Lessons from the Blue Hole
by John Hocevar
March 28, 2022
I write this from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, on the way back into port after nearly two months at sea. I have been on board as the submarine pilot, part of a crew leading Greenpeace global network expeditions to Antarctica and the Blue Hole, a biodiversity hotspot some 300 kilometers off the coast of Argentina.
© Esteban Medina San Martin / G
We need to flip the way we think about our oceans.
Our current approach is based on the very old belief that we can do what we want to the ocean without lasting impact, which science has soundly proved to be a mistaken idea. The damage we have done is severe, and in some aspects irreversible. Over four million fishing boats now remove about 84 million tons of wild animals – fish, crab, shrimp, and more – from our oceans each year. We have eaten most of the world’s large fish, changing the structure of marine food webs. Many fisheries use gear that destroys the very habitat that sustains seafloor communities or is so indiscriminate that the amount of unwanted and wasted marine life hauled out of the sea can exceed the target catch.
Instead of assuming that everywhere should be open for fishing, we need to start from the assumption that the ocean deserves to be protected. Where fishing is to be allowed, a vetting process must ensure that it happens in a way that maintains biodiversity, preserves vulnerable habitats, protects threatened populations, and prevents overfishing. When fishing is permitted, it must be done in a way that respects human rights, values the labor of fishers, and treats them with dignity.
I write this from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, on the way back into port after nearly two months at sea. I have been on board as the submarine pilot, part of a crew leading Greenpeace global network expeditions to Antarctica and the Blue Hole, a biodiversity hotspot some 300 kilometers off the coast of Argentina. In both places, we set out to document the seafloor habitats in hopes that people would share our view that these places are special enough to be worthy of protection. In Antarctic waters, we managed to dive every day, despite extreme temperatures and ever-changing ice conditions, and what we found will certainly inspire people to think differently about the rich life in those freezing dark depths.
At the Blue Hole, we were not so lucky.
We brought a ship, a submarine, and a very talented team to the Blue Hole for two weeks prepared to dive up to six hours a day surveying the seafloor. The urgency of our work was shoved in our face every day, as we were surrounded by some 400 fishing vessels – bottom trawlers crushing and burying corals and sponges, longliners casually killing endangered albatrosses and sharks, and a fleet of squid jiggers so large it can be seen from space.
It feels like understating things quite a bit to say that it was challenging to organize this expedition, particularly during a pandemic. It was the first of its kind, as no one had ever attempted anything like it before. That made it all the more heartbreaking when the combination of strong winds, high swells, and treacherous currents made it impossible to pull off even one dive.
Heartbreaking, certainly. But while our success in Antarctica was more immediately apparent, what felt like a failure at the Blue Hole may actually be more important for how we make decisions about the stewardship of our oceans.
The Blue Hole is clearly an important case – a highly productive ecosystem that is nearly unregulated, which has become a nexus of industrial fishing and human rights abuses. As hard as we tried to survey the area, currently being severely impacted by fishing, it was not possible to do so. In this way, the Blue Hole is in the same boat, so to speak, as the vast majority of the world’s oceans. We cannot survey 361 million square kilometers of ocean. No one can.
Government representatives will soon meet at the United Nations in New York, where they are expected to finalize a new Global Ocean Treaty. This is the best chance we will have for perhaps a generation to finally stop treating our oceans as if they can withstand unlimited fishing pressure, which of course they cannot.
If we get this treaty right, it will enable us to quickly establish a global network of fully protected sanctuaries. Instead of spending years or decades trying to convince policymakers that this or that area is worthy of protection, we will take a holistic approach grounded on the understanding that we need healthy oceans in order to have healthy civilizations. The Blue Hole will be one of many vital ocean areas to benefit. So will our climate, as intact marine ecosystems play a powerful role in sequestering carbon.
We need to flip the way we think about our oceans. More than ever before, we need your help to do it.