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Mapping the World Public Policy Dialogue: Ocean Conservation

National Geographic Society leaders converged on Capitol Hill in Washington. D.C. this week to deliberate with Congressional leaders on ways to address the many challenges facing the oceans.

Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell convened the Mapping the World Public Policy Dialogue on Ocean Conservation, held at the Library of Congress across the street from the U.S. Congress. Panelists included National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Sen Sheldon is Co-Chair of the bipartisan Senate Ocean Caucus; Dr. Sala is executive director of National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas, a project that seeks to explore and help protect the last wild places in the ocean, inspiring protected areas where marine life can thrive.

“The ocean is our planet’s life support system, covering 71 percent of the earth, supplying at least half of its oxygen, regulating our global climate, and providing humankind with nourishment, inspiration and awe,” Knell said as an introduction to the discussion. “However, chronic overfishing, coral reef bleaching and other major issues are leaving this all-important ecosystem and global resource increasingly at risk.”

The National Geographic Society shared the strong commitment to conserving our world’s oceans, Knell added. “As the challenges facing our natural world grow more complex, National Geographic also wants to put our experience to work to help you — our nation’s leaders —as you brainstorm new ideas and approaches.”

What’s at Stake

Enric Sala said he had three things to tell the audience of representatives from the U.S. Department of State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, congressional staff and stakeholder groups: “I want to remind you of what’s at stake, the problem we have with our oceans, and then highlight some solutions, [including] what we are doing at National Geographic to help solve these problems.”

  • We are taking fish out of the ocean faster than they can be replaced. A third of the fisheries of the world have already collapsed and about half of them are over-exploited. If nothing changes, by 2050 most of the large fisheries of the world will have collapsed, along with the livelihoods the fisheries support.
  • Every year 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean, and most of it breaks into very small pieces. A study published this week shows that 95 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from just ten rivers, the Nile and Ganges and other rivers in Africa and Asia. There are micro-particles of plastic found from the surface to the deepest part of the ocean. Now there also plastic nanoparticles, “so small that they have been observed crossing the blood-brain barrier in fish,” Sala said. “We also have that blood-brain barrier. It’s our firewall, our last line of defense to prevent our brain from being polluted with toxic substances … When we eat fish from the ocean we have as much as a 50 percent chance that we are ingesting plastics we have put into the oceans.”
  • Climate change is making the ocean water warmer and more acidic, killing coral reefs around the world. It’s melting sea ice in the Arctic in the summer, so that probably by 2040 we will be able to sail across the Arctic Ocean without the aid of an icebreaker. This will have impacts all over the world, including the weather, which we are already seeing. [Also read the National Geographic news story: Climate Change May Shrink the World’s Fish]

It seems to be overwhelming, and nothing we can do, Sala added. “But we do know what the solutions are. I will focus on one that we at National Geographic have been working on for the last decade, [based on] on diving research, economic analysis, media coverage, and discussions with national leaders — and the result as been 17 of the largest marine protected areas in the world.”

The National Geographic Pristine Seas project is the protection of the ocean by closing areas to fishing, Sala explained. “We have published papers which show that when you fully protect areas from fishing, the biomass of fish, the tons of fish per hectare, in these protected areas is almost 700 percent greater than in unprotected areas nearby,” he said. “Partially protected areas, ‘protected’ areas that allow fishing, cannot even double, on average, the biomass of fishes within their boundaries. So the areas that work best for the oceans and the people are those that are fully protected.”

Protected Oceans Provide Tremendous Economic Opportunities

Fully protected areas that bring the fish back also provide tremendous economic opportunities, like ecotourism, for local communities. And they have shown that fully protected areas are more likely to bounce back from warming events, Sala said.

“This is what we have bet on at National Geographic and where we have decided to focus and help make an impact using our expertise in expeditions, research and media.”

