Liquid assets

11 July 2014 | Article

Interview with IUCN Patron Sylvia Earle, legendary underwater explorer and ocean ambassador. She says protecting the ocean is not a choice, it’s an imperative - our health and wellbeing depend on it.

This year’s Hamilton Declaration in which the governments of five countries committed to conserve the Sargasso Sea – a vast patch of mid-Atlantic Ocean known for its rich biodiversity was a landmark in ocean protection, but will it lead to concrete action?

The declaration was a groundbreaking commitment. It was the first time that an international alliance was formed to protect a unique haven of marine life. Although it is a non-binding political statement, it encourages voluntary collaboration towards the conservation of the Sargasso Sea.

It also sets a precedent, showing that countries are willing to conserve the high seas - areas beyond national jurisdiction - places that are vulnerable to overfishing, deep sea mining and other extractive activities that, in due course, might be constrained.


© Kip Evans/Mission Blue

The commitment is a stepping stone in achieving the 2020 global target to protect 10% of the ocean. Do you think this is realistic? What are the priorities for action?

I think there is no question that 10% is realistic, and actually, 20% is a figure that many support, including myself. This is the minimum that it would take to secure the health and resilience of the ocean and protect the assets that so many rely on for so much, including things that do not have a strict economic measure, such as breathing!

More than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by marine fauna and 60% of the ocean is high seas, where much of the ‘action’ takes place. It is not an option to wonder whether we ought to protect the ocean or not, it is a matter of how fast we can implement the measures that will safeguard the life support functions that it provides.

There are efforts underway around the world, for example, the Ross Sea of Antarctica is an area of focus. It is under threat from large scale fishing that is often called research fishing, but is in fact commercial fishing with several nations taking the Patagonian Toothfish, sold commercially as Chilean Sea Bass.

Great strides

Pacific Island nations are taking strides in terms of recognising the importance of their ‘liquid assets’ - their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Earlier this year Palau made a remarkable commitment, to end commercial fishing throughout its EEZ. The biggest threat to this area of ocean is commercial fishing, including longline fishing for tuna.

Palau’s President acknowledged that live fish were far more valuable than being sold off to foreign fleets for a small return to Palau, when tourism is the country’s primary source of revenue. Palau had already banned shark fishing for the same reason. There is a market for sharks, especially for their fins but people are attracted to Palau to see and swim with sharks.

We are beginning to understand the ocean, not only how it functions, but also the value of life in the sea, not just as a marketable commodity but also for its role in a system that keeps us alive.

The small island nation of Kiribati is working with Conservation International and other organisations to create a fund that will allow the country to forego revenue from licenses it issues to other nations to fish in its waters and is working to greatly extend its areas of protection. Similarly, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands announced two years ago a move to protect at least half of the islands’ EEZ (about a million square kilometres) from fishing.

What is encouraging concerning the 10% goal (or one hopes, the 20% goal) is that we are beginning to wake up to the importance of keeping ocean assets alive, instead of exploiting them for short term gain. I think we will exceed 20%, maybe not by 2020 but not far into the century.

Growing awareness

The value of a healthy ocean to our economy, health, and security is beginning to be understood from the highest levels of government and industry to the general public.

Last year at the International Marine Protected Areas Conference, IUCN and Mission Blue, with the support of scientists from around the world announced 50 ‘hope spots’. These are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean. An updated map of these areas will be presented at the World Parks Congress. If people want to know what they can do to help, they should look around for places that matter to them and provide justification for hope spots for their own.

What do you hope the IUCN World Parks Congress will achieve in terms of ocean conservation?

My hope for the Congress in Sydney is that it will inspire greater action. We do a good job of talking, but we need this talk to lead to results. There have been some: the last World Parks Congress in Durban was particularly important with respect to the oceans.

For the first time it was declared that we must focus on the ocean and realise that half of the world lies beyond national jurisdiction. It requires international attention and cooperation to achieve sound ocean management.

Progress on high seas governance is ramping up, but so far, it is still the ‘wild west’ out there. There are some overarching laws and policies, but nations and industries can access the high seas for commercial exploitation with little to constrain them.

Knowing the limit

Throughout history people have taken from nature, we have not understood the limits. The ocean has been seen as a place too big to fail. I have witnessed both on the ocean surface and below it, the changes taking place. It is no longer tenable to exploit at the level we have done in the past and still expect the ocean to deliver the services it has always delivered.

At the Sydney congress, deliberate effort must be made to acknowledge that the ocean dominates the planet. It is where most of life on earth exists and what we do to the oceans affects all natural systems. We have not been able to see those connections, but now is the perfect time to meet and look at the new evidence emerging, for example, on the role of microbes, the tiny bacteria that generate 20% of our oxygen.

We are finally catching up with what scientists have been slowly understanding - how our lives totally depend on the network of life that we have mostly regarded as stable forever, that no matter what we do, will somehow continue to support us.