Photo: NOAA


For the first time, scientists have mapped how much oceanic wilderness remains. Only 13.2 percent of the oceans are unspoiled, a shocking finding that shows the extent to which humans have reshaped the planet above and below the waves.

“We expected to find more wilderness,” Kendall Jones, PhD candidate in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland and lead author of the study, told Earther. “The fact that we didn’t highlights just how widespread our activities have become.”

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The new study, published on Thursday in Current Biology, is the first ever systematic analysis of Earth’s marine wilderness areas. To reach their conclusions, researchers identified places that are free from intense human impact, what they deemed “marine wilderness.” These are areas with minimal impact—the lowest 10 percent—from every human stressor they had data available for, including various types of fishing activity, commercial shipping, chemical runoff, and climate change.

They found that only 13.2 percent of the ocean—around 55 million square kilometers, the equivalent of five times the African continent—can still be classified as wilderness. That may sound like a lot of ocean but remember ocean covers more than 70 percent of the planet. The wilderness isn’t spread out equally with almost all of it located in the high seas in the Arctic, Antarctic or around remote Pacific Island nations. Predictably, coastal areas, with thriving developments and constant human activity, are faring quite poorly with almost no wilderness left.

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According to Jones, human impacts are visible in nearly every corner of the ocean. The advent of better fishing technology allows us to fish deeper for longer periods of time. Better shipping technology allows us to travel further. Even in places where people don’t go marine ecosystems are being impacted by climate change caused by our carbon emissions.

What’s worse, the study also found that only five percent of marine wilderness areas are protected. Study authors attribute this to marine wilderness areas being overlooked in crucial international conservation agreements. These agreements focus on securing endangered species and stopping extinction, rather than preserving pristine places teeming with marine life.

“We are arguing that while that is very important, you need to also balance that by trying to save places that are still wilderness and still acting and functioning as they once were,” Jones said.

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The study found that most of marine wilderness is in the high seas, where countries don’t have the power to designate protection zones because it’s outside their jurisdiction.

While individual countries may not be doing enough, the United Nations has recognized some of these issues by negotiating a “Paris Agreement for the Ocean,” a legally binding high seas conservation treaty that would govern the law in the high seas where no country has jurisdiction. The treaty will be ready for signing by UN members by 2020.

“It’s a crucial step in protecting these places in the high seas,” Jones said.

Bradley Barr, Affiliate Professor in the School of Marine Sciences and Ocean Engineering at the University of New Hampshire, told Earther that the study was “an interesting analysis” though he was hesitant about how the study authors defined freely proclaimed places as wilderness, suggesting that they need a more rigorous definition.

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Regardless, marine wilderness areas are boons for ocean biodiversity. They’re home to endemic species and are some of the last places where you’ll find creatures that are targeted by fishermen like tuna. According to Jones, the areas’ undisturbed nature makes them resilient to threats like climate change, allowing them to bounce back from many of its impacts like coral bleaching faster than degraded areas.

“Even our best protection efforts can’t match the biodiversity values that marine wilderness offers,” Jones continued. “It’s crucial that they aren’t lost.”