waters, ecosystem loss is a less
immediate prospect, but simplification and fragmentation can be widespread and severe.
Few, if any, governments regulate physical alteration comprehensively. Rather, different
agencies are often responsible for farming, logging, trawling, dredging and dam-building.
This fragmentation of authority contributes to accelerated simplification, destruction and
fragmentation of marine ecosystems.
2. The diversity of physical alterations of marine ecosystems creates special problems
for governments seeking to protect marine ecosystems and sustain their use. Regulations
need to be tailored to the different kinds of physically damaging activities, but there is
also a need for comprehensive monitoring and management. It is important to maintain the
volume and timing of freshwater flow into estuaries and coastal waters. For ecosystems,
including kelp beds, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, coral reefs and shellfish beds,
little more, if any, physical alteration should be allowed. These ecosystems are
especially vulnerable to anything that increases turbidity, and they need protection from
land based sources of siltation. But even sandy or muddy seabeds that seem featureless
from above contain many subsurface, biologically diverse structures. These, of course, are
the ecosystems most likely to be subjected to dredging, filling and severe, repeated
trawling. Given the especially low resilience of most deep sea ecosystems, international
treaties and governments should be specially careful about sanctioning deep sea mining.
3. Urge nations to adopt environmental impact assessment procedures for any projects
that affect physical conditions in their marine ecosystems and monitor the reliability of
4. Work to minimize logging of mangroves, draining, dredging, filling and seawall
construction in relatively undisturbed estuarine and coastal ecosystems.
5. Work to ensure that development activities that divert fresh water from rivers
maintain the amount, quality and timing of flow into estuarine and marine ecosystems to
minimize adverse effects on their species and ecological processes.
6. Urge the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to work with the World Bank and
other international organizations and national governments to establish methods of
assessing the cumulative effects of physical alteration from each proposed watershed,
coastal or marine development project.
7. Encourage the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Union
for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assemble available information on the local and
regional physical and biological effects of trawling on the seabed, and convene an
international workshop on impacts of bottom trawling to explore ways to limit its impact.
8. Convene an international forum to provide the United Nations (UN) with the necessary
documentation and language for a global convention to ban inherently destructive and
unsustainable fishery techniques that physically destroy the seabed, such as dynamite
fishing and muro ami.
9. Encourage governments to establish and manage marine protected areas, within which
physical alteration will be kept to an absolute minimum.
10. Call for an end to the harvesting of coral reef species for aquaria, curios and
construction materials, unless these are shown to have been produced in an ecologically
sustainable manner, while, at the same time, monitoring populations of harvested species
to ensure compliance.
11. Urge governments to enact special laws relating to the construction of nuclear
plants in the coastal zone, eliminating the problem of thermal pollution.
Commitment of Resources
12. Initiate regional workshops, with assistance from international NGOs, in order to
exchange and share scientific information and procedures to deal with environmental
13. Form an electronic network to share information. This will be organized by NGOs
with computer technical support and should include programs to train and assist NGOs in
less developed countries.
14. Develop a complete list of NGOs with names of contact persons and areas of interest
and expertise, organized by region, to encourage regional network-building and meetings.
15. Initiate a newsletter among ourselves to inform each other of actions taken to
implement this NGO treaty.
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