Efforts to Protect the Sargasso Sea

The Sargasso Sea, located within the North Atlantic Ocean, is the only sea on the planet that is not bound by coastlines. Instead, it is defined by ocean currents stemming from the North Atlantic sub-gyre and it is an entirely open-water ecosystem. The sea is named for its large mats of sargassum, which is a bright brownish algae that coats the top of the water, making it both a natural wonder and valuable part of the ocean’s wildlife.

This floating seaweed was once described by famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle as “the golden rainforest of the ocean” as it “provides habitats, spawning areas, migration pathways and feeding grounds to a diverse assortments of flora and fauna, including endemic, endangered, and commercially important species.”

What makes this area so special, however, also lends itself to its currently damaged state. Without land boundaries, it lies beyond any one country’s legal jurisdiction. For instance, every coastal country has claim on waters that extend 200 nautical miles off their coasts, making it said country’s responsibility.  All other bodies of water (the Sargasso Sea, as an example) are considered open water and are, based on a 1982 UN Law of Sea Convention, available to all nations for such things as laying submarine cables and pipelines, the construction of artificial islands, as well as open fishing and scientific research.  In other words, areas like the Sargasso Sea are afforded the least amount of protection.  Additionally, the Sargasso’s location is the perfect area for the accumulation of pollution barges in the middle of the ocean. 

Efforts have been made to protect large areas of sea in the same way national parks are protected on land.  Zones know as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been popping up all over the word—the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian islands and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, to name just a couple. However, while 12 percent of land is protected as National Parks (still, a small number), only about 1 percent of oceans are protected in the same way.

Leading the charge to give the Sargasso Sea the status of MPA is Dr. Sylvia Earle and her SEAlliance.  “With the looming threat of dramatic global environmental change it is clear that the nations of the world must unite to protect vulnerable ecosystems,” explains Earle.  “With so few areas of the world’s oceans being protected, this is an important cause and one with which Bermuda is proud to be associated.”

The government of Bermuda is diving into the Sargasso project head on.  Already the nation has taken steps in the right direction as they lean towards sustainable-fisheries management and have already created “inshore protected areas” in addition to placing a ban on fish-potting.

With a history that stretches back to the days of Columbus, the Sargasso Sea has all the makings of a proper MPA.  If groups like the SEAlliance, the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN), Marine Conservation of Biology Institute, and the government of Bermuda (to name a small few) succeed in turning the Sargasso Sea into a full-fledged MPA, it would pave the way for ocean-wide protection.

By granting the Sargasso Sea the same protection as other Marine Protected Areas, we begin to help ensure the well-being of all oceans.  To lend your voice to the matter, sign this petition that hopes to get the support of world leaders in protecting the Sargasso Sea.  

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