Friday, May 17, 2019

The U.N. says 1 million species could disappear. Pacific islands have a solution

By Carlotta Leon Guerrero

Last week, a global scientific assessment found the business-as-usual approach to conservation is not delivering the critical action needed to safeguard the future health of our planet. Over the last 30 years, a growing global population has doubled the demand on our planet’s resources, according to the report, which was released by the United Nations, and nature just can’t keep up: As many as 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.

This is a threat well understood by the people of my island, the small Pacific territory of Guam. In the last few decades alone, development and invasives have led to the extinction of the Guam flying fox and several species of bird found nowhere else in the world. These were animals critical to our forest ecosystems and important to our indigenous culture, lost forever.

But all is not lost. The report identified several pathways for change, including the need to expand the current network of protected areas, both on land and in the ocean, which are critically important in the context of a changing climate. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that we’ll need to protect at least 30 percent of every coastal and marine habitat by 2030 if we’re serious about conserving the natural systems that underpin our quality of life.

That may sound daunting, but we have an example to follow — one that is gaining momentum across the Pacific.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest habitat on the planet, greater in size than the combined landmass of every single continent. Along the edges of this far-reaching marine ecosystem lie some of the largest cities on Earth — and dotted across its great expanse are thousands of islands, small and large. These islands are populated by the descendants of the great voyagers who traversed these waters in wooden canoes, powered by nothing more than the wind in their woven sails and the knowledge passed down through chants and songs.

Pacific Islanders have known for centuries that protecting parts of the ocean brings benefits to people and nature. For generations, we have set aside areas where fishing is not allowed, resulting in more fish, bigger fish, and greater biodiversity. It is considered the world’s oldest form of fisheries management.

But now, our ocean is changing. Sea levels are rising, warmer waters and changing ocean chemistry are altering the intricate balance of our natural ecosystems, and plastic waste is polluting the ocean from the seabed to our coastlines. These impacts are intensified when combined with overfishing; in much of the ocean, we are removing fish faster than they are biologically able to replenish. This is particularly true of vulnerable species such as sharks.

In response, Pacific leaders have acted with the same boldness that inspired our ancestors to cross the ocean. We have taken their ancestral knowledge and expanded upon it, designating vast ocean sanctuaries, which support healthy marine ecosystems and abundant fish populations, while ensuring the well-being of coastal communities.

In total, more than a dozen Pacific countries and territories have committed to designating and implementing strong ocean sanctuaries that restrict all commercial fishing. These actions bolster marine biodiversity, improve neighboring fisheries, and help ocean flora and fauna better withstand the impacts of the changing climate and overfishing.

The greatest biological outcomes come from fully protected areas where all forms of fishing are restricted, like in the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, which comprises 80 percent of Palau’s national waters. There are also benefits to restricting the most damaging forms of fishing, like on the other side of the ocean in Chile, where the Rapa Nui people recently agreed to restrict industrial fishing in the entirety of their biologically unique waters, and only allow traditional artisanal fishing.

At the same time, a group of Island Voices ambassadors has formed, coming from Palau, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Rapa Nui. The group includes artists, educators, fishers, former government officials, and traditional voyagers, who are committed to protecting the unique identity of the Pacific and its islands and are working together to link traditional values with modern decision-making.

It’s a start, but if we are going to save the rich ecological abundance of the Pacific for future generations, we will have to think even bigger, working toward protecting 30 percent of the Pacific. Today, just under 5 percent of the ocean is designated within the confines of a marine protected area, and only about half of that area is fully or strongly protected, ensuring the strongest benefits to people and nature. Much of this real estate stretches across the Pacific.

We have reached the point in human history where we can impact every inch of the ocean and at every depth. In the next decade we need to ramp up the area of ocean we protect, but we must also address sustainable fishing and environmental justice in the places where we allow fishing. And this will all be for nothing if we do not reduce carbon emissions and other forms of pollution — especially plastic. It’s daunting, yes, but it’s possible: Just look at the example that has been set by the leaders in the Pacific, where a constellation of small Island nations is leading the way toward a healthy and resilient ocean for our generations to come.

