Ocean Wilderness Vanishing

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

A paper published last week in the journal Current Biology, The Location and Protection Status of Earth’s Diminishing Marine Wilderness, documents the dire worldwide state of ocean wilderness.

The paper concluded that only 13.2% (∼55 million km2) of the world’s ocean could be classified as marine wilderness, and most of this was far away from coastal areas (e.g.,  coral reefs). Only 4.9% of marine wilderness is currently within marine protected areas.

The paper emphasizes that targets to retain marine wilderness are needed in global conservation strategies.

In particular:

We found that only 4.9% of global marine wilderness (2.67 million km2) is inside [marine protected areas (MPAs]), despite 6.97% of total ocean area being under protection. This protection occurs almost exclusively within national waters, with 12% (2.65 million km2) of global wilderness within [exclusive economic zones] , but only 0.06% (0.02 million km2) of wilderness in high seas protected. Global wilderness protection is high in some populated regions, with 98% protected in Temperate Southern Africa and 17% protected in the Central Indo-Pacific). However, these areas also have very little total wilderness left (<5%), suggesting that MPAs play a crucial role in preserving the small amount remaining. Wilderness protection is much lower in remote areas, such as the Southern Ocean and Northern Cold Water realms, where few MPAs are designated..

Considerably more global marine wilderness remains in offshore ecosystems (49.7 million km2) than in coastal ecosystems (5.5 million km2); but the proportion of protected wilderness is similar (4.4% and 4.8%, respectively). In coastal ecosystems, the vast majority of protected wilderness (93%) is in soft-bottom areas, rather than habitats such as rocky reefs or coral reefs that people depend on for food and income ). However, despite having low wilderness extent and areal protection, these ecosystems have high proportional levels of protection, with 66% and 26% of rocky reef and coral reef wilderness being covered by MPAs, respectively. A substantial amount of wilderness in these ecosystems is contained in large, remote MPAs, such as the British Indian Ocean Territory MPA. Offshore ecosystems generally have more protected wilderness area than coastal ecosystems  but lower proportional wilderness protection (Jerri-Lynn here: citations omitted).

The scientists who conducted the research were surprised by their findings, as the Guardian reports in Almost all world’s oceans damaged by human impact, study finds:

“We were astonished by just how little marine wilderness remains,” says Kendall Jones, at the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, who led the new research. “The ocean is immense, covering over 70% of our planet, but we’ve managed to significantly impact almost all of this vast ecosystem.”

Jones said the last remnants of wilderness show how vibrant ocean life was before human activity came to dominate the planet. “They act as time machines,” he said. “They are home to unparalleled levels of marine biodiversity and some of the last places on Earth you find large populations of apex predators like sharks.”

What Is To Be Done?

Many of the problems that are spoiling ocean wilderness originate on land, Jones told the BBC in Ocean wilderness ‘disappearing’ globally, with fishing comprising one of the most significant direct impacts:

Runoff of nutrients from farming fertilisers, chemicals from poorly controlled industrial production, and the influx of plastic pollution from rivers are all disrupting ocean life.

“Plastic pollution is one of the big things that we want to work out a way to get data on,” he told the BBC.

“It’s so widespread and so hard to manage that we really want to get a good idea of where it is and where is most affected.”

Regular readers will be aware that I have discussed the plastics problem  in several previous posts; the ones that focus on oceans include: US, Japan Reject G-7 Ocean Plastics CharterPlanet or Plastic, Plastics Pollution Policies– “Bold” or Pathetic?, and Plastic Watch: Great Pacific Garbage Patch Grows.

One way to take some action on oceans would be via an extension to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.  As the BBC reports:

The UN are currently considering a legally binding addition to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would mandate conservation and sustainable use of international waters – currently not protected.

The first of four conferences to determine the details will take place in September 2018.

In particular, the Guardian noted that scientists highlighted fishing subsidies as a problem:

…They also said the $4bn a year in government subsidies spent on high seas fishing must be cut. “Most fishing on the high seas would actually be unprofitable if it weren’t for big subsidies,” Jones said.

The new work joins recent studies in highlighting the threat to oceans. Scientists warned in January that the oceans are suffocating, with huge dead zones quadrupling since 1950, and in February, new maps revealed half of world’s oceans are now industrially fished. “Oceans are under threat now as never before in human history,” said Sir David Attenborough at the conclusion of the BBC series Blue Planet 2 in December.

Alas, the United States has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention  treaty. Although the US participated in negotiations on the treaty between 1973 and 1982, the Reagan administration refused to sign the convention, according to an article in The Diplomat, U.S. Ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention:

As a result, the United States remains off the list of 168 state parties to UNCLOS, a list which includes all other major maritime powers such as Russia and China. In practice, the United States has accepted and complies with nearly all the treaty’s provisions. On March 10, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued the United States Oceans Policy Statement, supported by National Security Decision Directive 83, which documents the U.S. view that UNCLOS reflects customary international law and fulfils U.S. interest in “a comprehensive legal framework relating to competing uses of the world’s oceans.” Successive presidential administrations – Republican and Democrat – have relied upon Reagan’s precedent to legitimize and guide the Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program in global hot spots like the South and East China Seas.

So even as the United States invokes UNCLOS to assert the freedom of navigation and challenge excessive maritime claims, Washington has no seat at the table in protecting U.S. rights and claims within the treaty’s institutional framework. As a non-party, Washington remains on the outside looking in as the international community moves forward in defining the legal landscape affecting over 70 percent of the world’s surface.

I read that to mean that the bottom line here is that in this as in so many other environmental protection areas, I would be willing to bet the farm that the Trump administration is unlikely to participate actively in any negotiations to extend the UN framework to include a high seas conservation annex. That is yet another reason to think that even if serious negotiations were to commence to extend the convention, whatever might be achieved would be too little, and too late, to address the magnitude of this and other ocean crises.


