How a small stretch of ocean stirred a con­ser­va­tion move­ment

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Whit­tle As­so­ci­ated Press

SA­VAN­NAH, GA. >> From the sur­face, th­ese 22 square miles of wa­ter are un­ex­cep­tional.

But dip be­neath the sur­face — go down 60 or 70 feet — and you’ll find a spec­tac­u­lar seas­cape. Sponges, bar­na­cles and tube worms cover rocky ledges on the ocean floor, form­ing a “live bot­tom.”

Gray’s Reef is lit­tle more than a drop in the ocean 19 miles off the Ge­or­gia coast, but don’t con­fuse size for sig­nif­i­cance. In one of his last of­fi­cial acts, Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter de­clared the reef a national marine sanc­tu­ary at the urg­ing of con­ser­va­tion­ists who said its abun­dance of life was unique and worth sav­ing for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

For nearly 40 years, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has pro­tected the reef, home to more than 200 species of fish and an amaz­ing ar­ray of nearly 1,000 dif­fer­ent kinds of in­ver­te­brates. Recre­ational fish­ing and div­ing are al­lowed, but com­mer­cial fish­ing and other kinds of ex­ploita­tion are not.

And Gray’s Reef has served as a global in­spi­ra­tion. Fol­low­ing the lead of the U.S., other na­tions have des­ig­nated sim­i­lar sanc­tu­ar­ies and pro­tected ar­eas, which now cover about 6% of the world’s oceans — a bo­nanza for re­searchers but, more im­por­tantly, an im­por­tant tool for safe­guard­ing the seas.

Doubts re­main about how much of the ocean they can truly save. Last year was the hottest on record for the planet’s oceans, and pro­tected ar­eas can’t slow the big­gest source of that warm­ing — in­creas­ing green­house gases. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment says more than 90% of the warm­ing that has oc­curred on the planet over the past half-cen­tury has taken place in the ocean.

That has had dra­matic ef­fects in the wa­ters that cover 70% of Earth’s sur­face. Sci­en­tists have tied the warm­ing

to the rise of sea lev­els, the dis­ap­pear­ance of fish stocks and the bleach­ing of corals. The ocean also has be­come more acidic as hu­mans have re­leased higher con­cen­tra­tions of car­bon diox­ide into the at­mos­phere, and that jeop­ar­dizes valu­able shell­fish and the plank­ton that form the base of the food chain.

The sup­port­ers for the pro­tected ar­eas range from sus­te­nance fish­er­men on the tini­est is­lands of the Pa­cific to re­searchers at the most elite in­sti­tu­tions of academia.

“We’re not pro­tect­ing th­ese ar­eas just for our­selves,” Roldan Muñoz, a re­search fish­ery bi­ol­o­gist with the U.S.’s National Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice, says dur­ing a re­search trip to the reef, “they’re for our na­tion.”

———

On a National Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pe­di­tion to Gray’s Reef, the fed­eral re­search ves­sel Nancy Foster is packed with sci­en­tists con­duct­ing re­search on sub­jects rang­ing from whether in­va­sive li­on­fish are present to how chang­ing ocean con­di­tions are af­fect­ing co­ral species.

Sanc­tu­ary re­search co­or­di­na­tor Kim­berly Rober­son and other sci­en­tists pre­pare to dive to col­lect data about what fish can be found in the area, while Craig Au­mack, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at Ge­or­gia South­ern Univer­sity, peers through a mi­cro­scope at al­gae.

DAVID J. PHILLIP

At­lantic spade­fish swim along the reef at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanc­tu­ary Mon­day, Oct. 28, 2019, off the coast of Sa­van­nah, Ga.

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