Just 13 per cent of the world’s oceans can be classified as wilderness, study finds

By Angela Heathcote | July 27, 2018

Areas of ocean wilderness, untouched by human impact, are sparse in number according to new research.

JUST 13 PER CENT of the world’s oceans can be classified as wilderness, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology today.

Over a five-year period, researchers collected data of 19 human stressors – such as commercial fishing, land-based activities, shipping and resource drilling – and analysed their impact, revealing that much of the world’s marine wilderness has been diminished.

“The most surprising finding was how little marine wilderness is remaining,” said lead author Kendall Jones of the University of Queensland.

“We know that the ocean is vast and that no one lives there, so I was expecting to find more wildness especially in the high seas, and the fact that we didn’t shows just how far human impacts are going.”

Kendall said the impacts of commercial shipping and fishing in the high seas were visible. “The high seas don’t produce that much of the global fish catch, however we did find that there were a lot of fish activities, and a lot of that is driven by government subsidies to fish in those areas.”

Scientists stress importance of marine-protected areas

Most of the remaining wilderness is unprotected, leading researchers to stress the importance of establishing new marine protected areas (MPAs).

In March of this year, the Turnbull Government announced it would wind back marine protections to support the fishing industry.

“It’s disappointing. We know that even low levels of human activity can harm marine biodiversity. If you’re cutting protection areas across the ocean, this will mean changes for the ecosystem and erosion of those wildness areas,” said Kendall.

“We know that pristine wilderness areas have unique values and diversity, and once that’s lost it’s hard to restore. You can use marine protection areas to restore these places to a point, but no one’s shown that they can actually be restored back to what they once were.”

Impact of climate change

To be classified as wilderness an area had to be impacted by less than 10 per cent of the stressors. If climate change was included in the variables, researchers say that no part of the ocean could be classified as future wilderness areas.

“We took the climate stressors out and just looked at the direct impact of shipping, fishing and land-based activities to show the areas of low human impact. But pretty much everywhere will be affected by climate change. You’ll find that there’s nowhere under that 10 per cent threshold,” Kendall said.

High seas marine-protected area

At present, countries only have the power to create MPAs in their exclusive economic zone, making the high seas open range in comparison.

The United Nations is currently debating a high seas conservation treaty that would take on a similar legal framework to MPAs, and govern the way the high sea is utilised.

Kendall hopes that international agreements like the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which most countries in the world have already signed onto, will explicitly recognise the value of wilderness and that they will set targets for its protection.

He also argues that the failure to recognise the importance of ocean wilderness stems from a lack of understanding. “When land is eroded through logging it’s a really stark picture and you can see what’s happening, whereas on the ocean, the unchanging appearance on top belies the reality that is going on below the surface.

“This is compacted with the idea that the ocean is this vast untouchable area that historically has come from poets and naturalists, but we’ve shown that we actually can have a widespread impact. Our research shows it’s not this big untouchable place we think it is.”