COP15: Super Reefs Offer Hope for Ocean Recovery Ahead of Biodiversity Summit

Kiribati is located in the central Pacific Ocean. Credit: UNDP/Azza Aishath
  • Opinion by Enric Sala (washington dc)
  • Inter Press Service

They are gathering there to iron out the final details of a global deal for nature that seeks to curtail the extinction of one million species and the destruction of the ecosystems they help create.

I'll join the delegates next week. As I trudge through the cold to speak with them about the urgent need to protect nature, I’ll be thinking of the distant southern Line Islands, a remote archipelago in the Republic of Kiribati, a nation known for its desperate battle against rising ocean levels.

Their islands could be among the first to disappear if we don’t phase off greenhouse gas emissions. But what is less known is that the southern Line Islands provide the strongest evidence that nature protection can foster ocean resilience to global warming.

In 2009, a team of scientists and I first surveyed the marine ecosystems surrounding the uninhabited southern Line Islands. What we saw was like a world from centuries ago. Fish abundance was off the charts; on every dive, we saw abundant large predators, such as sharks—an uncommon sight for even a seasoned diver. Thriving, living corals covered up to 90 percent of the ocean floor.

We thought the pristine and untouched corals were saved forever in 2015, when the government of Kiribati protected 12 nautical miles around the islands from fishing and other damaging activities in what is now the Southern Line Islands Marine Protected Area.

But then disaster struck. The same year, warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures killed half of the corals in the Southern Line Islands. The news discouraged many. If the most pristine reefs were to succumb so rapidly, then all hope is lost. Would they be able to recover?

To answer that question, we returned to the islands five years after the coral died off. I was terrified before the first dive—unsure if we’d see dead or recovering corals. But when I jumped in the water, I could not believe what I saw.

Amid massive schools of fish, the corals were back to their former richness - they had recovered completely. If we hadn’t known that half of the corals had recently died, I would have thought that nothing had changed since my first visit. They recovered faster than ever witnessed before, with millions of new coral colonies per square mile taking over the space left by dead corals.

This miracle was only possible because the reefs were fully protected from fishing. As a result, the fish biomass was enormous. Large parrotfish and schools of hundreds of surgeon fishes kept the reef healthy and seaweed-free by grazing and browsing continuously on the dead coral skeletons. Without seaweed smothering the dead corals, new corals could grow and restore the reef.

Our discovery on this expedition clearly showed that, when granted full protection from fishing and other extractive activities, marine ecosystems can bounce back. Strong protection yields resilience and replenishes our overfished ocean. We have seen this again and again, in Mexico, Colombia and the United States.

The Biden administration has pledged to protect more of the ocean under its jurisdiction, and even created a new Special Envoy for Biodiversity, currently held by Monica Medina. But there is more that countries around the world can do at a global and national level.

That is why I am carrying a strong message to Montreal: we must protect at least 30% of the Earth’s land and ocean by 2030, and we must hurry. Protecting a third of the planet is critical for biodiversity and all the benefits we obtain from it, such as oxygen, clean air and water, and food.

But it is also essential for mitigating climate change. Protecting vital areas in the ocean - and the land - will turn the tide against biodiversity loss and buy us time as the world phases out fossil fuels and replaces them with clean energy sources.

Ocean health hangs in the balance at COP15 in Montreal. But we’re already running out of time, with the summit delayed two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, less than 8% of the ocean is under any kind of protection, and only 3% is highly protected like in the southern Line Islands.

We have eight years to quadruple all ocean protections ever achieved in human history. Some countries have announced new ocean protections, but we need a global action plan that targets the top priorities for conservation of the ocean—for the sake of biodiversity, food and climate.

This means that delegates must roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of ironing out a strong global agreement that doesn’t water down protection goals. There is no more time for podium pledges and empty speeches.

The only acceptable outcome of COP15 is a strong nature agreement including a serious commitment to protect at least 30% of our ocean by 2030.

Enric Sala is the National Geographic Explorer in Residence and the founder of National Geographic Pristine Seas. You can listen to an extended conversation about the Southern Line Islands expedition with Sala on the latest episode of the Overheard at National Geographic podcast.

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