We’ve often thought of the oceans as limitless, full of fish and able to cope with whatever we throw at them. And we know so little about the oceans – we’ve studied the surface of Mars in more detail than the ocean floor. But just because we can’t see much of what happens beneath the waves doesn’t mean our activities aren’t having an impact. Far from it – the oceans are changing and their health is in rapid decline.
Industrial fishing methods have been so ruthless, many fish species are on the point of collapse. Marine environments are devastated by oil spills while deep-sea mining threatens fragile life in the depths. And many types of pollution inevitably make their way into the ocean – we’ve only just woken up to the problems of plastic pollution on marine life.
As well as struggling with these problems, oceans are being hit hard by climate change. As our planet warms, they’ve absorbed a lot of the excess heat but this means the oceans themselves are warming. Sea water has also sucked up extra carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which is making the water more acidic. Both of these changes are hitting marine life hard.
It’s clear we urgently need to do much more to protect our oceans. Creating ocean sanctuaries – like national parks at sea – is essential. These would keep out threats from industrial fishing, drilling and mining, giving marine life a chance to recover. Protected areas won’t keep out pollution or climate change, but they will give marine life the space to cope with these pressures.
Ocean sanctuaries allow fish stocks to recover, with more and bigger fish. Billions of people rely on fish for their protein and healthier fish means better food security for them. And we’re discovering how important sealife is for regulating the climate. Whales and tiny krill are just some of the creatures which help remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the deep sea for thousands of years.
Some big ocean sanctuaries have already been created. The Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument near Hawaii is huge, beaten in size only by the Ross Sea protected area in Antarctica. Even so, only 1% of all international waters are protected in any form. Scientists say that we need to protect at least 30% (with the emphasis on ‘at least’) of our oceans by 2030 to halt their decline, so we need to act fast.
Over half of our planet is ocean which lies outside the boundaries of any country. Protecting these areas needs international co-operation. Right now, we have a chance to make this happen. Being discussed at the United Nations is a Global Ocean Treaty which would have the power to create ocean sanctuaries all over the world.
This is a golden opportunity to repair the damage we’ve done to the oceans. Given how much we depend on our oceans, it’s an opportunity we need to take.