“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” – Robert Swan OBE (Polar explorer)

Every inch of land has been claimed by someone, managed through laws, policies, and regulations. On the ocean, the situation is different. No one owns the ocean. But everyone uses it. Little is protected, managed and regulated. Learn about the challenge of ocean management and protection.

In 1609, the Dutchman Hugo Grotius made the first attempt to create an international regulation on the ocean. His document ‘Mare Liberum’ (freedom of the seas) proposed that the ocean belongs to everyone. There is freedom to take what’s swimming or floating around. If you find a ship, it’s yours. Only 35 years ago, in 1982, the United Nations established a global framework governing human activities on the world’s oceans, the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Only 167 countries in the world have signed it though – with the United States, one of the biggest importers of seafood, notably absent on the list! The ocean belongs to everyone, but especially to those living in it.

Too little of the oceans are protected areas. The oceans account for 71% of the planet’s surface, but less than 3% of the oceans are protected. Protections are in place for nearly 12% of all land (through areas like national parks) (1).

Although there are Marine Protected Areas, the challenge lies in upholding laws and regulations. Within 200 nautical miles from the coast, waters are an Exclusive Economic Zone. Beyond that, the oceans remain ungoverned. There are international laws and agreements, like for instance the ban on whaling, but on the high seas, there is no enforcement of these regulations.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

They are the “National Parks” in our oceans (and big lakes). These are protected areas with a specific conservation purpose, and they limit human intervention by fishing, building, or mooring/anchoring with your boat. For example, in Carriacou (Grenada), there is an MPA for a mangrove forest, an important nurturing ground for small fish and oysters. These MPAs are overseen by the government of the country. It’s a way to restore the rich biodiversity of our oceans. The world has around 5,000 MPAs. All together they cover an area of not even 3% of the world’s ocean! That’s about the size of Europe. A huge win in 2016 was the decision to make the Ross Sea in Antarctica an MPA, one of the earth’s most pristine marine ecosystems. A special type of MPA is a marine reserve, a ‘no-take MPA.’ In a marine reserve, nothing may be taken. Only 10% of the MPAs are a marine reserve. So much remains unprotected (2) (3).

If everyone just keeps taking what they want from the ocean, eventually no one will have anything. It’s called the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ It means that individuals try to reap the greatest benefits for themselves from a shared resource. Until the resource is gone… If we want to keep enjoying the ocean and give our children a healthy environment, we need to shift our thinking and behaviour. We only have one planet, and it’s not expanding. But we’re breeding and using the planet like we have a spare.

There is only so much space and resources. Each day the number of births double the number of deaths (4). When my parents were born (in 1960), there were only three billion people on the planet. Today we approach 7.5 billion, and by 2100, 11 billion people are expected to be on this planet (5). The planet has room for more, but there’s no room for all these people to keep consuming the way that we do. We as humans are pretty destructive to the planet that gives us life, often without even realising it ourselves. We have become disconnected from nature, and connected with work, money, and convenience. Too many people consume too many resources and return toxic poisons, plastic, radiation and chemicals to the sea, often without even knowing.

The responsibility of ocean protection lies within each one of us. We all need to team up to keep our ocean playground and the lifeblood of our planet alive! As individuals we make an impact, for better or worse, with the choices we make in all aspects of our lives: work, food, time spent, and things bought.

“We can learn from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…” (Wendell Berry – Writer and Environmental Activist)

1. One World, One Ocean, One Mission. Anderson, T. L. 1, Canada : MacEwan University, 2013, Earth Common Journal, Vol. 3

2. Protect Planet Ocean. Global facts about MPAs and marine reserves. [Online] http://www.protectplanetocean.org/collections/introduction/introbox/globalmpas/ introduction-item.html.

3. Atlas of Marine Protection. How much of our ocean is protected? MPAtlas. [Online] http://www.mpatlas.org/.

4. IUCN, & UNEP-WCMC. The official MPA map. Protect Planet Ocean. [Online] 2013. http://www.protectplanetocean.org/official_mpa_map

5. Worldometer. World Population. Worldometer. [Online] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.