It’s up to us to help the ocean recover

The ocean is like another planet for most people, full of discoveries yet to be made. As a biodiversity researcher at the California Academy of Sciences, I’m amazed by the astonishing array of life under the waves.

Though the ocean covers 70 percent of our planet, few places are untouched by human activity. Until not so long ago, the ocean seemed so infinite and huge, we could not possibly use up its resources. Many of us have seen those old black and white photographs of fishermen proudly standing next to enormous fish, or a cascade of sardines on a boat in Monterey. But today, the story is very different.

Overfishing, pollution and climate change are ravaging entire ecosystems around the world – rocky reefs, tropical waters and kelp forests alike. We now hear about emaciated whales, seals and seabirds that can’t find enough food in the sea to survive.

That’s why we should use the scientific tools that we have to help restore our ocean ecosystems right now, so that future generations won’t look back and wonder why

we didn’t stop the trajectory of ocean degradation while we still had the chance.

Marine protected areas and reserves are one of those tools, which have been proven to have a dramatic effect on the productivity, health and diversity of marine life.

Right now, the California Fish & Game Commission has the power to install a plan for north central California that will create a network of scientifically-vetted, community-created protected areas. A compromise plan, the “Integrated Preferred Alternative” has been created. All the Commission has to do is vote yes.

Creating these protected areas is one step toward recovering what we’ve taken from the ocean. These resources have been taken too quickly, with ever-expanding nets, technologies, and appetites. Of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about a quarter are already depleted or overexploited. Here in California, some fish species have declined by 90 percent from historical levels.

But I’m still hopeful. The wonderful thing about nature is her resiliency. Time and time again we see that if we reduce human pressures and give nature a chance, it’s amazing how fast she can bounce back.

Scientists around the world have found that when ecosystems are at their natural, healthy state, they have more resilience to climate change, big storms, and fluctuations in nutrients – the kinds of changes we know our oceans will increasingly face.

Marine Protected Areas are critical to the sustained ecological and economic health of California’s oceans. To some people, creating areas in the ocean where fishing is limited might seem extreme. But all we are really trying to do is make sure that we don’t deplete the resource forever, to the point that it won’t come back, which has already happened more than once with fisheries we didn’t protect in time.

That’s why it’s important to integrate science into the way we manage our oceans. Scientists agree that MPAs are like preventative medicine for healthy oceans. If we act now to take care of our coast, we are building a strong immune system so the oceans can cope with change. Here in California, right now, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to support healthy oceans by supporting marine protected areas.  

Dr. Healy Hamilton heads the Center for Biodiversity Research at the California Academy of Sciences and also leads the overall science program for the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium. She studies the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, and the genetics of seahorses, octopuses and dolphins for conservation efforts.