How Can We Save Our Oceans? With Marine Sanctuaries!

As a Bachelor of Science ecologist and avid free diver, I’ve done some research to see if there is progress in saving our amazing oceans.  After finding abundant evidence that Marine Sanctuaries are making a positive difference, my optimism is renewed. 

Marine Protected Areas and Ocean Sanctuaries protect plants and animals, water quality, the ocean floor and shoreline, and the air that we breathe.  It is politically possible to set aside extensive areas where fishing, mining and oil exploration are forbidden. These sanctuaries, with their spill-over effects are making progress in maintaining biodiversity, preventing extinctions, and improving local economies, while storing carbon to help mitigate climate change impacts. 

Do you agree with Ocean Optimism? “If the way we talk about the environment is so negative and overwhelming, we are fueling a culture of hopelessness that threatens to seal the planet’s fate.” I agree, It’s time for some GOOD NEWS! 

Healthy oceans concern me because they generate half of the oxygen we breathe; they feed us, regulate our climate and clean the water we drink – and provide amazing holidays!  Governments and agencies around the world are working cooperatively to save our oceans, including the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, NOAA, Green Peace, Smithsonian, and over 65 countries worldwide. 

We’ve enjoyed visiting MPAs throughout the world and I’ve included four of my favorite Marine Sanctuary snorkelling stories for fun. 

“Protected areas could be rolled out across international waters to create a net of protection that will help save species from extinction and help us survive in our fast-changing world.”  

Professor Callum Roberts, UK conservation biologist, York University

Picture of abundant reef 

Do Marine Sanctuaries Work? Yes! 

Studies are showing that ocean sanctuaries, also known as “no take” marine reserves, are playing a role in protecting marine ecosystems and ocean biodiversity. Researchers are finding that the biomass of plants and animals increases fourfold in protected areas, while individuals also increase in size. They serve as breeding grounds for threatened species, such as whales, tuna, and marine turtles. As the population of fish within a sanctuary increases, the spill-over effect pushes members of the various species out of the sanctuary to restock adjacent fishing areas. 

Scientists have shown that ocean sanctuaries boost local economies by improving the availability of fish outside the boundaries as well as associated tourism opportunities. Initial costs for developing a reserve can be recouped in five years.  

Partially protected areas can provide some benefits, but much less than those in strongly protected areas. Aquaculture (fish farming), if done properly in enclosed facilities, could safely produce more seafood than wild catch and take the pressure off of wild fish populations. 

How do Marine Sanctuaries Protect us during Climate Change?  

Our ocean’s living marine organisms store half of the world’s carbon. We need this healthy carbon sink to help with the effects of climate change like warming waters killing kelp as well as corals and fueling toxic algae blooms. In the US climate change is threatening the nation’s $212 billion commercial and recreational fishing industries.

How Marine Protected Areas Help Ocean Ecosystems 

Sanctuaries are legally protected by site-specific legislation and regulations that provide the legal framework outlining the activities that are allowed or prohibited.  Interpretive enforcement, emphasizing education about responsible behavior, works as a proactive method to prevent harmful resource impacts.  

Ocean Conservation  

Ocean conservation is the study of the marine ecosystem, plants and animals. It is the protection and preservation of ecosystems in oceans and seas through planned management to prevent damage caused by the exploitation of these resources. 

Early Conservation: Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (1970) 

The Broken Group of Islands has over one hundred small islands in Barkley Sound with an area 41 sq mi or 106 km2. This area has rich marine life with high-relief rock reefs and abundant kelp beds. This is a prime natural area for ocean kayaking. 

.In 1974, I was surprised when Parks Canada called to say I was being reassigned from my naturalist position and given the position as Canada’s first female National Park Warden. Not in the Rockies but in Pacifc Rim National Park. I was thrilled to discover the Park included one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite diving areas, the Broken Group of Islands, where I could use my new SCUBA diving certification! 

The job entailed policing of campgrounds, midnight shift work plus office work for us new Seasonals, but we were determined to make it to the Broken Group on our days off. In the meantime, I was fascinated with the Gray whales. They were stopping in the park for a snack along their 6,000-mile-long migration from Mexico to their summer Arctic feeding grounds. We could see huge areas of disturbed sand in the bay where the whales were swimming slowly along sucking sediment and prey from the sea floor.  We could see that they were filter feeding on krill, crab larvae, herring eggs and sea worms in the muddy bottom.  

