Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Ocean Frontier is Closed

Look at all those animals swimming in the ocean!
In 1890, director of the U.S. Census Bureau Frederick Jackson Turner announced the American Frontier closed.  That's Frontier with a capital F -- meaning the period of American history where parts of our country were unexplored and unsettled (apologies to indigenous people, who were less respected and acknowledged then than they are today) had ended. 

The decades following the closing of the frontier were marked by the creation of the first generation of national parks, right alongside massive development and a population explosion.  While the idea for national parks came earlier -- Yellowstone was created in 1872 -- the pace of designations took off with the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906.  Republican icon President Theodore Roosevelt used his executive authority to establish 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.  Roosevelt set a precedent in conservation which has been followed by nearly every American president since -- Democrat or Republican -- using the Antiquities Act to protect our natural and cultural heritage.

Today the Ocean Frontier is now closed, too, but nobody noticed, and no announcements were made (If you'll check my Twitter feed you'll note that at least one person noticed*).  Think of the arc of fishing history, technology, and effort over the last 100 years.  Today there are more mouths to feed, and we use better fishing technology than at any time in human history, and we reach more and more of the world's ocean, so that now, since about the 1990s, humans have the collective power to fish nearly every square centimeter of the ocean, down to the depths of the Marianas Trench and across all far reaches between the Arctic and Antarctic.

There is a direct link between fishing pressure and ocean health.  Fisheries science can basically be boiled down to two simple principles (apologies to my fisheries science friends): If you fish more, there will be less fish in the ocean.  Conversely, if you fish less, there will be more fish in the ocean.  Again, this is simplifying things greatly, but many scientific studies have shown that even modest amounts of fishing can lead to smaller fish, fewer fish, and fewer species, especially top predators.  It is no surprise, therefore, that as a result of more and more and better fishing, there are today fewer and smaller fish in the ocean.

In the past we could rely on distance and primitive fishing methods (and a lack of refrigeration) to keep at least part of the ocean wild, but now we have technology and the know how to fish the entire ocean, and often with methods that allow us to catch more fish than ever before.  Others have said it more eloquently than me, but we have reached a point in our history where we will only protect that we choose to protect.  So what are we to do?

One of the 51 federal bird reserves created by Roosevelt was the Hawaiian Island Bird Reservation, stretching across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from Nihoa to Kure Atoll.  Initially created to protect birds from poachers and feather and egg collectors, seven American presidents have since used executive authority to remove other threats, including putting an end to guano mining, bottom fishing, longline fishing, and removing the threat of deep sea mining.  Ancient ruins and biocultural resources important to Native Hawaiian culture and famous wrecks from American maritime and military history are also now protected.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are today home to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the world's largest marine protected area as of August 2016 (#MahaloObama).  Today, about 3% of the ocean is highly protected, and Papahanaumokuakea accounts for about 10% of that total.  While this is a tremendous advance in the protection of our ocean, there is still much work to do.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature recommends that we protect 30%, meaning we are an order of magnitude below where we need to be to ensure sustainability for future generations.  So, yeah, we're just getting started.

100 years ago it was America that led the world to protect nature on land, a conservation movement that continues today and is best represented by the National Parks System, often called "America's Best Idea."  Today, as we march into the 21st Century, America has again challenged the world with the creation and expansion of Papahanaumokuakea .  At 1.5 million square kilometers -- nearly twice the size of Texas -- the area preserves islands, seas, and culture, and sets a precedent for what can be accomplished in the years to come.

*I found this book while doing research on this topic.  It's a good read!

Note: I started out to write about my involvement with the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and IUCN's decision to adopt a recommendation to protect 30% of the ocean and it turned into this opinion piece.

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