Our ocean frontiers are disappearing, and it is up to us to conserve the most important wild areas that remain.
Our first national park was named not after a mountain or forest but for a mighty river: Yellowstone. For centuries the world’s waters have connected us. Explorers, traders, scientists and fishermen have traveled our oceans and rivers in search of new resources and a greater understanding of the world. This Wednesday, as we mark World Oceans Day, we must intensify our efforts to better understand, manage and conserve our waters and marine habitats if they are to remain a vibrant source of life for future generations.
Great progress has been made in protecting our environment over the past several decades, but too little of that progress addresses 70% of the world’s surface—our oceans. Less than one-half of 1% of the world’s oceans are protected in ways that will ensure they stay wild. Too often overharvesting depletes what should be a lasting bounty of fish. In some parts of the oceans today up to 90% of large fish are gone from natural ecosystems.
Our oceans are also where much of our trash and pollution end up. Plastics and other pollutants difficult to break down are killing fish, turtles and birds. Currents in the Pacific have created a plastic garbage dump twice the size of Texas. A few years ago, I visited Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and was shocked to find debris killing birds that could not distinguish between plastic refuse and squid.
We are at risk of permanently losing vital marine resources and harming our quality of life. Overfishing and degrading our ocean waters damages the habitats needed to sustain diverse marine populations. Perhaps the most vital function our oceans serve is that of climate regulator—they produce oxygen, reduce pollution, and remove carbon dioxide. If we don’t protect our oceans, we could witness the destruction of some of the world’s most beautiful and important natural resources.
Fortunately, Yellowstone offers a blueprint for protecting our oceans. President Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park in 1872 at a time when large wild areas on the frontier were at risk. The founding of Yellowstone sparked a 50-year period during which many of the national parks we enjoy today were created. Our country began to see the value of setting aside large territories that would remain wild forever. Our national parks play an outsized role in maintaining healthy and diverse wildlife populations far beyond their boundaries. Many of the elk, deer and wolves seen throughout Western states trace their lineage to populations in Yellowstone.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. established a modest program to conserve some of its most important marine areas, called the National Marine Sanctuary System. In June 2006 and again in January 2009, the U.S. expanded the concept of parkland and wilderness preserves in the sea when President Bush designated four marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean.
The first of these, the Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument, encompasses a 100-mile wide area of nearly pristine habitat northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, and was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2010. A second area, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, includes the world’s deepest canyon and is home to some of the oldest and most resilient forms of life on the planet. The other two monuments are the Pacific Remote Islands dispersed throughout the Pacific Ocean and the Rose Atoll in American Samoa.
These four monuments cover more than 330,000 square miles and add up to the largest fully protected marine area in the world, larger than all of our national parks and wildlife refuges combined. They support vast numbers of fish, breathtakingly beautiful coral habitat, and a remarkable abundance of sharks—often seen as markers of an ecosystem’s health.
These monuments will remain open to shipping and other uses that will allow the economies and cultures of nearby American territories to prosper. But they will also remain a wild resource, a place where scientists can make new discoveries and where a variety of species can thrive. The U.S. was able to protect these areas because they fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds our territories, and because the U.S. provides the means to manage them.
America is not alone in its efforts to preserve marine treasures. Australia has expanded its protection of parts of the Great Barrier Reef and the United Kingdom announced the designation of the Chagos Islands Marine Reserve in 2010. Dedicated conservation organizations, such as the Pew Environment Group, are sounding the call to action. Their efforts have supported the designation of more than half the world’s protected marine waters.
In the coming years, protecting our oceans will be even more important. Nearly half of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of an ocean, and that percentage will rise as more people settle in coastal communities. Today there are few waters outside the reach of human exploitation. Our wild ocean frontiers are disappearing and, like we did with Yellowstone, it is up to us to conserve the most important wild areas that remain. Doing so will preserve something that is all too easy to destroy but impossible to replace: natural, undisturbed incubators of life.