Our research, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that only 55 million square kilometres of the global ocean can still be classified as “wilderness”, out of a total of 500 million square kilometres.
There is almost no wilderness left in coastal seas, where human activities are most intense. Much of the remaining marine wilderness is clustered around the poles or near remote Pacific island nations with low populations.
Earth’s ocean wilderness areas are home to unparalleled levels of marine life and are some of the only places where large predators are still found in historical numbers. Top predators such as sharks and tuna depend on these areas, as their slow reproduction rates make them particularly susceptible to decline even at mild levels of fishing.
Even the strictest, best-managed marine reserves cannot sustain the same levels of wildlife diversity as wilderness areas. This is either because reserves are too small, or because human activities in neighbouring areas impact wildlife as soon as they swim outside of reserve boundaries. According to our research, only 4.9% of marine wilderness is currently within marine protected areas.
There is evidence that wilderness areas are more resilient to rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching – stressors that cannot be halted without globally coordinated efforts to reduce emissions. These areas also give scientists a true baseline for system health, providing important information for restoring degraded marine ecosystems.
Threats to wilderness
Human impacts on marine ecosystems are becoming more intense and widespread each year, threatening wilderness areas across the planet. Fishing is now one of the most widespread activities by which humans harvest natural resources. Industrial fishing covers 55% of the ocean, an area four times larger than is used for terrestrial agriculture. In many places, fishing has become so intense that large predators and charismatic species such as sea turtles have almost been wiped out.
Marine wilderness is overlooked in both global and national conservation strategies, as these areas are often assumed to be free from threatening processes and are therefore not a priority for conservation efforts. Our results show that this is a myth – wilderness areas in the ocean and on land are being rapidly lost, and protecting what remains is crucial. The Arctic, once thought of as untouched, is now likely to see new shipping channels, fisheries, and mining operations as sea ice disappears.
Protecting wilderness will require a combination of national and international efforts, but the fundamental goal must be to curb the impacts of current threats such as commercial fishing, shipping, resource extraction, and land-based runoff.
In nations like Australia and Canada, which still have substantial wilderness remaining within their national waters, using marine protected areas or fishery management regulations to protect wilderness will be crucial. Because even low levels of human activity can severely impact vulnerable species such as sharks and tuna, these areas should be strictly protected and cannot allow activities like commercial fishing.
While protecting wilderness within national waters is legally straightforward, preserving wilderness on the high seas will likely prove much more challenging, as no country has jurisdiction over these areas. One option may be to harness existing international and regional agreements, such as Regional Fisheries Management Organisations – international agencies formed by countries to manage shared fishing interests in a certain area. These organisations are already accustomed to set fishing limits, and have been used to close large areas of the high seas to damaging bottom-trawl fishing. An extension of their powers to create high seas conservation areas is certainly feasible, but this is likely to require substantial lobbying from member nations.
The need for improved high-seas management is also now being recognised by the international community, with the UN currently negotiating a “Paris Agreement for the Ocean” – a legally binding high-seas conservation treaty to be established under the existing Law of the Sea Convention. Australia, as a wealthy nation and a signatory to fishing agreements in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans, has the potential to be a world leader in marine wilderness conservation if it so chooses.
Just like wilderness on land, pristine oceans are difficult to restore once lost. Our research should be a clarion call for immediate action to protect the world’s remaining wild oceans so that future generations can see the sea as it once was.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
About the author
Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, geography, planning and environmental management, The University of Queensland. Alan Friedlander, researcher, University of Hawaii. Benjamin Halpern, professor, University of California, Santa Barbara. Caitlin Kuempel, PhD candidate in conservation science, The University of Queensland. Carissa Klein, postdoctoral research fellow in conservation biology, The University of Queensland. Hedley Grantham, research associate, The University of Queensland. Hugh Possingham, professor, The University of Queensland. James Watson, professor, The University of Queensland. Nicole Shumway, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland. Oscar Venter, associate professor and FRBC/West Fraser research chair, Ecosystem Science and Management Progam, University of Northern British Columbia.
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