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aerial view of small island: brown and green with small blue lagoons down the middle
Coral Paradise Millennium Atoll, a remote coral atoll in the southern Line Islands of the South Pacific © Brian Skerry

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Blue Future

Less than a 10th of the ocean is protected. In a study, a team of scientists calls for a global effort to do more. Here’s what they say is possible.

Fall 2021

Nancy Averett Freelance Writer

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Deep in the Atlantic Ocean, along a massive, submerged mountain, rise hundreds of chalky white spires and mounds. Dubbed Lost City, these towering hydrothermal vent —one is 200 feet tall—formed when extremely hot water oozed out of the seafloor and solidified. 

These unusual formations spew hot water into the dark ocean and help to support tiny invertebrates, worms and fleas as well as bigger fauna such as crabs, fish and eels. That diversity—along with the fact that these species have intimately linked geological, chemical and biological processes—has led some scientists to posit that the site, some 2,600 feet deep, is where life on Earth began. 

But the future of this unusual ecosystem, and many other biologically important marine spaces like it, is unclear. Located south of the Azores in the high seas—beyond any country’s jurisdiction—the area has no legal protection, and scientists worry it could soon be damaged by deep sea mining. The high seas are “a little bit like the Wild West,” says Jennifer McGowan, a spatial planning technical coordinator for The Nature Conservancy. The presence of commercially valuable resources—like tuna or rare minerals—puts these areas at higher risk.

A New Study

In a paper published in Nature in March, McGowan joined an international team of 25 researchers calling for a globally coordinated effort to safeguard more of the ocean, including unique underwater formations. Overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution threaten nearly every corner of the ocean, yet, the authors note, only 7% of the ocean is shielded by a marine protected area of some kind, and only 2.7% of those are considered “highly protected” no-take zones. Published as numerous countries make commitments to protect at least 30% of their land and water, the article suggests it’s possible to safeguard biodiversity and carbon stored in ocean sediment without putting seafood—a key food source for the world’s population—at risk.

The authors crunched data to find places where all three goals might be achieved, including underwater mountain ranges found in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Peru’s Nazca Ridge, whose highly productive waters provide feeding grounds for sharks and whales. “Their analysis found that increasing ocean protection up to 30% can help safeguard ocean biodiversity, keep carbon stored in the seafloor and increase fish catch by 8 million metric tons annually, in part because of what scientists call the “spillover effect,” in which the density of fish in a protected area grows so large that it causes fish to spill over into adjacent areas. 

The study was among the first to estimate the carbon loss from bottom trawling—the practice of dragging large, weighted nets across the ocean floor to catch fish. The practice, it found, may be releasing as much carbon dioxide annually as global aviation does.

a fisher sits in a small boat on open water with two tents rising above the water behind him
Farmers of the sea Off the coast of Panama, a fisher hand-lines for wild fish near a fish farm’s underwater nursery cages. The cages, visible behind him, rise above the water for cleaning at Open Blue, which runs the world’s largest open-ocean fish farm. © Brian Skerry

Evolving International Policy

McGowan says she and her co-authors hope the article will spark greater interest in marine protection leading up to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity and the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26—both scheduled for the coming months. Meanwhile dozens of countries have pledged to protect at least 30% of their land and water by 2030, and a high-seas treaty is being negotiated that could permit marine reserves in the often-lawless open ocean.

But increasing calls for greater marine protection must be matched with local input and the resources needed to meaningfully manage those areas, say conservationists, marine advocates and Indigenous communities. “Governments are signing on to these really ambitious commitments over the next decade, and there’s still a reality that less than 5% of our [already] protected ocean space is effectively managed,” says Lizzie Mcleod, TNC’s global reef systems lead.

By the Numbers

  • 7%

    The percentage of the ocean that is protected now

  • 70.9%

    The amount of the Earth’s surface that the ocean covers

  • 30%

    Percentage of the Earth a global campaign wants to protect

Ocean Initiatives to Help

One new initiative that could help is the Blue Nature Alliance, a consortium of funding groups that includes The Pew Charitable Trusts, where Angelo O’Connor Villagomez works as a senior officer of marine protection. “We think Blue Nature Alliance can contribute about 5% to the overall goal of protecting 30% of the ocean,” he says. “Half of our effort will go toward creating new areas and half toward improving the management of existing areas.” 

Launched in April, the alliance is engaged in large-scale conservation efforts in places such as Fiji’s Lau Islands, where it is working with local tribes and the government to create new protected areas. “Fiji has a traditional land ownership system,” says Villagomez, who—as a member of the Chamorro, an Indigenous group in the Mariana Islands—understands the strength of such homegrown systems. “The village leader is able to set rules from the shore to the edge of the reef.”

Another new initiative is the Blue Bonds Conservation program, a TNC effort to direct money toward ocean conservation. In the program, TNC helps buy back an island nation’s debt and then restructures it—similar to refinancing a mortgage with a lower interest rate and a longer payment term. This restructuring frees up money, some of which TNC then requires participating countries to put toward protecting their marine waters. 

“Small island countries bear the brunt of climate change-related storms,” says Melissa Garvey, TNC’s global director of ocean conservation. “Each time they have to rebuild they get further and further in debt, making it hard to invest in programs that will build resilience.” In a pilot for the program, a deal was made with Seychelles in February 2016, and the government has since announced marine protections totaling nearly a third of its waters. 

purple, pink, yellow and orange corals are seen underwater with surface of water at top of image
Underwater Garden In the North Pacific Ocean, halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and American Samoa, Kingman Reef supports about 130 species of stony corals and an array of marine life, including giant clams and green sea turtles. © Brian Skerry
underwater view of dozens of large silver fish swimming in dark blue water
Fish Harvest In the Mediterranean wild-caught bluefin tuna swim in an underwater pen. The tuna will eventually supply Europe’s booming sushi market. © Brian Skerry

Efforts like these could help make the global push for new marine protected areas work in the way world leaders intend, but advocates say that to be successful they must involve local communities. “My concern is that our government gets to sit at these global forums where they make decisions regarding ocean conservation and representatives of the local communities are not there,” says Berna Gorong, a TNC conservation planner who is from Yap, a cluster of islands that are part of the Federated States of Micronesia. “It’s great that the world wants to conserve the ocean for the benefit of everyone. But how do we get it so that it’s delivering successful conservation outcomes and meeting the needs at every level of society?”

It’s a question McGowan agrees must be part of the conversation. A broad analysis like that in the research team’s paper can provide evidence showing that conservation is important and achievable. But in practice, she says, planning how to protect the ocean must involve local stakeholders and meet the needs and objectives of local communities. “Ideally, science helps inform transparent and inclusive ocean conservation where communities set the terms and make the decisions on where and what to protect.” 

Nancy Averett is a science writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Hakai, Audubon and Sierra, as well as on Yale Environment 360.