What’s a ‘Hope Spot’—And Why Do Our Oceans Need Them?

For Secretary of State John Kerry, it is simply unacceptable that only two percent of the world’s oceans are safeguarded as marine-protected areas.

marine protected areas antarctic ocean john kerry

If Secretary of State John Kerry has his way, the Ross Sea of the Antarctic Ocean would be one big marine-protected area. (Photo: NOAA)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Imagine the to-do list for newly minted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Politely discourage nuke rattling in North Korea. Monitor the crisis in Syria. South Sudan—good idea or bad? Meet and greet Hugo Chavez’s replacement. Peace in the Mideast—maybe save that one for tomorrow.

“It is a natural laboratory and we disrespect it at our peril.”

Given the competition for his time and attention, it’s lucky for us ocean-lovers that Kerry happens to be one too. Remember those pics of him windsurfing during his 2004 presidential campaign? Those obviously weren’t photo ops, since they helped doom his campaign. What we’ve got in our chief ambassador today—on the eve of the 43rd Earth Day—is a man who truly understands that a clean ocean makes for a happy planet.

To that end, on Kerry’s to-do list is to help the world's largest marine-protected area in the Ross Sea of the Antarctic Ocean and to urge stronger protection for oceans around the globe.

This is bigger than keeping coastlines cleaned up for casual recreation. Kerry understands that a healthy ocean—which drives the planet’s temperature and weather—makes for healthier terra firma. At a recent appearance at the National Geographic Society, Kerry described himself as “a child of the ocean” and said he had “watched [degradation] of the ocean” happen in his lifetime.

Marine-protected areas are a growing boomlet. Currently there are some 5,000 protected areas around the globe, many of them created to protect specific wildlife species and fish. But they include just two percent of the world’s ocean. Kerry and other marine protectors, including Queen of the Deep Sylvia Earle, would like to see that number grow as high as 12 percent. (Her Mission Blue project calls them Hope Spots.)

Upsides to marine protected areas are protecting biodiversity while simultaneously (hopefully) growing tourism, enhancing fisheries and helping to keep an eye on overall ecosystem. The downsides include short-term losses for local fishermen.

The best argument for protecting seas—made recently in a paper published by PLoS One, with lead author National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala—is that marine protected areas are ultimately good for local and global economies. They keep fisheries alive instead of watching them be decimated by overfishing; they keep waters clean, thus encouraging more tourism; and usually after a relatively short period where fishing is discouraged, commercial fishing operations return to healthier waters.

The vast Antarctic marine protected area that Kerry and others envision protecting the Ross Sea would include the 1.9 million square miles off the continent that are closest to New Zealand. After a recent screening of the documentary The Last Ocean, by Kiwi filmmaker Peter Young, Kerry said, “When it comes to the Ross Sea and Antarctica, we’re not going to wait for a crisis to take action.”

He went on to say that marine protected areas were not just “environmental issues.” Kerry helped celebrate the very first Earth Day in 1970 and was known for his environmental work as a senator from Massachusetts for 28 years. Each year, his wife, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, awards significant grants through a family trust to environmentalists around the world.

“It is a security issue,” Kerry said. “The entire system is interdependent and we toy with that at our peril.”

Strong words from a Secretary of State, especially given the depth of his aforementioned to-do list. But it suggests that politicians and their ambassadors understand the link between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.  

Currently the waters around Antarctica, despite their remoteness, are attracting industrialized commercial fishing. Given that man has successfully taken 90 percent of the fish from the ocean already, rapacious and entrepreneurial fleets are going further and further to load their boats.

The timing of Kerry’s involvement is not casual. The U.S., the E.U. and 23 other countries are expected to decide in July whether to approve permanent protection of the Ross Sea and a second area off East Antarctica, regions three times the size of Texas, banning all fishing.

Or to allow big commercial fishing to continue apace. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, breeding grounds of the Antarctic toothfish, more commonly known as Chilean sea bass, are already being hammered by overfishing, the average size of the fish shrinking.

“It is a natural laboratory and we disrespect it at our peril,” were Kerry’s last words on the subject.

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