Important and Overlooked: Protecting Open Water

As of 2013, only 2.2% of the global ocean was protected, and only 0.14% of marine protected areas crossed into the High Seas. IUCN and UNEP-WCMC (Oct 2013). The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Available at: www.protectedplanet.net.

The open ocean may be vast but it’s not limitless.

Under that glassy expanse, the pelagic environment is more than empty blue water. It’s streaked and spotted with migratory thoroughfares and breeding grounds for marine mammals, turtles, fish, and seabirds. Thousands of miles from shore, the sea still thrums with life.

Yet there is no unified system in place to protect open water. Most marine reserves today are created and managed by single countries, most often along their coastline, or centered on remote island territories. But what about the ocean that no one owns?

The high seas “are extremely problematic when it comes to protection,” says Lisa Ballance, a marine ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, California and former Chief Scientist of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Cetacean and Ecosystem Research Cruises in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Since “no one owns them, coming to an agreement on their management is extremely difficult.”

As of 2013, only 2.2% of the global ocean was protected, and only 0.14% of marine protected areas crossed into the High Seas. IUCN and UNEP-WCMC (Oct 2013). The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Available at: www.protectedplanet.net

So if the high seas are so hard to protect, why bother? From the surface, open ocean looks “big and empty,” Ballance says. Out there, “you see a vast expanse of water and a vast expanse of sky.”

But beneath the surface, it’s a diverse and variable world. Temperature, salinity, and other factors “vary dramatically” between currents, she says. “With some scientific knowledge and equipment, we can very easily see it’s far from homogeneous.”

Many of the animals that we depend on, like tuna and other large fish, as well as protected groups like whales, dolphins, and sea turtles, ride those varied currents to hunt and breed. Endangered loggerhead sea —> Read More

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