A humpback whale tail in the ocean horizon

A review in Nature points to rising marine life populations in response to protection measures, including humpback whales near Australia, sea otters in Western Canada, and grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic Sea. (Photo: Andrea Holien via Pexels)

With everything humanity is going through, it’s comforting to come across good news. The best is that people are co-operating to an unprecedented extent, coming together even as we remain physically distant, to help neighbours and families and do our part to slow or halt the virus’s spread.

Another good news item this week shows the value of caring co-operation. A review in Nature concludes that global ocean conservation through marine protected areas and other means is paying off — so much, the researchers conclude, that stepped-up efforts could bring large areas of ocean back to resilience by 2050.

The report points to rising marine life populations in response to protection measures, including humpback whales near Australia, sea otters in Western Canada, and grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic Sea. Where I live, increasing numbers of humpback, killer and grey whales, pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, spawning salmon and herring have been returning to Atl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound over the years since mining, pulp and paper and other industries were closed and individuals were restricted from developing the shoreline.

(If you’re interested in exploring this exquisite region, the David Suzuki Foundation has created the Atl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound marine conservation map, with more than 140 layers of data, ranging from estuaries to eelgrass, glass sponge reefs to shipping routes, herring spawning grounds to log-sorting sites.)

Countries around the world committed to safeguarding 10 per cent of their ocean territories by this year, through marine protected areas and other means. Some have done better than others.

Canada has surpassed its commitment to protect at least 10 per cent of its oceans before 2020, thanks in part to significant collaboration between Indigenous communities, governments, conservation organizations, communities and industries. But the report shows all countries should and could go further to accelerate fisheries reform, curb pollution and climate disruption, and more.

The benefits of healthy oceans to humans are immeasurable — from providing food and regulating climate to facilitating transportation and offering recreational opportunities.

The benefits of healthy oceans to humans are immeasurable — from providing food and regulating climate to facilitating transportation and offering recreational opportunities.

One immediate Canadian concern is pending federal approval of a large container-shipping terminal in South Delta near Vancouver. A federally appointed environmental assessment panel determined last week that the project risks putting marine species in peril, including already struggling southern resident orcas and the Chinook salmon they depend on. Increased noise and pollution from shipping traffic would further degrade already compromised habitat. Just as the Nature report shows that giving ecosystems a chance to recover pays off, we must give the orca and salmon a chance.

The report’s authors write that achieving “substantial recovery of the abundance, structure and function of marine life” and strengthening the services oceans provide is possible within 30 years, with international co-operation to reduce pressures, including climate change. Although billions of dollars would have to be invested, the returns would be enormous.

“One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back.”

“One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back. We can turn the oceans around and we know it makes sense economically, for human wellbeing and, of course, for the environment,” said University of York Prof. Callum Roberts, from the review’s international team, quoted in the Guardian.

The review notes we have a good start on the 2030 goal, with successes already evident from an international push toward sustainable fisheries and restoration of coastal ecosystems such as seagrass meadows and mangrove forests.

The world still has danger zones, where agricultural runoff, sewage and pollution escape to the oceans, or too much industrial activity puts marine life at risk. Unsustainable fishing is still widespread, especially on the high seas.

This report shows it doesn’t have to be that way. If we invest in oceans and find healthier ways to live, we’ll all be better off.

We’re showing now what humanity is capable of in the face of an immediate crisis and beyond. Our priority now should be to take care of ourselves and each other. We need our strength to get through this pandemic. And if we keep our distance (but stay connected, at least virtually, when we can), and wash our hands thoroughly and frequently, we’ll get through it with the spirit of co-operation and altruism that we’re demonstrating constantly through our individual and collective actions. Everything is interconnected.