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Earth Has a Heart -- It's Blue

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On April 6, more than 100 global leaders -- scientists, businessmen and women, policymakers, communicators, and others -- will embark on the first Mission Blue expedition to the Galapagos Islands aboard the National Geographic-Lindblad ship, Endeavor, for several days of deliberation about the intertwined future of the ocean and humankind. The focus will be on how to implement a "wish" that I made at the TED conference in 2009:

I wish you would use all means at your disposal -- films! expeditions! the web! more! -- to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.

The organizers of TED insisted that the "wish" that I was asked to make should be big and important enough to change the world. It is a big wish, and if realized, can make a major difference for the future of the ocean, and the future of mankind. Here's why:

Water is the key to life, and Earth is blessed with a lot of it. Ninety-seven percent of our water comes from the ocean. Without the ocean, this planet would be a lot like Mars -- not a very hospitable place for 6.5 billion people and all of the rest of life as we know it.

"Green" issues at last are attracting serious attention, owing to critically important links between the environment and the economy, health, and our security. But few people seem aware of the vital role the ocean has in maintaining a planet that works in our favor. No ocean, no life. No blue, no green.

As a child, I was aware of the widely-held attitude that the ocean is so big, so resilient that we could use the sea as the ultimate place to dispose of anything we did not want, from garbage and nuclear wastes to sludge from sewage to entire ships that had reached the end of their useful life. It also seemed that the ocean could supply an infinite stream of wildlife for food and various commodities.

But now we know otherwise.

What we know now is that everyone is dependent on the ocean, no matter where on the planet they live. We also now understand that human activities are altering the nature of the ocean, changing the character of our life support system.

Ninety percent of many large fish species have been taken since the mid-1900s; coral reefs have suffered serious damage and loss throughout about half of their range. Dead zones in the sea, unknown until recent decades, are rapidly proliferating. Excess carbon dioxide is accelerating global warming, sea level rise and overall climate change, factors that impact the nature of the world from the tops of mountains to the deepest ocean trench.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson recently observed that we may be letting nature slip through our fingers. But what if nature lets us slip through hers?

There is time, but not a lot, to take actions that can stabilize and reverse the global decline of the natural systems that keep us alive. Early in the 20th century, areas on land began to be dedicated as national parks to safeguard our natural, historic, and cultural heritage. Some say National Parks are the best idea America ever had! Late in the 20th century, that idea began to spread into certain coastal waters -- Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Monitor shipwreck off the North Carolina Coast, and a part of the Florida Keys -- that have become havens for people and wildlife. Today nearly 5,000 places have been established globally, but most are small and together comprise only a fraction of 1 percent of the sea. More than 99 percent is open to commercial exploitation with few constraints.

The dissolution of ancient ocean ecosystems and the threat to the very existence of some species such as blue fin tuna, monk seals, sturgeon, eels, menhaden, sharks, swordfish and many others have inspired actions by some to suggest protecting 5, 10, 20 percent or even more of the ocean as a security measure, creating "Hope Spots" that will take care of the ocean that takes care of us. The next ten years may be the most important in the next ten thousand years, a time when actions we take -- or fail to take -- will have a magnified impact on the future of the ocean.

Like never before, we understand how dependent we are on the blue heart of the planet; and never again will there be a better chance to save species and systems that are on the brink of oblivion -- or the beginning of an enduring future. Inescapably, that includes us.

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