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EarthXOcean 2020: Protect the Ocean’s Life Support Systems and High Seas; Preserve Life on Earth

By EarthX Stories posted 06-24-2020 10:12


The average person may imagine the high seas as rough waters, vast highways for whales and sharks that stretch across plains of rock and sediment… an empty deep blue — certainly not coral reefs, mountains, and sea beds teeming flora and fauna. But they should.

This year’s EarthXOcean 2020 virtual sessions on protecting the ocean’s life support systems and high seas brought to light the little-known vitality and global significance of our international waters, the challenges they are facing, and exactly what we all can do now to preserve this ocean planet. 

Speakers — icons of ocean exploration and advocacy — discussed how preserving the ocean is not simply a matter of preserving biodiversity — fish, whales, and coral — it’s a matter of world-wide resilience. Oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface and contain 97% of its water; marine plants produce 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere; and ocean currents regulate the planet’s temperature. 

“The ocean is part of your daily life, every minute of every day,” Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium said in her remarks. One can imagine this even of a farmer in Kansas — from the air she breathes to the water she drinks to the climate that supports her crops. 

Meanwhile, unregulated human activity has caused nutrient and plastic pollution, resource exploitation, and habitat degradation — each of which returns to the human population in the form of contaminated food sources, economic hardship, and the loss of ecosystem services like flood control. 

Enric Sala, Founder of National Geographic Pristine Seas and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, opened the conference by outlining these three main issues facing our oceans. Others echoed his concerns and dove into the lack of coordinated oversight protecting the high seas, the extremes of overfishing, proposals to mine deep sea beds, and the distance so many people feel from the open ocean, even as the ocean’s functions sustain life on earth.

Solutions proposed were concrete, actionable, and in many cases already in the works. Sala, for example, spoke of a vision for 2030 where 30% of marine habitats are protected — currently only 7%. He shared the example of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, where fishermen took action to create a marine reserve in the late 1990s. By 2009, fish biomass was six times larger than before and fish were bigger. Not only were fishermen thriving, but the tourism industry had revived. 

The example of Cabo Pulmo shows how the green economy is the blue economy, as Dr. Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, and Founder of Mission Blue, put it. Protected habitats are the lifeblood of the earth and the economy. 

Keith Tuffley, Vice-Chairman of CitiGroup, put the economic impact of the oceans in similar terms — without a green economy, there isn’t an economy at all. Without an economy, there are no jobs. He emphasized that the oceans are the 7th largest economy, but they receive less than one percent of philanthropic dollars and they don’t have a business plan to protect them. 

We need to be more watchful about our precious oceans, and that includes regulation. Peggy Kalas, Director of the High Seas Alliance, spoke about the UN treaty to conserve the high seas that has been in talks since September 2018 and was set to have a fourth session this spring. To date, only one percent of the high seas have been protected. A treaty could conserve 30% of the high seas by 2030 — which Kalas said would be the minimum required to safeguard biodiversity, buoy fisheries, and help ecosystems rebuild in the midst of stressors like climate change.

Even with a treaty, nefarious activities can occur under the blanket of international waters. Proposals for deep sea mining of manganese nodules have been inching forward under the guise of sustainability (“these minerals will support renewable energy”). As Dr. Earle said, it’s the “biggest land grab on the planet.” Alongside Dr. Earle, Vasser Seydel, Turner Foundation Associate Trustee, and Helen Rosenbaum, Campaign Coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, advocated for a 10-year moratorium on deep sea mining.

How can we safeguard these precious ecosystems in the long-run? ‘Aulani Wilhelm, Senior Vice President of Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, recommends giving deep ocean features a name, a face, a story. She has seen that strategy work before for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — Papahanaumokuakea — now the largest marine conservation area in the world. 

To tell the stories of the high seas, though, we first need to discover them. Although the oceans are right in our backyard, there are fewer aquanauts than astronauts in the world, Fabien Cousteau, Founder and President of The Fabian Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, noted. 

Nevertheless, there are certain stories that we do know, including the stories of Polynesia — masters of the Pacific’s high seas. Schannel Fanene van Dijken, Marine Programs Director for Conservation International, and Lagipoiva Charelle Jackson, Editor of Environmental Weekly, presented two perspectives on Polynesian culture — teaching the navigation of the past and valuing the knowledge of the present. In either case, what’s most important is that Pacific Islanders lead conservation initiatives. 

We as individuals have power to impact the high seas for the better. Packard puts it simply — ask where your seafood comes from. Consumer demand matters. Cousteau goes one step further — stop calling it seafood and call it sea life — “maybe there will be a little more respect for all those creatures in the sea.”

Written by: Roya Sabri

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