By Jennifer Schwab
Almost a year ago to the day, I found myself diving in the Cook Islands with Conservation International’s Sylvia Earle, Greg Stone and Peter Seligmann. Perhaps you recall my article “Diving with the Dream Team”? This was my first immersion, literally and figuratively, into the recently raised – and critically important – issues surrounding ocean conservation. A lot has happened in the last year to make this a topline agenda item for NGOs, members of the business elite, and conservation societies alike. To use an appropriate metaphor, ocean policy and preservation is the next big wave of environmental consideration and concern.
Think back to Teddy Roosevelt’s initiatives to promote nature and encourage land conservation in the 1920s – we are at that same point in time with regard to the oceans. As in, the first inning. No, make that top of the first inning. It is an exciting field to study but one that resembles the Wild Wild West. I hope to shed some light on what important new and existing preservation projects mean to the public, the fish, the coral reefs, and our future. We are past the point of prevention but rather, we must undo some of the damage we have done – caused mainly by ocean acidification, overfishing, and bottom trawling. There are many new and vague terms that leave the average swimmer, diver, and/or surfer, palms up. This will serve as an introduction to the vernacular being used to describe these projects.
Let’s start with ocean acidification. Basically, this refers to the increased carbon dioxide that is now in our atmosphere. Thus there is more carbon, and less oxygen, directly contacting the oceans at sea level than in the past. This is negatively affecting the health of coral reefs and other flora and fauna underwater.
Now about overfishing. Think about this in a different way: On terra firma, vehicles are generally limited to paved roads. And we have a huge infrastructure of local, state and federal police who patrol our roadways. Now think of the skies, which are carefully supervised by the FAA, designated airspace, and a large network of control towers in major cities throughout the globe. Both on land and in the air, penalties for not following the rules of the road can be quite punitive. Simple enough.
Now, think about the oceans. Water covers more than 71% of the earth’s surface. Yet we have no international ocean police, no “ocean FAA” if you will…only a relatively infinitesimal handful of Coast Guard and related non-military vessels, worldwide, to guard the seas. So what’s a mother to do about less-than-trustworthy fishing boats – mostly carrying the flags of European and Asian nations – that are overfishing, bottom-trawling, shark-fin-hunting and other extremely damaging activities?
For this answer, I sought out a few of the world’s leading experts, including none other than Sir Richard Branson. He is a member of a group called the OceanElders, which consists of 14 dignitaries who are committed to protecting and preserving the world’s oceans and the wildlife therein. Other members include Queen Noor, Ted Turner, Neil Young, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jackson Browne, and Dr. Sylvia Earle, among other luminaries. Anyway, I asked Branson if by using technology, is there any way to successfully monitor the oceans for commercial fishing vessels, polluters and other maritime villains? His comments:
“Remote sensing of shipping from satellites is already a reality. Vessels that carry the required transponders can be tracked and identified in real time. The flaws in the present systems are that vessels can turn off the transponders and that they are not mandatory for all vessels. International agreements and treaties can fix that. The UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the best agency to organize and execute an improved ship location program.”
Out of the UN’s 193 member states, 170 are currently members of the IMO – including both large and small players alike, such as China, Japan, US, UK, Thailand, Madagascar, and Mozambique. “This means that once an action is approved by the [IMO], that action has force of domestic law in the member states. So a more vigorous ship tracking program can have teeth,” Branson explained. But what about enforcement?
“One option that is technically feasible today is unmanned vehicles (AUVs) that are constantly on patrol and prepared to call for assistance when needed. Another enforcement idea that really appeals to me is to develop a global directory of fishing vessels which habitually fish in distant waters from their home ports. As trespassers are identified, they go into the database and are flagged. A similar scheme is used by many of the major maritime nations to identify problem vessels. Those in the database that have poor safety and/or operating records can be denied entrance to seaports or will not be allowed to depart unless certain remedial steps are taken.”
Branson provides a realistic and honest appraisal here of where we are on this pressing issue. And clearly, we are indeed in the first inning. What happens when a less-than-honest fishing vessel enters a protected zone and dredges the area for sharks, killing everything else in the net’s wake and disturbing the coral to boot? If the ship’s transponder is turned off before committing the crime…nothing. And currently, without a network of satellite monitoring AND collection of significant fines in place, there is essentially no punitive way to stop this activity. Which is why 100 million sharks are killed every year – mostly for their fins, as in shark fin soup. Unconscionable.