We spent our time-off patching the old Zodiac until it finally held air. Finally we were diving in the Broken group, and it was definitely worth the effort!  Compared to diving in the dark St. Lawrence River, I discovered an underwater fantasy of bright clear water, brilliant yellow and orange nudibranchs, and waving whit

e Sea pens.  On my first dive, I was so mesmerized with the fairyland beauty that a shark managed to surprise me from behind! I was scared silly by my first shark sighting…and it appeared so close!  It had that nasty grin and was as big as me. After a hasty retreat, the experienced divers teased me for being scared by such an innocent little shark and I soon learned to appreciate them. 

As of May 2020,  the Department of Fisheries and Oceans permanently closed a large section of the Broken Group to fin fishing. This was due to incidental rockfish catch when fishing for other fish, such as salmon. Saving the Chinook salmon for the resident Orcas may be a life saver for them, as a rockslide on the Fraser River at Boston Bar decimated returning salmon stocks in 2019. 

How Successful are Marine Protected Areas? Some Examples 

Nation  Area Protected 2020 UN Goal 10% MPA % Highly Protected Comments 
All Nations  39% of Territorial waters are protected. 
15,427 MPAs protect 26,947,375 km2  
7.44% 2.5% The High Seas represent 61% of the oceans and 1% is protected 
USA 12,182,329  km² 26% 23% Good leadership 
Australia 9,025,021 km2 42% 9.2 % Good Results 
New Zealand 4,425,101 km² 30.4% .40% NZ MPAs are better managed and enforced than many other countries around the world 
Palau 475,077 km2  80%  N/A20% of Palau ocean territory is designated for sustainable fishing for food security 
United Kingdom 6,563,077 km2 48% 23% A leader in nature conservation 
Canada 350,000 km2 7% .01%  Weak levels of protection need improvement 

Picture of planet with MPAs 

How are Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) Set Aside? 

The United Nations (UN) set a goal for 10% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2020.  Currently, the Marine Conservation Institute reports that only 5.3% of the world’s oceans are protected in actively managed marine protected areas. This is represented by 15,427 designated Marine Protected Areas. Approximately half of that, or 2.5%, of the ocean is highly protected in no-take marine reserves where harvesting is not allowed. 

Blue Parks is an initiative to recognize marine protected areas that meet the highest science-based standards for biodiversity protection and best practices for management and enforcement. These fully and highly protected Blue Parks make outstanding contributions to saving marine life for future generations. 

The US National Marine Sanctuary System consists of 16 marine protected areas that encompass more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington State to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The US system includes 14 national marine sanctuaries and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. 

Why is it Important to Save Our Oceans? 

Oceans contain 99% of the living space or biosphere on our planet. Amazing when you consider that the terrestrial home for all our familiar plants, mammals and insects is contained in only 1% of the biosphere. Oceans hold 97% of the Earth’s water. It is important to preserve marine sanctuaries to save the huge variety of marine species from whales to fish to plankton from extinction.  

If you enjoy your fish and chips, you’ll appreciate that we need a solution in response to the United Nations Summary of Increasing pressures on fish populations: 

In 1970s – 10% of fish stocks were overexploited. 
In 2020 – 33% are overexploited. 

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How do we  turn this around?  

In 2017, scientists measured the ocean’s largest dead zone ever—an area the size of New Jersey—in the Gulf of Mexico. How can we clean our oceans? The most important value of healthy oceans comes from single cell plants called phytoplankton. Forty-five billion tonnes of these tiny plants grow and photosynthesize in the oceans each year and they produce as much oxygen as all the forests and grasslands on the planet!

A healthy ocean provides us with food security and helps to slow climate change.  Protected salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass beds help protect shorelines from storm surges. Although plastic pollution has been found in even the most remote areas of the sea, many cities and regions are banning single use plastic bags. For almost every problem there is a creative solution. 

For healthy oceans we need marine sanctuaries. 

What are the Economic Benefits of Ocean Sanctuaries 

Each year about $8 billion is generated across the US sanctuary system in coastal and ocean dependent economies. These much needed dollars are injected into local economies by a diversity of sectors, including commercial fishing, research, and tourism-related activities such as recreational fishing, snorkeling, and diving. 

NOAA states that the primary objective of a sanctuary is to protect its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way. Sanctuary waters provide not only a secure habitat for species close to extinction but they also protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries serve as natural classrooms and laboratories for schoolchildren and researchers alike to promote understanding and stewardship of our oceans. They often provide valued recreational spots for sport fishing and diving and support commercial industries such as tourism, fishing and kelp harvesting.  

Why is the Great Barrier Reef so Special? 

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system in the world, 348,000 square kilometres, and was declared a World UNESCO Heritage site in 1981. It is teeming with 1500 species of tropical fish – from small bait fish through to the earth’s largest species of sharks. The Great Barrier Reef is only living organism that can be spotted from space.    

