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A Watery Wilderness

The ocean is the biggest wilderness on the planet. But legal protections are scant.

The waters off the US coastline, the eighth largest in the world, have long been a vital source of sustenance, transport, recreation and inspiration for Americans. It’s hard to stand on the shore looking out in the distance and not experience a sense of wilderness. 

Yet the 1964 US Wilderness Act, which established the framework to protect the country’s wildest places, made no mention of these waters and resources, primarily because 50 years ago we knew little about the importance of our oceans, the complex web of life they support, and the need to protect them.  The general thinking was that due to its sheer size and seemingly inexhaustible resources, the ocean could overcome any environmental disruption. Since then, however, sophisticated technology and research have enabled scientists to better explore and understand the beauty, health, and value of our marine ecosystems.

Stormy Weatherphoto by Adventures of KM&G-Morris, on FlickrStorm over the Atlantic.

What we have learned is that the ocean, covering 70 percent of the planet, is critical to life on Earth. It regulates our climate and produces 97 percent of the planet’s fresh water through evaporation and condensation.  Ocean phytoplankton produce up to three-quarters of our oxygen, and absorb CO2 at up to twice the rate of land-based plants. Our seas provide protein for half the world’s population, and employment and recreation for millions of people.

Yet, there’s much we still don’t know.  As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines MH 370 – lost on March 8 – starkly revealed, the seascape is vast and deep. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of this realm is still unseen by human eyes.

Unfortunately, as with wilderness areas on land, unseen or “untrammeled” doesn’t necessarily mean unharmed. We now also know that human activities have pushed marine ecosystems to critically dangerous limits.

Three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce; 90 percent of all large predatory fish – including tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut – are gone. Invasive species, such as the lionfish off the nation’s East Coast, are devastating native species and altering ecosystem balances.

Chemical pollution from industrial, farm, and urban runoff, and from oil and mineral exploration, create marine dead zones and damage coral reef systems.  Massive plastic garbage patches swirl around in giant ocean gyres killing millions of marine mammals and seabirds that ingest or become entangled in the debris. Melting glaciers are causing sea levels to rise, threatening islands, coastlines and populations across the globe.

And, perhaps most problematic, ocean acidification – caused by too much carbon dioxide absorbed by the seas, decreasing its pH – is increasing at such a rapid rate that it’s creating conditions similar to those found at the start of major die-offs of marine species long before homo sapiens walked the Earth.

Despite the increasingly dire reports, a series of announcements this past June were a cause for celebration. President Barak Obama pledged to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in size and protection, potentially adding a large swath of no-take zone banning commercial extraction and creating the world’s largest marine protected area.  The same day, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati announced its intent to transform the waters in its Phoenix Island Protected Area into a huge no-take zone; and Leonardo DiCaprio pledged $7 million over the next two years for marine conservation.

While these are significant developments, the fact remains that only 1 percent of the ocean is protected, compared to roughly 14 percent of our planet’s land. And much of that protected area still allows commercial fishing and other resource extraction. Even in places where these activities are banned, enforcement can be challenging or lax.

“Land wilderness designations are much more straightforward, the realm of marine protection can be complicated… and substantially lags [behind] that of land conservation,” says Lauren Wenzel, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Protected Areas Center. Part of the problem, she says, is the lack of a unified marine wilderness definition and management framework, hindering the establishment of large-scale marine wilderness areas that would enable ocean ecosystems to thrive.

Early marine protection in the US was generally connected to land: bays, deltas, islands and coastlines. In 1903 President Roosevelt established Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge to protect the island and surrounding waters from hunters slaughtering birds for their feathers for hats and other fashions. It was America’s first national wildlife refuge, as well as its first marine protected area (MPA) – an area of water where human activities are limited. Over the years, MPA evolved as a broad term that included places with a wide range of habitats, purposes and levels of protection.

