When the ocean starts to heal

Marine ecosystems face a multitude of threats. Since 2008, National Geographic's Pristine Seas initiative has been fighting to counteract this growing trend. And it's doing so successfully, thanks to the ocean's incredible ability to bounce back.

Flurina Ammann
5 minutes
Various colorful fish and a grey reef shark swim around an ocean reef
A colorful underwater world in balance - unfortunately a rare sight these days. © Enric Sala

In the mid nineties, the sleepy little village Cabo Pulmo in Baja California, Mexico, couldn't look more idyllic. But beneath the water's surface lies an underwater desert - mostly the result of overfishing and global ocean warming.

Fast forward to 2009. Researchers are about to do a dive off the coast of Cabo Pulmo. Within seconds, they find themselves surrounded by an incredible kaleidoscope of colours. The corals are thriving, huge schools of fish are everywhere and they even see some sharks. In the span of about ten years, the underwater world of Cabo Pulmo has fully recovered. And with it, the region's tourism industry.

A Galápagos sea lion in the midst of a large school of fish in the ocean
In protected areas, fish stocks can recover within a few years. © Enric Sala

How is that possible? The answer is relatively simple. Over 70 square kilometers off the coast of Cabo Pulmo were declared a marine protected area (MPA) in 1995. "Cases like this have shown that the fish biomass in protected 'no-take zones' (marine protected areas where all types of fishing are prohibited) increases by an average of 500 per cent within just a few years", says Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence. 

26 new marine protected areas

Close-up of a man with his hands folded under his chin, looking neutrally directly into the camera.
Dr. Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Founder of Pristine Seas © Romy Maxime

Sala realised some time ago that protecting marine areas is key to overcoming the crisis taking place in the ocean. And it was this realisation that led him to launch the Pristine Seas project together with National Geographic in 2008. The initiative focusses on creating MPAs like the one in Cabo Pulmo.

Since then, the team has conducted 42 expeditions around the world and successfully helped to create 27 marine protected areas covering a total area of 6.6 million square kilometres. But there's still a long way to go. Only around eight per cent of the world's marine areas are currently protected. And in some cases, commercial fishing is still permitted in these areas. In fact, only three per cent of MPAs are 'no-take zones'.

A sea turtle swims over a formation in the ocean
Only around eight per cent of the world's marine areas are currently protected. In some cases, commercial fishing is still permitted in these areas. © Shutterstock/Tomas Kotouc

Eight per cent is not enough

So how much of the ocean needs to be protected? "I conducted a study together with a team of economics and marine science specialists to find out", says Sala. "We found that we need to protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean. As soon as possible. Because that's the only way the ocean will be able to deliver three important benefits." The first benefit Sala is referring to is healthy ecosystems. The second is food security, which would increase because the fishing industry would be able to catch twelve per cent more fish globally with half as many boats. The third is a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, because at present, industrial bottom trawling is releasing hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 annually from the seabed. That's as many emissions as generated through aviation.

World’s first reserve for sperm whales

Pristine Seas is working together with local communities, Indigenous Peoples, governments and other partners to achieve this extremely ambitious goal. And global awareness about the urgency of this issue is growing. At the end of 2022, an important milestone was reached at the UN's fifteenth international biodiversity conference (COP15). Representatives from 196 governments signed a landmark agreement to protect 30 per cent of the world's land and waters by 2030. Since then, there have been reports of encouraging developments, both big and small, from around the world, making it clear that many governments are taking the issue seriously. Just recently, Dominica, an island in the Caribbean, announced plans to establish the world's first reserve for sperm whales. Ship traffic will not be permitted in this area off the west coast of the island, which will span over 900 square kilometres.

A sperm whale swims close to the ocean surface
Dominica, an island in the Caribbean, plans to establish the world's first reserve for sperm whales. © Francois Gohier/VWPics/Redux/laif

In 2023, Pristine Seas launched an ambitious new project called the Global Expedition. A team consisting of scientists, policy experts and filmmakers will spend the next five years exploring the tropical Pacific on board a research vessel and support governments in their efforts to protect the oceans.

There are only a few years to go before the 2030 deadline. That's enough time to make a difference, but only if we act now to protect the underwater world - and by extension, all of us who live above it.

LGT Venture Philanthropy supports Pristine Seas, both as an investor and a partner. Learn more about the project and our commitment to Pristine Seas here.

Interview with Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Founder of Pristine Seas 

Enric, how did you first become interested in the ocean?

I grew up on Spain's Mediterranean coast. When I was a kid, I used to watch Jacques Cousteau's documentaries over and over, and that's how my passion for the ocean was born. The Mediterranean Sea where I lived by was empty, so when I went swimming the most I could hope to see were a few sea urchins or small fish. I was convinced that the colourful creatures in the Cousteau films only existed in exotic seas in places that were very far away. But when I was 18, I did my first scuba dive around the Medes Islands, which had been designated a nature reserve a few years earlier. When I jumped into the water it was like diving into one of Jacques Cousteau's films. I saw everything that was missing from the sea of my childhood: sea bass, sea bream, octopus, soft corals and so many other things. And I realised that it used to be like this everywhere. It was an epiphany.

So you took your passion for the underwater world and made it your profession?

Exactly. I studied biology, did a PhD in ecology and then worked as a professor in California for a number of years. In my research, I focussed on the impact that humans have on the ocean. As a professor, I wrote countless academic papers on the topic. One day, I was writing a paper on the decline of biodiversity in the Gulf of California and I realised I was just writing an obituary for the ocean. I felt like a doctor who tells their patient exactly how they're going to die but doesn't give them a cure. That same day I decided to leave academia and devote myself to helping to heal the ocean.

Why should we all take this issue to heart?

The ocean covers around 70 per cent of the earth's surface. Marine life, microscopic algae and bacteria produce over half of our planet's oxygen. The ocean regulates the climate and is a fundamental part of the earth's water cycle. It produces food and is the main source of animal protein for more than one and a half billion people. The ocean also absorbs a quarter of our annual carbon emissions. So we need to take this issue very seriously.


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