For many people, Earth Day evokes terrestrial scenes—meadows in bloom, verdant forests and soaring mountains. But on this Earth Day, there is also lots of blue.
Governments large and small have recently made impressive steps forward in protecting the world’s oceans. Research shows that prohibiting fishing and other extractive activities in large fully protected marine reserves is vital to rebuilding species abundance and diversity and protecting the overall health of the marine environment. In the past year and a half, about 1.5 million square miles of ocean have been protected, an area far greater than all previously designated marine protected areas. Here are a few notable projects:
- In September 2014, President Barack Obama designated an about 400,000-square-mile expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument, increasing full protection around Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll and Wake Atoll.
- The British government followed in March 2015 by announcing its intent to create the 332,000-square-mile Pitcairn Island Marine Reserve.
- New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced in September 2015 his intention to designate a 240,000-square-mile no-take marine reserve around the Kermadec Islands, an area of the South Pacific Ocean that is among the most unspoiled marine environments on Earth. The area includes more than 50 underwater volcanoes and a section of the Kermadec-Tonga Trench, the deepest ocean trench in the Southern Hemisphere.
- The Chilean government announced in October 2015 its intent to protect a 243,630-square-mile park surrounding the Chilean territory of Easter Island that includes 142 indigenous species, 27 of which are threatened or endangered.
- In late October, the Pacific island nation of Palau announced the establishment of a 193,000-square-mile reserve. The seas surrounding Palau boast 1,300 species of fish and 700 kinds of coral, and President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. rightly saw the economic benefits that come with environmental stewardship: Scuba diving tourism, for example, brings $90 million into Palau’s economy every year.
Over the same period, other governments and oversight bodies set aside areas of ocean as reserves specifically designed to protect an array of marine life. Science suggests that each of these places will help marine species thrive and bring added ecological benefits within and beyond each sanctuary’s boundaries.
- On June 10, the U.S. Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to protect more than 38,000 square miles of deep-water coral habitat located about 70 miles off the mid-Atlantic coast. It banned bottom trawling, dredging, and other destructive activities to preserve the fragile corals, which provide habitat for a host of other life and can take thousands of years to fully mature.
- On the other side of the Americas, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission adopted a measure on July 3 to conserve 11 species of rays in the eastern Pacific that have been depleted by heavy fishing.
- On Sept. 1, the government of the Netherlands and its overseas municipalities Bonaire and Saba turned nearly 9,000 square miles of ocean surrounding those islands into shark sanctuaries. For years, conservationists have warned that overfishing of sharks is throwing ocean ecosystems out of balance. So these new sanctuaries, and others like them established in recent years, are a heartening sign that more governments than ever are heeding science in setting environmental policy.
And because the oceans belong to no single nation, it’s also heartening to see environmental action that transcends borders: for example, a U.N. General Assembly agreement to begin negotiations that could lead to marine reserves on the high seas (the area of the Earth that is beyond the jurisdiction of any one country), and a five-country pact to refrain from fishing in the Arctic Ocean’s international waters until science concludes that it won’t harm the ecosystem.
These actions are worth celebrating. But even with these latest positive steps, only about 2% of our ocean is protected in marine parks, far short of the 30% scientists say is needed to help the ocean remain healthy enough to meet the demands we place on it. Protecting oceans and the life within them is vital: These waters cover about 72% of our planet and provide food for billions of people and livelihoods for millions. Oceans are also critical regulators of our climate.
We need more action—and soon—to help the seas recover from years of overfishing, pollution, rising acidity and other ills. Achieving that will allow us to see a happy, reassuring shade of blue for many Earth Days to come.