Wallace Stegner, the celebrated writer and historian of the American West, once remarked that national parks were the ‘best idea we ever had’, a sentiment shared by countless others. For almost 140 years, since the establishment of the world’s first national park in Yellowstone in 1872, successive generations have been able to experience and enjoy some of the Earth’s most storied landscapes which, were it not for the decision to protect them, would long ago have succumbed to the axe, the pick and the plough. Today, more than 1,800 land-based parks exist in nearly 100 countries.
Setting aside spectacular areas on land from extractive activities such as logging, mining, farming, ranching, and the steady encroachment of cities and towns has long been accepted as an important way to protect some of the earth’s finest natural treasures.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the world’s oceans despite their critical importance to all life on the planet. Oceans cover approximately 72 per cent of the earth’s surface and are estimated to contain a significant percentage of all species, many of which are still unknown to science. They produce over half the oxygen in our atmosphere and absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide. They filter much of the pollution we generate, and play a vital role in the hydrological cycle which regulates the earth’s climate. Over 250 million people depend directly or indirectly on fishing for their livelihood and oceans are the primary source of protein for over 2.6 billion people worldwide. In short, the health of the world’s oceans is intrinsically linked to the health of the world’s human population.
Whereas land-based parks provide varying degrees of protection for almost 13 per cent of the earth’s terrestrial environment, only 0.5 per cent of the world’s oceans are fully protected, although they cover more than twice the amount of the earth’s surface. Moreover, they are rapidly being degraded by chemical and nutrient pollution; continued dumping of massive amounts of trash into the sea; destruction of coastal habitat and wetlands; global warming, which threatens to alter the basic chemistry and temperature of the world’s oceans in ways antithetical to marine life; and industrial fishing, which at present represents the most serious problem affecting ocean ecosystems.