The ocean — colossal and indomitable — is the origin and the engine of all life on Earth. And it needs our help.
Each year, nearly 12 million metric tons of plastic and waste is dumped into the ocean. Unsustainable fishing continues to push global fish populations to the brink of collapse. And by the end of the century, scientists predict that climate change could make the world’s seas hot, acidic and lifeless — with catastrophic implications for marine species and the food security of billions of people.
Taken together, these challenges may sound insurmountable, but around the world the tide is beginning to turn as governments and communities take action — from launching ambitious alliances, to expanding marine protected areas and developing innovative science to protect the high seas, coral reefs and mangroves that support life on Earth.
Here are seven reasons to be hopeful about the future of our oceans:
Scientists have found that protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 is key to securing healthy marine ecosystems, restoring plummeting fish populations — and combating the effects of climate change. To meet this goal, Conservation International and partners forged the Blue Nature Alliance — an unprecedented effort to double the amount of ocean area under protection — from the glacial waters of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean to the teeming tropical shores of Costa Rica. The Alliance is made up of a diverse coalition of conservation organizations, Indigenous peoples, local communities and government leaders. Together, they are building on lessons from successfully managed marine protected areas worldwide and incorporating the traditional knowledge and needs of Indigenous peoples.
In Cispata, Colombia, a sprawling forest of mangrove trees grows and thrives in the salty, tidal waterways lining the country’s Caribbean coast. This remarkable ecosystem provides local communities with protection from storms, habitat for their fisheries and a wealth of biodiversity —including sea turtles, manatees, otters and the American crocodile, known locally as the needle-nose crocodile.
But mangroves are also climate superstars, capable of soaking up massive amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away in the soil. Until now, however, that carbon had not been accurately measured — effectively shutting these watery ecosystems out of carbon markets and precluding financial incentives to protect them. That changed with a new project on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in the Cispatá Bay mangrove forest. The project is the first to fully measure — and monetize — the carbon that mangroves stash away. It is expected to sequester nearly 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over a 30-year span — roughly equivalent to taking 184,000 cars off the road for one year. And proceeds from the sale of Cispatá Bay’s carbon credits are helping to protect the mangroves — and support the communities that rely on them. Partners are now seeking to replicate this effort in six other locations on Colombia’s coast —and in new sites around the world.
The ocean and the species within it do not adhere to geographic boundaries set by people. That’s why some nations are working together to create “seascapes” — an approach to ocean conservation that combines separate marine protected areas into vast networks of connected habitat, benefiting people and wildlife. The aim of a seascape is to help countries and communities manage how people use it, to strike a balance between ocean protection and production. One of the best examples is the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, a Texas-sized swath of ocean along the shores of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador. Over the past 17 years, these countries, and more than 100 groups in the region, have cooperated to stitch together a network of 77 marine protected areas — protecting one of the busiest marine migratory routes in the world, traversed by sharks, turtles, whales and seabirds.
Battered by overfishing, climate change and pollution, the world’s coral reefs are struggling to survive. But in Colombia, reefs are getting a lifeline. With support from Conservation International, the country embarked on the “One Million Corals for Colombia” program to rehabilitate and restore 200 hectares (494 acres) of critical coral reef. The initiative will use innovative coral gardening strategies that allow corals to grow 40 times faster than they would in the wild.
Scientists have long feared that climate change could push vital populations of tuna into the open ocean. This would be disastrous for tuna-dependent Pacific island nations and territories, which are responsible for only a tiny fraction of emissions — yet face some of the most severe impacts of climate change. A recent study from Conservation International revealed that 10 of these nations could lose up to 17 percent of their annual revenue from the loss of fishing fees. Meanwhile, unregulated and unsustainable fishing on open seas could severely dent tuna populations that provide a critical source of food the world over.
To address this, Conservation International is planning a large-scale, seven-year initiative with Pacific nations and territories to secure the benefits that tuna provides for their communities — and protect the critical ecosystems that support tuna populations.
Of course, the best way to avoid this climate justice issue is to make sure that tuna habitats don’t shift in the first place. If countries meet their goals under the Paris Climate Agreement by limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), then the average tuna catch in these 10 Pacific island nations and territories will only decrease by 3 percent.
In a bid to protect some of Earth’s most unique species — and combat climate change —Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama committed in November 2021 to expand and join their Pacific marine reserves, creating an interconnected “safe swimway” that will be off-limits to industrial fishing fleets. The reserve spans more than 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) of ocean — an area slightly larger than Spain. The expansion will create an important corridor for migratory species such as whales, sharks, sea turtles and manta rays.
In June, Fiji committed to protecting more than 8 percent of its waters by 2024. The new protected area will span across the entirety of the Lau seascape, a thriving archipelago filled with coral reefs, whales and manta rays. Lau is the most remote island group in Fiji, home to remarkable biodiversity and ecosystems that provide food, cultural value, and livelihoods for its 9,600 inhabitants.
Luckily, Fiji isn’t alone. Last year, Costa Rica announced it would expand its protected ocean area from 2.7 percent to more than 30 percent of its national waters — a major leap that puts the Central American country nine years ahead of a global deadline to protect nearly a third of the world’s land and sea. The expanded Cocos Island National Park, off the country’s Pacific coast, will now cover more than 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) — a staggering 26 times larger than its previous size. In addition, Costa Rica’s Bicentennial Sea- mounts Marine Management Area will expand to 11 times its previous size, now encompassing more than 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) — roughly equivalent to the size of Iceland.