As I fly from tropical Raja Ampat to frigid New England, my visit to Indonesia's Bird's Head Seascape has the feeling of a pilgrimage. This system of recently created marine protection areas encompasses a vast region of stunning biodiversity and global environmental importance. And the success of new protection regimes is already becoming evident from data showing fish stocks recovery, and ecotourism expansion.
Raja Ampat aerial view (Photo: David Shaw)
(Courtesy of Mark Erdmann)
This trip was an opportunity to join a small group of distinguished scientists, photographers and conservationists to better understand and document the region's amazing ecosystem, including previously unexplored seamounts. An ROV was used for deep ocean searches. The group dove several times a day to gather samples and images from spectacular coral reefs across hundreds of miles from Misool to the Wayag lagoons. We flew with government officials over heavily forested islands to document cases of illegal timber harvesting. And we visited with some of the several hundred local conservation staff members charged with enforcing the region's protection schemes.
(Photo: David Shaw)
(Courtesy of Mark Erdmann)
I feel particularly fortunate to have seen and learned more about the creation and operation of these MPAs as chair of an ambitious, newly launched high-seas marine protection initiative for the Sargasso Sea. There's much to be learned from this experience and other MPA projects such as the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) and Chagos Marine Protected Area.
Like the Bird's Head Seascape, the Sargasso Sea is one of the world's most unique ecosystems, consisting of a vast swirling drift algae forest spread across nearly 2 million square miles of Atlantic Ocean from Bermuda to the Azores. Sargassum biomass provides habitat to several hundred species of fish, invertebrates and other organisms including some such as bluefin tuna, turtles and eels with extensive migration patterns. Sargassum also generates vast amounts of oxygen, and plays an important role in carbon capture. The Sargasso Sea Alliance was formed in 2010 by the government of Bermuda, Mission Blue and others--with the goal of protecting this ecosystem.
(Photo: Sylvia Earle)
I join in sending congratulations to Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Waitt Institute and other organizations involved in the Birds Head Seascape, not only for protecting that amazing environment, but for providing inspiration for other ocean protection initiatives around the world including ours in the Sargasso Sea. We plan to follow in those footsteps, although ecotourism in the mid Atlantic Ocean may fall a bit short of the diving experiences available in Raja Ampat.