New Report Provides Roadmap for Fully Protected Oceans 

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Photo: NOAA

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Each year, the ocean removes almost a third of all global CO2 emissions. But as the ocean warms, it’s becoming less effective as a carbon sink and could release billions of tons of carbon back into the atmosphere. More ocean protections are needed to ensure the ocean remains healthy given the “stress” of all this carbon, plus pollution and loss of biomass (fish and other living species).  A new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center provides some guidance on effective ocean protections and highlights six successfully protected ocean sites to serve as role models.

Why This Matters:  Recently, with the support of 450 elected officials, President Biden signed an executive order to protect 30% of all U.S. land and waters by 2030. Currently, only about 5% of our oceans are fully protected. What counts as “protected” can be a broad category of policies. To achieve real and effective protection (as opposed to parks with no monitoring and enforcement of restrictions) for land, wildlife and to fight climate change, the Biden-Harris administration will need to balance the needs of sustainable blue jobs in offshore wind, shipping, recreation, and tourism, and fishing with the need for conservation of the ocean. 

Role Models

The report highlights some sites where protections have led to biodiversity booms:

  • California’s Marine Protected Area network saw an 80% increase in biodiversity within 10 years of installing full protections in certain zones of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii was able to bring the endangered green turtle and Laysan duck back from the brink of extinction.
  • Edmonds Underwater Park in Washington was able to completely restore its depleted population of local fish.

Other places have managed to restore ecosystems and combat destructive human behavior in the regions:

  • The Great Barrier Reef no-take marine reserves in Australia have managed to significantly combat extensive coral bleaching; half of the GBR’s coral has vanished in the last 25 years.
  • Cabo Pulmo in Mexico has almost completely restored the health of the reef after aggressive overfishing almost destroyed it.
  • Dry Tortugas National Park and Ecological Reserve in Florida, which contains the United States’ only barrier reef, has seen an increase in fish gathering to spawn, which has helped nurse the reef back to health.

Feeding the Fish

Fully protecting our waters may seem like a tall order, but we’ve already gotten started. About 41% of U.S. ocean territory is under some sort of protection, but to fully protect our waters, we need to work to expand and supercharge those protections. Experts say that work is in our DNA. “For more than a century, our country has embraced the concept of wildlife refuges — spaces set aside to ensure healthy and vibrant wildlife populations,” said Wendy Wendlandt, acting president of Environment America Research & Policy Center. “The stories in this report all point to one crucial conclusion: When we act to preserve key ocean habitats, marine wildlife can get a foothold on survival.”  

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