09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Urgent Need for an Underwater Park System

National Parks: America's "Best Idea"

"[Our national parks system is] the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, [our national parks] reflect us at our best rather than our worst." Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

The National Park System, an American first, began with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, and continues today with the National Park Service overseeing close to 400 sites across the nation for the enjoyment of this and future generations.

In sharp contrast to the unprecedented preservation of this nation's most beautiful and rich natural resources is the lack of protection afforded the world's oceans.

World Oceans in Peril: Jellyfish Joyride

Grossly polluted, overfished to the point of near collapse of many fish stocks, and home to giant "dead zones" incapable of sustaining life, the oceans are in a state of dire threat.

The one species that is on the rise, jellyfish, have been dubbed "the cockroaches of the sea" in reference to their ability to survive even the most hostile conditions. According to marine biologists, the abundance of jellyfish is an ominous sign of deeper problems, such as: severe overfishing of natural predators, rising sea temperatures caused in part by global warming, and pollution from fertilizers and sewage that has depleted oxygen levels in coastal shallows.

"Mounting evidence suggests that open-ocean ecosystems can flip from being dominated by fish, to being dominated by jellyfish. This would have lasting ecological, economic and social consequences," says Dr. Anthony Richardson of the University of Queensland, Australia.

"We need to start managing the marine environment in a holistic and precautionary way to prevent more examples of what could be termed a 'jellyfish joyride'."

Oceans Suffer Tragedy of the Commons

The oceans have suffered the "tragedy of the commons," the ethical and resource management conundrum described by Garrett Hardin in 1968 in the scholarly journal Science. Dr. Hardin described how, in the absence of regulation for the common good, limited resources that are shared in common can be exploited to the point of collapse by individuals seeking to maximize their individual take. Thus fisherman who sought to capture as much as possible have overfished certain species to the point of extinction or near extinction.

There is also an opposite corollary to Dr. Hardin's model: the oceans have been treated as giant waste dumps for industrial pollution, sewage and municipal trash, with nobody accepting the blame or the responsibility for prevention and clean-up.

Marine Protected Areas to the Rescue

But a new generation of Americans, from marine scientists, surfers, and divers to fisherman concerned about the future of their livelihood, are organizing to establish a vast system of underwater parks. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) would be regulated for the preservation of their resources just as our national park system has served so ably on land. MPAs are designed to protect some or all of an ocean area's wildlife and habitat. Unlike traditional fisheries management tools, which regulate one species at a time, and have failed to adequately protect marine biodiversity, MPAs focus on protecting entire ecosystems -- from predators to prey.

And, most importantly, we know that MPAs work. A 2000 National Research Council study on MPAs around the world found that marine reserves perform much like their terrestrial counterparts to preserve natural resources and biodiversity.

MPAs: Good for Seafood

One significant benefit of MPAs would be to curb overfishing, both for the benefit of the fish and those who want to eat them. A new analysis of the world's fisheries by Boris Worm and Ray Hilborn, reported in a recent issue of Science, holds that more protection of the fish populations is not only good for the ecosystem, it's good for economics. Fishing below, not at the ecosystem's "maximum sustainable yield" -- the amount of fish that can be caught per year without population decline of each species -- makes long-term economic sense for the fishing industry. Lesser protections permit destruction of the ecosystem's balance--overfishing of some stocks and underfishing of others-and result in Hardin's tragedy of the commons. "Where the rate of exploitation is too high, both fisherman and ecosystems suffer, "says Dr. Worm. "The short-term cost of rebuilding is lost catch and revenue, the long-term gain is a sustainable source of income, and the ability to plan ahead. With overfishing, it's the other way around: short-term gain is offset by long-term pain."

MPAs: Good for the Planet

MPAs may preserve more than food sources. We are just starting to discover the potential benefits to humanity that can be found in the sea. Nine years into the first comprehensive census of the ocean's inhabitants, the Census of Marine Life, a $650 million dollar project began in 2000, has documented more than 5,600 suspected new species. The census is a catalogue of the smallest to the greatest creatures of the seas. Even the smallest creatures, like the single-celled arachaea, are being studied for what may be their crucial role in the carbon and nitrogen cycles, fundamental to the cycle of life.

But although the splendor and diversity of the ocean's inhabitants is thrilling, this data is not all about abundance. Forensic historians working on the project are able to compare today's marine populations with historic records of seafood consumed throughout history, and around the world. "What we are seeing is the loss of productivity is almost everywhere, not just in a few places," observes Dr. Andrew Rosenberg.

California Coast gets MPAs

Marine scientist-turned-filmmaker, Dr. Randy Olson, says the California coast is a prime example of "shifting baselines syndrome" where today's generation has lost track -- shifted the baseline -- of how rich and full of ocean life the coast used to be: "Divers today see a couple dozen large fish and feel like things are normal, but the older veterans can tell you about having seen ten times more fish."

California has been working to institute MPAs along its coast since that state's legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999. This law requires the establishment of a statewide network of MPAs to protect habitats and marine life populations. The law is being implemented regionally, with Southern California's implementation process currently underway.

There is great hope for recovery. "Around the world -- from Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and throughout the Pacific -- the pattern is clear that MPAs do work -- they are effective tools in helping the ocean regenerate its marine life resources. This needs to be communicated to people so they can understand and support the MPAs." Dr. Olson has joined with grassroots organizations Heal the Bay and Surfrider to convey the simple message that "MPAs Work."

The time is now, to come together as we did for our national parks, for the benefit of our marine resources and our right to enjoy them, now and in the future. MPAs could be the second best idea we finally had.

The National Parks: America's Best Idea a six-episode series directed by Ken Burns, will be coming to PBS on September 27th, 2009.