Today is World Oceans Day. It’s always a little bittersweet when things as large and vital as "earth" or "oceans" are marked with a Day like this, particularly when the urgency and severity of the state of our planet requires all hands on deck. In fact, things are so bad that it can be easy to forget that we have actually made a lot of progress in recent years, and to lose sight of the fact that solutions ARE within our grasp.
So this World Oceans Day, I’d like to take a moment to remind us all – myself included – just how far we’ve come.
The high seas, the areas of the oceans beyond national jurisdiction, make up nearly two thirds of the surface of our planet. Yet for nearly the whole of human existence, the high seas have been almost completely unregulated. It wasn’t until the early 70s that we started to change how we think about the oceans. Gradually, we have come to realize that the sea is not bottomless, that what we do there can have lasting consequences.
This realization has enabled significant reforms. First, we tackled ocean dumping. At the time, Greenpeace was decried as unreasonable and alarmist for arguing that we needed to stop dumping nuclear waste into the oceans. Fortunately, we were able to help policy makers come to their senses, and now, just a few years later, it seems hard to imagine that this was ever even a contentious issue. Further bans on incineration at sea, dumping of sewage sludge and industrial waste have meant that millions of tons of toxic materials are no longer dumped into the oceans each year.
Turning our sights to another highly visible and serious problem, we fought for and won a moratorium on commercial whaling. While Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to flaunt the ban, the number of whales killed today is a tiny fraction of what it once was, and many populations have begun to recover. Populations of humpbacks, bowheads, blue whales, and right whales are increasing between 3 and 12% a year, and eastern gray whales have gone from a few hundred individuals in the early 1900s to more than 20,000 today.
Next, we successfully campaigned for a United Nations ban on giant high seas drift nets, some of which stretched over 40 miles long. Called “walls of death” due to their ability to indiscriminately kill marine life, the ban has ended the needless deaths of hundreds of millions of dolphins, sea birds, sharks, turtles and other creatures.
As understanding of marine ecosystems advanced, efforts to protect them have grown more sophisticated. Greenpeace, together with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, pushed the UN to protect vulnerable seafloor habitats. A 2006 resolution called on policy makers to ensure that destructive bottom trawl fisheries did not destroy fragile coral and sponge communities. Perhaps the best thing about the resolution was that it included a deadline: December, 2008. This year, Greenpeace will press UN to ban bottom trawling in places where the resolution has not been implemented.
Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the international community began recognizing that protected areas were needed on the high seas. Several targets have been set, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity goal of establishing a network of protected areas by 2012. Progress is being made, but it is admittedly far to slow. Fortunately, not everyone is waiting around for the UN on this one. Last year, a group of small island countries in the Central Western Pacific stood up to some of the most powerful nations on earth – including the US – and took steps to protect the high seas areas surrounded by their territorial waters. This is fantastic news, both in terms of the impact it will have for fish and fishing communities in the region and for the precedent it sets internationally. We can, we must, and... we ARE creating marine reserves to reverse the damage being done to our oceans.
Between global warming, ocean acidification, and unsustainable fishing, things are going to get worse before they get better for our planet. We’ve got a long, tough battle ahead of us, so it’s going to be important for us to remember and celebrate our successes to remind us that as difficult as things may sometimes seem, we have accomplished a lot already, and the solutions to these problems are within our reach.