The Kenwood Press
News: 02/15/2020

Protecting our oceans

Glen Ellen organization makes big impact in global fight

Sarah C. Phelps

Behind an unassuming red door next to Yeti Restaurant in Glen Ellen, a small team of scientists is busily working to save the world.

Marine Conservation Institute“There’s a lot of concern that we only have a 10-year window to protect the amount of habitat we need, and to slow climate change,” said Dr. Lance Morgan, president of Marine Conservation Institute, on a warm day on the creek-side patio near his office. From the hamlet of Glen Ellen, in conjunction with an office in Seattle, Morgan leads the worldwide efforts of the 23-year-old nonprofit dedicated to permanently protecting the ocean’s most important places.

As part of this work, Morgan and his 12-person team spend their days identifying locations around the world that contribute to biodiversity and facilitate the delicate dance of motivating world leaders to protect – and enforce protection – of those areas.

“I do refer to the ocean as the blue heart of the planet,” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, Marine Conservation Institute board member, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, and Mission Blue founder during an interview in 2017. “Like the heart we have, each of us in our bodies, it drives our circulatory system. The ocean in effect is the planet’s circulatory system.” Through the flow of currents, water is distributed throughout the ocean and up into the atmosphere, then falls as rain, sleet and snow. “The evidence now exists that did not exist when I was a child about the significance of the ocean to every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, the water cycle, [it] has become increasingly clear.” In effect, preserving the health of the ocean is like preserving the health of our own life support system.

Under Morgan’s leadership, Marine Conservation Institute has played a key role in catalyzing the recent establishment of a number of large marine reserves, like the expansion of the Gulf of Farallones and Cordell Banks National Marine Sanctuaries off the coast of northern California in 2015.

The year before, building on previous efforts by President George W. Bush and following several years of research and advocacy work by the Conservation Institute, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument to six times its original size, resulting in 490,343 square miles of protected areas in the south-central Pacific Ocean. In 2016, he expanded the Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument around Hawaii to 582,578 square miles. In two swoops, the Obama Administration protected a bigger part of the Earth’s surface than any prime minister, president, king or emperor had ever done before.

Today, 4.8 percent of the global ocean is classified as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), a designation that provides partial protections for marine life through gear restrictions, seasonal closures, catch limits, or other restrictions on use or extraction. MPAs include national parks, wildlife refuges, monuments and marine sanctuaries. Globally, while some sites exist as no-take marine reserves, the vast majority of MPAs, both in terms of numbers established and area covered, are open for fishing, diving, boating, and other recreational and commercial uses.

MPAs that meet the highest standards for biodiversity protection are honored with the “Blue Parks” award by the Conservation Institute.

Before designating a Blue Park, the Conservation Institute has an independent scientific panel review all nominated protected areas to confirm that they are designed and managed effectively. Sixteen Blue Parks have been awarded around the world since 2017, cumulatively protecting 644,404 square miles of ocean.

However, that amount is just a drop in the bucket compared to what many scientists have deemed is necessary to slow global warming or prevent mass extinctions of species.

How much do you need?

“We are working hard to achieve this goal of protecting 10 percent [of the world’s oceans] by 2020,” said Morgan. “But the real goal is 30 percent or more, based on what the science tells us.”

In a world where “resiliency” is taking on a new meaning, protecting areas of the ocean from harmful human activities like pollution, over-exploitation, fishing and habitat loss, means a deposit to the bank of biodiversity – reserves that can be drawn on if something truly cataclysmic were to happen. “We used to be able to catch albacore tuna off the coast of California,” said Morgan. But now the albacore have moved north and the fishermen have also moved north to Oregon. “The blob” – the aquatic heat wave that killed off kelp, sea stars and other animals off the California coast in 2013 – used to be rare a occurrence, every 10 or 15 years, but now we are seeing that more often. “The reserves help regenerate and rebuild a population if it gets devastated by any of these threats,” he said. “But it’s not foolproof. We have to think of [MPAs] in the context of a network.” Connection is important – much like a wildlife corridor on land – because ocean animals move and migrate.

Morgan thinks MPA community is close to making the 10 percent goal a reality in 2020; discussions for post-2020 targets will be underway at the Convention on Biological Diversity later this year.

The vision of one man

The Marine Conservation Institute was founded in Seattle in 1996 by Dr. Elliott A. Norse to help develop the brand-new scientific field of “marine conservation biology.” Norse began his conservation career in 1978 as a marine biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and later served on President Carter’s White House Council on Environmental Quality. Norse, along with Dr. Les Watling, published the study that put bottom trawling on the world’s conservation agenda – proving bottom trawling is very much like forest clear-cutting, except that bottom trawling impacts a much larger area globally, and is repeated more frequently.

Morgan joined the Marine Conservation Institute in 2000, after receiving his Ph.D. in marine biology from U.C. Davis. The son of a Navy officer, he grew up in San Diego, Hawaii, Seattle and the Bay Area, spending more time in the ocean wilderness than in terrestrial wilderness like other kids his age. An avid surfer, snorkeler, and scuba diver as a teenager, he had always had the vision of becoming a marine biologist. Morgan was an undergrad at U.C. Santa Cruz, studied orcas in the Pacific Northwest, and volunteered at the Marine Mammal Center, a rescue and rehabilitation center in Sausalito.

It was there, Morgan said, that he was really exposed to animal suffering as a result of human activities and he began “to recognize how our activities have a really subjective impact on our oceans.”

“Even now when the ocean looks pristine from above, a lot of impact has happened beneath the waves,” he said.

