Mapping The Remaining Wilderness In Our Oceans
As human activities are expanding and continue to threaten biodiversity, refuge areas without intense human impacts are becoming more and more sparse. Such wilderness areas are typically characterized by: high biodiversity; unique organism functional traits; presence of endemic species; high levels of ecological and evolutionary connectivity; resistance to and recovery from the impacts of climate change.
Despite many studies on preservation of such refuges on land, little is known about the extent and protection of marine wilderness. In this study, a group of scientists from all over the world joined forces to systematically map remaining marine wilderness by identifying areas which have been affected only very little by human activity.
The impacts of climate change are typically widespread and unmanageable at a local scale. In fact, there are significant variations in exposure and vulnerability across marine ecosystems (think coral reefs vs. the deep sea). Based on this, the researchers had to exclude climate change variables (e.g. temperature anomalies, acidification, sea level rise) in some of their mapping in order to detect what could still be considered wilderness areas.
The scientists report that most remaining aquatic wilderness is in the Arctic and Pacific island nations. However, there still is substantial wilderness in the exclusive economic zones of New Zealand, Chile, and Australia. This capacity for retaining pristine marine environments is linked to low human populations in the surrounding areas and, in some cases, sea ice preventing human access to the ocean. The study suggests that 13% of the world’s oceans meet the definition of global wilderness, with most being located in the high seas. As a matter of fact, only very little wilderness remains in coastal areas, most of which is in coral reefs.
It has been reported that 7% of all ocean territory is inside marine protected areas (MPAs). However, the researchers found that only 5% of global marine wilderness is within MPAs, suggesting that current preservation efforts are not directed towards wilderness areas. Furthermore, only a very small territory of global MPAs is in biodiverse ecosystems such as coral reefs. Sadly, the protection that MPAs offer occurs almost exclusively within national waters, whereas only a small fraction of a percent of the total wilderness in high seas is under protection.
In terms of biodiversity, previous research has shown that 93% of all marine species spend some time in marine wilderness areas, highlighting the importance of preserving these nature’s shelters. The researchers urge proactive preservation of marine wilderness. It is vital to act now – incorporation of such efforts into global strategies may prove to be crucial at conserving biodiversity and ensuring the continuity of large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes.
Although animal advocates may not find the dwindling wilderness estimates too surprising, most of us will undoubtedly support the call for action expressed by the scientists. Emphasis on preserving and improving the wellbeing of marine ecosystems and their inhabitants must be vocalized in modern conservation efforts. Advocates are encouraged to demand clear wilderness retention targets both nationally and globally.