When you’re a few miles offshore on a pretty day, standing on deck with the sun warming your face and a soft breeze ruffling your hair as you squint at a sparkling, empty horizon, it’s easy to sense a primal connection to our oceans’ vast and seemingly endless beauty. You feel, in that exhilarating moment, as generations of seafarers before you must have, too. After all, the view looks much today as it did 500 years ago.

Of course, perspective is everything. Salt water covers approximately 139 million square miles of the Earth’s surface. But that’s nothing compared to its volume of approximately 320 million cubic miles and average depth of almost 12,100 feet. Most of the ocean is miles beneath us—even circumnavigators have seen just the barest glimpse of our planet’s seas. The big story is not what we see, but what we don’t.

That may be part of why we waited so long to start creating marine parks, which are protected ocean areas, like our terrestrial wilderness parks. There is no single standard for defining a Marine Protected Area, but the Marine Conservation Institute’s Global Ocean Refuge System outlines MPAs as seeking to “protect biodiversity, cultural heritage and promote sustainable fishing.” A Marine Reserve is a higher level of MPA, one that bans human interference including fishing or drilling. According to the Atlas of Marine Protection, only 4.8 percent of the world’s oceans are in fully managed marine protected areas, and only half of those are highly protected, “no-take” marine reserves that completely limit human interventions.

Red mangroves and roots in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas.

Red mangroves and roots in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the United States has more than 1,700 MPAs. The West Coast (California, Oregon and Washington) has the highest number; however, the region with the largest area of MPAs is the Pacific Islands, which is home to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the largest marine conservation area in the world. It encompasses 582,578 square miles of the Pacific Ocean and is larger than all of America’s national parks, combined.

In September 2015, United Nations member countries established a 2020 deadline to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans. Meeting that goal by next year seems virtually impossible, considering that the organization reports less than 6 percent of the world’s oceans are currently protected—and that number is closer to 3.6 percent if you remove what are known as “paper MPAs,” which are regions that have been designated but have failed to implement any changes.

So, we need to create more marine protected areas, not just to meet the U.N. goals, but also because they have already proved effective in multiple ways. According to a paper published by Enric Sala and Sylvaine Giakoumi in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, reserves are more resilient than unprotected areas. The researchers argue that “no-take marine reserves are by far the most effective type of MPA. They restore the biomass and structure of fish assemblages, and restore ecosystems to a more complex and resilient state … Marine reserves are no panacea for the ocean’s problems, but they provide outstanding ecological and economic benefits within and beyond their boundaries. In other words, they provide more than what they were initially designed for.”

Marine reserves aid species recovery, keep wildlife populations healthy and increase biodiversity. The spillover of rebuilt species into adjacent regions outside protected areas has been another win. And MPAs that protect salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass beds and other types of marine habitats that store carbon all play a huge role in diminishing climate change impacts. In fact, a study published in Nature indicated that mangrove forests store up to five times more carbon per acre than most other tropical forests around the world.

“Mangroves are natural carbon-scrubbers, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and packing it away, for millennia or more, in their rich soils,” says Mark Spalding, who supervised a study published in Conservation Letters that mapped carbon in the world’s mangroves.

As we face the growing problems of ocean warming and acidification, marine reserves will play an important role in slowing or mitigating their impacts. Jane Lubchenco, the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, told National Geographic that marine reserves create pockets of health that help the oceans better resist negative impacts from climate change and other environmental hazards.

“A [protected] ecosystem tends to be more resistant to disturbance, and it’s more resilient—it comes back faster,” Lubchenco says. She sees another benefit in increased biodiversity. “As we are radically changing ocean ecosystems, the more sources of genetic variety we have, the most likely it is to be suited to a new climate.”

The sooner we return the ocean to wild health, the longer we’ll all be around to enjoy it.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue.

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