Morgan and his wife, Angela, settled in Glen Ellen in the 1980s, while grad students at U.C. Davis, before moving north to join Marine Conservation Institute – “a small organization that worked on big-picture issues.” After a few years the Morgans returned to Glen Ellen to raise their son, and Morgan brought Marine Conservation Institute with him. Morgan moved from chief scientist to president in 2012, and Norse retired in 2016.

“I think we are only really beginning to really recognize how important the ocean is to cycling,” said Morgan. It sucks carbon, picks up heat, and helps moderate climate.

‘Everything we generate money from relies on it’

An estimated 59.6 million people worked in fisheries and aquaculture in 2016, according to data from the United Nations.

In 2016, 88 percent of the total fish production (151 million out of 171 million tons) was for direct human consumption. This share has increased significantly in recent decades, from 67 percent in the 1960s. “In fact annual growth rate of food fish consumption has surpassed that of meat consumption from all terrestrial animals, combined.”

Europe, Japan and the United States of America accounted for the bulk of the world’s total food fish consumption (47 percent) in 1961 but only about 20 percent in 2015. As of 2015, Asia is the leading consumer at 66 percent.

In 2016, 85 percent of the global population engaged in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors was in Asia, followed by Africa (10 percent), and Latin America and the Caribbean (four percent).

Morgan will admit that conservation of the ocean’s biodiversity directly impacts communities that depend on fishing for their economies – but usually in a good way. “This process of why should we protect biodiversity is that everything we rely on to generate money relies on it,” said Morgan.

Morgan points to the fact that giant sea bass, which were nearly fished to extinction off the coast of California, have now been spotted returning to the Channel Islands – a boost to that local ecosystem (the species was given protection under state law in 1982).

Another shining success story is Cabo Pulmo National Park off the coast of Baja California in Mexico.

In the 1990s, the tiny fishing community of Cabo Pulmo began to notice the effects of years of overfishing – that fewer and fewer fish were being caught, apex predators like sharks had disappeared and the coral reefs were covered in algae.

A local fishing family and worried citizens (all 120 of them) spent years lobbying the Mexican government to have the reef legally protected, and in June 1995, the Mexican government created Cabo Pulmo National Park. In 2005, Cabo Pulmo was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is considered one of the best scuba spots in the world.

As Baja’s only no-take marine reserve, the fish population in Cabo Pulmo has increased 460 percent and top predators returned, according to a 2016 article in Smithsonian.

“That’s part of the hope, to recognize these success stories and let these be the examples,” said Morgan.

However, the fact that it took more than 10 years to create the management plan for Cabo Pulmo, and the fact that the legal framework faces ongoing enforcement challenges is something shared by many MPAs.

Going deeper

“We have been working to help the California [MPA] model get adopted from Mexico to Alaska and around the world,” said Morgan. “But state waters only go out three nautical miles offshore. Any ocean animal you can think of probably goes beyond that.”

National waters only go out to 200 nautical miles offshore. That means two thirds of the ocean is not in any jurisdiction. These waters are known collectively as the High Seas. The High Seas cover two-thirds of the ocean, but less than one percent is protected.

Morgan serves as chairman of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, and Marine Conservation Institute is a founding member of the High Seas Alliance at the United Nations.

The High Seas are at risk for the same threats – pollution, over-fishing – and also a brand new one: deep sea mining. “Seventy years ago we hadn’t gone far from shore, but now our technology is so good we can move out into those areas,” said Morgan.

As corporations see dollar signs in minerals that can be “harvested” from the deep seafloor – polymetallic nodules contain rich concentrations of manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt, important ingredients in things like electric car batteries – the Alliance is working towards a treaty to protect biodiversity and to protect seamounts.

Seamounts are extinct undersea volcanoes – like islands in middle of the sea that don’t reach the water’s surface – and they are home to a wide variety of species that, in some cases, occur nowhere else on Earth.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a great abyssal plain as wide as the continental United States that lies 4,000 to 6,000 meters below the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean, is punctuated with seamounts, and also contains trillions of valuable potato-sized polymetallic nodules. Sixteen countries have been awarded exploration contracts in CCZ, allowing them to experiment with mining the nodules using large underwater robots that scrape up the mud from the floor, separate the nodules, pump them to the surface through a tube, and return the water and fine particles through another tube.

Although some mining companies say the ocean can absorb activity in such a small area, some scientists, like Morgan, believe deep sea mining is as yet an unproven industry and would like to see 10-year moratorium in place in order to develop stringent rules for the new industry.

What will you do?

Morgan said that while the local community in Sonoma Valley seems to be very aware when it comes to protecting the ocean, anything we can do to reuse, recycle and reduce will help.

Fix your old car instead of buying a new one, he suggests. Reduce driving. One rarely considered but damaging side effect of driving is the pollution created by little bits of rubber left on the roadway that inevitably wash down into water sources.

If you choose to eat seafood, pay attention to where it’s sourced. Buy American, recommends Morgan, because America has stricter enforcement of catch limits and by-catch than many other countries. However, while U.S. fisheries have made significant progress, some fish (such as Atlantic cod) are still in trouble. To make sure you’re buying fish that are caught sustainably, you can use apps like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, or sign up for Local Catch, which is like community supported-agriculture for seafood.

Get rid of single-use plastic. (Stainless steel straws make great gifts.)

Support Marine Conserva-tion Institute at, or sponsor a Blue Park. In 2018 they raised more than $1.1 million in grants and contributions and in September, they received a grant from the Jack London Yacht Club.

“I am always an optimist, maybe blindly so,” joked Morgan. “People in this field are optimistic and feel they can make a difference.

“There is no doubt climate change effects will occur, but the extent to which is still a choice we can make.”