During the month of August 2014, the United Nations Patron of the Oceans will be the first person to undertake long distance swims in each of the Seven Seas: the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian and North Sea.
Why this, and why now? To highlight the need for and importance of Marine Protected Areas – essentially ‘national parks’ in the seas – and to have each of the countries he visits add this to their agenda. Our hope is that all the maritime nations in the world will be encouraged to do the same with their waters.
We have done it on land, we can do it in the seas.
But the need is urgent.
He is the only person to have completed a long distance swim in every ocean of the world. Over a period of 27 years, he has pioneered swims in the most hostile waters on earth including the Antarctic, the North Pole and the Himalayas, and developed an understanding of the beauty and fragility of life and its many eco-systems.
Lewis is an accomplished public speaker. Earlier this year he addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos and his leadership address at the BIF Conference was voted one of the “7 Most Inspiring Speeches on the Web”.
In 2010 the World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader and in 2013 he was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
We’ve all heard the term “the Seven Seas”. Where does it come from? And which exactly are the Seven Seas? Today the term is used to describe all the world’s oceans, so one hears sailors say, “I’ve sailed the Seven Seas.”
But in Greek and Roman times the Seven Seas referred to the ones that circled the ancient world. They were the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian and North Seas. These ancient and familiar waters are the ones we’ll explore in this pioneering expedition.
It’s the ancient sea of Homer’s Odyssey, it connects Europe, Africa and Asia, and although it holds less than 1% of the world’s ocean waters, it is home to over 6% of the world’s marine species (and you won’t find a quarter of those species anywhere else on earth). But along with the closed nature of this sea, and the intensity and range of human impacts on it, the Mediterranean has suffered severe declines in many species and habitats. Over-fishing is a major threat, and requires tighter regulation. MPAs are desperately needed to conserve species and habitats. Monaco is the first and only nation in the world to have designated all of her seas as MPAs. Lewis will begin his 7 Seas campaign with a swim off Monte Carlo to honour those efforts, and hopes that other nations will be inspired by Monaco’s efforts to improve their MPA networks.
It’s a long flight from Africa to Northern Europe, and the Adriatic Sea provides a vital respite for migratory birds. Many bird species use the Adriatic’s coast and wetlands to rest and recuperate before journeying on. Sadly, hunters also anticipate the rest period; they lie in wait for the exhausted birds and pick them off in their thousands. The critically endangered slender-billed curlew has been reduced to as few as 50 individuals in the world. Lewis is dedicating his Croatian swim off Zadar to highlighting the near extinction of this unassuming species, and the tragic loss of many others. Along with a call for more MPAs, this swim will highlight the need for a ban on bird hunting in and around MPAs with vulnerable bird populations.
The Mediterranean Monk Seal was once plentiful in the Aegean Sea, but after years of being deliberately shot and accidentally killed in fishing gear, numbers in Greece have plummeted to around 200 animals – around half the remaining world population. This makes it one of the most endangered mammals in the world. The Monk Seal’s timid nature means that even slight disturbances can displace it from its last few breeding sites. Lewis’s swim off Athens, Greece, draws attention to the plight of an animal on the brink of extinction, and calls for better co-operation and strictly protected MPAs, especially in Gyaros, to enable recovery of this gentle species.
Almost entirely enclosed by land, the Black Sea is especially vulnerable to pollution from its shores, rivers and visiting ships. The dramatic explosion of comb jelly populations here visibly demonstrates the devastating impacts of ballast water pollution on an ecosystem, which has no natural defence against this invasive species. Better regulation of pollution is helping the Black Sea recover from the ecological collapse it suffered in the 1990s, but it remains poorly protected through MPAs. Lewis’s swim here highlights the need for greater protection, especially in the north, east and south of the Black Sea.
The Red Sea is adorned with luscious coral reefs, sea-grass meadows and mangrove forests, and characterised by a dazzling array of fish, dolphins, turtles, corals and the enigmatic dugong. Mangroves are of particular importance to both people and wildlife, and are the focus of Lewis’s Red Sea swim. With one foot on land, and one in the warm, shallow waters of the sea, mangroves stabilise coastal areas, support coral reef health, provide nursery grounds for young fish and other wildlife, timber for people, and food for domestic livestock. Through his swim, Lewis calls for greater protection and restoration of mangroves in MPAs, particularly in Djibouti and Eritrea, where they are critically important.
Spanning from east Africa to Western India, this sea is home to an impressive range of beautiful, yet vulnerable, species and habitats. The diverse and productive coral reefs of this sea have suffered severe coral bleaching – up to 80% in some areas – from global warming. This is set to intensify as sea temperatures rise with climate change. It’s a bleak outlook for coral reef habitats, and urgent action is needed to reduce climate change at a global level, combined with protection at the local level. Well-managed MPAs can reduce stressors and may improve the ability of corals to withstand and recover from the temperature spikes that cause coral bleaching episodes. Lewis’s swim in the Arabian Sea raises the call to action to protect and restore coral reefs, so that this delicate habitat might survive.
