When I was a little kid I looked at a National Geographic Atlas of the World and dreamed of unknown places to discover. My eyes went to the most remote corners of the world, places without towns or roads. Thirty years later, I was dreaming about places to protect, places without fishing boats and pollution that were still wild and pristine. But I had no map to tell me where these places were, or what places were protected. The ocean in my Atlas was a blue layer without detail. Yes, there was the map of the ocean bottom, but that did not tell me anything about the state of marine life.
But the day has arrived where we can know, with the click of a mouse, what areas of the ocean are protected, and what areas are still in need of protection. Today, the Waitt Foundation and Marine Conservation Institute celebrate World Oceans Day with the launch of MPAtlas. This online digital map (mpatlas.org) assembles key information on marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world.
Marine protected areas are one of the best hopes for the ocean. In particular, no-take marine reserves are areas set aside without fishing where marine life recovers spectacularly. The total weight of fish inside these reserves (what scientists call ‘biomass’) increases on average 4.5 times within a decade, relative to unprotected areas nearby. If the ocean is like a debit account where everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit, marine reserves are savings accounts that produce compound interest. They not only help the fish but also fishermen by helping to replenish local fisheries; and they create new jobs and bring new economic revenue through tourism.
I wish I had this invaluable tool back then. But I am happy that conservation advocates, scientists, policy makers, and the interested public will now be able to see the ocean through a new lens, that of hope yet of vulnerability. As the MPAtlas shows, only 1.2 percent of our ocean is ‘protected,’ and only a fraction of that is fully protected in marine reserves. Only by knowing we will be able to determine what is missing.
To me, this is like the treasure map, with only one difference: the more people enjoy the treasure, the more its value will increase.