Oceans as an ‘Arena of Hope’

Thanking the National Geographic Society for “performing unbelievable  feats of education and advocacy”, Senator Whitehouse said the issue of oceans was one “arena of hope” for collaboration in the Senate. A third of the Senate is a member of the bipartisan Oceans Caucus, and the Senate has enacted several pieces of legislation, including four treaties on pirate fishing and the Save Our Seas Act, the first law to deal with the issue of oceans plastic…all by unanimous consent, he explained. “The moral is, if you have the right issue, if you do the right organization to incubate that issue, you can get things to a point where they can move even by unanimous consent,” the Whitehouse said.

“The opportunity for hope around the oceans signals a sense of caring and attachment and longing to the oceans that is perhaps a widespread human characteristic as well as perhaps the last vestige of bipartisanship on the environment in the Senate,” Senator Whitehouse added.

Ocean Wish List

On Senator Whitehouse’s wish list for a more streamlined management of the oceans and fisheries is “something big and exciting in oceans research to happen”. He suggested a big focus on advanced technology to address challenges, similar to what’s being done in the defense and energy sectors. He also wants to find a way to obviate the discarding of bycatch mandated by fishery regulations. Throwing illegal fish overboard does nothing for anyone other than the odd crab or lobster waiting to feed on the disposed corpses, he said.

U.S. Leadership

Both Dr Sala and Senator Whitehouse lauded the leadership of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama for their contributions to protecting the oceans. The Senator pointed out the launch of the global Our Ocean Conference under the Obama Administration; Sala said the two Presidents had between them set aside probably more of the ocean for protection than all the other countries combined.

“We have been taking fish out of the ocean forever,” Sala said. “Now we have no future for fishing without protection.” The U.S. was one of the few countries making progress towards science-based management, restoring fish stocks in the process. But “most other countries are disasters,” he added. “There is no future for all those people who live off the sea without protection to ensure that they will have a safety net.”

Protected Oceans = An Abundance of Fish

Scientists now have hundreds of examples around the world that show fishermen are doing better near protected areas, where they are finding an abundance of fish, Sala explained. “Yesterday a paper from Australia was published, showing one species of red snapper produces ten times more babies that will turn into adults that the fishermen are going to catch than if the reserve was not there. That means that that reserve is increasing by ten the amount of fish that may be caught. Without that reserve, most probably the fishery will decline as they have in most parts of the world. So the balance between conservation and sustainable exploitation is key.”

National Geographic’s Role

A huge amount of the solution is public awareness, Senator Whitehouse said. “And National Geographic has been so good at displaying images and being credible for so long that you’ve got a real, specialized expertise in that.

“We are a terrestrial species. We tend to take in information about the oceans mostly through pretty pictures and movies or TV shows, or go to pretty places where you see …so it’s easy to not understand that 90 percent of the big pelagic fish are gone – or that when you catch whales these days they are often toxic with pollutants they absorb towards the top of the food chain, that the oceans are more acidic than they’ve been in tens of millions of years, that half of the terrapods off of the Pacific NW have serious shell damage (and they’re a key link in the food chain), that things are warming,” Whitehouse said.

“Showing that in convincing ways and developing the technology  to make an image that sticks in people’s minds is a real gift both Enric and National Geographic have. It is really, really important. Complicated issues are made simpler by a telling image.

Role of the Public

What can ordinary people do to help protect our oceans? Quite a bit, according to both Sen Whitehouse and Dr Sala.

Sala: Two basic things will have a great impact if everybody contributes:

  • Plastic consumption. We are already eating it. Plastic is going to become one of the health issues of our generation. Reducing our consumption, especially of single-use plastics is key.
  • Eat less meat and more vegetables helps the ocean and the whole planet. Our biggest footprint is through agriculture and cattle-raising. If we cut our consumption of meat by half then our footprint on the planet would be reduced by something like 80 percent.

Senator Whitehouse: Join up, up link, and show up. Join the groups that are working on oceans issues because your voice will mean more when it is amplified through a group. Link up on the Internet so you engage with people who share your concerns, hopes and who want to be part of the solution. Show up at our offices, ether by phone or by mail or in person, and say this ocean stuff means something to me as your constituent. There still is a lot of attention paid to constituents by Congress. For all the dark money and all the big forces that sweep us around, people do listen to their constituents – but not if you don’t show up.