The so-called common skate is really rather special, not just because of its enormous size, but because the North Sea is now nearly barren of this ‘manta ray of the north’. The North Sea was once teaming with fish and other wildlife, now the skate is critically endangered, and other species will follow unless we take action. Decades of trawling have destroyed mile after mile of delicate seabed habitats, and while the UK has designated a number of MPAs, there are none in the threatened North Sea to protect skates. Lewis’s final swim of the expedition will start in the North Sea and progress up the Thames to London, where he’ll call on the UK Government to step up more actively and save this impressive species from extinction. The call will urge for a ban on mobile fishing gears in enough MPAs to restore habitats, and the remnant populations of these and other threatened species, to safe and sustainable levels.
To inspire people around the world to protect and preserve our oceans,
and all that live in them, for a peaceful and sustainable future.
The world would be a very different place. I doubt there would be bison left. I doubt we would have many elephant or rhinos. Our wilds would be stark and barren.
These terrestrial national parks were created about 100 years ago. But the legislators at the time forgot about the world’s oceans. We are now in a situation where our oceans desperately need protecting. They face serious threats. Pollution, climate change, habitat destruction and overfishing have pushed these marine ecosystems to their very limits.
Unless we do something now, we are going to pass important tipping points; some of which may already have been passed.
If we don’t do something big and ambitious, our children will not benefit from the beautiful biodiversity of the world’s oceans.
Lest we forget, we rely entirely on the oceans for our survival. The very air we breathe, the water we drink, the rain that feeds our crops, the fish that are the primary food source of protein for millions, the climate that envelopes all of us … they all depend on a healthy ocean.
Which is where Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) come in.
A Marine Protected Area is a geographically defined area that is regulated and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives.
While land-based National Parks started to be designated in the 1800s, protection of the marine environment has lagged behind, leaving a legacy of under-protection in coastal areas, and even more so on the High Seas.
Approximately 13% of the world’s land lies in a protected area, but less than 3% of the ocean’s surface is protected, and nearly all of that in coastal areas.
Like the ‘National Parks’ on land, ‘Marine Protected Areas’ (MPAs) will take slightly different forms in different countries, and may have differing aims and management systems. These can range from stringent controls in ‘No Take Zones’, which prohibit removal of any wildlife, to ‘Multi-Use areas’, which may permit some extractive industries.
What’s going on in the world’s oceans?
The oceans are designed to be self-regulating: they are watery ecosystems that developed over millions of years to exist in perfect balance. The key threats to the oceans today are a direct result of human activities which pollute, denude and destroy ocean habitats and kill the wildlife they sustain.
Put a child on a boat in the ocean today, and it would be hard for her to imagine what it looked like 100 years ago. Sailors’ tales and old whaling log books tell of seas teaming with life, with a seemingly endless number of fish, whales, turtles and birds.
What we see today is a mere shadow of their former glory.
Population after population of marine species has crashed as humans have over exploited them. Many species, such as the mighty blue whale, the European eel, the common skate and the monk seal are down to a tiny fraction of their former numbers. In some areas, the seabed is a wasteland in comparison to the rich habitats that once existed. The devastating truth is that we don’t even know what we have lost.
But all is not lost.
Despite this momentous destruction of sea-life and habitats, there is still much in the sea to rejoice, enjoy and protect. And we must never underestimate nature’s extraordinary ability to regenerate, given the right circumstances and environment.
What remains is ever more precious as species after species teeter on the brink of extinction. We must act now to protect and restore our marine ecosystems, so that they once again team with abundant wildlife and are able to survive and withstand whatever challenges the future holds.
The IUCN is the world’s largest conservation organisation, and considers protected areas to be the most successful measures that can be implemented for the conservation of biodiversity. Join us in making sure this happens, in the Seven Seas, and beyond.
Where wildlife thrives:MPAs protect marine wildlife and important habitats, allowing them to be as healthy and natural as possible, with their own unique intrinsic value.
Building resistance and resilience:Healthy systems are better able to cope with disease outbreaks, global warming, pollution and storms and other impacts that are on the rise.
we can’t always predict or prevent.
Natural wilderness: MPAs allow us to view, enjoy and research wildlife in its most natural state, and to protect species that may have important future uses, such as potential medical cures.
Financial benefits: The increase in wildlife seen in some MPAs can boost local economies, through sustainable tourism, fisheries and harvesting timber from mangroves.
Food security: Fish populations can increase within MPAs and beyond, supporting local fisheries, which are an important source of food for millions of people.
Saving our selves: MPAs can support our oceans and coasts in a range of often over-looked services they provide to us, such as storing carbon, and dampening storms and floods.
Re-seeding the oceans: As fish and their larvae thrive in MPAs, they may spill-out beyond the MPA boundaries and support marine ecosystems in the wider environment.