Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Russell Moffitt, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Marine Conservation Institute, has spent decades working to understand and protect our planet’s oceans. In this fireside chat, Russell opens up about the importance of ocean conservation in meeting our global climate goals by 2030.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
As he reflects on the potential impacts of ocean conservation on biodiversity and climate change, Russell emphasizes the beauty of diving deep into the unknown.
How was the Marine Conservation Institute founded?
The Marine Conservation Institute was founded in 1996 by Dr. Elliott Norse. He worked for many presidential administrations on the Council of Environmental Quality and the EPA. He realized that the ocean was still a black box worth exploring. He promoted a lot of policies in the US and fought hard against destructive fishing practices to freeze the footprint of these activities. His goal was to get governments to agree to more stringent targets to better protect marine areas.
What does it mean for an ocean to be a black box?
The ocean is no different from anything else on the planet, except that it makes up 70% of our world. We know more about the moons and Mars than the ocean in terms of shapes, features, habitats, and species. Very few people have been able to explore the ocean, but now we have greater access through remote operative vehicles that pump live video feeds. We have more access to understanding the ocean, but very few people know what’s out there. If it’s undiscovered, we can’t appreciate it, and so, we can’t protect it.
Why is ocean conservation so important and what are the necessary tools?
Just like the planet, the ocean is experiencing increasing amounts of threats and pressures from human activity like pollution and destructive fishing practices. There’s a triple threat from biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change. We have to tackle all of these because we can’t solve the climate crisis without really effective ocean conservation. We also can’t solve the biodiversity crisis without climate mitigation.
Marine-protected areas are one of the tools we need to be employing. These areas are lines on a map where there are species protections held in place. For example, you can’t fish, mine, drill, dump, or extract anything for any reason. 2.8% of the world's oceans are within that highly protected area, but less than 7% of the ocean is protected in any form.
I think of them as an insurance policy against threats and uncertainty. They balance biomass, density (ie. the number of individuals in a given area), and the diversity of species in the area. All of these variables see positive trends when marine areas are well-protected and well-placed for enough time. They mitigate against climate change and lead to healthier ecosystems through various systems such as blue carbon, mangroves, and carbon sequestration.
How much of the oceans should we protect?
There’s a consensus in studies that we should protect about 30% of the oceans. I started an online tool called Marine Protected Atlas to watch how much of the ocean was protected and what types of regulations were out there. If we’re at a 7% protection level in any form, most of them don’t provide any lasting protection.
Just like climate accords—if nobody does anything, there’s no penalty. If global citizens get upset, the pressures are back on.
Who owns these protected areas and what are the implications?
Countries themselves have jurisdiction to about 200 nautical miles from shore. They can manage habitats and species, and have legal control. This is where most marine protected areas and conservations happen.
The high seas are 54% of the ocean. Very little is done in a comprehensive sense for international waters. If you want to protect the high seas, you have to get the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) to issue fishing regulations through regional fisheries. You would also have to get the IMO (International Maritime Organization) to issue proclamations about shipping and industry activity. You also have to get the Seabed Authority to issue prohibitions against deep-sea mining and drilling. You need approval from many organizations to do conservation work independently.
It’s hard to do conservation in the high seas, but a treaty is being negotiated right now to allow the UN to create fully protected marine areas. It would be a big deal and change could happen on a massive scale.
What is currently Marine Conservation’s major focus?
We’re trying to get all the countries who are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity to set aggressive standards for the next decade. Our tagline is 30 by 30. We want to see 30% of the ocean protected by 2030 and we need to scale action by an order of magnitude. We’re trying to set high targets rather than settle.
We also do work at the micro level. We’re managing a pilot project called Blue Parks. We have science-based criteria and a scientific advisory body that evaluates marine protected areas and the local groups behind them that are trying to incentivize areas to move to higher levels of protection. We’re trying to work with partners to develop a Blue Parks Impact fund where we give cash awards to these areas if they promise to meet levels of protection. We’re also working with local groups that want to be a part of the Blue Parks Network to provide development funding for communities.
How can we get others to care and think more deeply about our oceans?
I used to be scared of the ocean, but learning to scuba dive opened my eyes. It was my meditative experience of being in something that was originally scary for me, but then realizing there’s so much beauty out there. The ocean is mysterious and strange—that’s one of the best parts about it. It’s our ancestral home that seems scary, but it can be turned into a sense of wonder. For me, it was foreboding fear turned into absolute amazement. I’m amazed at how much is out there and how little is known. There’s a great opportunity to learn more!
We know enough about ocean conservation that we have great solutions. We just need social and government change to help make it happen. The first step is seeing what’s out there. Go sailing, go diving, or go watch the latest Blue Planet and be amazed at what’s down there. You can also follow Nautilus Live, which is a research vessel that has live streams from submarines. They’ll also have scientists on ships or shore-based labs where you can ask questions in real-time.
The whole world can participate now. Find out where any of these activities are happening and get involved. It’s a moon-landing type of feeling!
Sign up for the Marine Conservation Institute newsletter to stay informed and get your questions answered!
Get our free bite-sized climate action plans before you go!