Take Part: 10 Trends of Hope for Our Ocean

WOW!  Oceanic explorers now include: Queen of the Deep Sylvia Earle, James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger, Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s “Schmidt Ocean Institute” (intent on mounting seaborne expeditions), Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos sonar-hunting expeditions for lost rockets.


Beautiful coral in the Marine Protected Area of Honda Bay, located in Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan island in western Philippines. Eco-tourism has been on the rise because of the area’s marine environmental protection program. (Photo: Romeo Gacad/Getty Images)

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the ocean’s future when you scroll through the headlines: Overfishing has decimated fish populations around the world; beaches are thick with plastic; carbon dioxide dumped into the ocean by the burning of fossil fuels is killing off coral reefs; water temperatures around the globe are rising; etc., etc., etc.

Maybe it’s because things have begun to look so dire that there is a renewed concern and interest in all things ocean lately, ranging from economic symposiums and new laws to entrepreneurial investments and a public-awareness boom.

I was nudged last week to think about a variety of good ocean news after reading a post by Peter Seligmann, cofounder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International. He had just attended a couple of big think tanks on ocean issues—at the World Economic Forum in Davos and The Economist’s World Oceans Summit in Singapore—and was moved by how ocean issues seem to have been pushed to the top of a variety of agendas.

“Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude…”

“In my 36 years of work in conservation, I have never before witnessed as much attention and concern being paid to the deteriorating health of our oceans,” Seligmann wrote. “Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude that gives me reason for hope.”

With Seligmann’s words as a jumpstart, here are 10 reasons for hope for the planet’s one ocean:


Filmmaker and undersea explorer James Cameron’s solo drive to the deepest void in the ocean in his chartreuse Deepsea Challengergarnered praise from his peers as well as billions of Internet eyeballs for both its success and innovation. Since 1960, 22 people have walked on the moon; only three people have gone that deep. Given that 90 percent of the ocean is still barely explored, there’s a lot of underwater territory to map out, and Cameron has made it seem exciting. His success will soon be hopefully emulated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, which the entrepreneur activist intends to pilot to the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean before the end of 2012.


One thing that has made fixing what’s wrong with the ocean so tricky is that all that water has always seemed massive and uncontrollable, a giant waste dump that will take care of itself without our help. Clearly that’s not true. Conservation International’s soon-to-be-released Ocean Health Index should help governments and businessmen focus on specific fixes, region by region, which will help both ocean health and the economies of the people who live and depend on it. Its scientists have assessed the waters off 172 countries, measuring ten factors—from climate change and acidification to human well-being and conservation plans—in order to come up with numerical rankings to help decide what are the biggest needs and best fixes for that particular corner of the ocean.


Similarly, for 10 years 2,700 scientists from 80 countries have focused on life below sea level, producing in 2010 an unparalleled look at ocean life dubbed the Census of Marine Life. What did they find? 1,200 new species to add to the 250,000 already-named sea creatures. But perhaps the most exciting—and challenging—part of the research lies in the future: The CoML estimates there are another 750,000 species out there that are still unnamed, swimming around a place long-considered by many to be cold, dark and inhospitable to life.


Just because you convene in big groups to talk about how dire the ocean’s future is does not mean anything will get done, especially if it involves raising and spending money. The recently formed Global Partnership for Oceans is an alliance of governments, environmental groups and the private sector (i.e. bankers) intent on putting money where it’s talking points are, focused on sustainable fisheries and ecosystems as well as jobs.


It’s hard not to be affected by the enthusiasm for the ocean whenever the Queen of the Deep (Sylvia Earle) speaks, which is often, since she remains the go-to person at virtually every ocean conference around the world. Near to her heart and public role are “Hope Spots” she and her team have identified around the planet. For now, these are 16 marine areas scattered around the globe that are critical to the health of the ocean, which Earle calls “Earth’s blue heart.” Some Hope Spots are already protected as marine preserves, while others are deserving of the same accreditation and protection.


While 12 percent of land is protected by international, national or local designation as reserves or park, far less than one percent of the ocean is similarly protected. Like the Hope Spots, there is a boom in creating new Marine Protected Areas, from California to the Chagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef to the Baa Atoll in the Maldives. While protecting specific species is often a key reason for protection, so is keeping these areas as viable economies for locals who have depended on them for food and jobs for generations.


It’s impossible to miss the National Geographic Society’s fingerprints on many of these ongoing ocean projects, from its early and very public support of Cameron’s deep dive to the Ocean Health Index and Earle’s Hope Spots. Its own Ocean Initiative is driven by the passion of executive vice president Terry Garcia, former deputy administrator of NOAA, and extends to all of its media platforms, from its website to specials on its television channel.


It turns out Cameron isn’t the only mega-rich guy desiring credibility as an ocean explorer. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos funded the project that just discovered—using high-tech sonar technology—the giant F-1 rocket engines that powered the Apollo 11 moon shot and have been lost at sea since 1969. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt funds the eponymous Schmidt Ocean Institute, intent on mounting seaborne expeditions using state-of-the-art-technology to explore—and share—scientific information about the ocean.


Until the Obama Administration, no presidency had even proposed a National Ocean Policy. Aimed at coordinating regional efforts on fishing rules and regulations, marine protected areas, pollution, and America’s coastlines, the policy has not been adopted as law yet but an executive order signed by the president in July 2010 directs federal agencies to work together on policies that strengthen ocean governance.


At the consumer level, supermarkets—including a number of big chains —are very publicly onboard with trying to educate shoppers about which fish are most sustainable and which are not. On Earth Day (April 22)Whole Foods, for example, will announce that it will no longer carry wild-caught fish regarded as at-risk, including Albacore tuna, bluefin tuna, imported shrimp, as well as most mahi mahi, shark, red snapper and tilapia. Armed with research done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’sSeafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide, modern-day fishmongers and buyers are increasingly knowledgeable about which fish are abundant, and which are not.


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