For most of human history, the sea was considered to be so vast, so deep and such a powerful force of nature as to be impervious to the hands of man. Unlike the dramatic and oftentimes destructive transformation of the terrestrial environment occasioned by the ax, pick, and plow, the world’s oceans seemed untamable and blessed with a limitless supply of food. And for most ofthe human sojourn on Earth, they have been. No longer. The explosive growth of the world’s population, the escalating demand on resources, the development of technology which enables exploitation of even the most remote areas, and the continued failure of world leaders and the public to understand the relationship between ocean health and human health, are all contributing to the rapid and massive decline of the world’s oceans and the life they contain.

We live on a blue planet—71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean. Oceans play a critical role in sustaining life as we know it. They help regulate the earth’s climate, generate much of the oxygen we breathe, detoxify and recycle pollution, and provide a livelihood for hundreds of millions of people. They also contribute roughly 16 percent of the animal protein consumed by the world’s human
population. From shallow-water coral reefs to the deepest canyons, the world’s oceans harbour a stunning array of life, much of it still unknown to science. Of equal but often overlooked importance, oceans provide a source of awe, wonder and inspiration the world over.

Yet despite their critical importance to human society, the world’s oceans are being managed as if there were no tomorrow. The growing and, in many regions, unrestrained impact of human activity is imposing fundamental, perhaps irreversible, changes on the Earth’s marine environment. Unless we stop that decline, the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people will be at risk, as will the quality of life for billions of people worldwide. Quite simply, we are killing the marine equivalent of the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Our relationship with the sea can no longer be a one-way street. If we are to continue to benefit from the many gifts which the oceans provide, we must care for them in return. And they are in desperate need of both rest and repair. The problems include chemical and nutrient pollution from land based sources, persistent discharge of oil into the marine environment from ships and offshore wells, destruction of critical habitat for fish, seabirds, marine mammals and other ocean life, continued dumping of vast amounts of trash into the sea, and the introduction of exotic species which often overwhelm native marine life.

Aside from climate change, which has the potential to alter the basic chemistry of the sea in ways inimical to most species of ocean life, there is no greater threat to ocean health than industrial fishing. Each year, global fishing fleets, now numbering over 4.3 million vessels, remove in excess of 80 million metric tons (176 billion pounds) of fish and invertebrates from the world’s oceans. This is simply not sustainable.

Studies have suggested that 90 percent of the world’s large fish have disappeared and almost one-third of all commercial fisheries have collapsed. As these have declined, fishing fleets around the world have turned their attention to more abundant species lower on the food chain. Now, however, even these populations, which are critical to the marine food web, are declining.

The collapse of the world’s fisheries is more than an environmental disaster. At present, over 50 million people worldwide earn their living directly from fishing. Unless steps are taken soon to address the
problem of overfishing and manage fisheries back to a state of health and abundance, vast numbers of people will lose the livelihoods upon which they and their families depend. Moreover, in a world
now filled with 7 billion people and counting, significant reductions of such a crucial protein source from worldwide diets are likely to exacerbate problems of malnutrition, disease and political unrest, particularly in developing countries.

There is no single solution to these problems. There are many. But one in particular boasts a relatively long history of success, and is both elegant in its simplicity and powerful in its impact if done properly: that is the creation of marine parks, or reserves where no extractive activity such as fishing, deep sea mining, or oil and gas production is allowed, places where the only thing you can take out of the water is a photograph.

Reserves provide a range of benefits. They help to protect species that are threatened by overfishing and other disruptive activities. They increase fish production, protect breeding and nursery areas, provide a laboratory for science and an opportunity to observe and learn how a healthy marine system functions, But their
benefits transcend the material. They also provide a vivid portrait of both the beauty and complexity of nature, and a renewed appreciation for the wonder of the natural world when it is whole.

Setting aside special places from human exploitation is not a new concept. We have been doing this on land for over 140 years, motivated by concern that some of our most spectacular and important natural areas were being lost to development. The world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872. Today, there are more than 1800 national land-based parks, distributed among nearly 100 countries. In total, they provide varying degrees of protection for almost 13 percent of the earth’s terrestrial environment.

In contrast, only one half of 1 percent of the world’s oceans are fully protected, although they cover more than twice the amount of the earth’s surface as does the land. We have come late to this task, in great part because we have only recently understood the sweeping changes occurring in the world’s oceans and the toll these take on marine life. While some large areas in the sea have escaped the impacts of fishing and other extractive industries, there are not many, And each day that passes, there are fewer.

Protecting unique places in the sea is wise both for us and for the generations that will follow. Areas of the ocean that contain unique marine life found nowhere else on Earth; that serve as transportation corridors, breeding and feeding grounds for pelagic animals such as sea turtles, sharks, billfish, whales and other marine mammals; and that provide nesting and foraging areas for millions of seabirds are important to protect in their own right, as well as for the contribution they make to the global marine environment. In addition, they are often regions of striking beauty where the drama of nature continues to unfold in much the same way as it has for tens of thousands of years. These places, which are so vulnerable to human intervention, remind us of the profound significance of the choices that lie ahead, and the power we hold over the fate of nature. How we respond to those choices will not only determine the future of life in the world’s oceans, but will have a profound effect on our own as well.

—Joshua Reichert, Pew Environment Group


Approaching Squall
Bruce Foster