By Sylvia Earle, Lance Morgan, and Jackie Dragon
The oceans need our help. Human impacts – overfishing, pollution, invasive species, habitat destruction, acidification and climate change – have put our ocean species on the cusp of mass extinctions today. Scientists predict the collapse of major fisheries across the world within the next decades. We need to realize that fish are more than just food. Fish are wildlife, as well as critical components of complex marine ecosystems and food webs that must be maintained. We urgently need a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) to help sustain the oceans that in turn sustain all of us.
The calls for marine protected areas around the world are not new. Greenpeace, Marine Conservation Institute, and Mission Blue have called for networks of marine protected areas for years. After ten years of talks and tireless campaigning by many people around the world, United Nations governments recently reached a breakthrough agreement to move toward protecting marine life on the high seas – a place where illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is rampant. The UN has now formally recognized that ocean governance is about protection, not only about “managing the exploitation” of ocean resources. This is cause for hope, but much work and agreement will be needed before protections for the ocean are in place.
Unfortunately, progress to conserve marine life and protect ocean environments has been very slow, while the extraction of ocean resources and degradation of marine ecosystems continues full speed ahead. The havoc wreaked on ocean ecosystems by massive trawl nets and billions of hooks remains hidden and barely studied beneath the waves.
The need to act for the oceans is urgent – we must unite around a bold vision for permanent protections. In doing so, we are not only saving the oceans, we are saving ourselves. By producing oxygen, feeding millions and shaping climate and weather patterns, the oceans are literally our life support system. It’s in all of our best interests to fight for protections.
To this end, Greenpeace, Mission Blue (also known as the Sylvia Earle Alliance) and Marine Conservation Institute have announced a 2020 Vision for the ocean – an effort to protect 20 percent of U.S. ocean waters by 2020, doubling the amount of U.S. waters protected in the next five years. Currently, roughly 10 percent of U.S. ocean waters is strongly protected, and less than three percent is protected globally. To put our oceans on the path toward restoration, we must be more ambitious about protecting unique and valuable ecosystems and aim to reach this important milestone.
One of the extraordinary places in need of protections is the Bering Sea canyons in Alaska, and we are asking supermarkets like Costco, Albertsons and Target to help us achieve that. For a dozen years, people and organizations have worked to protect this unique area – a Mission Blue Hope Spot and the largest underwater canyons in the world. Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons – both larger than the Grand Canyon– support a vast ecosystem, home to at least 450 species of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, along with 80 percent of the U.S. seabird population and 25 species of marine mammals. Yet, our vast underwater canyons remain vulnerable to lasting damage from industrial trawls and other fishing gear. It is our hope that seafood businesses join us in a 2020 Vision to double the amount of protected U.S. waters over the next five years. Certain places in the sea should remain undisturbed for future generations. The Bering Sea canyons are one such location.
The 2020 Vision recently launched in Seattle with a billboard and poster campaign urging supermarkets to restore balance to the Bering Sea. Seafood is at the heart of Seattle’s identity, and the city will play a critical role in embracing a vision for healthier oceans. Over the coming weeks, we will expand the campaign across the country, asking ocean lovers to join our call for “balance.” By balance, we mean policies that prioritize the protection of ocean resources, not just managing our continued taking of marine life, and the harmful impacts that result from that industry. Balance means setting aside some important ocean areas as an insurance policy for the future, and a buffer against uncertainty, giving the ocean a fighting chance to restore health and biodiversity, and remain resilient in this era of climate change.
President Obama recently created the largest marine reserve in the world in U.S. Pacific waters. Nearly 600 scientists have called upon the president to protect additional American waters. It is our hope that he works to do just that. The Bering Sea canyons are known as “the Grand Canyons of the Sea,” yet they don’t share the same protections as their terrestrial counterpart. We haven’t even fully explored the Bering Sea canyons, where new species await discovery.
It’s time to restore balance to our oceans – and we should begin by protecting the Bering Sea canyons and other critically important places in the waters surrounding Alaska.
Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist, explorer and founder of Mission Blue (Sylvia Earle Alliance). She is a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. Lance Morgan is a marine biologist and president of Marine Conservation Institute. Jackie Dragon is senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.