Op-Ed: In the Pacific Islands the Ocean is Life
Hagåtña, GUAM — Wherever in the world you’re reading this we share a backyard—our ocean. In fact, we humans share nothing so completely, or as vast, as the ocean.
Here in the Pacific Islands, the ocean is life. For thousands of years it has provided food, dictated the weather, and served as the transportation system for our people. On Guam, we’re seeing a resurgence in traditional voyaging and sailing, a cultural practice that ties our people and history to the ocean. Enabling this renaissance to reach its full potential requires a healthy marine environment, as wayfinders rely on nature to provide navigational tools—such as birds, fish, and currents—to help them find islands beyond the horizon.
But in the brief span of my lifetime, our ocean has become warmer, more acidified, more polluted, and increasingly devoid of sea life, a deadly combination that threatens the viability of many coastal communities and, in some cases, entire island nations.
Clearly the time to act is now, and the big blinking arrow of scientific evidence points us to a way to responsible ocean stewardship: the creation of marine protected areas that keep full ecosystems intact, such as the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument does in my own ocean backyard. Scientists tell us that these large marine protected areas work. They protect the thousands of creatures that depend on a healthy food web, and they bring more and bigger fish, and have higher biodiversity, than do unprotected areas—thus ensuring ecosystem health and balance. Above all, by protecting our ocean, these areas help build resilience in the face of climate change.
That’s why I have become a Pew Bertarelli Ocean Ambassador, joining other leaders from around the world in a new initiative to advocate for the creation of large marine protected areas as one of the most effective ways to protect and conserve the ocean. All of us in the ambassador program, including co-chairs John Kerry and David Cameron, staunchly believe that a healthy ocean is vital to humankind’s future.
Protecting the marine environment is not new to Pacific islanders. For millennia, we have recognized when areas have been fished too heavily and set them aside as no-fishing zones until they returned to their former productivity. Across Micronesia, this concept has a few different names: mo in the Marshall Islands, for instance, and bul in Palau.
The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Ambassadors, convened by the Bertarelli Foundation—under the guidance of foundation co-chair Dona Bertarelli—and The Pew Charitable Trusts, serve as ambassadors for ocean conservation and support national efforts to secure and implement marine reserves. While recent years have seen an increase in countries enacting protections, even taken together these measures are well short of what’s needed. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has recommended safeguarding at least 30 percent of the world’s ocean by 2030 in order to reverse negative impacts and sustain long-term ocean health; currently, only 3.6 percent of the ocean has any level of protection, and a mere 1.8 percent is classified as “strongly protected,” according to 2018 data from the U.S.-based non-governmental Marine Conservation Institute.
As an ocean ambassador, I’ll work to protect our marine environment so that someday my grandchildren will look out on her ocean backyard and see that it’s as healthy as it was when I was a little girl. As a global society, we’re very quickly approaching a definitive choice: to either protect this irreplaceable resource or forever forfeit our expectation that it will provide for us. I sincerely hope we have the collective conscience—and the political will—to choose the right course.