April 22, 2020 marked Earth Day. On the first Earth Day, over 20 million people called for strong policy action to protect the world’ natural systems. I was one of them. It felt like a turning point. It was. Within five years, tough new laws had been passed in the USA stopping water and air pollution, and protecting creatures from extinction: the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Magnuson-Stevens Act, Endangered Species Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Fifty years later, why are people willing to let this day pass un-noticed? New York Times columnist Devi Lockwood’s piece commemorating the day, was titled “Why Aren’t We Excited About Earth Day Anymore?”
Unfortunately, Lockwood’s answer, when it comes to the oceans, is wrong. He asserts that the ship of ocean conservation has foundered on the seas of weak international governance. “While the U.N. can pass resolutions,” he writes, “it has no enforcement mechanisms.” He adds that “issues — bottom trawling, ocean acidification, floating plastic gyres and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions — are international in scope.”
It is important to realize that most life in the sea is under the jurisdiction of individual countries and not the United Nations. Coastal zones are far and away the most abundant and biodiverse parts of the world’s oceans. And ever since the 1970s, these zones – out to 200 nautical miles – have been governed by the adjacent coastal country, NOT by the United Nations. Their name is clarifying. They are called “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs). The rules on ocean fishing, habitat protection, and other resource management activities within them are set by the coastal country, not by international negotiations supervised by the United Nations. Even better, more than 90% of the world’s fish catch comes from the EEZs of just 29 countries and the European Union.
This means that ocean abundance can be restored and protected country by country. It is not hostage to the failures of international governance so evident in the climate crisis.
Using this approach, Oceana and our allies have helped secure bans on bottom trawling, reductions in single-use plastic, and sustainable science-based fisheries management policies. It adds up – we’ve already protected nearly 4 million square miles of ocean.
Rebuilding ocean abundance feeds hundreds of millions of people, reduces carbon emissions, protects biodiversity both in the water and on the land, and promotes employment. And recent research shows that we can restore the oceans by 2050. So, contrary to Lockwood’s thesis, protecting ocean resources is an entirely practical and achievable goal.