Ocean Architecture

“Whoooaaaaaa, it’s a huge whale!”

My son Ben is enthralled by the appearance of three humpback whales twelve miles off the coast of Gloucester. He and the rest of our fellow whale watchers are glued to the vessel’s port side railing, tracking a submerged patch of white near a pectoral fin and readying cameras for when the humpback surfaces again.

We’re told that the mammal is Salt, the grand matriarch of the North Atlantic and mother to a dozen calves. The on board naturalist explains how individual whales can be identified through distinctive markings, including scars created by collisions with boats. That gets Ben’s attention. His six-year old brow furrows and he wants to know why “the boats hit the whales.”

I assure him that it’s never on purpose, and that captains – be they at the helm of a freighter or a ferry – are working to help keep whales safe.

And it’s true; the previous summer, while touring the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary on the Sea Keeper, I learned from former fisherman John Williamson that a small adjustment to the shipping lanes entering Massachusetts Bay resulted in far fewer collisions with whales.

This kind of planning – where industry, recreation and conservation collaborate rather than compete – is at the core of a new trend in ocean management. Massachusetts was the first state in the U.S. to develop a comprehensive ocean plan that takes this approach, and more states on both coasts are close behind. The U.S. is looking towards this kind of planning and management to “build a better ocean” at the national level, as are several other countries.

According to Imèn Meliane, The Nature Conservancy’s international marine policy director, it’s a movement that needs to be ramped up around the world.

“When planning a town, there are areas for the houses where we live, areas for the businesses and industries where we work and shop, and areas set aside as parks and open space where we relax and watch wildlife,” she says. “If we apply these same principles throughout our oceans, we’ll have a long-term approach that combines protection with sustainable use.”

Meliane is a lead author of Global Ocean Protection: Current Trends and Future Opportunities. The new book, a collaboration of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy and the United Nations Environment Programme, examines the state of our oceans today and offers solutions that go beyond the creation of individual protected areas.

“Marine protected areas are essential for dealing with the degradation and overexploitation of our oceans,” says IUCN’s Caitlyn Toropova, a lead author of the new publication. “However, they cannot be managed effectively as islands of conservation in a sea of depletion; we need a global strategy for the remaining 90% of ocean space.”

One way, the book’s authors say, of achieving a dramatic improvement in marine conservation is to lay all the ocean uses on the table at once to see where potential conflicts exist. By considering different scenarios of ocean use in a larger and more comprehensive context, we can choose the one that best meets the needs of people and does the least harm to marine life and habitat.

The Nature Conservancy has much to bring to this process, both in the U.S. and around the world. In the Atlantic, for example, Conservancy scientists have studied the ocean from Cape Hatteras to the Bay of Fundy, compiling data on shore and sea birds, mammals, sea turtles, groundfish, shellfish and coastal and ocean floor habitats. This assessment has been a resource for east coast states as they develop their ocean plans.

In the Pacific, five Micronesian governments have pledged to conserve at least 30 percent of the near-shore marine resources by 2020. The Conservancy is using its expertise, relationships and resources to help this Micronesia Challenge succeed — and will export this and other successful conservation strategies to island groups around the world.

Meliane and co-authors are sharing Global Ocean Protection with leaders around the world at the Convention on Biological Diversity, held this month in Japan. Their hope is that Convention participants will put the book’s tools and strategies into practice in their communities.

On the Hurricane II, we reluctantly leave Salt and her companions behind as the vessel heads back to Gloucester Harbor. Ben sits on the floor of the top deck surrounded by dozens of sea creature toys, and spends the return journey making up encounters between gray whales and orcas, squid and leopard seals. Fortunately, none collide with his model ship.

Just beyond the railing in the real ocean, the future may be just as promising.

(Image: Humpback whale seen during whale watch off the coast of Gloucester. Photo credit: Kerry Crisley)

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