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  1. Louis Fyne

    For more practical virtue signalling, environmentalists should work on getting Mcdonalds to take the filet -o-fish off the menu instead of straws.

    Presuming that’s 100% antarctic trawler-sourced pollack. It used to be cod when i was growing up until those fisheries went bust

  2. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thanks for this post, Jerri-Lynn. The environmental degradation, habitat destruction, over-fishing, and devastation of entire species on both land and sea is deeply distressing.

    Recall reading an NC Link several years ago about the intensity of fishing in remote waters of the South Atlantic off Argentina and the Falkland Islands, so I pulled up a related link. Hundreds of unlicensed, unregulated fishing vessels reportedly exploit these remote waters. Amazing really, and a microcosm of the competition for global fisheries:


    International competition for the fisheries has led to armed confrontations, vessel detentions, and even the sinking of a Chinese fishing boat in waters claimed by Argentina by that nation’s coastguard in 2016. Addressing this issue will require global leadership and cooperation, factors that seem to be in very short supply in these days of publicly confrontational, bellicose national political leaders who evidence minimal concern for our shared environment.

  3. SerenityNow

    I live in an area where large-scale commercial fishing is still the primary economic activity—an article like this here would probably never surface, be laughed at, or quietly ignored (even this year, when fish returns have been especially bad). Fifty years ago people fished one or two species during about half the year and that was enough to make a living. Today people fish just about any species that is allowed, basically year round, and no one is doing as well as they used to.

    I see a few things which will prevent any voluntary meaningful change in fishing practices until something really disastrous happens:
    -everyone knows fish are good for you, so fishing is good.
    -The “hardworking fisherman” just “trying to support his family” has the untouchable political status of firefighters, soldiers, or other “everyday heroes”.
    -The community has never pursued any diversification in revenue streams. Both red and blue leaders at the local level treat fishing dollars as God-given, even when they come as disaster fund subsidies from the state–this means the fishing has to continue at all costs (I imagine it is the same case in other monoculture economies based on extraction?).

    1. jsn

      It’s a classic collective action problem where individual decisions are rational but collectively suicidal. Without a believable mechanism to equitably share transition costs, something NeoLiberalism refuses to do and subverts wherever it’s attempted, individuals caught in this dynamic can only effect personal improvement by getting out of the situation entirely, but to where? NeoLiberalism has been very good at foreclosing viable options too.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Isn’t it amazing. All these business types over the past decades saying how they can run government better than professional bureaucrats because they know how to run a business and yet when given their chance, there is nothing that they havn’t turned to crap. Name it – infrastructure, healthcare, education, the list goes on. All of it crapified.
    The oceans may be the worse example. If fished in a reasonable, sustainable way the ocean could feed humanity for god knows how long. Instead, we see a model of absolute exploitation being used that means that within our lifetime the ecology of the oceans is being zeroed out. I have read historic accounts how the fish were so plentiful in the ocean off north-east America that a fisherman could almost get out and walk on them but those days are long gone.
    And you know what would happen when we have only a few thousand fish left in the ocean’s wilds? Countries like Japan would come along claiming the right to hunt them on the grounds of “scientific research”.

  5. John Zelnicker

    Jerri-Lynn – Thank you for this post. The oceans hold so much potential (still) if we would just get rational and sustainable about how much we extract, how fast.

    You may find this interesting:


    This is an ancient cypress forest that is some 60,000 years old, situated out in the Gulf of Mexico. Discovered shortly after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 it’s been researched for the past 6 years. Our local environmental reporter, I believe, actually discovered it and has been involved ever since. He wrote and directed the documentary that was featured on NBC News in September, 2017.

    Sadly, I don’t believe there is any protection for this unique site.

    And, thanks for your email.

  6. ambrit

    What to do with, and about all the industrial and toxic sites soon to be flooded out by sea level rise?
    I’ve been beating on this drum so long, I’m certain I’ve passed my ‘sell by’ date.
    Certainly, new inshore habitats will be created by the sea level rise, and hopefully, new spawning grounds for many ocean species. However, this will all be negated if the toxic residue from human onshore activities to be flooded out aren’t cleaned up prior to the inundation. In ground gasoline storage tanks are a major potential toxic discharge source by themselves. The effects of even reformulated gasolines are amazingly dangerous. Let’s not even bring up industrial sites, which are often situated along coast lines so as to take advantage of ship and barge transport economies of scale.
    It almost makes me happier to know that I won’t be around to see the worst of it.

    1. John Zelnicker

      July 29, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      Good evening, ambrit.

      You are so right. Not only in-ground gas tanks, but also the ones built on land that is barely above sea level. We have tons of those in the Mobile area. And, if the overall water level rises far enough up the Mobile River, it will get to the old paper mills and aluminum plants. That will be a holy horror.

      While I gain some relief that I will not be here to see how bad it gets, I grieve for my children and grandchildren. This will not go well.

      1. ambrit

        Oh my John! I never thought of the mills! All the sugar mills in Florida. The nuclear power stations in Florida. Homestead Air Force Base. The old Opalocka aircraft boneyard. I wonder if that’s still there. All the industrial sites up and down Mobile Bay. The Pascagoula shipyards. The Ports of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, Tampa, St. Pete, on down to Everglades City and back up the Atlantic coast. Cape Canaveral!
        You are right. We have some responsibility to our progeny. Even if we only raise some H—. Forget Pink P—y Hats. How about some three eyed fish chapeaus. I can see someone starting a Mardis Gras Krewe. “The Krewe of Bad Mutants.” Those parades will be like something out of a Lovecraft story. For the first years parade, I suggest the theme be; “The Doom That Came To N’Awlins.”

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