The Galapagos Islands, one of the most amazing natural protected areas in the world, are sending us all a dire warning today.
How does conservation work? The conservation of natural habitats is one of the most effective ways to protect what is left of nature from human destructions. The idea is simple and elegant: leave a healthy environment alone for long enough, and its ecosystem will regenerate, its biological diversity will increase, the size and abundance of animals will increase. By a “spill-over” effect, these areas become nurseries and it becomes possible to fish on their outskirts forever, without jeopardizing the source of the resource. A true transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, but in the Ocean, and 10,000 years later.
Since 1992, under the Convention for Biological Diversity, all of the countries of the world recognized the emergency to protect at least 10% of the world’s coastal seas and oceans by 2010 in order to prevent catastrophic ecological collapse and ensure the continued ecosystem services provided by the sea (food security and tourism, mostly). In 2010, having barely achieved 1% of coverage and witnessing the rapid degradation of the situation, the international community convened once more to sign the Aichi agreements, whereby the target was reiterated but extended to 2020. But here we are, and somewhere between 5% and 10% of protection has been delivered on paper (the effectiveness and enforcement of which remain to be assessed). Since 2013, a majority of scientists and environment ministers recognized that we are doing too little too late, and have called to protect 30% by 2030.
So why is it taking so long to establish the necessary protection for the ocean? Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide depend on the ocean for their livelihoods, and as we continue to plunder and desecrate it, we undermine their food security, potentially leading to resource conflicts, environmental refugees and famine.
Well it turns out that the governments of the world and large NGOs are themselves governed by industrial interests who bribe and corrupt them (lobbying). When I was working for one of the world’s largest environmental NGOs, I was approached by an oil company to effectively “spy” on smaller conservation NGOs in Africa and give “early warning” to the oil company before a Marine Protected Area was created, so that they could interfere with its creation and ensure that future off-shore oil fields would remain available for exploitation.
The same companies who actively sabotage the creation of protected areas also fight global environmental regulations such as climate change, buy-out disruptive innovation startups, and pull the strings of our puppet leaders to maintain their oligarchy. They are effectively maintaining us all in a dangerous dark age to prolong their business, at the expense of the environment and future generations. The fishing industry, although less omnipotent, also has an apparent interest in preventing the creation of no-take areas. I say “apparent” because in reality it has been shown that with proper management and effective conservation areas, the fishing industry would benefit tremendously from significantly reducing their fishing efforts.
Today, the situation in the Galapagos Islands is a symptom of the long term effects of this interference and the mismanagement of resources. Asian fishing fleets, having plundered the South China Sea down to the last fish, are now crossing entire oceans to find more. Had the south-east Asian countries effectively conserved at least 10% of their seas, they would be producing enough fish to satisfy the demand without having to take such extreme measures. Hundreds of fishing vessels are now parked adjacent to the outskirts of the Galapagos Islands EEZ and pull out all the fish they can get, sometimes hiring local fishermen to commute within the protected area and get more. The Pew-Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project is actively campaigning to extend the size and protection around these islands in view of this increasing pressure.
The very few marine sanctuaries we have managed to create will likely know a similar fate, as the rest of the ocean’s productivity collapses. This will lead to international conflict, food security issues, human suffering and the extinction of many marine species. Will future wars be fought over the last remaining marine protected areas, in a world devastated by climate change and pollutions?
Opening my news feed I see that an oil tanker has run aground in the beautiful Mauritius Island, spewing oil into a turquoise paradise-like reef. Local NGOs are sending young people to mop the sand. The company responsible for this, and the companies responsible for the much larger and pervasive climate change, plastic pollutions and overfishing, should be held criminally responsible for the bleak future they are forcing upon us all. But in all likelihood they will pay the right people and carry on, and our children will be left to clean up behind them.
In this context of short-term particular interests drowning the long-term common good, it is not easy to find hope or to know where to focus our efforts. Industrials would have consumers take the blame and push for individual change. Individual change cannot, alone, solve any of these issues. It shifts the problem to become impossible to solve, as stated by a young activist “if everyone is guilty, nobody is to blame”. We need laws to protect the future from the greed of short-sighted businesspeople. We need environmental justice to regulate and severely punish abusive practices. We must ban industrial lobbying and reclaim our democracies.
~ Pierre-Yves Cousteau