The struggle for our blue heart / Max Bello

Max Bello

Many of us are deeply disconnected from the ocean, the origin of our very existence. Stuck as we are to land, it’s become easy to see the ocean as an endless dumpster for our wastes, a source to feed all our wild consumption. But collective movements give us hope, and creating and expanding strong marine protected areas can bring back the richness and abundance of ocean life.

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

Max Bello

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

Life began in the ocean, and our existence itself depends on it.

But we’re so often blind to its importance. Evolved as we have into terrestrial beings, we like to keep our feet on the ground, planted firmly on land.

Where the land meets the shore in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia · Cristina Mittermeier

Jumping into the ocean requires the suppression of a primal fear; it’s counterintuitive, like immersing yourself in a new mindset. I’ve dived with aliens: octopuses that are incredibly intelligent and curious. Once, I showed some other divers these life forms. When we returned to the surface, their first comment was how tasty those octopuses would be as ceviche.

Our relationship with the ocean and the life it holds is broken. No one I know would go to Africa, look at a rhinoceros, and immediately think of a barbecue.

Many of us are deeply disconnected from the ocean, the origin of our very existence. Stuck as we are to land, it’s become easy to see the ocean as an endless dumpster for our wastes, a source to feed all our wild consumption. The beauty and intricacy of the ocean is beyond imagination, but the pain we inflict on it is even greater.

Corals around the world are bleaching (turning white) because of rising ocean temperatures · Cristina Mittermeier

Exploring the ocean is difficult, both technically and because it requires a massive amount of resources, vessels, and other machinery. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the ocean — at least 95% of the ocean floor remains unexplored. Then there is the concept of the water column, stretching between the surface and the bottom of the ocean. It’s difficult to fathom its extension — most of the habitable space on the planet is in this watery, three-dimensional world we call the sea.

I’ve found photography helps me connect — moving from wide-angle lenses that can capture the largest creatures to have roamed the planet, blue whales, to macro photography that reveals every cubic inch of the ocean to be a universe in itself. The quantity and diversity of life contained within a single rock is astounding. Thinking about a far larger seamount (underwater mountain) or a whole reef, or even the secrets of an entire ecosystem, is almost overwhelming.

International ocean policy advisor Max Bello diving with his camera · Andy Mann

During my career I have worked on a varied set of initiatives to take better care of the ocean, from trade policy to ban exports of endangered species to dealing with industrial fisheries that incentivize the wholesale destruction of ocean life. My experiences have convinced me that marine protected areas (MPAs)—particularly those that are highly or fully protected — are our best chance of bringing the ocean back to life. Protecting areas from fishing, mining, and drilling is not easy in an increasingly industrialized ocean with ever-growing competition for resources that we have driven to scarcity. But from what I have witnessed, creating and expanding strong MPAs is the most sensible strategy to cure the harm we’ve caused to the ocean.

If these highly and fully protected areas in the ocean are well funded, well managed, and large enough to safeguard the processes and ecosystems that make them unique, they can bring back the richness and abundance of ocean life.

A very large increase in the amount of ocean protected in the last few decades has been encouraging, but remains far from enough. As of this month, December 2020, only around 3% of the global ocean has been highly or fully protected. That’s why I have devoted my life to supporting the creation of MPAs around the world.

Highly and fully protected areas in the ocean can bring back the richness and abundance of ocean life · Andy Mann

The movement to protect the ocean is, in a sense, a “countercurrent” movement. Every day there are more people on this planet, more people consuming more resources that we extract from the living world — meanwhile I'm talking about setting areas of ocean aside and not extracting resources from these places. Borders don’t exist beneath the surface, where currents carry nutrients and marine life across huge distances. Thus, when we protect one part are we not always protecting the whole? Above is connected to below, as is the air to the water. If, for example, we injure our hand, we don’t seek to heal just for the sake of that hand — we seek to heal our hand for the sake of our entire physical well-being.

The big question in my mind is, can we protect enough parts of the ocean to save the whole? We are late to this crucial task, late to take action and protect this blue source of life, but there is still so much hope. Everywhere there are marine areas to fight for: Timor-Leste; the Canary Islands; the Cocos Islands; the Sea of Cortez; the fjords of Patagonia in Chile; the Coiba National Park in Panama; the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba. Those places might be around the corner; they might be thousands of miles away. People of all ages around the world are waking up to the fact that these beautiful places and their biodiversity are key to our survival, and asking their leaders to step up to the challenge. We still have the chance to protect much of the ocean. We have a long way to go, but collective movements give us hope.

In Timor-Leste, local communities use a form of cultural protection called Tara Bandu to help fish populations recover and prevent overfishing—similar to how a modern marine protected area works · Cristina Mittermeier

The Galápagos archipelago, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador, gives me hope. This is a place where the interconnectedness of nature is evident immediately.

Galápagos and the marine life it holds shows us what we all need to know about the global ocean: no one ecosystem is ever isolated.

Submarines, sonar technology, and satellite tags allow us to see for ourselves how the fish, sharks, and marine mammals of Galápagos are connected through thousands of miles of underwater mountains and currents, and how different species interact with each other.

Though the Galápagos Marine Reserve protects some of the archipelago’s waters, current protections don’t cover the full range of crucial species and habitats—and just outside the protected area of ocean, industrial fishing fleets target the Galápagos’ abundance. For marine creatures in Galápagos, it’s like having a highway right outside your front door. We are the ones who have created barriers in the ocean, sinking swaths of biodiversity through our endless need to extract, supply, sell, and export. Added to all of this is the ultimate threat: climate change. But today, we have a chance to do something about it: we must urge Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno to expand the protections of the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Just as Galápagos is in need of expanded protections, so too is the whole ocean. The demand for sharks, fish, squid, and other marine-based products is threatening the ocean’s ability to support life. If we prioritize profits over planet, our lives and livelihoods cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, the beauty of places like Galápagos is not something we can afford to lose, and neither are the ocean ecosystems that make life on our planet possible.

A shiver of scalloped hammerhead sharks swims in the waters surrounding Galápagos · Cristina Mittermeier

A global expansion of marine protections would be an incredible legacy for the world. And we need to realize that our very existence depends on it. Let’s not be afraid of making tough decisions, of harnessing political will to help the declining natural world. We should welcome the knowledge that we still have more to learn and the opportunity to take a precautionary approach to protecting the ocean. We must move toward a greater awakening of what is at stake. We must bring hope and conviction to the effort to address the greatest challenge we have ever faced: the challenge to ensure our planet continues to sustain life.

The struggle is for our blue heart, for our existence itself.

The beauty and diversity of life in the ocean can offer us so much, if we only take care of it. The time to act is now.


Max Bello

International Ocean Policy Advisor

Max Bello is an international ocean policy expert who has worked in the environmental arena for over two decades to advance marine conservation priorities. He has worked directly with governments in Latin America and around the world to establish marine protected areas. Of note, he was instrumental in securing protections for over 2 million square kilometers of countries’ territorial waters. Max’s current work at Mission Blue is focused on securing and elevating global marine conservation targets, engaging local and national governments in protecting their own waters, and advancing marine conservation priorities in various international multilateral fora.

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