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Marine scientists eyeing expansion of ocean protection in Pacific island region

National Geographic Pristine Seas seeks world leaders’ attention to the Pacific Ocean

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

A group of marine scientists and conservationists is seeking to draw global attention to the blue waters of the Pacific as Western leaders embark on tours of the island region, which is currently challenged by climate issues, pollution, slack harvesting of marine resources and geopolitical tension

“As attention to the Pacific Ocean increases, the world should know that the region has an underwater treasure, harboring more marine species than anywhere else in the global ocean,” said Enric Sala, founder of National Geographic Pristine Seas.

“This outstanding biodiversity has supported Pacific islanders for millennia, and it can do so into the future if we tackle global warming and nations protect more of their waters to allow this treasure to be restored,” Sala added.

National Geographic Pristine Seas issued the statement to coincide with French President Emmanuel Macron's historic visit to New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his trip to Tonga and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin completed his tour of Papua New Guinea.

“The prosperity of Pacific island nations depends, as it has for centuries, on a healthy ocean,” said Kristin Rechberger, CEO of Dynamic Planet. “Examples from the region and around the world show that protecting key parts of the ocean helps deliver food security, generate employment and bring in greater economic benefits to nations.”

In May, Pristine Seas launched a five-year expedition that began in Kiribati and the Cook Islands, where ocean scientists conducted research in collaboration with local governments and communities to support the expansion of ocean protection.


The team is currently in Niue. Their next stop will be the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. They are scheduled to head to Palau early next year.

Alan Friedlander, Pristine Seas’ chief scientist, said the first phase of the venture will cover 4,000 miles in 2023 alone. The target is to explore the ocean from the surface to depths of 20,000 feet and the waters at depths that have never been studied before.

“We’re eager to learn from people of the Pacific islands and share all that we have learned with them as well,” Friedlander said.

“These are descendants of people who were regularly sailing across thousands of miles of ocean waters at a time when much of the rest of the world was barely leaving land. They also have centuries of experience in using marine reserves and fishery closures to maintain healthy seas," he added.

The expedition was prompted by “an escalation of threats to the ocean—from plastics and global warming to overfishing.”

According to Conservation International, the vast majority of Pacific islanders live within 62 miles of the coast and their livelihoods depend on the sea. The tuna industry alone provides more than 13,000 jobs for Pacific islanders and contributes $260 million to the region's economy.

“The goal of the expedition is to inspire the establishment of large marine protected areas (national parks in the ocean) in the places that would deliver the most benefits to local communities, the fishing industry, the climate and ocean life,” Pristine Seas said.

The Pristine Seas team conducts its research aboard the E/V Argo, an expedition-outfitted vessel, where the scientists "study, document and identify the potential for expanded protections in waters crucial to the survival of what these countries call the Blue Pacific Continent.”

“The health of the tropical Pacific is an essential need for the people who live there and really to everyone on the planet because the ocean is a key part of our life support system,” Sala said.

“But what makes this mission an exciting opportunity to restore marine life and bring in more benefits to local communities and economies. We sail with hope because we have witnessed the amazing capacity of ocean life to heal itself—if we just give the ocean some space.”

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