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The Time to Protect Our Oceans is Now

Growing up in central Connecticut, I used to bicycle to a local lake and snorkel around in the shallows, peering through meadows of swaying plants and following the big fish hunting for prey. By the time I could drive in the early 1970s, I had learned to scuba dive and immersed myself in the waters of Long Island Sound. Rocky reefs and kelp forests were the wild places to view ocean life that few others ever see. That early experience in those wild places close to my backyard led to my career as a marine ecologist and the privilege of spending 40-plus years engaged in research and conservation of our natural heritage.

Many of us feel a connection to the ocean. We gain a sense of calm when viewing shorebirds gliding down the beach and contemplating the vastness of the sea, gazing out beyond the horizon and the setting sun.  We relish our time there to relax, recharge, and motivate.  And there are other tangible benefits we gain from the ocean, too – the oxygen we breathe, stabilizing the climate, and providing the healthy and nutritious seafood we eat. In sum, the ocean is a source of both spiritual benefits as well as economic opportunities.

Throughout human history, we have depended on the ocean and the life it contains for our well-being.  Now we need to step up to sustain the well-being of the ocean.   

Two-thirds of the ocean’s environments have been “severely altered” by human activity, 25% of marine species are threatened with extinction over decades, and the ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat and nearly 1/3 of the carbon dioxide from greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution. We are creating an ocean that is warmer, more acidic, less oxygenated, and less productive – ultimately, an ocean that is less habitable for marine wildlife and the humans that depend upon it. The time for action to halt and reverse these trends is now.

We have choices to make: what kind of ocean will we leave to our children, and theirs? We need big solutions to reverse these trends, and we need to implement them now.

One solution has emerged that matches the scale of this global problem. Recent research indicates protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean areas by the year 2030 would reduce extinctions and – with changes in energy technologies – help keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  This is a crucial threshold for limiting the negative consequences and immense costs of climate change. Other studies have found such bold conservation actions could create 400,000 to 650,000 new jobs, add $300 to $500 billion in GDP, and 27 to 33 million jobs in ecotourism and sustainable fishing.

This 30×30 goal is one that Americans can get behind. Indeed, polls indicate 86% of our fellow citizens, with strong bipartisan majorities, support this approach. Ocean protection exists on a continuum, with highly and fully protected areas being those with the most robust regulations.

Today, 23% of America’s ocean waters are already strongly protected in marine protected areas (MPAs) – ocean places that are managed in ways similar to national parks and wilderness areas on land. However, nearly all of this strongly protected ocean is located in the remote western Pacific Ocean. In working toward a goal of 30% protection for our ocean, we have an opportunity to ensure our MPA network of strongly protected sites is representative of the vibrant diversity of habitats and ecosystems in our nation’s waters.

Americans have an exceptional record of addressing national and global environmental challenges. We also have a long legacy of actions to address ocean conservation. Institutions like Mystic Aquarium have embraced ocean conservation as core to their mission and primary reason for existence. By strongly protecting at least 30% of U.S. waters by 2030, we can ensure that our nation thrives, that we preserve our natural heritage, and that we allow life in the sea a chance to adapt to climate change. Most critically, we leave a legacy of healthy and diverse oceans and the wonder they inspire.

We in New England, with our traditional ties to the sea, should stand up, be part of the solution, and adopt the goal to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030.

Peter Auster

Senior Research Scientist, Mystic Aquarium

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