Good news, bad news.
First the bad. The first systematic analysis of the world’s oceans shows that less than 15% of planet Earth’s sea reservoirs remain untouched by human hands. The study, by the University of Queensland, Australia in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is an eye-opener, in part because even the researchers themselves were surprised by how little marine wilderness remains.
The ocean, after all, covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. So if just 15% of that remains untouched, it shows just how far-reaching — and damaging — humanity’s effect on planet Earth really has been.
The good news is that some efforts are being made to protect what’s left.
Much of that 15% lies in Antarctica, where even some prominent, high-profile fishing companies have agreed to back a UN proposal to establish the world’s largest marine sanctuary.
The survey’s findings were published in the journal Current Biology. Ward Appeltans of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, run by UNESCO, noted the research focused on the ocean floor, and did not include effects on the water column above that.
Not surprisingly, the oceanographic commission is backing calls for a global ocean conservation treaty. Just 5% of the world’s remaining oceans lie within existing protected areas, a disparity former U.S. President Barack Obama tried to address before leaving office in January, 2017.
There are other bright spots, but they are tiny — and not without their own controversy.
Remote coral gardens around the equatorial atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean are still healthy, though researchers note that in part this is because more than 500 islanders were forcibly removed from their island homes in 1971, as part of an international arrangement between the UK, US, Mauritius and Seychelles, to facilitate the building of an air base.
Pragmatists may also be forgiven for wondering about the potential environmental impact of a military airbase on pristine coral reefs and the surrounding sea, given the penchant for secrecy around anything to do with national, international and hemispheric security.
Antarctica is the key to any future decisions, though.
Antarctica lies within an area loosely defined in marine terms as “the high seas,” those areas beyond protected areas that individual nations can establish as part of their territorial waters.
That is why an all-nations international agreement, such as that which can only be negotiated by the UN or a similar worldwide body, is so important.
Climate change and ocean acidification, coupled with more obvious manmade activities such as industrial fishing, global shipping, pollution in coastal areas and resource extraction, are having a profound effect, not just on marine ecosystems but on the world’s weather patterns.
As David Attenborough warned in his epic BBC series Blue Planet II last December, the world’s oceans are under threat as never before.
In January, marine scientists warned that the oceans are suffocating. So-called “dead zones” have multiplied four-fold since 1950.
In February, new surveys showed that more than half the world’s oceans are now industrially fished.
Is it too late?
Perhaps not, if more nations — and individuals — accept the old proviso, Not on my watch., whether that means scaling back some $4 billion in government fishing subsidies toward fishing on the high seas or deciding against Chilean sea bass the next time you go to a fancy seafood restaurant.