Oceans cover roughly 72 percent of the world’s surface, but the overwhelming majority of the ocean environment lies beneath the surface, an area that until 75 years ago was invisible to people, except in very shallow water. As a result, it was difficult for us to develop the kind of emotional connection that we have with many areas on land. Our inability to see most of the ocean also meant that, largely, we had no idea of the extent to which it was being altered by human activity—a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Four technological innovations removed these constraints: the aqualung, invented by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and French engineer Emile Gagnan in 1943; the underwater camera, which dates back to the turn of the last century; the evolution of advanced submersible technology for deep-sea exploration; and the television, which brought Cousteau and his expedition vessel Calypso into the living rooms of millions of people, providing them with images of the sea they had never seen before.
Research paints a picture of escalating degradation throughout the world’s oceans. Overfishing has decimated many fisheries, and it is believed that more than 90 percent of the world’s big fish are gone. Pollution is rampant—particularly involving plastics, which are ubiquitous and pose a significant threat to ocean life worldwide. More than 100,000 fish aggregating devices—large synthetic rafts that are meant to attract catch but are often poorly regulated and able to do real harm—are set adrift in a year by fishermen.
Habitat that is critically important to fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and other ocean life for breeding, nursery grounds, and foraging is being degraded at an alarming rate. But perhaps most serious is the impact of rising temperatures in the world’s oceans and increased acidification, both the result of climate change.
Unlike the land, all of which lies within the boundaries of individual nations, approximately 45 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by the high seas—areas beyond the jurisdiction of individual nations that are exploited by many but managed by no one. The task of bringing sustainable management to the high seas is an immense challenge. Also, while individual coastal nations have jurisdiction over their exclusive economic zones, the area that extends from the shoreline out 200 nautical miles, many do not have the capacity to enforce fishing and other restrictions in their own waters. As a result, massive amounts of fish are stolen from these countries, a global loss estimated at up to $23.5 billion in fish, jobs, and regional revenue each year.
First, we need to curb overfishing. We must prevent the destruction of essential habitat needed to sustain ocean life by banning the most destructive fishing gear and practices, and by halting the decline of wetlands and other areas of critical importance to marine life. Also essential is to protect areas of the world’s oceans that are still relatively pristine. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by establishing marine reserves where no fishing and other extractive activities are allowed.
Over the past decade, The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners, through the Global Ocean Legacy project, have encouraged the creation of the world’s first generation of great marine parks. So far, nine of these no-take marine reserves have been established in some of the most iconic places in the world’s oceans, including Easter Island, the Pitcairn Islands, the Chagos Archipelago, the Marianas Trench, and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Together, these nine reserves protect a total of 2.5 million square miles of ocean, which is sizable but still represents only 2 percent of the world’s waters. And the best science now tells us we should be preserving 30 percent of the ocean.
In part, they are not easy to create and tend to be opposed by those with economic interests in the areas where parks are proposed. In the aftermath of these public discussions, however, most parks become a revered part of a nation’s natural patrimony. They convey benefits that often extend far beyond their borders, and they serve as a living reminder of what we have and what we stand to lose if we do not take steps to preserve life in the world’s oceans.
Joshua Reichert is executive vice president of The Pew Charitable Trusts and has overseen its environmental projects for three decades.