More Good News about the Oceans, by Roger Payne

By Photo: LA(Phot) Vicki Benwell/MOD, OGL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30417972

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

I have lived through eight decades of bad news about the environment with good news always as rare as rain during a long drought. But after years of watching the oceans suffer blows at the hands of our species I suddenly sense that the world has arrived at a tipping point, and good news is starting to flow like water.

I wrote last time about the miracle of the Our Oceans Conference at the U.S. State Department during which the total expanse of marine protected areas was tripled and $5.3 billion was pledged to insure that such a grand plan would be fulfilled and that IUU fishing (Illegal, undocumented, unregulated fishing) could be punished rigorously.

The latest cause for thanks came last Friday, October 28th with a grand announcement from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). It is a consortium of 25 countries that includes the United States, Russia and China. After 11 years of negotiation and patient diplomacy this consortium finally voted unanimously to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea—an area of 600,000 square miles, 72% of which now has the status of a no-take area.

When I showed joy over this fact to friends, I got a disdainful reaction form some of them; “The Ross Sea? Antarctica!? Couldn’t they have protected an area that’s a bit more friendly—a bit more accessible?

Though most people don’t find the Antarctic Ocean friendly and accessible, for many non-human species it is an unimaginably productive paradise. I am not sure there is a comparably large area anywhere on earth with so much life. In the Antarctic summer the upwelling of mineral rich waters that have been traveling for thousands of miles through the perpetual darkness of the ocean deeps, brings that mineral richness up into 24-hour daylight that triggers an explosive growth of short-lived, quick-to-reproduce plants called diatoms. These single-celled plants are some of the most beautiful life forms on earth and some of the most abundant. (To a biologist like me the word ‘abundance’ means species per unit area.) The diatom plants enable all of the food chains above them, including the incalculably abundant, tiny shrimp called krill (the main food for all larger Antarctic animals; fish of many species, penguins, seabirds, seals, dolphins, beaked whales, and baleen whales—the latter including the most massive animals that have ever lived, the blue whales).

Given such a robust food chain, saving the Ross Sea is like saving the Serengeti Plains of Africa. There are areas of greater diversity, but we’re talking abundance here. And it is cause for celebration that so much of that abundance has just been designated as a no-take zone with the first review to take place only after 35 years.

It’s the kind of good news that, frankly, I never thought I’d live long enough to see. Back when I started studying whales I used to say in a voice of gloom that because overhunting had laid blue whales so low, it would be at least fifty years before they could show any measurable recovery. I stressed “fifty years” because that seemed like an eternity to my then 30-year-old self. But time passed and I have lived through more than those five decades. And although my gloom at times reached greater depths I am thrilled by the positive news we are starting to hear about the oceans. Hope is no longer just “a thing with feathers,” it has wings and it perches not only in enigmas like the soul but on solid branches that connect to limbs and trunks with roots that grip the earth. And it is growing ever stronger, and emboldening a brighter future.

Roger Payne