Oceans are more vital than you think

Saving the ocean blue
Saving the ocean blue

    JUST WATCHED

    Saving the ocean blue

MUST WATCH

Saving the ocean blue 04:03

Story highlights

  • Lance Morgan: We must provide safe havens for marine life to repopulate and rebuild
  • Morgan: The worst effects of climate change can be lessened with marine reserves that prohibit all extraction of ocean life

Lance Morgan is president of Marine Conservation Institute and a marine biologist who became enchanted with the kelp forests of California after obtaining his scuba certification as a teenager. He is chairman of the board for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and holds a research faculty appointment at Bodega Marine Laboratory at the University of California at Davis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Almost daily we hear that the oceans are in trouble -- overfishing, melting glaciers, rising seas, acidifying waters, expanding dead zones, escalating marine debris and starving seals to name a few. Seabirds around the world have declined by 70% since the 1950s, while current extinction rates are 1,000 times normal background rates.

Lance Morgan
What is lost in these narrowly focused headlines is the fundamental truth that oceans are the biggest single life support system on the planet, and as such they need to be an enormous part of the global solution to damage from excessive carbon dioxide emissions. After all, oceans cover over 70% of the Earth's surface, the marine life (plankton) in them produces one out of every two breaths we take, and oceans provide 99% of the livable space on Earth.
    Oceans' food chain could collapse
    oceans food chain could collapse climate change jennifer gray mss orig_00010417

      JUST WATCHED

      Oceans' food chain could collapse

    MUST WATCH

    Oceans' food chain could collapse 01:26
    In addition, oceans moderate our climate and atmosphere, helping make this planet habitable for us and our loved ones. They soak up excess heat as well as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. And if they didn't, climate change would be much worse already. The bottom line is, if we want to maintain the planet for our children, our families and future generations, we need a healthy, functioning ocean that resists the negative impacts from climate change.
    The best way to do that is by providing marine life safe havens in which they can repopulate the sea after other places get too hot or too acidic for resident marine life. We can't store marine life away in underground vaults like we do with seeds to protect food crops against calamity, but we can establish ocean refuges for marine life where they can thrive, free from exploitation and with their habitats intact.
    A great deal of recent research shows that strongly protecting areas -- no-take marine reserves that prohibit all extraction of marine life -- is the most effective way to counteract the worst effects of climate change.
    With a third of coral reef species at elevated risk of extinction from climate change, and widespread habitat damage (bottom trawling has affected about 50 million square kilometers of seafloor), it is vitally important that we protect places in the sea, now, just as we strongly protect national parks on land.
    Marine Conservation Institute is collaborating with organizations around the world to develop a worldwide network of marine protected areas in a new initiative, the Global Ocean Refuge System, or GLORES.
    GLORES is based on the recommendations of many marine biologists who say that 30% of the ocean needs to be protected from extraction and industrial activities to avoid the dramatic loss of marine life as oceans continue to warm and grow acidic. This protection will help provide resilience and allow marine life to adapt to future stress and unexpected events.
    Damage to the oceans can be reduced and reversed if we safeguard the most ecologically important places and move quickly to curb CO2 emissions. The Global Ocean Refuge System is the most cost effective solution we know of to provide a healthy ocean to future generations.