This piece was originally published by

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Pacific Ocean is Life: We Need to Safeguard it for Future Generations

Creating large marine protected areas helps build resilience to climate change
By Carlotta Leon Guerrero

Wherever in the world you’re reading this, whether in Germany, Guatemala, or maybe where I live on Guam, 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.

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.

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.

Carlotta Leon Guerrero, a native of Guam, is the executive director of the Guam-based Ayuda Foundation and served in the Guam Legislature from 1994 to 2000.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Marine Reserves Protect Our People

By Amber Roberts

As island people, our culture, heritage, and livelihood depend on the ocean.

The ocean feeds us, sustains our climate, and is an integral part of our economy. However, the ocean is experiencing unprecedented change. We are observing fish populations in decline from overfishing, and across the world, corals are dying as seawater becomes too acidic. Given the fast pace of change in our oceans, one way to safeguard marine life and our fishing economy is to create marine reserves.

Marine reserves are defined as “areas of the ocean completely protected from all extractive and destructive activities.” Naturally, creating areas where we are not allowed to fish can be controversial because it is seen as impeding our ability to provide for our families. But our people have centuries of experience with this type of ocean management. In Palau, where my mother’s family is from, the chiefs would declare a “bul” to allow the ocean to recover when they took too many resources. Other traditional systems in the Pacific, such as “kapu” in Hawai’i, “mo” in the Marshall Islands, and “rāhui” in New Zealand, act in a similar vein: they place restrictions to balance what we need and what the ocean can provide.

Marine reserves have gained popularity over the past few decades as an effective form of fisheries management because the strict no-take regulations allow fish and other important species to reproduce and sustain healthy populations. The United Nations has set a global goal of protecting 10 percent of the ocean with marine reserves, whereas the International Union for Conservation of Nature recommends creating a fully sustainable ocean will require protection of at least 30 percent.

Some have argued that closing off large areas of the ocean doesn’t make a significant difference — that we should focus on managing the whole ocean sustainably and that doing so would have the same effect in keeping commercially important populations healthy. That idea isn’t necessarily backed by science — or our culture.

To better understand the effects of no-take marine reserves versus other areas that allow fishing, a team of scientists reviewed 149 studies that measured four indicators of ecosystem health inside and outside of reserves. The scientists examined the total mass of organisms in an area, how many species were found, the sizes of each species, and the number of each different species inside and outside of marine reserves. They found that all four indicators were significantly higher in the no-take marine reserves indicating a healthier environment within the reserve. Their most surprising finding was that fish and other marine life were bigger inside the reserve and that there were many more species inside reserves than areas without protection. You can learn more about this study by Googling “Biological Effects Within No-Take Marine Reserves: A Global Synthesis.”

While this might sound like a very technical study, its results and implications are easy to interpret. When fish are protected inside a reserve, it gives them the opportunity to grow and multiply. These growing fish populations can then swim out of the reserve and spill over to other areas where they can be fished. Marine reserves also create space for species to breed, allowing for more larva to be transported outside the bounds of the marine reserve and replenishing fish stocks many miles away.

The positive effects of marine reserves don’t happen instantaneously. It takes a few years for fish populations to replenish themselves in their new safe havens. However, the data is irrefutable: creating no-take marine reserves leads to healthier, more sustainable fisheries, and in return, stronger, healthier people and island communities.

Amber Roberts is a born-and-raised island girl from Saipan. She recently graduated from Stanford University, where she earned both her bachelors and masters in earth systems. There, she focused her studies on the decision-making processes behind natural resource management and hopes to make them more equitable and sustainable for future generations. She is currently undertaking a research and writing project with the Friends of the Mariana Trench to communicate the findings of prominent scientific studies to island communities in Micronesia.