Only 3.5 percent of oceans worldwide are currently under protection.
THE ocean, as a natural resource for all of humanity, has reached an existential tipping point. The grim reality is that much of the world’s fish stocks have collapsed at the hands of overfishing. As confirmed in July by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly a third of commercial fish stocks are now fished at biologically unsustainable levels — triple the level of 1974.
Because the sea provides a livelihood for nearly two-fifths of the world’s population and is the primary source of protein for 3 billion people, it is not just marine life that is at stake; it is the health and welfare of all humanity.
Countries from around the world recognize this crisis and, for the first time, have come together to formally acknowledge the primal importance of the ocean and halt its decline. In September 2015 as part of its sustainable development goals, the U.N. adopted a singular, quantifiable target to conserve and sustainably use the oceans: By 2020, conserve at least 10 percent of the world’s coastal and marine areas. A campaign known as 10X20, or 10 by 20, co-led by scientists and diplomats seeks to ensure that this target is met. Governments must support this urgent imperative for the planet before it’s too late.
The good news is a large and increasing body of research points to the implementation of marine sanctuaries as one of the most effective ways to conserve and restore marine biodiversity and regenerate wild fisheries. Similar to terrestrial wildlife preserves, marine sanctuaries set aside portions of oceans and coastal areas where human activity is restricted or closely regulated.
Think of marine sanctuaries as a bank where fish stocks are deposited and remain untouched. The same way money principal earns interest in a financial bank, fish populations rebuild in size and abundance within the refuge of the restricted zone, eventually spilling over into areas where they begin to benefit surrounding waters and the fishers who operate there.
Marine sanctuaries, such as the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off the Washington state coast, have proved successful in conserving biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and producing other ecological, social, and economic benefits. They shore up food security by recovering exploited populations, rebuilding endangered habitats, increasing reproductive output and replenishing surrounding fishing grounds. Recent research suggests that marine sanctuaries may also lead to greater resilience in the face of anthropogenic climate change.
To its credit, the U.S. government has designated a total of 13 marine sanctuaries comprising a network of coastal regions that extend from the Florida Keys to American Samoa. This month, President Obama more than quadrupled the largest of these sanctuaries (in fact, the largest protected wildlife reserve in the world), the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument around the Hawaiian Islands, to permanently protect more than a half-million square miles of richly diverse ocean habitat from any extractive commercial uses.
While virtually every country with a coastline has declared one or more marine sanctuaries, the world is leagues away from where it needs to be. Only 3.5 percent of oceans worldwide are currently under protection. The most reliable forecasts indicate that, on average, a target of 37 percent must ultimately be protected to meet global sustainability goals. While this target may seem distant, the 10X20 goal is attainable as a waypoint to long-term sustainability.
Ocean Sanctuary Alliance is an international coalition committed to sustainable oceans. Earlier this year, the coalition established a set of uniform scientific guidelines for marine sanctuaries. Among other things, the guidelines address what is required to preserve ecological value, function and connectivity and also include what kinds of governance and financing mechanisms are needed to ensure that a sanctuary is successful after its design and designation.
Ocean Sanctuary Alliance has also developed a diplomatic consortium to help implement 10X20 among U.N. member states. There is an urgency to act now, because marine sanctuaries cannot be created overnight.
Mustering the political and economic will across international borders will not be easy. However, there is an abundance of science and operational experience to establish, maintain and effectively manage marine sanctuaries among the international community.
Last year’s Paris Agreement was the product of climate-change efforts decades in the making. A similar solidarity is needed to achieve 10X20. Countries and world leaders must together seize this singular opportunity to restore marine life in our oceans or risk they be forever lost.