I first visited the reef with my Australian born husband and our five-year-old son in 1985.  We landed in Cairns, traveled up to Port Douglas and the Daintree rainforest, exploring all the little places along the way in beautiful North Queensland. 

We were lucky to meet a Canadian friend working with the Great Barrier Reef Authority.  Jackie had developed an exciting underwater interpretive trail near the popular Green Island, and she showed us all the best places to visit.  

She even took us along as extra pairs of eyes on a survey flight checking for illegal fishing boats.  We caught one boat red-handed with his lines out within the protected area. Jackie asked us if we would be willing to testify in court and of course we said YES! Anything for another trip to experience some of the best snorkeling in the world.  I think she might have been teasing us. 

Photo Agincourt Reef 

From Port Douglas we splurged and took a full day cruise to the spectacular Agincourt Reef on the outer Great Barrier reef. It is 90 miles out and took a couple of hours by high-speed catamaran. In our briefing session the leader told us the they often had people who were so amazed at the beauty they could see from the boat, that they would jump in – forgetting that they couldn’t swim!  That got a lot of laughs, but it was understandable. Our son wanted to jump in with us but had only mastered swimming across the small hotel pool.   

From the submersible we gaped at hundreds of brilliant corals and fish galore: little colorful Gobies, Angel, Butterfly, Cardinal, Clown and Damselfish; less colorful and bigger (mouth watering) Groupers and Cods. Then we saw the big turquoise Parrotfish, my favorite because they eat algae and poop out clean sand to replenish the beach. 

We spotted endangered Giant clams, with vibrant blue lips, looking big enough to swallow a foot. All this took several rolls of film plus videos.  Ryan decided that glass bottom boats and “submarine rides” were the way to go, so Dad and I took turns snorkeling until they dragged us aboard for the long ride back to port.  

Fish the size of small cars

We spent three months following scenic ocean roads throughout Queensland and New South Wales.  

One family-run dive trip further south in Queensland was spectacular.  I thought our fun-loving guides were kidding us when they warned us to never store snacks in our swim trunks.  The corals and fish were so enticing that I ignored the difficulty pressurizing my ears and went for the dive instead of the snorkel.  I was as close as I dared to an approaching Hump Headed Wrasse that looked as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. Thank goodness there were no snacks in my bathing suit! I don’t think this gentle giant was the biggest –  8 foot and 400 pounds, but as the friendly monster came closer, I was glad Wrasse only eat fish and crustaceans.  

Wrasse pic 

Our old Hiace campervan didn’t have aircon, so it was a great excuse to stop for a swim at each enticing beach several times a day. These areas didn’t have marine sanctuary status, but the beaches were pristine and there were enough fish for everyone in the mid 1980’s.   

At McKay we stopped when we saw a big boat – an Asian junk – beached in town. It had been creatively converted into a Visitors Center. The story was that illegal fishermen had been caught poaching endangered Giant clams and had been successfully prosecuted. Their boat was confiscated and became an interesting tourist attraction — with a cautionary tale! 

Aussies are serious about protecting their ocean resources.  Years later when an Australian Fisheries ship found a foreign ship illegally catching Patagonian Toothfish, they chased them for days into Antarctic waters until they captured them and brought them back for justice. This made national news when we were living in Australia.

How much of the Great Barrier Reef is gone? 

 199Returning  to visit Green Island was disappointing . It was close to shore and showing signs of being loved to death by too many visitors walking on the coral.  We learned that the best Reef trips involved a longer ride out and were worth the extra cost. Our amazing Outer reef trip was a good example but out of our budget for a second trip.  

The Great Barrier Reef has additional problems, along with poachers there is increasing agricultural fertilizer and other pollution runoff and increasing acidity.  In areas of high pollution, populations of Crown of Thorns star fish have exploded and they’ve devoured extensive beds of coral. 

Fast forward to 2020 (Sad News) 

One of the biggest problem is due to climate change. In 2016 and 2017 over heating of the Pacific ocean resulting in massive areas of coral bleaching. This deadly damage killed off huge areas of coral.  Thirty percent of the coral perished in 2016, another 20 percent in 2017.  

Much of the marine ecosystem along the northern portions of the reef have become barren with little hope of recovery.  After the Southern summer of 2020, with high sea temperatures and heavy bleaching for a third time in five years, experts fear that more than half of the Great Barrier Reef has been devastated.  

Where are all the Marine Sanctuaries? 

