From the 1930s until 1998, the bays of Virginia’s eastern coast were all but bare, emptied out by a hurricane and an eelgrass wasting disease. Today, they’re home to thousands of acres of eelgrass, which support a thriving ecosystem of fish, crustaceans, seabirds, and bay scallops. All it took was about three decades of sustained attention.
In a new review paper in Nature, a group of researchers suggests this success story can be scaled way, way up. If we get a lot of things right, “substantial recovery of the abundance, structure and function of marine life could be achieved by 2050,” the authors write, characterizing the effort as “a doable Grand Challenge for humanity.”
The elephant (seal) in the room, is, of course, climate change, which the authors call “the critical backdrop against which all future rebuilding efforts will play out.” If we don’t get our emissions under control, we are—in this as in many endeavors—essentially sunk.
The challenge is about as grand as they come. Right now, humans are taking too many fish out of the ocean and pumping too many pollutants into it. As the earth warms and water levels rise, coastline ecosystems are crumbling, and underwater ones are losing the oxygen they depend on. Tiny algae are fleeing their coral homes, leaving them bleached and empty. Enormous pilot whales are beaching themselves, their navigational senses scrambled by radar.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Case studies show that “many marine species are capable of recovery once pressures are reduced or removed,” the authors write. Iconic marine animals, from humpback whales to sea turtles, are experiencing population rebounds. Vital habitats—including East Coast oyster reefs, Mekong Delta mangrove forests, and Floridian seagrass meadows — are healing.
Some of these recoveries were essentially accidents. For example, whale population declines were partially slowed by the introduction of electric and gas street lights, which reduced the demand for whale oil.
But many others came from diligent work. Local communities have introduced more sustainable fishing practices. International conventions have outlawed trade in endangered species, and reduced the presence of harmful pollutants. And a wide swath of the ocean—about 7.4%—is, or will soon be, an official Marine Protected Area.
Further recovery will require all of this and more, and calls for “the strategic stacking of a number of complementary actions,” including retooling harvest strategies, discovering new pollutant removal techniques, and setting aside more areas for protection, the authors write.
If we manage it, “substantial (that is, 50-90%) recovery of many components of marine life” may be possible by 2050, they say: “We are at a point at which we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disrupted” one. And if we do well, the rewards are right around the corner.