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Imagine a mining company being allowed to chip away at the great rock Uluru in Australia until there was nothing left but a small dusty mound in the desert. Could you conceive of permitting hunting in Yellowstone Park in the US on such a scale that all that remained were a few birds and a handful of straggling bears?

It’s a ridiculous notion, of course, because both have been afforded comprehensive protection. On land, 10 per cent of our woods, meadows, forests, waterways and even swamps are protected. Measures have been taken to preserve them primarily because they have scientific or ecological value, but sometimes also because of their intrinsic value to humanity – as a natural buffer against the endless march of industry and construction.

However, for the remaining 70 per cent of the planet, which is covered by the Ocean, it is a very different story. Only 0.1 per cent is afforded any protection from equally relentless, but considerably less visible, industrial exploitation.

The sheer scale of the Ocean used to give it natural protection. Much of it was out of the reach of people or their machines. But no longer. Today, fishing vessels can scour almost every inch. Factory ships, bristling with space-age technology, remove in a month what it would have taken 7,000 local fishers a year to catch.

Proven science

It is hard to imagine that such a vast resource could ever run out – that two thirds of the fisheries on our planet would ever be exhausted. But, according to UN figures, 70 per cent of our fish stocks are now in serious trouble. Fish are being caught faster than they can reproduce. Extinction is the only conceivable outcome of this trend.

There is, however, a way to reverse it – through the establishment of a global network of marine reserves. This is not a new idea, nor one promulgated just by a few anti-fishing ‘greenies’. It is based on proven science. And, in many places where such reserves have already been created, fishers are reaping the benefits.

Apo Island is the oldest marine reserve in the Philippines. Twenty years ago local fishers used dynamite and other destructive methods. Fishing was rapidly ruling itself out as a long-term career option.

Now it is a very different story. Jerry Mendez used to be one of the men laying waste to the fish stocks and coral reefs. Now he’s a Sea Ranger and protecting the Ocean instead. He told his story to the crew of the Greenpeace ship, _Esperanza_, when the Defending Our Oceans expedition arrived in the Philippines.

‘Scientists from the university came and explained to us what damage _muruami_* fishing does to the corals,’ Jerry Mendez told us. ‘We could also see that the catch of fish was going down. Sometimes we even had to go to other places to fish. So we decided to start the reserve. Now we catch twice as much as before.’

Similar stories are told by fishers in other well-established reserves around the world, such as El Hierro in the Canaries, St Soufrière in St Lucia, and in the Azores. In every case, the health of the oceans has improved markedly, as have the livelihoods of the local community.

Zoning off areas is not about shutting down entire fishing industries, as Jerry Mendez and his fellow fishers now know. It is about ensuring there are fish to catch and habitats to harbour them well into the future. The rationale is a simple one. In order to protect the full range of marine life and restore the productivity of our seas, we need to set aside areas where marine ecosystems are left undisturbed, just as with national parks on land. Marine reserves are areas of the ocean where there are no extractive or destructive practices – that is to say, you can’t take it and you can’t break it. They become safe-havens for all marine creatures.

It doesn’t matter which part of the ocean scientists look at, their studies all draw the same conclusion: where marine reserves have been established, the numbers of fish rapidly increase, as does the size of the animals in the reserves. And, over time, the variety of marine life within the reserves often increases too.

If female fish are left to grow bigger, they become more productive because they create many more eggs of better quality. A general rule of thumb is that when a female doubles in length she produces eight times as many eggs. Eggs and larvae from fish protected in reserves drift out into surrounding waters, so helping restock neighbouring fishing grounds. Since the ocean is not constrained by fences or walls, fish will also swim beyond the reserve boundaries. This in turn has been shown to generate bigger catches in fishing grounds.

Reserves are, however, about more than the fish. Leaving one species alone but fishing out the rest or destroying where they live, feed and breed is not going to produce a healthier ocean. By protecting habitats and establishing a network of reserves, all marine life is given the chance to become more productive and the ocean ecosystem can be restored in its entirety.

Many of us have experienced the wonder of national parks on land. We know how successful they can be at safeguarding biodiversity, protecting endangered species and even bringing them back from the brink of extinction. We know this tool works on land. Isn’t it time we charted a course for the future health of our oceans: a global network of properly enforced marine reserves?

It’s simple. We know it works. It’s time to act.

  • *diving with nets, a method introduced to the Philippines by Japanese fishers in the late 1930s.
  • *Sara Holden* works for Greenpeace International. Additional contributions from Richard Page and Karen Sack, who also work for Greenpeace International. The Greenpeace Defending Our Oceans expedition has been running since November 2005, exposing the threats and celebrating the beauty of the oceans and pushing for a global network of properly enforced marine reserves. http://oceans.greenpeace.org

    New Internationalist issue 397 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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