How a small stretch of ocean stirred a conservation movement
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.
Atlantic spadefish swim along the reef at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, off the coast of Savannah, Ga.