After the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness designations managed by land agencies increasingly included marine waters, ranging in size from a few acres to more than a half million.  However, the agency focus and mission continues to be centered on land protection.

Both a boost and a complication were added to marine protection in 1972 when, following public outcry over mounting evidence of coastal and marine degradation, Congress created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to manage marine fisheries and other ocean issues.  The hope was to create a system of marine preserves similar in purpose and design to that established for terrestrial areas by the Wilderness Act.

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Despite recommendations that it be part of the Department of the Interior, where most land management agencies reside, President Nixon placed NOAA under the Secretary of Commerce, thus creating an ongoing conflict of interest between protection and commercial development of marine resources.

Another complication was that, unlike land agencies, NOAA was not authorized to designate wilderness areas per se, but to create national marine sanctuaries–areas with special significance due to their recreational, ecological, historical and other qualities–which, due to NOAA’s multiple-use provision, often allow damaging activities like commercial and sports fishing, oil and gas development, and shipping traffic.   

NOAA now manages 13 sanctuaries and a national marine monument in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (the 200 nautical miles beyond a country’s shores which it “owns” and manages), American Samoa and the Great Lakes.  Although the Sanctuary Program has protected important marine areas to some degree, many conservationists believe it has yet to produce a comprehensive national network that restores and protects the full range of the nation’s marine biodiversity, nor a credible strategy for doing so.  Sanctuaries cover less than 0.5 percent of US waters, and many significant marine areas and resources are missing from the system, marine conservationists complain.

Federal agencies and the media often refer to a dozen of the country’s 1700 MPAs, as “wilderness.” Some have been formally designated as such as part of terrestrial wilderness and include portions of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, both managed by the National Park Service; and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the proposed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.   Others exhibit the biological diversity, remoteness, and cultural values associated with wilderness such as the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, the most protected area in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, stretching the length of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, both managed by NOAA. 

sanc1789photo by Rick Starr / NOAA Photo Library, on FlickrCordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

But some biologists and policy analysts argue that the fragmentation of the marine management system and lack of a common marine wilderness definition and designation framework creates confusion and hinders ocean conservation. They suggest adding a marine wilderness designation to the Wilderness Act, and transferring NOAA to the Interior Department.

The lack of a common, legally binding marine wilderness definition and mechanism also hampers international efforts to collaborate on ocean protection. Conservationists are now trying to come up with a definition that will be acceptable to all.

In 2011, the North American Wilderness and Protected Areas Committee, consisting of NGOs and government representatives from the US, Canada, and Mexico, drew up a document that defined marine wilderness and stewardship goals, which is now serving as a model for the world. The document describes marine wilderness as “primarily intact, self-sustaining, and undeveloped,” areas “with no modern infrastructure, industrial activity, or permanent or non-traditional human habitation, including also areas capable of being returned to a natural state.”

“[This] finally gives us a tool by which we can recognize marine areas with wilderness character according to a common definition and manage these areas to meet common objectives,” says Julie Randall, manager of the marine collaborative at The WILD Foundation (WILD), which helped create the committee.

Defining marine wilderness, however, doesn’t address the question of just how much of the oceans should be protected. The Convention on Biological Diversity has set a target for 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020. Some argue that this target is far too low. Greenpeace calls for 40 percent, while WILD, under its “Nature Needs Half” platform, urges 50 percent of both land and marine protection.

Other challenges for large-scale ocean protection domestically and internationally include stakeholder communications, political and public will, funding, technical ability of agency managers, monitoring and enforcement of laws in the open seas and evaluating success – all of which contribute to ensuring that designations are more than just “paper parks.” 

“To reverse the rapid decline in the ocean’s health, it’s urgent that our leaders take decisive steps to mitigate climate change, prevent pollution and manage fisheries sustainably,” says Jacqueline Savitz of the non-profit Oceana. “But these steps will not be taken unless we all speak up and demand that decision-makers prioritize ocean protection. The ocean’s fate is firmly in our hands.”

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