More than 80 percent of the world’s oceans remain unmapped, making them some of the Earth’s most mysterious—and least explored—regions.
They’re also one of the planet’s least protected places, according to Laure Katz, director of Conservation International’s Seascapes Program. “There’s no question that ocean conservation is generationally behind terrestrial conservation,” said Katz. “The ocean is still very foreign to a lot of people, and that direct connection to what the ocean provides us every day gets lost.”
This lack of protections precipitated this month’s launch of the Blue Nature Alliance, a partnership between Conservation International and Pew Charitable Trusts that aims to protect 7 million square miles of ocean—an area larger than South America—over the next five years.
The alliance’s ambitious projects around the world will leverage relationships with governments, philanthropists, nonprofit groups, and local and indigenous communities to create new or enhanced protection zones in key biodiverse areas that are under threat. The first projects will launch in the remote Lau Seascape of Fiji, the islands of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, parts of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica, and other areas around Canada, Palau, the Seychelles, and the western Indian Ocean. In the summer of 2021, the alliance will announce 18 more projects in North and South America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.
Oceans, which cover two thirds of the planet’s surface, surpass even the Amazon rain forest as the world’s largest carbon sink, and more than half of the oxygen—or every other breath we take—comes from plankton. Oceans absorb 90 percent of excess heat connected to greenhouse gases and produce food for hundreds of millions of people on a daily basis, while coastal reefs are crucial buffers that help to protect the land from coastal storm systems.
Still, oceans are under threat from mounting global threats that include trash buildup, rising temperatures due to climate change, and overfishing. Every year, 17.6 billion pounds of garbage—that’s the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales—end up in oceans, which includes the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, made up of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. Between 2014 and 2017, a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found that 75 percent of the world’s corals experienced enough environmental stress, much of it related to climate change, to trigger coral bleaching, and 30 percent of that coral died. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 70 percent of fish populations are either moderately or fully exploited, causing many species such as Atlantic halibut and bluefin tuna to plummet, often precariously close to the verge of extinction. Ocean phytoplankton, which provide all that oxygen, are also under threat as oceans absorb record levels of heat and carbon dioxide.
“There’s more stress on all of these ecosystems, and they’re building on each other,” says Katz. “From overfishing to climate change, that conflates and builds upon itself.”
Scientists widely agree that in order to have healthy, functioning ocean systems that sustain life on Earth, 30 percent of our oceans must be protected by 2030, a goal that the annual United Nations Biodiversity Conference expects to formalize later this year. The Blue Nature Alliance’s effort would comprise 5 percent of this new goal, which replaces a previous U.N. goal set in 2010 to protect 10 percent of oceans by 2020 (they missed the goal by 2.5 percent).
Glimmers of hope
Katz feels optimistic that the large-scale efforts of the Blue Nature Alliance will spur more global awareness and success stories that could lead to more momentum toward the 30 percent target. One such effort is taking place in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, home to killer whales, emperor penguins, and leopard seals. There, the alliance’s plan is to increase the protection zone of the Ross Area Region Marine Protected Area, the world’s largest ocean reserve of about 600,000 square miles that prohibits commercial fishing, by a potential increase of 1.5 million square miles. In Fiji’s Lau Seascape archipelago, the alliance will work with the government and communities to create a 128,000-square-mile conservation area offshore that would strengthen management and regulations, which would help protect the ecosystems, economies, and cultural traditions that the region’s 10,000 residents rely upon.
The alliance is working to advocate for other global efforts in a power-in-numbers approach, according to Katz. Close to two thirds of the oceans falls outside of national jurisdictions, where there’s little to no governance or management; the United Nations has been working on a high seas treaty that would increase protections in these areas.
Part of the greater solution is non-extractive activities like tourism, according to Katz. “Tourism isn’t a panacea, but when it’s done right, it’s a really important part of the conservation story in a lot of these places,” she said.
