Next year will mark the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service. In the 100 years since it was established, the national parks have become one of America’s most popular federal programs. Now, marine scientists and conservationists want to do for the oceans what the National Park Service did for the land.
When the National Park Service was proposed, “it was a really crazy notion,” said Jane Lubchenco, prominent marine scientist and former administrator of NOAA, to an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “It was so far from people’s thinking that wilderness was important to protect in and of itself.” Parks and other wilderness now define the American landscape, Lubchenco said. Today, she said, we think about the oceans the way we thought about wilderness 100 years ago, when few Americans had ever visited Yosemite or Yellowstone.
“Fourteen percent of land—all around the world, all countries—is set aside in some kind of protected status,” Lubchenco said. The equivalent for oceans? 3.4 percent, according to the World Database on Protected Areas. And of that, Lubchenco pointed out, only one percent is fully closed off from extractive activities such as fishing.
Half a century ago, we thought the oceans were too big to fail, said Sylvia Earle, Lubchenco’s co-panelist. “But under the surface, it’s shocking.” Earle, NOAA’s first female chief scientist, is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. The oysters of Chesapeake Bay, she said, have declined to one percent of their historic population, because of factors such as overfishing and pollution. “How long till we get to the point where we can eliminate whole categories of wildlife?” she asked.