How can we protect an important ecosystem such as the ocean from continuous environmental disturbances and damage? Such a protection plan will require the cooperation of many diverse, and sometimes competing, interests. For those who think that this is an impossible task, I would argue that we have little choice. The future of the world’s ocean and its valuable resources will determine the future of all life on earth.
The list of stressors on the ocean is a familiar and even daunting one. From various forms of pollution to the exploitation of world fisheries to the impact of a planet’s changing climate, the problems can seem overwhelming. Yet a carefully planned and coordinated global effort to improve oceanic conditions is possible. In fact, it has already begun.
Marine protected reserves are a kind of national parks of the sea. Just as we set aside terrestrial systems for their conservation and protection, we can do the same with large swaths of the ocean. Targeted regions sensitive to environmental impact can be designated marine sanctuaries. What this does is give those areas a fighting chance for recovery and survival. Imagine a large section of the ocean free from the pressures of overfishing, energy development, and pollution. Natural processes can be very effective in a short period of time in facilitating the restoration of a population or the cleansing of a contaminant.
Once a marine reserve has been established, threatened species can be identified for special monitoring and protection. Coastal communities nearby can enact a series of reforms that minimize the impact on the marine system. Such reforms include land acquisition, setback requirements for new development, and water treatment plants. A long-term management plan can then be developed which balances the protection of the environment with economic development. For example, fishing in some areas may have to come to a complete halt temporarily. But once stocks are replenished, then regulated fishing practices can commence.
Not to consider the long-term impact of a project is a very poor method of using a resource. It won’t be long before no one will be able to use the resource because it will no longer be there. This is effectively what has happened to cod.
Finally, we simply need to know more about the interactions between the physical environment and the living things which inhabit it. Oceanic data collecting has improved enormously over the last decade. Today we can analyze oceanic waters with real time data in any part of the world. But there is still much more to be gathered, and it needs to be collected for many years to determine changes and trends. If we lose species at a faster rate than we can study them, the environmental consequences could be severe. Now is the time to enact a widespread conservation effort to form marine parks, reserves, and sanctuaries throughout the world.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.