So are there any parts of the ocean that are being protected? There are a number of marine protected areas (MPA) throughout the world. One small but significant example lies in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, called PIPA for (Phoenix Island Protected Area). PIPA is located in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-BAS), an ocean nation in the central Pacific approximately midway between Australia and Hawaii. PIPA constitutes 11.34 percent of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and with a size of over 150,000 square miles, it is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) in the Pacific Ocean. (For more info on PIPA, listen to this TED Talk.)
Conservation International’s Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist, Gregory Stone, was the driving force in conception and creation of PIPA. Kiribati has declared that three percent of this EEZ is a “no catch zone” and fishing is strictly prohibited. Three percent may not sound like much, but this is still a large area – 4,500 square miles – and it is home to high value reefs, bird nesting islands, and tuna fishing grounds. There is a sensitivity here because poor countries such as Kiribati derive significant income from taxing the fishing vessels. Thus they must be compensated from other sources to make up for the lost revenue in return for their cooperation.
I had an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Stone on how Conservation International (CI) is trying to craft a way to monitor the PIPA area, among other protected waters. “We are talking to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) about how we can use satellites to monitor the waters. Extremely sophisticated aerial cameras are available, and these could be used for ocean surveillance and enforcement. If we can create a way to document the presence of a vessel and, through licensing and electronic observation, obtain the name and home base of the boat, we would then be able to track and ultimately enforce severe fines and other penalties,” he explained.
Indeed, enforcement is easier when there is a government that has rights to the water space in question. What happens when this is not the case, for example, in the Sargasso Sea? The Sargasso Sea is the earth’s only sea or ocean without a land boundary. This extraordinary open-ocean ecosystem is bounded by currents circulating around the North Atlantic sub-tropical gyre. The Sargasso Sea provides habitats, spawning areas, migration pathways and feeding grounds to a diverse ecosystem, including a number of endangered yet commercially important species. Dr. Earle has called it “the golden rainforest of the ocean.”
I consulted Sargasso Sea expert David Shaw, a respected business and social entrepreneur who is also a National Park Trustee. Shaw put into proper perspective the challenges the environmental world faces when trying to educate the public on the threats to ocean health. “A big issue is trying to create a consciousness about the world’s largest habitat. Unlike the terrestrial world, ocean health is often not part of our daily thoughts in the same way that unhealthy air, rivers or land may be. We need to understand that world oceans are not infinitely forgiving…we cannot see all the damage. And we are best served if debate about ocean health and other environmental issues is based on fact-based science versus emotional arguments,” Shaw explained.
Shaw is founding chair of an alliance formed to study the ecology of the Sargasso Sea and to create a range of stewardship measures to conserve its health. The Sargasso Sea Alliance is led by the government of Bermuda, working with other nations as well as NGOs. So far, among other results, the Alliance has developed a robust “Summary Science and Evidence Case for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea” with over 74 collaborators. Under executive director Dr David Freestone, the Alliance is planning to bring the governments of the countries around the Sargasso Sea – including the US, Dominican Republic and Portugal – together with the European Union Commission to Bermuda in 2014 to sign an international declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea and to establish a permanent Sargasso Sea Commission, based in Bermuda, to oversee the health of this unique high seas ecosystem.
The urgency to protect ocean wildlife is not strictly the fantasy of environmentalists and watermen. We are talking about a far more serious question: How will we feed the world 20 years from now? Indeed, if we do not stop the systematic destruction of our ocean resources, we could have a serious seafood shortfall; this is on a collision course with simultaneous population growth. It would seem the key is to create a way to monitor overfishing, and soon. The concepts that Branson and Stone talk of, using GPS and related technology for this purpose, would seem to be our best chance for monitoring the oceans successfully. Question is, who will organize the nations of the world in this effort, and how do we effectively police two thirds of the earth’s surface? If we don’t collectively address and solve this pressing issue, the phrase “plenty of fish in the sea” may turn into a deadly falsehood.
Read more by Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.