By Martha LaGuardia-Kotite
A few years ago marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala was working in California as a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying the impact of humans on the ocean. This research changed his life. “I was writing the obituary of ocean life with more and more precision. I found that not very satisfying,” says Sala, who quit academia and dedicated his life to ocean conservation.
In 2009, Sala, a National Geographic Explorer-in Residence, and The National Geographic Society launched
Pristine Seas to help protect the last wild places in the ocean. Pristine Seas is made up of a team of scientists, filmmakers, policy and communications experts who share a common goal of improving the health of the ocean. They strive to let the world know these ecosystems exist, are threatened and need protection. Through expeditions to remote, pristine sites where few if any people live, the team researches and documents how the ocean appeared and functioned before human’s extensive impact. Since its launch, Pristine Seas has inspired the creation of six large reserves totaling more than 2.2 million square kilometers. Only one percent of the ocean is restricted as a “no-take” area, says Sala. Comparatively, he adds, 12 percent of land is protected as national parks and reserves. “We’re fishing in 99 percent of the ocean. If we protect these last wild places, nobody is going to die of hunger,” he states. “I think of the 99 percent as a bank account. We’re overdrawing on that account with too much fishing and too much pollution.” By protecting ecosystems the account is allowed time to build back up.
Pristine Seas works with global leaders, local communities, business leaders, and partners with nongovernmental organizations to build and improve relationships with key constituencies to help set up long-term management programs like these reserves.
One of their success stories is in a Pacific archipelago south of Hawaii, where after Pristine Seas’ expedition the local government declared a 12-nautical-mile fishing exclusion zone around each island. The southern Line Islands as they are known, are a cluster of five remote, uninhabited and truly wild isles.
Of all the places Sala explored, Millennium—among the southern Line Islands—is his favorite. “It brings a smile to my face every time I think of it. It’s the perfect example of what pristine is,” he says. “When you jump in the water you’re immediately surrounded by sharks and large fish. The water is clear and there are no people around. Everybody should have a chance to see a place like this.” During dives around the islands, the team was surprised to find some of the coral reefs densely covered 90 percent of the seabed in contrast to the 5 to 10 percent coverage in the Caribbean. Scientists say corals tend to be resilient in places where other elements of the marine ecosystem are also ﬂourishing. Protection of the marine life here could prevent a decline in the health of its ecosystem where an abundance of top predators like sharks, hunted for their fins, ﬂourish. Without top predators, mid-range predators would likely rule, herbivores would decline and algae would overtake the coral.
“Coral reefs help protect the coast lines,” says Sala. “It’s not just about fishing; it’s all the services the ocean provides us [water, food and recreation] to make this life wonderful.” Efforts to create protected reserves also support the United Nation’s conservation goal of safeguarding at least 10 percent of the world’s marine and coastal zones by 2020. More than 3.5 billion people depend on the oceans for food, energy and income according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organization.
Oceans—which cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and help regulate our climate—are threatened, Sala says, from over-fishing, pollution (most noticeably from plastics) and climate change.
“The most dramatic concern to me is the Arctic. The sea ice is melting so fast,” he says. “Climate projections are that by 2040, there will be no sea ice in the Arctic in the summer. In 25 years, you’ll be able to sail there without an ice breaker.” The Pristine Seas project’s latest expedition is in the northern Greenland and Canadian Arctic, an area they call “The Last Ice Area.” Here, a large concentration of wildlife, bowhead whales, seals, and polar bears all depend on the sea-ice edge for survival. The Inuit communities have also relied on these animals for food, energy and other subsistence needs. Pristine Seas plans to raise awareness about these changes in the Arctic and work with the Inuit communities to document and tell their stories.
While many countries are focusing on the long-term reduction of fossil fuel use to help decrease the built-up greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, the designation and preservation of marine areas will help nourish the ocean’s natural state.
Marine Protected Areas—Safe Havens for Marine Life and Cultural Heritage
More than 1,600 safe havens for a range of marine life, habitats and cultural heritage called Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are in the United States. National Marine Sanctuaries are also MPAs. These designated areas of the oceans, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, and the Great Lakes are protected for conservation and allow multiple uses and fishing. Marine reserves are more restrictive, limiting collection of shells, catching fish or removing something from the area. Cultural heritage MPAs are areas set aside because a ship, aircraft or cultural artifact is on the seafloor.
MPAs are a key tool for maintaining and restoring ecosystems in a changing climate. Tropical reefs face sea-level rise, higher surface temperatures and the threat of ocean acidification. MPA managers include federal, state and local agencies that strive to identify which habitats may be flooded and migrate as a result of sea level rise predictions, which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will dramatically change the Atlantic states coastline.
NOAA’s 2013 analysis reviewed sites from Cape Cod to the Florida Keys and found that 60 percent of the region’s 602 coastal MPAs will be impacted by a “one foot increase in sea level rise during this century,” resulting in degradation or flooding of sea grass beds, beaches, wetlands, and barrier islands.