Written by: Gabe Andrews
Our senses are constantly bombarded with the woes of the world. The familiar fragrance of gasoline permeates our nostrils in stalling traffic; smog encircles the burbs and bronchi. We hear the stories of violence and unrest from the talking heads on television, to which we’ve become distressingly accustomed. We see images of plastic oceans and oceans of plastic. We glaze over.
The oceans, though they feel everything we do, are not burdened by the knowledge of an uncertain future with unstable humans. They live on, especially when we give them room to do so. 2015 was a good year for oceans. We should talk about it and why it matters.
- Palau. This western Pacific island made an awe-inspiring move last October. With the stroke of a pen, 500,000km2 of ocean found protection from industrial and foreign fishing. That’s an area representing an astonishing 80% of Palau’s waters .
- Chile. Following in the footsteps of the late Doug Tompkins, Chile preserved 397,000km2 of it’s waters, with an additional 631,000 km2 proposed to join the club .
- New Zealand. The Kiwis have always had a reputation for being green, but they upped their game last year when they designated 620,000km2 of ocean as a non-take preserve , which is essentially the area all of New Zealand’s land mass. Doubled.
- The United Kingdom. Rounding out the groundbreakers (or seabreakers) for 2015 is another island nation. With the declaration of the Pitcairn Island Marine Reserve, the UK created the largest fully protected marine area in the world with a whopping 834,000km2 of South Pacific waters secured .
In total, these four countries conserved an area the size of two Alaskas. Besides a victory for depleted fish stocks and crumbling coral reefs, the designation of some 2,982,000km2 as marine protected area (MPA) in 2015 could also help ecosystems cope with the effects of our carbon appetite.
Climate change threatens to bring more than stronger storms, longer droughts, and crop crises. We notice these things because our eyes are fixed on the land and skies around us. But our oceans may face even greater pressures . Researchers predict that intact habitats are the best defense against such stress. Marine ecosystems protected at a large scale have a stronger capacity to “absorb climate impacts.” . With an estimated worldwide coral loss of 70% by 2050  we need to encourage all of the resilience we can. In addition to absorbing climate impacts, MPAs provide a buffering capacity for bordering waters , often with spillover effects that restore ecosystem dynamics . Coupled with enhancing diversity, healthy communities have the ability to increase resistance to—and recovery from—disturbance over time , a promising thought given the projected changes that lie ahead.
In all, we have protected 2.2% of our oceans in 13,674 designated areas around the globe; awaiting proposals could bring the total up to 3.6% this year . Small nations like Palau and New Zealand have given us reason for optimism. Using different models on land and at sea, we can work together to protect habitats that could assuage the consequences of climate change and help diversity thrive. As cohorts of citizens, we should continue to urge our elected officials to protect ecosystems and their functions. As individuals, we should reduce our consumption and our carbon footprint. Beyond the practical necessity to preserve vast stretches of ocean, lies the appeal to remember that “if there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” 
- MPAtlas Marine Conservation Institute: http://www.mpatlas.org/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2016
- U.S. EPA: Climate Change Indicators in the United States: http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/science/indicators/oceans/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2016
- Graham, et al.,2008. Climate warming, marine protected areas and the ocean-scale integrity of coral reef ecosystems. PLoS ONE 3(8) e3039.
- Mcleod, E. et al., 2009. Designing marine protected area networks to address the impacts of climate change Designing to address marine the area protected of climate impacts networks change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7(7), pp.362–370.
- NOAA Marine Protected areas http://marineprotectedareas.noaa.gov. Accessed 23 Feb. 2016.
- Micheli, F. et al., 2012. Evidence that marine reserves enhance resilience to climatic impacts. PLos ONE 7(7), e40832
- Bernhardt, J.R., and Leslie, H.M. 2013. Resilience to climate change in coastal marine ecosystems. Annual Review of Marine Science 5, pp.371-392.
- Eiseley, L. C.,1953. The Flow of the River. The American Scholar, 22(4), 451–458