On the eve of World Oceans Day I am compelled to reflect on the state of our oceans and the challenges that we will face to rehabilitate them. Our oceans are finite resources, incapable of withstanding the unsustainable demands that we place on them. Unfortunately we have been too slow to realize this fact, or perhaps too self-absorbed to care. These days the situation has unfortunately become too dire to ignore. We are exhausting our fish stocks, degrading our coastal environments and polluting indiscriminately, all at the expense of the health and the biodiversity of our oceans. We also seem to use our oceans as our own personal dumping ground, showing a distinct lack of respect for the planet’s single greatest resource. The long-term repercussions of our impacts on the oceans will directly jeopardize our future as well as that of the global environment in general.
To understand this principal it is important to remember that all things in nature are interconnected. The vastness of our oceans and our marine environments therefore inherently affect the planet as a whole. It is surprising for many people to learn that the oceans supply most of our breathable oxygen, dictate world weather patterns, and help to feed the majority of humans on earth. The oceans represent life. Our life. When they are disturbed or become unhealthy, the impacts will affect everything on the planet, ourselves included. We are already starting to feel the impacts now. Our fish stocks are dwindling, coastal habitats are becoming dangerously polluted, the looming threat of ocean acidification stands to decimate our coral reefs, ‘the rainforests of our oceans’, and weather patterns are swiftly changing, affecting climate, agriculture and sea levels globally.
Future generations will now have to bear the repercussions of our actions. For centuries we have harvested unsustainably and tried to use the oceans to hide our waste. That time has come to an abrupt end. We can no longer afford to disrespect our oceans as it has become all too clear that our fates are interlinked. With every breath we take, we rely on the health of the oceans and the battle to save them now represents a fight to preserve our own future.
To mitigate current marine related problems, expert scientists estimate we need to protect between 20-40% of our oceans. By doing so we will create refuges for vulnerable species, help to regenerate depleted fish stocks, safeguard critical habitats, preserve genetic variability and promote biodiversity. With less than 1% of the oceans currently safeguarded under formal management, we are nowhere near this target. As with any debate, there are those who argue that we cannot afford to maintain these types of reserves, or worse still, that we lack the infrastructure to develop and manage them properly. While I agree that it is an ambitious goal, I would argue that we can’t afford NOT TO bolster the number of protected areas in our oceans.
Well-managed marine areas are of course started for different reasons. Some hope to replenish regional fish stocks and boost fishing outside of the no-take areas. Others are created to protect rare or endangered species. Others still are created to protect pristine areas from future exploitation or to preserve outstanding areas of biodiversity. Without a doubt, creating any type of marine reserve is a major undertaking. Marine protected areas often take decades to approve and develop and even more time to manage properly. But there ARE ones that are running successfully, and this fact offers at least a ray of hope. Often times I share public frustration with the tedious nature of this process and how long it often takes to instate these protected areas. It is easy to get aggravated or impatient, often exacerbated by a feeling of helplessness. For those members of the public wanting to get involved, I can suggest from experience three ways that you can help with this issue and form part of the solution.
The most obvious way to get involved is to cast your vote or voice your opinion. While it is hard to keep up with campaigns globally, it is realistic to keep an eye on local or regional campaigns seeking support for the development of protected areas. It might not seem like it, but many of the sanctuaries and reserves of the world were created off momentum fueled by public outcry. As a conservation biologist I can argue at the top of my lungs, citing the scientific rational behind the need for protection, but a much swifter way to gain visibility and government support for a project is to get the voting public behind the cause. If you are frustrated with the lack of protected areas in your backyard, do some digging around, see what campaigns or projects are in the pipeline and figure out what you can do to help, even if it is only by lending your voice.
More than anything, the enormous costs of running protected areas can hamper their establishment. Of course, the faster they can become self-sustaining, the more likely they are to succeed and serve as models for others behind them. A surefire way for national parks, marine reserves and protected areas to sustain themselves is through tourism. Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and marine related tourism has been growing steadily for decades. Just as ocean lovers favour companies with good environmental policies, purchase eco-friendly products and abstain from eating unsustainably caught fish, it is important that the public supports protected areas around the world by simply visiting them. The surest way for you to voice your approval of protected areas is to preferentially support them over areas that are not protected or that are being poorly managed. This small act of support can have huge impacts on the success of these kinds of initiatives and help facilitate the creation of future protected areas.
As a follow on to that, it is important to always follow codes of conduct and best practice standards when you are out in nature. You are not only responsible for your own actions, but you may serve as a role model, influencing the behaviour of others around you. Again, it is about balance. To have the continued privilege of going out in nature, seeing wild places and engaging with marine life, it is important that we protect the places/things we love. This means not disturbing or touching animals, plants or structures in the sea, it means taking photos and memories away with you but nothing else, and it means not leaving anything that you brought to the sea behind when you leave. Creating marine protected areas is one thing, but helping to support them so that they function properly is a gift that only you can give. If we all do our part, these incredible areas will continue to thrive well into the future.
Changing human perceptions towards our oceans will not be an easy task, but as we strive towards a healthy balance between our human needs and those of the natural world around us it is nice that there is a day that focuses our attention towards this important issue. World Oceans Day should inspire us all to pause and reflect on what the ocean means to us and what we as individuals can do, in our own small way, to give back. -Andrea Marshall
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