Let’s get the bad news out of the way: Our oceans are under assault on two fronts. They’re being pressed to take in carbon from both the air above and their floors below. Meanwhile, marine life is choking on plastic that has sullied the furthest reaches and depths of our waters. Overfishing has spread from 10 percent of the world’s stocks in 1980 to 33 percent today, with China, India, and Indonesia the worst offenders. Tragically, 90 percent of the globe’s coral reefs could be gone by 2050, killed by warmer waters and acidity. China has already forfeited 80 percent of its barrier reefs. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest system in the world, has lost more than half its corals to mass “bleaching” events, telltale signs of warming waters.
By far the biggest contributor to ocean acidification is CO2 from the air, which gets absorbed by the ocean. By achieving net zero and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, we can stem the tide on ocean warming and acidification. In the meantime, we can cut ocean-related emissions by expanding the seas’ protected zones.
Leading this charge is marine ecologist Enric Sala, one of the world’s top experts on ocean protections. Sala came by his life’s passion naturally, growing up on the Costa Brava of northern Spain. After studying biology at the University of Barcelona and earning his doctorate in ecology, he became a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In 1999, on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Sala visited Cabo Pulmo, a once rich ecosystem that had become an underwater desert. The fishermen could no longer catch enough to make ends meet. The marine vegetation that once fed their fish—and captured many tons of carbon—had disappeared. Desperate, the fishermen did something no one expected. As Sala explained in a TED talk, “Instead of spending more time at sea, trying to catch the few fish left, they stopped fishing completely. They created a national park in the sea, a no take marine reserve.”
Ten years later, this underwater barren zone had become a kaleidoscope of life and color. Even the large predators—groupers, sharks, and jacks—returned. As Sala noted, “We saw it come back to its pristine level. And those visionary fishermen and towns are making much more money, from economic growth and tourism.”
Sala quit his academic job to work full time as a conservationist for the National Geographic Society. In collaboration with the naturalist Mike Fay, he persuaded the president of Gabon in Central Africa to create a network of national sea parks. In 2008, Sala and Fay launched the Pristine Seas initiative to document the wild places left in the ocean and to work with governments to protect them. These spectacular refuges, sprawling over an expanse half the size of Canada, are now fully protected by government laws or regulations.
It’s a story with a simple moral: When business aligns with conservation, miracles can happen.
“This showed what the future ocean could be like,” Sala says. “Because the ocean has extraordinary regenerative power. We just need to protect many more places at risk so they can become wild and full of life again.” It’s a story with a simple moral: When business aligns with conservation, miracles can happen.
While coastal marine reserves have recently grown in number, only 7 percent of ocean waters are fully protected from overfishing and other destruction. For our plan to work, we need at least 30 percent of the ocean under protection by 2030, and 50 percent by 2050. “The jury is in on marine reserves—they work,” National Public Radio reported. “Research has repeatedly shown that fish numbers quickly climb following well enforced fishing bans, creating tangible benefits for fishers who work the surrounding waters. In fact, many experts believe fishing will only be sustainable if marine reserves are expanded significantly.”
While the vast majority of fishing is in our coastal oceans, the high seas host their fair share as well. Fishing in the deep oceans is largely unregulated. Regional authorities can police practices in coastal areas. But the rules get muddier—and enforcement spottier—the further out into the seas you go.
Sala has set his sights on the spectacularly destructive practice of bottom trawling. “Super trawlers, the largest fishing vessels in the ocean, have nets so large that they can hold a dozen 747 jets,” he says. “These huge nets destroy everything in their paths, including deep corals on sea mounds, which can be thousands of years old.” Satellite data shows that Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Spain account for nearly 80 percent of high seas fishing. These governments subsidize trawling with cash incentives for buying bigger ships.
Based on Sala’s analysis, more than half of high seas fishing grounds depend on these subsidies, which total $4 billion per year. The Pristine Seas project advocates an international ban on bottom trawling. Backed by leading marine scientists, with discussions convened by the United Nations, the ban would not harm the world’s fish supply.
In our warming world, the people striving to protect our oceans are fighting uphill. Coral reefs and plant and marine life remain in jeopardy. The feedback loop of climate change has yet to be switched off. To put it plainly, we need a more serious global commitment. In 2016, twenty four countries plus the European Union agreed to protect the Ross Sea in Antarctica with a thirty five year ban on commercial fishing. The signatories included the fishing-dependent nations of China, Japan, Russia, and Spain. If we could expand these protections, we’d have a chance to help oceans resume their rightful role as vibrant homes to a myriad of species.
Excerpted from Speed and Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now by John Doerr, published on November 9 by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Beringin Group, LLC.