Inside the ambitious push to protect a third of the world’s ocean

Preserving our pristine seas will boost biodiversity, replenish fishing stocks, and store carbon.

Black-striped salema off Isabela Island in the Galápagos make way for a sea lion. After a 2015 Pristine Seas expedition, a new reserve around Darwin and Wolf Islands added more than 15,000 square miles of protected area that is closed to fishing.

When Enric Sala quit his job as a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2007, it was because he was tired of writing death notices. ‘I found myself writing the obituary of the ocean with more and more precision,’ he says. Rather than spend any more of his life documenting the dying, Sala decided to try to safeguard the living in the few remaining patches of ocean where the Grim Reaper had yet to swing his scythe.

These scattered remnants are the last wild places of the sea—the marine equivalent of the remotest tracts of old-growth forest in the Amazon—still undamaged by overfishing, pollution, and climate change. “It was necessary for us to go to places that still look like the ocean as it was 500 years ago,” Sala says. “To go back to the best baselines we have for what a healthy ocean used to be like. These places are the blueprint. They are the instruction manual. Maybe we cannot bring all of the ocean back to this state, but these places show us what the potential is. They give us hope.”

To protect these places, Sala and the National Geographic Society launched the Pristine Seas project in 2008. Over the past 12 years, Pristine Seas has helped create 22 marine reserves, from the giant kelp forests south of Cape Horn to the humpback whale nurseries of Gabon. These make up two-thirds of the world’s fully protected marine areas—covering more than two million square miles in all. Now Sala and his team have set an even more ambitious goal: to see more than a third of the world’s ocean conserved for the purpose not just of sustaining biodiversity but also of replenishing fish stocks and storing carbon.

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