6 Aug 2018 - Anyone who’s ventured beyond the sight of land or looked down from a jetliner could easily imagine most of the vast ocean as a wilderness, a place that human influence could barely reach, even if we tried. But that is definitely not the case. The impact of human activity on the ocean is pervasive, deep and on the rise. Industrial fishing has reduced fish stocks in coastal waters and in every corner of the high seas; shipping lanes wrap around the globe; agricultural runoff and industrial pollution are impacting coral reefs and creating dead zones; drilling rigs dot coastal shelves; and microplastics are everywhere. A new industry of seafloor mining will likely begin in the near future. And that’s not to mention the impacts of climate change, which are rearranging marine habitats and acidifying the oceans.
But it turns out, there are still some spots left in the ocean that have seen minimal human interference, areas that might be dubbed “wilderness.” Though those areas are disappearing rapidly, they are more important than ever; studies show that areas with minimal human impact are the biological engines of the ocean, preserving biological diversity, acting as breeding grounds for fish stocks and bastions of resilience in our rapidly transforming oceans. Deciding what, exactly, constitutes a wilderness in the ocean, however, is not completely figured out, though some researchers are trying to find an answer.
Wilderness, in the broadest definition of the term, simply means an area uninhabited by humans that is more or less in its natural state. Over the last century, at least in the United States, it’s taken on a legal definition. The 1964 Wilderness Act created a legal designation that keeps some remarkable public lands as untouched as possible. Unlike National Parks, with their visitor centers and traffic-clogged roads, or National Forests, which can sell off tracts of timber and are crisscrossed by logging roads, wilderness areas (most of which are in remote sections of National Parks and Forests) have no roads or concession stands, just footpaths. Most can only be visited on foot, horseback or canoe with off-road vehicles and even bicycles banned. The logic behind the Wilderness Act, though it is still debated, continues to make sense 50 years after its passage—the world needs areas and ecosystems that function without the influence of humans, not only to protect plants and animals, but to give humans the possibility of experiencing a world without Facebook.
It’s relatively easy to look on a map and decide which large tracts of undeveloped forest or desert should be wilderness. But it’s much harder to stare at the ocean and make the same decision. That’s why Kendall Jones of the University of Queensland and colleagues from the Wilderness Conservation Society decided to take a stab at coming up with criteria to identify ocean wilderness. The team looked at global data from 19 human-induced stressors on the ocean to develop a map of wilderness, or areas least affected by us. The threats include different types of fishing, commercial shipping, invasive species and nutrient, light and industrial pollution. When they are all rolled together the team found that just 13 percent of the world’s oceans fit their definition of wilderness. The vast majority of those wild areas are found near the poles and in a portion of the South Pacific. The North Atlantic has no wilderness left at all. If the impacts of climate change, including temperature increases, acidification and other effects, are rolled into the equation, Jones explains, there is simply no wilderness left anywhere. The research appears in the journal Current Biology.