Editor's note: This is the first part of an op-ed from Carlotta Leon Guerrero. This piece was originally published by Grist.org.
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% 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.
Carlotta Leon Guerrero, a former Guam senator, is the executive director of the Ayuda Foundation. Since 2018, she has been a Pew Bertarelli ocean ambassador.