The immense problems facing the ocean often leave us feeling powerless. But what if there was a concrete, actionable strategy to nurse the ocean back to health? Dr. Sylvia Earle argues that there is. As a result, Mission Blue and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are opening up nominations for 'Hope Spots' - marine areas in a network targeted for enhanced protection that are critical to the health of the ocean.
Hope Spots are areas in the ocean recognized by scientists for having unique ecological attributes that make them especially deserving of designation as marine protected areas. They may have an exceptional abundance and diversity of species such as the Coral Triangle Hope Spot in the Indo-Pacific. Or perhaps they have an ecosystem essential to marine life migration such as the Sargasso Sea Hope Spot in the Atlantic Ocean. Some are the refuges of threatened species. Some have historical and cultural significance. What unites them all is that, if we choose to protect them formally, they can form the seeds of tomorrow's healthy ocean.
Mission Blue and IUCN will soon open up the Hope Spot nomination process to the public at large. Anyone in the world, whether scientist or citizen, will be able to nominate areas of the ocean to become Hope Spots. These nominations will undergo rigorous scientific analysis, and those that are accepted as official Hope Spots will be thrust into the world spotlight. Leveraging the growing chorus for more radical marine conservation, Mission Blue and IUCN will hold up these Hope Spots as beacons of actionable hope for the ocean - to global leaders, to policy makers, to scientists, to divers, to fishermen, to children in classrooms and so on.
The goal is to make the lifelong wish of Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the foremost proponents of ocean conservation, become a reality: "I wish you would use all means at your disposal--films, the web, expeditions, new submarines, a campaign!--to ignite public support for a network of global marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet."
The ocean is so vast that ancient navigators once questioned whether it had any boundaries at all. Today, thanks to amazing advances in technology, we know that the ocean is bounded by the globe we live on and covers 71 percent of it(1). With this in mind, one might be tempted to conclude that the Earth is more blue than green. What do you think?
Bahamian Reefs Hope Spot from Space. Photo courtesy of NASA
Until recently, we humans also viewed the ocean's natural resources as limitless. In the 20th century, artisan fishing gave way to factory trawlers that pull up thousands of pounds of marine life at a time. It was not until recent decades that the effects of industrial fishing became obvious. The United Nations estimates that 60 percent of the world's major marine ecosystems have been degraded or are being used unsustainably(2). Take Pacific bluefin tuna, for example, whose populations have crashed over 97 percent from historic norms(3).
Beyond taking too much out, we are also putting too much into the ocean. Did you know that ships on the high seas routinely dump trash and sewage into the ocean? Or that plastic pollution has permeated the entire ocean forming massive gyres, with plastic pollution being found even in the once pristine Arctic Sea(4)? Beyond trash, man-made carbon dioxide is also dissolving into the ocean, making it more acidic, while rising global temperatures have caused widespread coral bleaching. For example, did you know the U.S. lost half of its coral reefs in the Caribbean in one year due to a massive bleaching event(5)?
Coral bleaching photographed by XL Catlin Seaview Survey
With these problematic issues as immense as the ocean itself, we are often left feeling hopeless. Yet, there is cause for hope.
There are still tuna swimming in the ocean. Half of coral reefs are in pretty good shape. Many communities across the world are banning plastic bags and bottles. Consumers are waking up and saying "no thanks" to shark fin soup and other destructive human tastes. We still have time to turn the ship around. Yet, the next five years may be the most critical of the next 10,000 years - the last chance we have to save the great systems that sustain life on the planet.
Gulf of California Hope Spot - Mobula Rays Jumping at Sunset
The beautiful thing about the ocean is that humans don't have to do anything to bring it back to health. All we need to do is stop taking so much out and putting so much into it. We can accomplish this by establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), places where resource extraction, whether of fish or deep-sea oil and gas, isn't allowed. Science shows that marine life bounces back when we take the pressure off marine ecosystems and give the fish, sharks, coral and phytoplankton some breathing room to regenerate and thrive.
Networks of marine protected areas maintain healthy biodiversity, provide a carbon sink, generate life-giving oxygen, preserve critical habitat and allow low-impact activities like ecotourism to thrive. They are good for the ocean, which means they are good for us. Hope spots could make Dr. Sylvia Earle's wish of saving and restoring the blue heart of the planet reality.