Earthjustice and the Smithsonian Team Up to Enhance Ocean Conservation Efforts

A partnership between Earthjustice and the Smithsonian Institution will showcase how communities backed by the law can turn the tide on oceans in distress.

The United Nations recently adopted an oceans goal for the first time to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”
The United Nations recently adopted an oceans goal for the first time to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” (Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

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Oceans need lawyers, but they also need storytellers. If no one knows about the threats facing the world’s oceans—or the success of efforts to conserve ocean life—it’s much harder to get lawmakers, donors and the public focused on preserving the abundance of the seas for future generations. With this in mind, Earthjustice has teamed up with the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal to showcase how communities around the world use the law to protect coral reefs and fisheries and cut pollution. The website provides an online legal toolkit to support oceans managers around the world in launching new conservation initiatives that protect and restore ecosystems and improve livelihoods for coastal communities. 

Recently at the United Nations Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals, nations for the first time adopted an oceans goal to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” That means a commitment to reduce pollution, eliminate overfishing, address ocean acidification, conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, and help developing nations address climate change. Each of the successful conservation efforts profiled shows that even in places where resources are scarce, local communities can help create effective legal regimes that lead to great gains. Here are just a few examples:

Protecting Reefs in the Gulf of California

In the early 1990s, residents of the coastal village of Cabo Pulmo in Mexico’s Baja California Sur were about to lose their livelihoods as the region’s over-exploited fish stocks crashed and coral reefs succumbed to algae and widespread bleaching. But the 120 villagers were not about to watch their home destroyed, so they got organized and convinced the Mexican government to create the Cabo Pulmo National Park, a marine protected area of almost 28 square miles.

After 14 years of protection, the Cabo Pulmo reefs have rebounded and schools of fish and top predators like sharks and manta rays abound. Freed from the stress of fishing in the area, the fish biomass in the national park increased by 460 percent. The park has brought in major tourism revenue and better fishing in surrounding waters, sustaining the local economy. The Cabo Pulmo National Park was such a success that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.

Earthjustice is working to protect Cabo Pulmo by blocking major development in the area, including a proposed 30,000-person resort with two golf courses, a marina and a series of man-made lakes.

The Bay of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico
Leonardo Gonzalez/Shutterstock

Creating Sustainable Fisheries in Chile

In the 1970s and ’80s, the world went loco for the loco, colloquially called the Chilean abalone. The government, fearing a total collapse of the fishery, banned loco harvesting in 1989, but the little shellfish needed a serious intervention.

In the midst of the loco crisis, some local fishermen negotiated with the government for exclusive rights to the bottom-dwelling shellfish in a given area in exchange for strict and responsible management of the area’s resources. The program of Territorial Use Rights in Fisheries, or TURFs, was so effective that today more than 17,000 small fishermen co-manage more than 500 TURFs covering more than 2,500 miles of the Chilean coastline.

Earthjustice is committed to fighting for sustainable fisheries management. We advocate for banning harmful fishing gear like gill nets, bottom trawls and longlines, reducing bycatch and working with managers to make sure ocean ecosystems can survive the twin challenges of human exploitation and global climate change.

A salmon farm in southern Chile.

Trashing Plastic Bags in the Philippines

Plastic shopping bags are everywhere, used at a rate of 1 trillion per year. Plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to break down and they release harmful chemicals as they do. They pose a grave risk to marine animals that accidentally consume the plastic or are exposed to these chemicals in the water.

And plastic bags threaten humans in the Philippians in a unique way.  A 2009 tropical storm caused massive flooding on the Philippine Islands, killing 400 people. In the storm’s aftermath, workers realized drainage systems that should have redirected the flood waters were clogged with plastic bags. With climate change threatening to increase the number of large and deadly storms on the island, lawmakers decided to get tough on plastic waste.

First, the district of Muntinlupa in Metro Manila banned plastic bags and imposed fines for violators. Other districts and cities followed suit. Several national plastic bag bans have been proposed in the Congress of the Philippines, including one that is currently wending its way through the Senate and House of Representatives. Earthjustice supports these conservation efforts and all programs to curb pollution from humans that winds up in our oceans.

Cutting Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea

Speaking of fouled water, the Mediterranean, home to 640 million people along the coast and host to 175 million tourists a year, is among the most polluted oceans in the world. In the 1960s and ’70s, chemicals and heavy metals from the energy, transportation and agriculture industries, as well as household waste, were having a dire impact on biodiversity in the semi-enclosed sea.

A busy commercial port on the Mediterranean in Genoa, Italy.
Riccardo Arata/Shutterstock

The 1975 Mediterranean Action Plan and the 1976 “Barcelona Convention” put legal rules in place to hold the countries bordering the sea accountable for monitoring and slashing pollution. Under a separate agreement, the eight Mediterranean countries that are members of the European Union are also obligated to treat their cities’ wastewater. The international agreements have succeeded in engendering cooperation among the 22 countries that border the sea and in cutting emissions of industrial pollutants, including lead and mercury. Earthjustice makes it a priority to advocate for strong international partnerships to curb pollution and fight climate change. Click here to learn more. 

A journalist and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Heather was the associate editor from 2015–2017.