A New Template for Oceans Protections
Maybe it's ironic that I learned my first principles about ocean protection and climate change solutions in a land-locked town, population 1,215, a good 5,604 miles away from the waters of the Atlantic.
I grew up in a tiny farming community in rural Iowa. Growing up, I didn't meet many farmers who would call themselves environmentalists. But they were dyed-in-the-wool enlistees in practical conservation. They lived and died, borrowed and saved, with each year's harvest, and they'd say, "you never eat your seed corn." They knew that you can't sell wheat or corn from fields that won’t grow anymore.
"Nations rely on fishing, and they rely on tourism. But leaders know that we can’t sell fish that are gone forever and we can’t market tourism around corals that are bleached and dying."
Thirty years later, I think about them often as I work in an organization committed to grow the coalition of those committed to protecting the world's oceans. Nations rely on fishing, and they rely on tourism. But leaders know that we can't sell fish that are gone forever and we can’t market tourism around corals that are bleached and dying.
But we don't have time to waste. For much of the world, this new decade has begun with anxiety -- from crises to COVID-19. But it is a slow motion, ever-unfolding challenge which keeps many of us working to avert a worldwide disaster. This new decade marks the critical period for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, our last chance to begin undoing decades of damage. Inextricably linked to that challenge is the health of our oceans. We must truly make this the decade of the ocean if we want future decades to resemble anything worth living.
"This new decade marks the critical period for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, our last chance to begin undoing decades of damage. Inextricably linked to that challenge is the health of our oceans."
The ocean waters that sustain life on Earth as we know it are in trouble -- the very oceans that produce half the world's oxygen, create the clouds that bring us fresh water, and regulate our climate. Two in six jobs depend on the ocean.
And it's all threatened. By overfishing. By climate change. By over-tourism. Ocean ecosystems have declined at an alarming rate. Plastic has been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet, and in animals throughout the oceanic food-web, from albatross to fish larvae. Isolated seas and the deepest parts of the ocean, previously refuges for marine species, are now being exploited due to technological advancements. Fisheries are collapsing and Pacific food security is no longer esoteric. Critical near-shore areas from mangrove forests to coral reefs -- habitats for thousands of species -- are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is heating and acidifying the ocean, affecting the quantity and distribution patterns of marine species.
"The ocean waters that sustain life on Earth as we know it are in trouble -- the very oceans that produce half the world's oxygen, create the clouds that bring us fresh water, and regulate our climate. Two in six jobs depend on the ocean."
This is why the 2019 United Nations climate and oceans study provided such a stark shock to the system and a wakeup call for the world: if the countries of the world don't protect 30% of the world's oceans by 2030, in tandem with "blue prosperity" strategies spanning marine spatial planning to fisheries 30% MPA target, future generations will inherit a world far different from the one our parents gave to us.
But there's time to act -- and opportunity if we do. We need to show that attacking climate change and protecting our oceans proportionate to the existential challenge they present, isn't a burden but an opportunity. It's not a choice between economic recovery and oceans action; protecting the oceans is prosperity, period.
"But there's time to act -- and opportunity if we do ... It's not a choice between economic recovery and oceans action; protecting the oceans is prosperity, period ... The global ocean economy is estimated at $24 trillion dollars."
That's why government officials, ocean experts, and NGOs joined together to create the Blue Prosperity Coalition, a network of global partners advancing sustainable oceans by balancing marine protection with economic development -- everyone from the Waitt Institute, and National Geographic Pristine Seas to government partners in the Azores, Barbuda, Curaçao, and the Kingdom of Tonga.
We're working together knowing that time is not on our side. The global ocean economy is estimated at $24 trillion dollars, but ocean resources are declining rapidly worldwide -- bombarded with human-imposed threats as stated: overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Scientific research shows that strongly protecting at least 30% of the world's ocean will help maintain marine resources while maximizing yields and sustainable economic growth. Over 70 countries have made commitments to protect portions of their ocean territories, but less than 5% of the ocean is currently designated as fully protected no-take areas, falling massively short of the 30% by 2030 target.
"We believe that we can create a new template for oceans protection that meets the challenge of climate change and helps blue economies build back better after COVID-19."
Just last year, the Blue Prosperity Coalition joined the Blue Azores Program, established by a partnership between the Waitt Institute and the Oceano Azul Foundation in collaboration with the Regional Government of Azores. As part of the Blue Azores, the Azorean government has committed to designate an additional 150,000 km2 (15%) 5% of its waters as new fully protected no-take areas, while creating a holistic ocean plan to sustainably improve ocean economies like fishing and tourism will preserve important feeding grounds for commercially important fish stocks, migratory routes for marine mammals, and deep-sea ecosystems like seamounts and hydrothermal vents.
"...it's time we rolled up our sleeves in newfound, even unlikely alliances: we're all conservationists now. Let's get to work."
I am confident that in this process of policy development, local communities not only can be at the table, but they must be. Our experience in Tonga demonstrates the strength and importance of community engagement to achieve ambitious goals. In a planning process that focuses on 700,000 km2 of ocean with more than 140 islands, the Kingdom of Tonga has a robust consultation process involving every coastal community in the Kingdom. They know what I learned growing up in Iowa: if you engage the people whose livelihoods depend on the viability of nature's bounty -- either from the land or the sea -- you will find natural allies.
The question isn't whether we can meet the challenge in front of us -- the question is whether we will do so in time. For all who count on the ocean's harvest, and for all who depend on its health for the health of their economies, it's time we rolled up our sleeves in newfound, even unlikely alliances: we're all conservationists now. Let's get to work.
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