A wide-angle view of a tropical beach, with lush green trees overhanging white sand.

The Chagos Archipelago is one of the few remaining regions of ocean wilderness © Dan Bayley

The UN is aiming to protect the last remaining ocean wilderness

With just 13% of the ocean thought to remain largely untouched by human activity, the UN is planning to step up protection of the high seas. But is this enough to save the marine environment? 

Humans have been reliant on the marine environment for much of our history. But in the endless pursuit of more food, fossil fuels and minerals, wildlife has been marginalised into those places as far from our influence as possible.  

A recent report looking into the state of the world's oceans has found that just 13% of the ocean can be classified as marine wilderness.

Dan Bayley, a PhD researcher at the Museum who is studying how different disturbance events impact coral reefs, says, 'These remaining areas are very remote.

'They are mostly isolated offshore spots in the Pacific, South Atlantic and polar regions. They might not necessarily have been the most biodiverse historically but they are now because they're far from human impacts, for the time being at least.' 

A swathe of grey sea with choppy waves.

Many remaining areas of ocean wilderness are located in the high seas far from the majority of human impacts, although they are  not necessarily pristine © Dan Bayley

Three sharks swim alongside each other in deep, blue water.

These regions of wilderness still support large predators, showing us what a healthy ecosystem should look like © Dan Bayley

There has been increasing interest in pushing through protections for these last remaining vestiges of ocean wilderness to pre-empt the inevitable creep of increasing human influence in these regions.

This week a meeting of the United Nations in New York is discussing plans to create the first ever international treaty to protect the high seas - the open oceans that don't fall under the jurisdiction of any nation states. This sounds great, but the idea has been criticised by some.

Expanding protection

Currently, only around 7% of the ocean is afforded some form of protection, compared to more than 15% of land. Even then the degree by which it is enforced varies significantly. Some regions forbid all activities within the protected areas, while others allow some exploitation to continue.  

It is generally agreed in the scientific community that if around a third of oceans globally were fully protected, it would be enough to help manage them sustainably, as well as providing a whole host of other benefits for the hundreds of millions of people who live by and rely on the seas for their livelihood. 

A portrait of a yellow and grey crab in white sand.

We have the tools and technology to protect this wilderness, we just need the political action © Dan Bayley

'The idea is that if you have enough of these protected areas that are healthy and flourishing, then we maintain the functionality of these ecosystems,' explains Dan. 'In addition they help replenish their surrounding waters in a spill over effect. That is one of the main drivers towards having many large areas of marine protected areas globally.'

But at the moment, the bar is set much lower.

During the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2011, more than 100 countries signed up to what are known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. One of these states that by 2020, all nations should have protected up to 10% of their waters. While this would be brilliant, it still falls far below the number agreed by most marine biologists as necessary for healthy oceans.

This is where the UN high seas treaty comes in. By expanding the protection given to the high seas, it could help bump up the amount of ocean given formal protection.

An easy win

This kind of move is not without controversy, however. These regions are typically remote and often support few people, so some believe this is a relatively easy way to increase the amount of protected area on paper while not adequately protecting other essential parts of the ocean – such as coastal coral reefs and mangroves.  

It is harder to gain the support for the protection of these key places, as restrictions to their use frequently pitches scientists against those who rely on them for a living. 

A sea bird soars through a pristine blue sky.

Seabirds are a vital link between the land and the sea, providing plants with a rich supply of nutrients from the ocean © Dan Bayley

When rats killed off the birds on some islands, it caused the forests to die and resulted in run-off sediment to coat the surrounding coral reefs © Dan Bayley

'For example, the UK's Overseas Territories are in many ways relatively easy to designate as protected areas,' explains Dan, 'because typically not very many people live there.

'Whereas in the UK when we try to set up marine protected areas, there has been a lot of back and forth debate to get relatively small areas with relatively low protection.'

A bluey-green cluster of corals on a reef.

Climate change is having a particularly damaging effect on coral reefs right around the globe © Dan Bayley

There is also the question of how such areas are to be policed. Far from the coast of any nation, it can be tricky to enforce no-take zones from illegal fishermen when the areas being talked about are simply so vast and remote.

'While we are still far behind where we need to be we are certainly moving in the right direction,' says Dan. 'Having areas of wilderness protected is an important part of the process, allowing us to see how natural ecosystems work. '

Saving the oceans

Protecting vast tracts of ocean from mining or dredging sends out the right message, but it doesn't necessarily shield them from the activities of people. Oceans are absorbing more and more carbon dioxide and heat, and many species are affected by increasing acidification and warming temperatures.

Dan says, 'Climate change overrides everything, particularly for coral reefs, which have experienced huge bleaching mortality events in recent years. Nowhere is untouched by the changes, even in these wilderness areas.'

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions is key, but while this problem can often seem intractable there are other impacts on the oceans that are within our capacity to fix with relative ease. 

A shoal of fish captured with an underwater camera.

The idea is that if you protect the areas of ocean wilderness, wildlife will seep out of it and restock regions that are exploited © Dan Bayley

These include limiting uncontrolled development along the coastline, preventing the deforestation that causes nutrient and sediment run-off into the coastal waters, and stopping the flow of plastics through the rivers.

'Issues like stopping illegal fishing should really be within our grasp if we invested the amount of money needed into it,' Dan adds. 'Similarly stopping pollution such as plastic waste, sewage and heavy metals is a problem we could quite feasibly fix at source, and then go on to clean up in the oceans.'

Whether this will be enough is up for debate. Some suggest that by making these changes on land while also protecting the reefs and areas of wilderness from fishing and destructive activities, it will help provide a buffer against the impacts of climate change. But others disagree.

'That is a bit of a contentious issue,' says Dan, 'but typically when you have an unimpacted system, it has more of an ability to function correctly and adapt to changing environments. You have redundancy built into the system.

'But it is not a guarantee, and it won't stop these environments being affected by climate change in the first place. It will just make it more likely that the ecosystem can recover afterwards.'

With massive environmental events such as coral bleaching occurring more and more frequently, the fear is that even protecting these areas might simply not be enough, and marine ecosystems will continue to degrade. 

A waddle of penguins huddle together.

The UK's Overseas Territories are home to an incredible amount of wildlife, including a lot of penguins © Dan Bayley

The Blue Belt

That is not to say that nothing should be done.

'The UK sets quite a good example in terms of ocean protection. There is a consensus within all parties in government - left and right - that protecting our ocean areas is a good thing' says Dan.

This has resulted in the Blue Belt Programme. An initiative set up by the UK government, it aims to protect over four million square kilometres of marine habitats across seven of the UK's Overseas Territories, covering a wide range of environments including spots such as the Pitcairn Islands, Tristan de Cunha and the British Indian Ocean Territory.   

'With commitments from all parties on protecting the waters of the UK and its overseas territories,' says Dan, 'we are set to have some of the largest marine protected areas in the world.'

'People often don’t realise that the UK and its territories are responsible for the fifth largest marine estate in the world, including a quarter of the world’s penguins and the largest coral reef atoll in the world. So decisions we make as a country can significantly impact the world’s oceans.'

Do your bit

Reduce your plastic footprint by cutting down on single-use plastics like water bottles and coffee cups.

Be mindful of where your waste is ending up. Try to recycle plastic where facilities are available.

You can also join a beach clean-up near you. For UK residents, the Great British Beach Clean takes place from 14 to 17 September. Find out more.