In a Honolulu exhibition hall, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) members issued a lofty challenge to world leaders: set aside one-third of all oceans as marine reserves.
The World Conservation Congress, which met last week at the Hawaii Convention Center, approved the hotly contested Motion 53, which calls for expanding protections to 30 percent of Earth's oceans. Government delegates voted 129 to 16 for the measure, while non-governmental delegates voted 621 to 37.
Though the vote is nonbinding – and staunchly opposed by Chinese, Japanese, and South African representatives – it may signal a change. Global conservation, it seems, is getting its sea legs.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, conservation has been rooted on land. It was the Teddy Roosevelt legacy of environmentalism, concerned chiefly with vast forests and big game animals. But only recently did policymakers expand their concern to include the oceans, establishing marine reserves and new protections for marine animals.
In August, President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles, nearly quadrupling its original size. The reserve, which is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is now the largest ecological sanctuary on the planet.
"The designation of very large marine protected areas [MPAs] is the only way we're going to meet some of our more ambitious goals," Randall Kosaki, NOAA's deputy superintendent of Papahānaumokuākea, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "If we continue along making small, postage stamp-sized reserves, that's not a bad thing. But it would take another 50 years to protect just 10 percent of the oceans. With very large MPAs, we may hit the 10 percent target in another 10 years."
A new feeling of urgency may inform the shift in emphasis. In an IUCN report, scientists concluded that oceans have taken up 93 percent of human-caused warming since the 1970s. Ocean acidification is on the rise, new research says, and coral reefs are paying the price. And waters are warming considerably, depleting oxygen in the process. Then there's the impact of overfishing and offshore drilling.
"In the last 10 or 15 years, I think we've had a great increase in understanding that the oceans are under threat and that the biodiversity they hold really is critical to the survival of the entire planet," Dr. Kosaki says.
Still, less than 5 percent of the world's oceans are protected, despite covering more than 70 percent of the planet's surface. By comparison, about 12 percent of all land areas are under some form of conservation management. Oceans are taking the brunt of climate change, some experts say, but we’re only just now seeing the effects.
"In 2000, President Clinton created the precursor to [Papahānaumokuākea.] And that, I think, started the ball rolling," Kosaki says. "It was a statement of societal values, that we think it’s important enough to protect some of these large areas of ocean – not for their economic or recreational value, but for their intrinsic value and to protect biodiversity."
There are challenges to the MPA style of ocean conservation. Many threatened ecosystems are located in the "high seas," outside the jurisdiction of any single nation. Politics can also muddle the issue, Kosaki says. But the worst may be behind us.
"Yes, there are technical, political, and legal challenges ahead," he says. "But I think we've overcome the biggest single hurdle, which is awareness of the oceans and awareness that they're under threat."
Opponents to IUCN's Motion 53 have stressed that conservation is a priority for them, too. But in countries that rely economically on coastal resources, such as China and Japan, a no-touching approach to the oceans is excessive. Sustainable extraction, they say, is the way to go.
But that's just another side of the same coin, Kosaki says.
"There's this notion that fishing and conservation are polar opposites, but I don't buy into that division. The best fisherman are actually good conservationists, because they realize that fishing must be managed in a sustainable way or we'll be out of a job. About 3 percent of the world's oceans are protected. As a fisherman, that means I can fish 97 percent of those oceans. I hardly see that as a threat to fishing."
And Kosaki would know – he has held a commercial fishing license for 27 years. It was fishing, he says, that put him through grad school.
"Whether you want to protect the oceans for their intrinsic value, or you want to protect some areas so we can keep sustainably fishing the rest, I think there’s something in this for both fishermen and conservationists to buy into."