Dream Team of Conservationists Plan to Protect 7 Million Square Miles of Ocean

Author: Joe McCarthy

© Photo by Edgardo Ochoa/Conservation International
Why Global Citizens Should Care
The ocean supports communities around the world and stabilizes the planet’s climate. The United Nations urges countries to protect 30% of marine spaces by 2030. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

The newly launched Blue Nature Alliance aims to protect 7 million square miles of ocean over the next five years, the global partnership announced Tuesday, a monumental undertaking that will accelerate global conservation goals.

Initially, the coalition of organizations will support the conservation of 1.9 million square miles of ocean in Fiji’s Lau Seascape, Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, and Tristan da Cunha. It will then branch out to support projects in Canada, Palau, Seychelles, and the Western Indian Ocean.

“The ocean drives every living system on the planet,” said Aulani Wilhelm, senior vice president of oceans for Conservation International, one of the leading organizations of the Blue Nature Alliance. “If we care about agriculture and rainfall we need to care about the stability of the ocean. We’re at a tipping point of asking the ocean to do too much for us."

With $125 million in seed funding, the Blue Nature Alliance brings together Conservation International, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Global Environment Facility, Minderoo Foundation, and the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. 

From the outset, the coalition will put decades' worth of conservation knowledge and wisdom into practice, according to Wilhelm.

“We’ve brought like-minded partners together to use the best of what we’ve learned to support communities and governments that are committed to making a significant contribution to not only protecting their waters but also the planet,” she said. 

“There’s a variety of people in the alliance who have practical on-the-ground experience, scientific backgrounds, conservation acumen, and policy experience, who have had a lot of scrapes and bruises along the way,” she said. 

Those scrapes and bruises have come from hard-earned trial and error as marine conservation has expanded from a field focused on coastal areas to one that encompasses the entire ocean, Wilhelm said. Over the past decade, marine conservation projects have expanded dramatically. Today, an estimated 7.65% of the ocean is considered a marine protected area (MPA), a designation that offers varying degrees of protection.

The Blue Nature Alliance’s pipeline of projects would add another 5% of ocean to this category, while protecting some of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems. 

“We’re looking at protecting places that are in pretty good shape,” Wilhelm said. “We’re not looking for a rapid recovery, we’re looking to stave off decline.” 

Blue Nature Alliance

Blue Nature Alliance
©Richard Sidey/GALAXIID

Blue Nature Alliance

Blue Nature Alliance
© Russell A. Mittermeier/Conservation International

Blue Nature Alliance

Blue Nature Alliance
© Jon McCormack

Blue Nature Alliance

Blue Nature Alliance
© Levi S. Norton

Blue Nature Alliance

Blue Nature Alliance
© Sterling Zumbrunn/Conservation International

The Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, for example, is home to more than 10,000 unique species, while Fiji’s Lau Archipelago hosts more than 200 coral species and 531 reef fish species. Both areas face looming threats, none more so than the impact of climate change.

These two projects showcase the flexible approach that the Blue Nature Alliance is taking — all projects under its umbrella will be locally led. 

The community stakeholders in Antarctica happen to be governments from around the world that patrol and manage the Ross Sea, while the protection of the Lau Archipelago will be led by Indigenous village leaders.

“What local means in each of those contexts is really different,” Wilhelm said. “You can’t have a cookie cutter way of approaching conservation. You have to look at what are the assets, and who are the communities.”

Wilhelm said the Blue Nature Alliance is committed to long-term conservation. 

“It’s one thing to get it announced and set up, but the hard work is in the journey afterward,” she explained. “When you get into protected areas, everyone assumes it’s in perpetuity, but that means forever. Are we really matching that demand when we are designing it?

“If we’re really thinking forever, we can’t think in terms of a four-year political cycle — it has to be generationally,” she added. “How do we design knowing that these are finite resources?”

The finite nature of the ocean has come into urgent focus in recent years. Roughly 90% of local fish populations have been overharvested. Ocean waters are warming and acidifying at a rate that’s destroying coral reefs and cretaceous creatures, while also driving marine animals from their historic habitats. Industrial and plastic pollution directly harms marine life, while also creating dead zones.

Lau Seascape RAP expedition 2017, Fiji.
Lau Seascape RAP expedition 2017, Fiji.
Image: © Katie Bryden/Conservation International

The ocean is an interconnected system — overfishing or pollution in one ecosystem will inevitably impact other ecosystems in an ongoing chain reaction. The only way to ensure the long-term survival of marine habitats, therefore, is to protect large areas of the ocean from exploitation while enacting regulations across the rest of it. 

The United Nations has declared the next 10 years to be the decade of restoration and calls on countries to protect 30% of land and marine environments by 2030. The Blue Nature Alliance’s partnerships will work to bring this goal to the finish line.

“If you look back 10 years ago, one of the major talking points for ocean conservation was that less than 1% of the ocean is protected,” said Angelo Villagomez, senior officer of Marine Protection at Pew Charitable Trusts. 

“We’ve seen this exponential growth,” he said. “Getting up to 30% by 2030 is going to require effort and hard work. We understand the threats are incredible, but our ambition to protect the ocean is just as large.”

Both Wilhelm and Villagomez said that MPAs need to be complemented by broader rules that govern the high seas, in particular fisheries. 

“Fisheries feed the world,” Villagomezsaid. “Fisheries are important parts of many Indigenous cultures. The goal of fisheries should be to allow people to catch the fish they need for today, but also making sure there’s fish for tomorrow.”

But Wilhelm emphasized that approaching conservation from a purely mathematical perspective — counting the percentage of protected ocean — misses the bigger picture. 

“Every time a community makes the courageous choice to protect a big piece of the ocean, it helps all of us, and we should celebrate that,” she said. 

“But we’re really thinking about equity and social safeguards throughout the work,” she added. “We have feedback and grievance mechanisms in place that tell us when we need improvement and how we’re demonstrating these principles.”