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Hope Floats

The legendary scientist Sylvia Earle explains why we need to take care of the ocean that takes care of us. Perplexed, I drove...

The legendary scientist Sylvia Earle explains why we need to take care of the ocean that takes care of us.

Perplexed, I drove back and forth along a stretch of Highway 1 in the Florida Keys, looking for a place I had been to many times, a shallow bay of clear water bordered by red mangroves. With mask and flippers, I had prowled through channels to reach a reef where staghorn coral, lavender sea fans, and giant barrel sponges were anchored on limestone. I was particularly interested in checking up on the slippery red algae and brush-like seaweeds that I had found there before, and looked forward to seeing the Nassau groupers that were always there, curious and watchful.

But I finally realized that the mangroves had been torn away, and the undersea meadows and reefs were smothered by gray torrents of water belched from a dredging platform. It was 1958, and the Florida Keys were experiencing a building boom that was transforming the lightly populated islands into a crowded mecca for visitors and thousands of new residents. To make way for them, former residents would perish: jewel-colored reef fish, great pink conchs, spiny lobsters, lumbering sea cucumbers, silver-sheathed barracudas, and billions of small plants and animals that together form the matrix of life in tropical reef systems.

The features that attracted people to the Keys in the first place-clear water, abundant wildlife, beautiful reefs, clean air, ineffable qualities of peace and plenty-somehow slipped away. Must it be that way? An ethic of caring for terrestrial ecosystems has developed in recent decades, gradually securing a network of protection for watersheds, forests, wetlands, and the wild creatures they embrace.

But what about the ocean?

In the 19th century, it became obvious that while space must be made for people to live, farm, build cities, and otherwise do what people do to prosper, certain places are so special in their natural state that they should be kept that way for the enduring benefit of humankind. As a consequence, the forests, wildlife, and unique geysers and boiling pools of Yellowstone became a park; the Grand Canyon was saved from commercial development. The National Park System has been called "the best idea America ever had." Nearly 400 such areas, places of natural, historic, and cultural significance, are now within the U.S. National Park System, and thousands of similar areas have been established around the world-13 percent of all the world's land is now protected.As population grew and demands for use of land, water, and wildlife increased, a new (and vitally important) role for protected areas came into focus: Parks were seen as havens for depleted and endangered species, and a source of critically important resilience in the face of swift changes in climate, weather, and planetary chemistry. They also serve as vital measures of how intact ecosystems function, providing us with models for the restoration of damaged areas as well.

Many question the need to protect creatures and ecosystems that appear to have no immediate practical value. They then readily transform pristine rivers into open sewers, entomb gopher tortoises alive in their burrows in their haste to put up new shopping malls, or convert shrinking prairie grasslands into monocultures of corn. It seems, at the time, to be the smart thing to do. But what serves short-term interests, financial or otherwise, can bring on catastrophic losses.

Concerned about the radical changes in 20th-century land, waters, and wildlife, Aldo Leopold asks, in his book Round River, "If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

Natural systems are central headquarters for the cogs and wheels, the living assets, the genetic treasury that can easily be destroyed, but never replaced. In recent decades we've taken care of parts of the land throughout the National Park System, but the same cannot yet be said of our oceans.Among the most important discoveries of the 20th century is knowledge that the ocean is fundamental to all life on Earth. In short: no blue, no green. Water is the key. The ocean holds 97 percent of Earth's water, but it is the fact that the ocean's water is alive-with large, medium, and mostly very small organisms that shape planetary processes and chemistry-that makes it possible for us and the rest of life on the planet to survive. Half of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by phytoplankton that also extracts much of the carbon dioxide from the air. With every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, you are connected to the living sea.There is a widely held perception that the ocean is so large, so vast, and so resilient, that nothing humans can do can make a difference. However, another great discovery of the 20th century was that the ocean, like the land, is suffering from the impact of human beings, and we are suffering the consequences.

Since the 1950s, 90 percent of the commercially exploited species of fish, crabs, oysters, and clams have been taken. Half of the world's coral reefs have disappeared, and hundreds of coastal dead zones have developed as a consequence of the flow of pollutants from upstream sources.

For the ocean as well as the land, networks of protected areas can make a difference-not just for marine wildlife, but for the prosperity, health, and security of humankind as well. Presently, less than 1 percent of the ocean has some form of protection. The bad news is that more than 99 percent of the planet's blue heart is open for a wide range of uses that put all of us at risk. The good news is that nations worldwide are beginning to understand the critical importance of protecting the sea.

In 1972, legislation authorized the creation of National Marine Sanctuaries in the coastal waters of the United States. By 2008, more than 18,000 square miles of ocean were included in 14 marine protected areas, including most of the waters surrounding the Florida Keys.

Since 2006, the United States has protected 340,000 square miles of ocean in the Pacific as national monuments, places where the fish, lobsters, and shrimp are secure. Other nations have taken action, too, from Australia's protecting the Great Barrier Reef to New Zealand's protecting its fjords to the island nation of Kiribati's securing more than 150,000 square miles of ocean around itself. Although most of the national monuments are small, more than 4,000 places in the sea now enjoy some form of special care. They have different names-"sanctuaries," "reserves," "marine protected areas"-but to me, every one of them is a "hope spot," a place that inspires a vision of what can be done to take care of the ocean that takes care of all of us.

There is time, but not a lot, to secure overarching policies and a major network of protected places in the water of various nations as well as in the high seas-the 64 percent of the ocean that lies beyond national jurisdictions. One way or another, all of the ocean needs to be cared for as if our lives depend on it, because, well, they do.

Learn about Sylvia Earle's TED wish at

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