For the first time, scientists have mapped the complete marine wilderness around the world – and it’s really not looking good.
Just 13 percent of the world’s oceans remain untouched by the negative impacts of human activity, such as industrial fishing, chemical and plastic pollution, and vast international shipping trade routes. This small portion, around 55 million square kilometers (21 million square miles) of sea, is now the only part of the world’s ocean that can still be classified as "wilderness".
Presented in the journal Current Biology this week, researchers carried out a massive systematic analysis of the world’s ocean while looking at 19 known human stressors, such as commercial shipping, fertilizer runoff, and various types of fishing.
Even the researchers were shocked by their results.
"We were astonished by just how little marine wilderness remains," Kendall Jones, of the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement.
"The ocean is immense, covering over 70 percent of our planet, but we've managed to significantly impact almost all of this vast ecosystem."
Most of this remaining wilderness can be found deep in the Pacific Ocean, as well as the seas around the Antarctic and Arctic. The most negatively affected areas were the coasts, which is especially worrying because coastal habitats are a vital hive for biodiversity, most notably coral.
Further to this point, less than 5 percent of global marine wilderness is currently protected. A lot of this protected area covers deep offshore ecosystems, not the high-biodiversity zones such as coral reefs.
"This means the vast majority of marine wilderness could be lost at any time, as improvements in technology allow us to fish deeper and ship farther than ever before," Jones said. "Thanks to a warming climate, even some places that were once safe due to year-round ice cover can now be fished."
The study comes with a clear message: change is needed urgently. The world needs a series of new multilateral environmental agreements, according to the researchers, in which world governments cooperate to minimize human activities that threaten wilderness. Even simpler, many of the problems highlighted in the report could be dampened if current laws were better enforced. For example, up to 30 percent of global fish catch is unreported, unregulated, and illegal.
From an individual’s perspective, even cutting down on our personal plastic consumption could have a massive positive impact on our oceans, if carried out en masse.