Fifteen years ago, we hit peak pessimism. A widely publicized study I co-authored in 2006 described declining trends in the abundance of ocean species, with a threat of global fishery collapse mathematically projected to occur by 2048. It was a wake-up call and a turning point in how we view the ocean — for me personally, and for much of society.
Once seen as inexhaustible, the ocean more realistically appeared as a fragile environment with a finite supply of vital resources and limited resilience in the face of unprecedented pressures. What once was unthinkable seemed now within reach, even in my own lifetime: An ocean that might fail us, because we failed it. Popular books with titles such as "The End of the Line" and "Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis" were penned soon after, engraining the view of a failing ocean in public consciousness. A palpable sense of despair grew that maybe this problem had become too big to fix .
Today, on World Oceans Day, I personally feel that the tide has shifted once again, and a new sense of resolve has taken root: The ocean is simply too big to ignore any longer. Changes in mindset are visible at sea level. Fifteen years ago, the harbor where I live in Nova Scotia was so polluted most people wouldn't dip a toe in. It has since been cleaned up and I now swim in it daily. This morning, an osprey circled overhead, catching fish for its young, their breeding success no longer threatened by widespread use of pesticides like DDT. For the last week, I have been waiting for the mackerel to arrive on their annual migration. These small fish fuel an entire food web, attracting giant bluefin tuna, dainty terns and mischievous porpoises in their wake — species that were once almost gone from the region, but now returning in greater numbers.
What has changed? I believe that at the core of this shift is our altered perception that the ocean is no longer there to endlessly supply what we want and need — instead, now the ocean needs us to care.
Perhaps the most visible indicator of this mind shift is the fact that the area of ocean designated primarily for conservation purposes — rather than exploitation — has increased from just over 1 percent when our 2006 study was published to almost 8 percent today. That is still only about half of what we protect on land, where 17 percent of area is similarly conserved. But several countries, including the United States , have already committed to a more ambitious target of 30 percent protected area by 2030, both on land and in the sea.
So far, most of these protected areas are in far-away places where conflict with human use is limited. But a recent study has shown that the greatest conservation benefits often accrue on our doorstep, in the productive coastal waters close to where people live, work and play. Here, well-placed protections often achieve multiple benefits , by restoring the abundance of dwindling species and habitats, locking up greenhouse gases and boosting productivity for sustainable use .
While global efforts to protect ocean real estate from overuse have skyrocketed over the last 15 years, there have also been efforts to change the destructive nature of resource exploitation itself, with the United States emerging as a leader early on. The bipartisan Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 was amended in 1996 and 2007 to make overfishing illegal, while mandating the rebuilding of all depleted fish stocks. This enlightened policy was directly responsible for the recovery of dozens of species — from coastal crabs to offshore swordfish — and has since been emulated by other nations, such as Canada, although implementation is still lagging here, for example for the above-cited mackerel stocks.
Beyond government, the last 15 years have also seen unprecedented commitments by the private sector , especially large seafood retailers, to source sustainable and responsibly caught seafood. Again, the postwar mindset of conquering the sea for human benefit has become more nuanced: We even see some fishing companies siding with environmental organizations asking for better regulations, aiming to retain market access to large retailers and environmentally minded consumers. The potential impact of company decisions cannot be overstated. Only a handful of transnational corporations receive about half of all industry revenue in sectors such as offshore oil and gas, marine shipping and cruise tourism. How these companies choose to act in the coming years will be critical for our transition to a more sustainable ocean economy.
While the cited successes are often outnumbered by counterexamples of continued overfishing , illegal activities and the rising threat of species extinctions , they do indicate a growing movement to restore what has been lost — to rebuild marine life .
In 2006, I would not have dreamed that only 15 years later such a positive vision might take hold. But now many scientists do believe that we have a fighting chance to leave an ocean to our children that is more abundant, more productive and more resilient than the one we inherited.
What will it take? According to a comprehensive plan outlined last year , we need to scale up past successes. Research shows that strong management action, reducing the intensity of exploitation and pollution while protecting essential habitat, typically results in substantial recovery of affected ecosystems in a human generation or less .
Climate change has become a key concern in the ocean as well as on land and requires international action and leadership. At the national level, concrete policies that will help improve on-the-water practices include requirements for full seafood traceability that ensure sustainability criteria are met in this country and elsewhere. Another worthwhile policy is mandated slow-down zones to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly ship strikes. But our efforts cannot be driven by regulation alone.
From local communities replanting storm-buffering mangrove forests in the tropics to Inuit self-governance in the Arctic, we need to include a diversity of ocean people — which is all of us, no matter where we live or what we do.
On this World Oceans Day, let us look to further our successes and collectively turn new insights into lasting positive actions.
Boris Worm is a Killam research professor in marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University and an ambassador for ocean literacy at The Ocean Frontier Institute in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @cbcoceansguy
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