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A prescription for the ocean's ailing health

By Dr. Greg Stone, for CNN
Protecing reefs and ocean areas benefits many, accodring to Stone.
Protecing reefs and ocean areas benefits many, accodring to Stone.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oceans are facing a health crisis and needs urgent care
  • Pollution is a one visible strain on the oceans, but many remain unseen
  • Restoring balance and health to world's ocean is achievable through better collective action

Dr. Greg Stone is Senior Vice President for Marine Conservation and Chief Ocean Scientist Conservation International. Below he expresses his opinion on the health of the oceans

(CNN) -- Twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to dive to 18,000 feet in the Japanese research submersible "Shinkai 6500" in the Sea of Japan. I fantasized about the amazing animals our team might see deep on the ocean floor: rat-tails, deep sea sharks, and octopi.

But when we reached the sea bottom, it was littered with trash that included food bags, soda cans, empty boxes, and even a broken toy doll. I shudder to imagine what that same sea bottom looks like today.

The ocean is a beautiful, mystical world that covers more than 70 percent of our planet and supports a mind-bending array of life below the surface and above. But it's also a fragile ecosystem that is vulnerable to the strains placed upon it, which include pollution, increased acidification, and the warming of the water, all of which can harm the life supported by the oceans.

Some of this strain is visible, but much of it not. The ocean hides most of what we do to it. But I can tell you first-hand that it is facing a health crisis that needs urgent care.

Because most plastic floats, we can see it accumulated along shorelines, on beaches and lately, in ocean gyres hundreds of miles across (large circular closed-current systems -- there are 5 worldwide). And because most Laysan albatrosses nest in protected and well-studied reserves in the Hawaiian Islands, we've seen the frightening accumulations of plastic objects that parents and chicks ingest, and the terrible toll that takes.

I was at one such reserve in Mid-Way Island last June and saw this first hand. Every few feet, everywhere on the island were pieces of plastic brought there by albatrosses because they confuse the plastic for food. I saw one mother trying to feed an old toothbrush to her chick. Less visible are the effects of plastic ingested by marine turtles that mistake plastic bags for their jellyfish prey and choke to death or die of intestinal blockage.

Video: Challenges faced by Plastiki
We understand the extent of the worst problems and we know what solutions will bring the ocean back to good health.
--Dr. Greg Stone, ocean scientist
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Completely invisible are the effects of tiny particles (microplastics) released when larger chunks of plastic slowly degrade at sea and enter food chains. We have little idea of the extent to which these particles block or damage the digestive systems of zooplankton and larval fish, or the effects of oil, PCBs, and pesticides, which accumulate on the particles' surfaces.

In all these ways, plastics typify the major plot line for most of our abuse of the ocean: wonderful new products or techniques are ingeniously developed, deployed to excess, and thoughtlessly abandoned after use with unpredicted and unregulated disregard for side effects that harm the environment and marine life. It's this that has also led to expanding "dead zones" (large areas of low oxygen water such as those found in the Gulf of Mexico), climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, overfishing, loss of biodiversity, and increasing frequency of invasive species.

All of these threats to our oceans and planet have traceable sources and both visible and invisible effects. Today, the relentless spread of these stresses has reached global scale. A study in 2008 published in "Science" led by B.S. Halpern showed that no area of the ocean is unaffected and 41 percent is strongly affected by multiple human activities. The comparatively small 4 percent of ocean which scored as "very lightly impacted" was located near the poles, where seasonal or permanent ice cover has reduced human access. Those areas will see increased impact as ice cover recedes because of global warming.

So the bad news is that the ocean and many of its habitats and populations are approaching a state of crisis. But the good news is that they aren't dead yet. Also we understand the nature and extent of the worst problems and we know what solutions will bring the ocean back to good health.

It is also good news that the ocean's problems are entirely extrinsic. They are not caused by weakness, disease or any other fault of the marine system itself, but from the activities of people. Solutions therefore must focus entirely on us and our behavior. Again, this is good news because we know a lot more about ourselves than we do about the ocean and its citizens.

