“Out of sight, out of mind,” sadly seems to be the reccuring mantra that we have adopted toward our oceans. Our human-centric society often treats the Earth’s ocean environment like a dark corner of a basement, forgotten and full of garbage.  Simply put, human-induced, global warming has led to a rise in sea temperatures causing widespread coral reef bleaching – a process that kills the coral. Coral reefs are important to the overall health of the ocean’s ecosystem for many reasons, but as far as humans are concerned, they are important because they  serve as the habitat for plant and fish species that feed the apex predator fish — those are the big ones we love to eat.

Coral Reefs and Fish Populations At Risk

Adding injury to insult, non-sustainable fishing methods have pushed many fish populations to the tipping point of extinction. Nearly 90% of the Pacific Ahi tuna population has been harvested to satisfy our gluttony. In addition, acidification of the water’s chemistry, due to the absorption of excess CO2 from the atmosphere combined with nitrification from agricultural and urban runoff, has created dead zones in our ocean that are void of life.

On top of all this degradation, thousands of tons of marine debris from vessel grounding; pollution from vessels and from land; and derelict fishing gear and derelict military equipment are deposited in our oceans every year. Most noteworthy, fishing nets and lines scour the coral reefs, and drifting pollution acts as a conduit for the accelerated introduction of alien invasive species. Consequently, two-thirds of all coral reefs and over 88% of the reefs in the South Pacific, the most species-rich reefs on Earth, are at extreme risk.

Marine Sancturaries Effectively Protect our Ocean Resources

The good news is that state and federal legislation has been implemented to regulate ocean resource use and create conservation areas to protect the ocean ecosystem. Currently, there are 12 Marine Sanctuaries and two Marine National Monuments in the United States.

In the State of Hawai’i, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) sits roughly 3000 miles from any continental landmasses in the central North Pacific and encompasses 139,797 square miles. To put into prospective, the PMNM dwarfs the combined size of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon National Parks. Its boundaries encircle the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) and are home to over 7,000 species and 4,500 square miles of coral reefs. It is also a critical habitat for 90% of the Federally protected sub-adult and adult Hawaiian green sea turtles, home to one of the largest populations of seabirds in the world, and a key breeding ground for the federally protected Hawaiian monk seal.

Prior to the PMNM being designated a marine national monument in June 2006, its isolation from other reef systems and human impact, has facilitated an endemic-to-native species ratio that is equal to or greater than 25% — one of the highest in the world. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt fostered the precedent for the establishment of the PMNM by creating the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. Its protection was further supported by President Bill Clinton in 2000 when he established the Northwestern Hawaiian Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. The establishment of the PMNM in 2006 was a joint effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), and the State of Hawai’i. The mission of the PMNM is to “conserve, protect, and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy of special underwater places.”

Compared to other marine areas in Hawai’i, the PMNM remains relatively healthy and is considered by Dr. Alan Friedlander, a marine scientist for NOAA, to be “one of the last remaining large-scale, predator-dominated coral reef ecosystems on Earth”. The reason for the vibrant source of sea life entails two critical elements. First, the area is 2000 km from the main Hawaiian Islands and second, PMNM regulations allow only limited fish harvesting.

Overfishing Apex Predators Leads to the Loss of Coral Reefs

The problem with overfishing apex predators is that they occupy a specialized niche in the ocean ecosystem and a reduction in their population can lead to a decline in the mortality rate of secondary and primary species. This, in turn, puts unnatural stress upon the coral reefs that eventually leads to in their inability to regenerate. Within the boundaries of the PMNM, 54% of the marine species are apex predators, 18% are secondary species and 28% are primary species, whereas only 3% of the marine species in other marine areas of Hawaii are apex predators.

Therefore, unless you want nearly all the fish we eat to become extinct by 2035, or you really enjoy the taste of  “pink slime,” (low-grade meat scraps processed into a pink paste) then I suggest we break out of our coma-inducing destructive mantra “out of sight, out of mind” before the coral reefs and apex predator fish populations reach the tipping point of no return. Luckily, the overlying solution is simple: Take responsibility for your actions by supporting politicians and organizations that work towards developing climate change action plans and integrated ocean management planning.

Remember, no matter where you live, all water runs downhill to the ocean.

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