The good news is that commitments have been made world-wide to protect ocean habitat. More than 65 countries and territories have set aside 15,427 Marine Protected Areas including coral reefs.  The region with the largest area of MPAs is in the South Pacific. Some of the best examples come from tiny Palau, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. These countries demonstrate that it is politically possible to set aside extensive areas for conservation.  

New Zealand Marine Protected Areas Success  

New Zealand is one of the best countries for positive success stories in protecting their oceans.  I’m glad we made it a priority to visit New Zealand’s first marine reserve, Goat Island, which has been protected since 1977. 

The winter waters were cold, but they offered a glass-bottomed boat ride with a local Naturalist.  We jumped at this opportunity because we had learned so much on boat trips with amazing NZ Parks staff in the Bay of Islands mangroves.

We were surprised and delighted by crystal clear water, the healthy kelp beds and HUGE Snapper, Cod, Trevally, and crayfish. The Naturalist explained that the area was a sanctuary, and there was no chance of catching or eating the beauties swimming below! One big benefit to swimmers is that the fish are not afraid of people and even follow close behind divers to pick up food disturbed in the sand.   

360-degree picture  

Although the Goat Island preserve is only 5 square kilometres (2 square miles), this fish nursery has 14 times the number of snapper per area than the surrounding coast. As the nursery becomes crowded, fish migrate outside the sanctuary creating the spillover effect, which means far more fish for surrounding areas. 

The local fishermen had complained when they first heard about the fishing ban, but they are supporters of the sanctuary now because their fishing is better than ever.  

When I asked, ”How is this marine area protected? the naturalist told us that conservation officers regularly watch from a height of land with binoculars for illegal fishing boats.  When caught the poachers’ boats and vehicles are confiscated by law!   


Why are the Oceans So Important to NZ? 

New Zealand values its marine environment for social, economic, spiritual and cultural reasons.  The ocean:

  1. Provides space for healthy recreation: swimming, surfing, fishing 
  1. Provides employment and economic activity  
  • fishing, mineral deposits, tourism and biotechnology 
  •  30,000 jobs and $7 billion to the economy  
  • Significance to Maori and links with identity, well-being, and prosperity
  1. Supports a wide diversity of plants, animals and food resources 
  •  Many species are endemic and live only in NZ
  1. Regulates the environment   
  •  absorbing carbon, removing pollutants, and producing oxygen

Marine Conservation in Thailand  

We enjoyed amazing snorkeling in the Andaman Sea  

We had wanted to visit Thailand and snorkel for years and finally made it one Christmas. So many reports were glum about coral destruction and bleaching and we were almost ready to give up. Then we came across reports of good snorkeling in the Similan Islands and Surin Marine National Park, protected since 1981. They had recently banned tourists for a year to give the reefs a chance to recover and we hoped that it wouldn’t be too crowded once the National Park opened again.  

We struck it lucky when we searched online and found a live-aboard snorkel tour to these islands. There were lots of dive boats, but we could find only one snorkel boat, the Reggae Queen run by Andaman Snorkel Discovery Tours. Ralf, the skipper and owner is an avid conservationist who has been sailing and snorkeling these islands for many years. With 8 tiny cabins, 4 toilets and a family style of living, we fit right in as the older more experienced generation. For four days we snorkeled three to four times a day in the best coral we had seen since 1985 on the Great Barrier Reef.   

Colorful living coral in the Andaman sea. Photo by J. Cadieux

Our guide explained that some areas had been bleached and recovered. We saw beautiful corals and huge schools of colorful fish, turtles and small sharks. At one point I was entirely surrounded by hundreds of scintillating little blue fish as if I was part of the school. When the call came in that divers on another boat had spotted a Whale shark, we jumped in the zodiac and flew off in hot pursuit. It was fun following the divers’ bubbles even if we didn’t spot the whale shark. 

Our Captain told us that the longer Myanmar trip has even better corals and sea creatures, which makes it very tempting. I would jump at the chance to go for another five days.  

See our related article on snorkeling in the National Parks of Surin and Similan islands.

Help Our Oceans – Support Marine Protected Areas

As I write this, we’re in the third month of the Pandemic and I’m so thankful that I have the wonderful memories of amazing snorkeling in healthy oceans. I hope we can globally save more coral reefs and fish nurseries with MPAs and National Marine Parks. 

You can find a world map of the Marine Preserves Areas visit the Marine Conservation Institute at 

More Good News 

World’s Largest Marine Protected Area  

In 2016, delegates from 24 countries and the European Union agreed to have the Ross Sea in Antarctica become the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Some 1.57m sq km (600,000 sq miles) of the Southern Ocean gained protection from commercial fishing for 35 years.