Now Is the Time to Protect Our Ocean’s Treasures

We have the largest expanse of ocean of any country in the world, and it’s our responsibility to protect it, say Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau.
A brightly colored coral reef, Bikini Atoll. (Photo: Bill Curtsinger/Getty Images)
Jun 2, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Inspired by the legacy of his grandfather Jacques Cousteau, Philippe Cousteau is an Emmy-nominated TV host and prominent leader in the environmental movement.
Ashlan Gorse Cousteau is a veteran journalist and adventure seeker who travels the world covering a broad range of events and experiences.

Jacques Cousteau was one of the first people to document our undersea world in the 1950s. Now, six decades later, we still know more about the surface of our moon than we know about our oceans. In a world where everything is overshared, overexposed, and overused, the ocean is our last frontier, where fascinating new discoveries are happening every day.

But with new discoveries come new ways of exploiting these precious jewels of life. The world’s oceans have been pushed to the brink of ecological collapse by a host of powerful forces, from invasive energy development to relentless ship traffic to destructive fishing practices. While the scary headlines keep coming, the good news is that there is hope if we choose to act. It is possible to restore the vitality of our oceans by setting aside special areas that are protected from fishing, pollution, and energy development.

Exploring the oceans runs in the family. During our latest expedition to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, we witnessed nature’s ability to renew itself. Bikini Atoll is notorious as the site of nuclear testing by the U.S. Navy in the 1940s. Still, despite suffering nuclear Armageddon, this area was left alone after testing to become a de facto marine reserve; it has made a startling recovery to become some of the most spectacular coral reefs left in the world. Another recent trip saw us visiting the village of Cabo Pulmo in Mexico. A 70-kilometer marine reserve founded and—this is crucial—enforced by the local community, it has seen a 600 percent increase in living organisms since its founding in 1995.

Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau. (Photo: Courtesy Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau)

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Despite these examples, it’s astonishing how little of the world’s oceans are protected. Nations have a goal of setting aside at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020, but only 1.6 percent of the ocean is strongly or fully protected, according to a recent paper published in Science. By contrast, about 15 percent of lands are protected.

The U.S. has created four marine national monuments in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. But there are no fully protected ocean areas off the Atlantic coast. We have the largest expanse of ocean of any country in the world, and thus it is our responsibility as a global leader to step up and protect more of the ocean under our jurisdiction.

President Obama has a historic opportunity to do that. His administration is considering designating the first-ever marine national monument in the Atlantic. This designation would fully and permanently protect the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, an extraordinary underwater seascape that supports a dazzling array of ocean wildlife. Just 150 miles east of Cape Cod, along the edge of America’s continental shelf, five massive canyons—deeper than the Grand Canyon—plunge into the depths of the ocean. Beyond that, four extinct underwater volcanoes—called seamounts—rise from the abyss, taller than any mountain east of the Rockies.

Bouquet of Corallium with deep purple Trachythela octocoral, New England Seamount Chain. (Photo: Mountains in the Sea/NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration; Dr. Les Watling, Chief Scientist, University of Maine)

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This marvelous undersea world—with its steep precipices, swirling currents, and plummeting depths—supports mystical creatures and rare habitats. The canyons and seamounts are alive with vivid cold-water corals—ancient fragile beauties in the pitch-black sea, some more than 1,000 years old. In recent years, there have been riveting expeditions to these coral canyons and seamounts. Our deep seas comprise the largest ecosystem on Earth, and yet they remain less explored than the moon. As ocean explorers, we were captivated by scientists’ discoveries, including a forest of corals the size of tree saplings, new and rare species including a carnivorous sponge, and unique communities of invertebrates that live off chemicals generated in the deep sea.

Closer to shore in the Gulf of Maine, another New England ocean treasure should be permanently protected as a national monument. Cashes Ledge is a steep ridge that rises from the muddy depths to a ledge that comes within 40 feet of the ocean’s surface. The highest peak in this undersea mountain range, Ammen Rock, supports the largest and deepest cold-water kelp forests in the Atlantic. Cashes Ledge’s diverse habitat is a refuge for iconic New England fish, helping to conserve and replenish depleted populations, along with tuna, turtles, sharks, whales, and seabirds. Many scientists believe this area represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem—historically one of the richest and most diverse in the world.

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, as well as Cashes Ledge, are safe havens for many species. Without permanent protection, however, our ever-expanding human footprint will find its way to them. Industrial fishing, oil exploration and drilling, deep-seabed mining, and climate change and ocean acidification all threaten these special places.

With so little of the world’s oceans left untouched, setting aside New England’s ocean treasures is the right thing to do. President Obama is considering establishing a marine national monument to protect New England’s Coral Canyons and Seamounts from development and exploitation, and he is more likely to act if there’s a groundswell of public support. Now is the time to make your voice heard if you want to see the most special areas of our oceans protected.

We urge you to speak out.

Tune in during "Oceans Month," hosted by Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau, every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on Pivot, TakePart's sister network. Programming will include stories about the hidden treasures in our oceans and the people working hard to protect them.