Growing up, Doug McCauley loved the sea so much that he worked as fisherman all the way through high school and during the summers while in college at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, McCauley, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), is a leading academic on ocean conservation, ecology, and data science.
Most recently, he led a team of scientists tasked by The Pew Charitable Trusts with identifying marine areas of exceptional biological and ecological value—work that resulted in the report A Path to Creating the First Generation of High Seas Protected Areas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What’s your first memory of the ocean?
A: Catching a fish on a pier. A Pacific mackerel. While others on the pier weren’t necessarily impressed, that experience connected me to a strange undersea world full of wildness that I fell in love with immediately—and wanted badly to better understand.
Q: How has that first experience shaped your career as a scientist?
A: My science today is still a lot about trying to make sure that the wildness and beauty that I became linked to as a kid—and that fed me and helped pay the bills as a young adult—stay alive and well in our ocean for many more generations.
Q: Why should people care more about the health of our global ocean?
A: It gives us every breath we take. You could begin and end the answer here, I guess.
Q: But there’s more.
A: Right. The ocean is also our refrigerator full of free-range wild food, a huge source of beauty and inspiration in our lives, and an important source of jobs and wealth for communities like my own.
I think we also don’t realize how intimately connected our own health is to the health of the ocean. Take nutrition, for example: Seafood is the only real source of quality nutrition for hundreds of millions of people, and helps stave off many serious maladies associated with malnutrition in kids and adults.
Q: One of the most consequential ocean conservation efforts underway is securing a legally binding treaty to protect the high seas—the vast stretches of ocean that don’t fall under any specific nation’s jurisdiction. What can you tell us about life in the high seas?
A: My team and I at UCSB were privileged to be involved in a really exciting effort with scientists from 13 universities and institutions to answer the question of which areas of the high seas should be protected first. We synthesized insight from over 20 billion data points about ocean wildlife—and about how people were using the ocean—to try to find high seas biodiversity hot spots deserving of protection. We were excited to find oases of ocean life in many parts of the high seas. And they were special for different reasons: Some were coral-covered undersea mountains, others were meccas for whales and turtles, and some were rare and species-rich shallow water coral reefs and seagrass meadows that popped up out of nowhere in the middle of the high seas.
Q: The idea of marine protected areas, or MPAs, in the high seas is that they can improve ocean health while continuing to support communities where livelihoods depend on a thriving marine environment. Is that right?
A: MPAs on the high seas act like undersea savings accounts. Inside an MPA, protected populations—like fish—thrive and grow. And these healthy, expanding populations spill over beyond the boundaries of the MPA itself to areas where these fish can be harvested—like interest from the savings account. So MPAs become a win for both people and biodiversity.
Q: What does that mean that governments should be doing, especially now?
A: The high seas are becoming busier every year. So, I think governments need to give special attention to the need for high seas MPAs. We have a special opportunity right now to set up high seas protected areas in some spectacular parts of our ocean—which would yield important benefits. But if we wait too long, some of these options for maximizing the benefits of marine protection will be lost.
Q: From your perspective as a scientist, what should negotiators keep top of mind as they work toward finalizing the text of a high seas treaty?
A: I think sometimes there’s a misconception that we don’t have enough data yet to be bold in our policy actions in this treaty. As a scientist, I feel confident saying that just isn’t the case. Decades of high seas research, and some sophisticated ocean modeling and remote observation techniques, have put a vast amount of insight at our disposal for finding and intelligently protecting the most important parts of our high seas. New technology also will allow us to observe this space relatively cheaply; that means that we can realistically enforce any provisions made in the treaty in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years back. I hope negotiators take inspiration from knowing they have this vast storehouse of new information on their side, as well as the support of scientists, and act boldly as they finalize this critically important treaty.
Q: And if they do?
A: A strong treaty for biodiversity on the high seas sets us up for a win-win-win: We responsibly protect biodiversity; the benefits from that protection help us combat food insecurity and grow our high seas blue economy; and it helps us leverage the power of ocean health to fight climate change. Linked successes like this are rare. This is a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something of lasting importance for our planet and its people.