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'Pristine Seas' an Eloquent Statement for Cleaner Oceans, and a Plea for Us To Do More
February 21, 2021  | By Alex Strachan  | 13 comments

Out of sight is not necessarily out of mind. Nat Geo WILD's hour-long special Pristine Seas: The Power of Protection, premiering Monday, gets an early jump on Earth Day with a sweeping overview of National Geographic's cleaner oceans initiative, from the disappearing ice sheet of Russia's far north to the coral seas surrounding Palau in the equatorial Pacific.

Few of us have had the chance to see with our own eyes what lies beneath the Earth's oceans, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. "The Earth is a fine place," Ernest Hemingway once wrote, and worth fighting for."

In a strange way, even though Pristine Seas is, at its heart, a clarion call for us to do better in our fight against further degradation and deterioration of the world's oceans — 70 percent of Earth's surface and home to 97 percent of Earth's water — the program is also oddly life-affirming. There are moments of real beauty here.

We should save our seas, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala says, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it will make us feel better to know we actually did something about environmental destruction, and helped create a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Sala, an academic and professor of oceanography originally from Spain's Catalonia region, founded the Pristine Seas project at NationalGeographic.org in 2008, in part to convince world leaders to set aside 30 percent of the world's oceans by 2030 as protected areas where marine life can thrive while ensuring effective management for future generations — an action that would not only help sustain biodiversity but boost fish stocks and go a long way toward stabilizing our increasingly volatile climate.

Over the years, the Pristine Seas program has undertaken thirty-one expeditions around the world, helping us understand some of the least-explored and most-misunderstood places in the ocean, overseen the protection of more than 2.3 million square miles — more than twice the size of India — and helped establish twenty-three marine reserves. Late last year, despite the ravages of a global pandemic, the British territory of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island on Earth, declared more than 250,000 square miles of ocean as a protected zone, making it the largest such zone in the Atlantic and one of the world's most important sanctuaries for life above and below the waves.

These are heady numbers, but as Sala argues in Pristine Seas, there's so much more that needs to be done. Overfishing, primarily by a handful of nation states on Asia's Pacific Rim, coupled with astounding amounts of plastic waste and other forms of man-made pollution, threaten the very existence of the marine ecosystem.

"If you were to jump into any random spot in the ocean you would probably see . . . (water) empty of large animals because we have taken them out of the water faster than they can reproduce," Sala said, at a recent TED Talk conference in Vancouver.

"I want to propose a strategy to save marine life, and a solution that has a lot to do with economics."

Past experience with "no take/no kill" marine protected zones has shown that entire marine ecosystems can recover and even thrive in just ten years, Sala argued that day. 
It's an argument he's still making in programs like Pristine Seas because even though the evidence is plain for all to see, not every world leader chooses to believe it.

Sala could have retired from a comfortable life as an academic. Instead, he became a crusader for the environment.

"What I was doing was simply writing the obituary of the ocean," Sala says now. "I was describing with more and more precision how ocean life was dying, but not offering a cure. I felt like a doctor telling his patient how she's going to die, but not offering a solution."

Today, Sala sees his fight as part science — proving the economic benefit of a healthy ocean, as opposed to exploiting it for short-term gain — and part persuasion. People need to care about something and know how it works before they're willing to commit the time and energy to saving it.

Sala argues that international cooperation — so far — in Antarctica has shown that, given the right information and data to support the science, even fishing nations like China, Spain, Japan and Russia can be convinced that protecting a unique environment like Antarctica, over the long term, could be worth more than exploiting it for relatively little benefit in the short term.

"This is exactly the kind cooperation and willingness to set aside differences that we're (obligated) to make. We can do it again.

"If, twenty years from now, our children were to jump into any random spot in the ocean, what will they see?

"A barren landscape, like much of our seas today, or an abundance of life, a legacy for the future?"

Pristine Seas: The Power of Protection premieres Monday on NatGeo WILD at 8 p.m ET

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