Ordinary People Helping Our Oceans in Extraordinary Ways

The Island of Rarotonga, the largest island in the Cook Islands is viewed from the air on August 30, 2012.        AFP PHOTO /
The Island of Rarotonga, the largest island in the Cook Islands is viewed from the air on August 30, 2012. AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville (Photo credit should read Marty Melville/AFP/GettyImages)

When it comes to insurance, it may be your house or that new car in the driveway that comes to mind first. But when we're talking about the resources that extend out from our shores, the notion of insurance for the fish and coral and other creatures of the deep might strike you as odd. The truth is we all depend on healthy oceans for so many things: the food we eat, millions of jobs, and a wide range of recreation and fun. Making sure our oceans stay vibrant and healthy in the future is one of the best insurance choices we can make. And this year marks some major milestones in myriad efforts to protect our marine resources and restore ocean ecosystems, with people just like you playing an important part.

From coast to coast, we've made terrific progress to safeguard our ocean ecosystems. This year marks the 40th anniversary of our National Marine Sanctuaries Act, under which we've established amazing ocean protected areas where giant humpback whales can breed without danger, coral reefs can flourish, and historic shipwrecks remain intact, telling stories of our maritime history. Our sanctuaries -- 14 magnificent protected areas to date -- provide a safe haven for species close to extinction, and give school children and researchers alike a natural outdoor classroom where they can learn about Neptune's mysteries.
And the good news doesn't stop at the national stage. In California, our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the state's gorgeous Central Coast are celebrating their fifth birthday. These underwater parks -- similar to our national and state parks like Yosemite and Anza Borrego -- allow wildlife to recover, make natural habitats healthier, and ensure our ecosystems can better adapt to major threats, from climate change to pollution.

These examples are the insurance we need for the future to make our oceans healthier, stronger, and more resilient. And it turns out these insurance policies have made it this far in part thanks to concerned citizens who value the seas and want to help ensure their riches will be around for future generations.

Take, for example, "citizen scientists" -- regular folks who give some of their time to help our scientific understanding of our coasts and oceans -- who have played a huge part in making our marine protected areas and sanctuaries a success up and down the California coast.

In Monterey, scuba divers hovering above the sea floor record the number and types of fish, kelp, and invertebrates in different sections of the underwater parks. At the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, running along the northern and central California coast, volunteers have served as additional eyes and ears for the sanctuary for 20 years. As part of the Beach Watch program, volunteers survey beaches along the sanctuary's boundaries, discovering and recording observations about the fish, animals, plants, and entire ecosystem itself. Throughout national marine sanctuaries nationwide, ordinary citizens have donated more than one million hours of their time, cleaned up more than 80,000 pounds of trash, and provided more than $15 million of in-kind support for our oceans.

Everywhere you look you can find ordinary people doing extraordinary work, providing scientists with aggregated benchmarking data on our ocean resources. By understanding what conditions are like now, scientists will have something to compare it with later -- often during critical times, like after a catastrophic oil spill, as we saw in the Gulf of Mexico. With the help of people just like you and me, collectively we will know a whole lot more about the numbers and types of sea life in our waters, how best to respond to a major disturbance, and how much success we're having in protecting vulnerable habitats.

So just like your car insurance, long-term protections for our oceans may not be on your daily radar. But the safeguards we put in place now will be there when something goes wrong -- when we really need it. With our ocean life facing major threats, from overfishing and energy development to pollution and ocean acidification, building ocean resilience now will have huge pay-offs down the road. From government officials to beach-combers, and divers to bird-watchers, we can all do our part ensure our ocean resources are healthy and thriving for generations to come.

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