Katz herself has seen how marine protected areas can turn threatened ocean environments around. During her research work in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape, home to some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, she saw the area go from shark finning and dynamite and cyanide fishing to sustainable fishing and tourism. Over a decade ago, local communities worked with the government and NGOs including Conservation International to preserve 30 percent of their ecosystem for their own small-scale fishing practices and ban shark and ray fishing. The result was an increase in marine life populations of as much as 200 percent in some areas, according to Katz. Sustainable tourism also played a huge role in bringing non-extractive economic benefits to the area. “Tourism over the last 12 years has increased 3,000 percent and is still at sustainable levels,” she said. One of the best examples of sustainable tourism in Indonesia, according to Katz, is Misool Eco Resort, a hotel built entirely with reclaimed driftwood located on a private island in the remote Raja Ampat islands, with its own foundation that established a protected marine reserve and a commitment to hiring locals.
“Ecotourism is based off of visiting and experiencing these wild and intact and healthy places,” said Katz. “If that continues to be an industry that can generate real economic opportunity for local communities and governments, then that creates that incentive for communities to protect that area, because their livelihoods are dependent upon it.”
How to experience the world’s oceans more responsibly
Tourism, when done right, can be part of the solution for protecting our world’s oceans and the communities that coexist with them, according to Katz. She recommends looking for travel businesses that are either owned locally or show substantial benefits toward local communities. In the case of foreign-owned businesses, that would translate into local sourcing of materials and food, local employment, and a spelled-out sustainability plan that covers key issues like waste management, the elimination of single-use plastics, and the adherence to park fees that fund marine protected areas (one such example is Galápagos National Park’s $100 entry fee, which goes toward local conservation and management efforts).
When exploring marine ecosystems, travelers should opt for reef-safe sunscreen with no oxybenzone, which can contribute to coral bleaching, and avoid buying trinkets that exploit marine life, like conch shells and dry sea horses. And as a general rule, never touch or ride wildlife: “I’ve seen manta rays with handprint infections on their back because they have protective bacteria on their skin, and when you touch them or wipe them, then that leaves them susceptible to infection,” said Katz.
Here are three tourism experiences with admirable practices that continue to look for ways to become better custodians of the planet. (If you’re looking to book, be sure to check pandemic travel restrictions and temporary closures.)
Misool Eco Resort
A private island resort located in remote Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Misool Eco Resort, with its eight stilted cottages that hover over a lagoon, was fashioned entirely from reclaimed tropical hardwoods and employs more than 200 locals. A gray water system uses orchid beds to transform gray water into clean water. The resort has a separate nonprofit foundation that funds scientific research and protects and patrols a 300,000-acre marine conservation area; the foundation also has an innovative trash bank program that pays people living in coastal villages to collect waste, which is shipped to the mainland for recycling.
I Am Water Ocean Travel
Founded in Cape Town, South Africa, with ocean conservation at its heart, I Am Water Ocean Travel leads group trips and bespoke experiences on free-diving excursions around the world; upcoming trips include Cape Town’s kelp forest, humpback whales in the South Pacific, and whale sharks and sea lions in the Baja California region of Mexico. A separate nonprofit group, I Am Water Foundation, focuses primarily on youth education workshops with an aim to create meaningful connections between children in underprivileged communities and oceans through transformative experiences.
With sustainability at its core, andBeyond operates ongoing conservation and community work at its four oceanside resorts along the eastern coast of sub-Saharan Africa. The safari company’s Oceans Without Borders is a partnership with Africa Foundation, and its mission includes the facilitation of scientific research, advocacy for creating new marine protected areas, and collaboration with communities on sustainable marine use practices.
In 2005, andBeyond Mnemba Island, a rustic-chic island retreat off the northeast coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania, collaborated with the Zanzibar Department of Fisheries along with local fishing communities to create the Mnemba Island Marine Conservation Area, which now protects some of the area’s most biodiverse coral reefs from net fishing and charges a levy that funds community projects.
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Jennifer Flowers Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.