Marine ecologist urges protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030
By Dr. Mike Gil
In 2013, my team and I embarked on a set of experiments to study the social behaviors of fish in coral reefs. Through field research and modeling, we found that fish behave much more like humans than we thought.
But what surprised us most is that the social behavior of fish can dramatically affect how the ecosystem responds to changes in the environment, including those caused by humans.
Reef fish take their survival cues from one another. For instance, if one fish enters an open area of the reef to feed on algae, other fish can use this as a cue that this is a safe area to go out and eat and not get eaten themselves. This method of passive communication not only helps fish fill their bellies and avoid dangers like sharks, but it ultimately maintains the health of the reef.
By keeping algae at bay — algae that, if unchecked, can kill coral and degrade the entire ecosystem — these fish protect corals and the greater ecosystem. And by sharing critical information about survival with one another, more fish around means better-informed individuals that can perform their job in the ecosystem better.
It turns out that what we learned in the fantastical worlds featured in the movies “Avatar,” or its predecessor, “FernGully,” seems to be increasingly apparent in the real world: Life is interconnected. I don’t simply mean life is connected in the sense of “The Lion King’s” “circle of life,” where energy and biomass is transferred through the food chain. It is.
But we’re discovering, with increasing depth, that another, hidden currency connects and shapes life in the wild, as it does for humans: information. By sharing vital information with one another, wild animals, including our reef fish, can survive and serve their ecosystems better when there are more animals (i.e., “informants”) around.
However, wild animal populations throughout the world are declining at alarming rates, especially in the “out of sight, out of mind” marine realm. The major culprits include mismanaged harvesting practices, pollution and the elephant in the room that is climate change.
We have long known that reducing the densities of wildlife can harm the critical ecosystem functions these animals perform. But our studies in coral reefs have revealed an additional feedback — a double whammy, if you will: Reducing densities of wildlife also reduces the information available to the animals that remain, leaving them and their ecosystems more vulnerable.
This may seem like a tree-hugger’s problem; that is, until you realize that we humans depend heavily on natural ecosystems, too. For example, coral reefs may be restricted to the tropics, but they pour in excess of $375 billion U.S. dollars into the global economy annually through things like tourism, food sources and proactive storm protections.
OK, so, if they’re so important to preserving the services ecosystems provide to humans, how can we protect or restore animal densities in the wild? Well, for many coastal marine ecosystems, like coral reefs, there is a simple answer, driven by a mountain of scientific evidence: Create more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
MPAs help take the human-caused pressures off an ocean area. This allows damaged areas to recover and pristine ecosystems to remain intact, helping the ocean continue to help us.
President Joe Biden’s administration has set an ambitious but necessary goal to conserve 30% of our lands, waters and ocean by 2030. Many members of Congress, like Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Reps. Joe Neguse and Diana DeGette, all from my home state of Colorado, already support Biden’s goal.
Reaching this 30X30 goal with increased MPA coverage will give our oceans a chance to adapt to climate change and continue to provide us with the vital ecosystem services we rely on — like oxygen, food, jobs and recreation.
Like fish in a healthy coral reef, we have the information we need to help us survive, by keeping invaluable natural ecosystems thriving. Today is the time for global, federal and state lawmakers to leverage this taxpayer-funded scientific information as an opportunity for an unparalleled return on investment: a sustainable future for Americans and, by example, the rest of humankind.
Dr. Mike Gil is a University of Colorado Boulder Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow, a TED Fellow and a National Geographic Explorer. He has led research around the world — from coral reefs in the Caribbean, French Polynesia and Southeast Asia, to “microislands” of plastic garbage, teeming with life, in the middle of the Pacific. His diverse research efforts are unified by a common goal: to better understand how natural ecosystems work, so that we can better sustain the essential services these ecosystems provide to humankind.