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Guest Editorial
by Julie Packard, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Conserve the Oceans, Conserve the Earth

  
At the dawn of the 21st century, there’s one cause that I believe should concern everyone who cares about the future of life on Earth. That cause is protecting Earth’s natural systems for future generations. In those systems, the oceans are a central driving force.

A great deal of time and attention has been put toward terrestrial conservation issues in the past few decades. Conservation organizations have made remarkable strides in raising public awareness and engagement in protecting the natural world. This is good. But it’s not enough. Until recently, we’ve been forgetting about what I like to call the other 70 percent of the planet: the part that drives world climate, provides the primary protein source for millions of people, absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, and is the source of play and inspiration for coastal societies everywhere. In short, we’ve been forgetting the part of the planet on which all life depends: the oceans.

California coastal zone.
Mist and waves lend an ethereal beauty to the Big Sur
coast in California, a coastal margin where the natural
environment is lightly touched by the hands of humans.

Photo courtesy of and copyright Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Only in the past decade have we begun to include this largest habitat on Earth in our discussions of conservation. To a visitor from another planet, it would look humorous... absurd, really. But the oceans are out of sight, out of mind to all but a few of us. And as we begin to really understand them, especially the deep ocean areas that are truly Earth’s last unexplored frontier, we’re changing our world view.

Think all life ultimately depends on sunlight? Not in the deep sea, where chemosynthetic bacteria support an entire food web based on methane and hydrogen sulfide. Just getting used to the idea that insects instead of mammals are the most abundant predators on Earth? Try siphonophores, gelatinous animals that live in the deep sea, whose abundance is only now being measured by scientists in Monterey Bay, but may take the prize.

Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Experiencing the beauty of sardines gliding through a living
kelp forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium can be the first
connection that leads to a lifelong interest in ocean conservation.

Photo by Rick Browne, courtesy of and copyright Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Though most peoples’ knowledge of the ocean is minimal, there’s one view that has prevailed throughout human history—the ocean is so vast and bountiful that we couldn’t possibly have an impact on it. Of course, we’re now learning this view is not correct. The pace of our own need for ocean resources has outstripped even the vast ocean’s ability to absorb the impacts of our actions. We’re surrounded by evidence of the harmful impacts we’re having on ocean systems—from declining fisheries to disappearing coastal wetlands. As people by the millions continue to move to the world’s coastal regions—the fragile margins where both land and water are at their most productive—our impacts are growing exponentially.

These are the impacts we can see and measure—at least in theory, when we choose to devote the resources to do so. Other impacts are more complex and difficult to grasp: the effect of air pollution on aquatic systems; our role in the huge biogeochemical cycles that make natural systems work; the influence of distant economic markets on the value of our local resources. Most of our impacts are out of sight and, for the most part, out of mind.

Out of sight and out of mind. This is at the core of our challenge to raise awareness and concern for oceans to the level we now see for land conservation. And this challenge is at the core of the mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium: to inspire conservation of the oceans.

Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Offering unexpected perspectives on marine life is one tool
for connecting aquarium visitors with the ocean environment.

Photo by Rob Lewine, courtesy of and copyright Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Those of us who share a concern for conservation most often trace our passion to some connection with nature... the beauty of a familiar landscape, seabirds gliding over a beach at sunset, the feel of a sand crab tickling our palm, a favorite childhood fort in the woods. Each of us has our own story about how we came to be involved in conservation. Our goal must be to assure that each child in the nation has his or her own story—an experience to establish a connection with nature. And, as our vision statement for the aquarium says—a lifelong love of learning and a passion for the natural world.

What we do with that passion is up to each of us. As we’ve learned over nearly two decades through our experience with visitors at the aquarium (more than 32 million of them), people become engaged in different ways, learn in different ways and express their commitment in different ways. Some of our visitors are ardent conservation activists eager for more information about how to get involved in advocacy for the oceans. Many return with their children again and again, simply to enjoy the fun and satisfaction of exploring their favorite exhibits together. Some visitors say they come to find a haven of serenity surrounded by the undulating kelp forest exhibit or the pulsating jellyfish exhibits. Some are just hopelessly in love with sea otters.

Monterey Bay Auarium sea nettle jellyfish.
Seen at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, delicate sea nettle jellyfish are
creatures of grace and beauty—a fragile part of a complex ecosystem.

Photo by Randy Wilder, courtesy of and copyright Monterey Bay Aquarium.

There are countless ways you can get involved: by supporting organizations that are building a constituency for nature, nurturing schools and universities in your region, helping create better policy and building consensus on conservation issues in your community, by demanding better laws for resource protection, and encouraging our nation to lead by example.

Whatever you do, keep at the top of your mind the fact that we are responsible for creating our own future. Our impacts on natural systems are now so great that the term “let nature take its course” is no longer a viable statement or a viable option.
Get involved in working toward a better future, pursue and share your passion for nature, and expand your world view to embrace the oceans on which all of us depend. It can, and will, make a difference.

   

  

Julie Packard is executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey Bay, California.
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