Earth Day: Are We Destroying the Oceans?

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The good news is that, like their counterparts on land, marine protected areas can make a significant difference in ocean health. They give the seas a break from human influence and allow sea life a chance to recover. The breadth of life beneath the waves — from the blue whale, the biggest animal that ever lived, to the tiny microscopic creatures of the deep sea — is unsurpassed. "When it come to the diversity of life on Earth, the oceans are where the action is," says Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "But we look at the ocean like a Neanderthal would: is it good to eat? Or is it going to eat me?"

Despite recent setbacks (notably the failure in March of member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to pass a ban on the global trade of the endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna), there has at least been a steady rise in creation of new MPAs around the world. Toward the end of his time in office, former President George W. Bush — nobody's idea of a great environmentalist — created a 132,000-sq.-mi (341,400-sq-km) protected area off the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. At the beginning of April, the British government announced it would establish the world's largest MPA, around the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean, putting it off limits to industrial fishing. "We know that protected areas are very important," says Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York. "They breathe life back into the oceans."

Going forward, the challenge will be expanding protected areas beyond the puddle they currently occupy and into the high seas, where virtually no protection currently exists. That is the mission Earle — known as "Her Deepness" to her many admirers in oceanography — has set herself at age 74. In early April, with help from the tech-world nonprofit TED, Earle launched Mission Blue, a new nonprofit dedicated to protecting "hope spots," as Earle calls them.

Among Earle's first targets are the Patagonia shelf off southeastern Argentina and the Sargasso Sea, the 1.4 million or so square miles (3.6 million sq km) of underwater rainforest east of Bermuda. What they have in common is their unique value to the marine world, their size — and the fact that they're under threat. "This is the way to protect the ocean, the heart of the planet," says Earle.

Already, Mission Blue has generated nearly $17 million in donations for ocean protection, and there's already movement afoot to declare the Sargasso Sea a protected area, which would be by far the biggest MPA in the world. Some of the money is going towards a campaign that would end subsidies for fishing fleets, which might be the quickest method to reducing the plague of industrial overfishing. But the effectiveness of even established MPAs must be strengthened in the meantime, in order to prevent mishaps like the Chinese coal freighter that ran aground this month on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, leaking fuel onto perhaps the most iconic marine spot on the planet.

Accidents like that may be impossible to ignore, but the damage that humans are causing miles beneath the surface must be addressed as well. "This is our life support system," says Earle. "We take care of the ocean, and we take care of ourselves."

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