At Conservation International (CI) we've adopted a three-prong strategy to rebuild ocean health. First, we've pioneered something called the Seascape model which integrates management of broad marine areas through collaborations between governments, non-governmental organizations, conservation organizations, coastal communities and the private sector. Seascapes in Bird's Head, Papua, (eastern Indonesia); the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas (Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines); and the Eastern Tropical Pacific (Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador) are setting new standards for cooperative marine stewardship by establishing biodiversity reserves, designating critical areas, improving procedures for assessing the environmental impacts of development, and helping to establish a coordinated legal framework for management by neighboring countries.

That is just the beginning. CI is currently working to promote entirely new Seascapes in Brazil, Hawaii and the Western Indian Ocean, while also encouraging governments and multilateral agencies to create and support additional Seascapes on their own.

Second, we're scaling up that model for larger-scale regional management. For example, CI worked with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a partnership called the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), which uses the same management techniques to help six governments (Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and East Timor) promote coral reefs, fisheries and food security. That initiative benefits more than 100 million people in the region who depend on the sea for their food, recreation and livelihoods.

We're also in the early stages of working with President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kiribati, and leaders of other island nations to create a "Pacific Oceanscape" that could extend from Micronesia, through Melanesia, Polynesia and all the way to New Zealand, bringing ecosystem-based management to millions of square kilometers of ocean.

Third, CI is working to secure sustainable fisheries management on the High Seas, the 70 percent of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction, where the void in governance has created no-holds-barred competition for the 11 million tons of fish harvested there each year. Reform is needed for high seas fisheries, but also for protecting seamounts, the underwater mountains formed by extinct volcanoes whose tops support remarkably productive, but very slow growing, populations of fish, cold-water corals and other species 1000 to 4000 meters below the sea surface.

CI are promoting policies and actions to stop unsustainable exploitation of fisheries, habitat-destructive industrial fishing techniques, and fisheries practices that threaten the food security of millions of coastal residents who depend entirely on subsistence fisheries.

How will we know whether CI's actions and others are working? As one answer to that question we are developing a new approach to measuring and evaluating the ocean's health that is centralized, specific and scientifically verifiable. Ocean managers and the public will be able to see how the waters they frequent are faring and whether marine conservation is working. After all, we assign indices to track our financial markets, grades to monitor our children's educational progress, and scores to compare our favorite sports. The ocean's health deserves our same attention.

In all these ways Conservation International and its partners are helping build the capacity of nations, institutions and communities to create effective management of their marine resources; and encouraging social and political support for actions that promote the health and productivity of marine systems. Seascapes, Oceanscapes, Sustainable Fisheries and evaluation of subsequent improvements in ocean health will in time restore a rich abundance and diversity of marine life.

As threatened habitats, species and populations recover, we will see not only a healthier ocean, but greater prosperity and well-being for humans, including more than one billion of us who depend on seafood as our primary source of protein. We are confident that the coordinated, collaborative, partner-based techniques developed while creating and maintaining Seascapes and Oceanscapes will improve all aspects of ocean health, including stopping the proliferation of waste plastic at sea.

This requires deliberate, coordinated, multinational action, driven by awareness of the enormous value of the ocean to a healthy, prosperous human future. We humans cannot thrive by continuing to abuse the life support system that comprises 98 percent of the world's biosphere, recycles carbon, nitrogen, water and other essential substances, produces 70 to 80 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and contains the greatest diversity and abundance of life on our planet. The ocean works hard for us. Now it is time for us to work on its behalf.

The Plastiki expedition is a courageous, bold undertaking that will raise awareness about the ocean's health, and we hope, will be a call-to-action to inspire people. All of us at Conservation International wish Plastiki and her crew a safe voyage. We salute you for calling attention to plastics pollution and boldly challenging society to find solutions that eliminate this important problem.