How the Sochi Olympics Helps Countries Win GLORES

As I write, the media are directing the world’s eyes to Sochi, Russia, using winter sports to sell nations’ prestige, individuals’ stories and what ABC’s Wide World of Sports! called “the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat…”  Great numbers of people are engaged, then captivated, then elated or crushed, depending on whether our favorite people (especially ones from our countries) medal.  That’s the measure of success: medaling.

And for more than two years, Marine Conservation Institute President Lance Morgan and I have wondered “Why do countries put on their best faces for the Olympics?” That leads us to wonder “How can we use insights from the Olympics to protect life in the oceans, which are facing mass extinction much sooner than the world realizes?”

Individuals want to win medals.  Countries want their teams to win medals.  Companies that sponsor medalists want accolades that lead to higher stock prices.  Cities want medalists to increase their visibility, hence land development, jobs and tax revenues.  Advertisers (of course) and promoters and trainers and gyms love medalists too.  There are a lot of people with a strong stake in having medalists in international competition.

So what does that have to do with marine protected areas?

Our answer: Progress in marine protected areas has been much too slow.  In the last half-century, the world has managed to declare protection for less than 3% of the oceans’ area.  But the truth is even less impressive.  Last week, in the co-preeminent journal Nature, a group of marine scientists led by Australia’s Graham Edgar point out that most “marine protected areas” aren’t protected enough.  Indeed, they show that strong, lasting protection of good places is needed to conserve fishes (and, we would add, other marine life).  This paper confirms what leading marine scientists around the world have been finding and telling the world for decades.

So how can marine conservationists get governments (within their Exclusive Economic Zones) and international governmental organizations (which have authority mostly outside nations’ jurisdictions, that is, on the high seas) to compete for the prestige and economic benefits of having the world’s best marine protected areas?

We want to assemble panel of leading experts to judge whether marine protected areas deserve to win Bronze or Silver or even Gold Global Ocean Refuge status.  Create criteria for the 3 levels of Global Ocean Refuges that are so sound and clear that governments or international governmental organizations will “Go for the Gold.”

The benefits to governments would speed progress to avert mass extinction in the sea (our world’s largest life support system).  Reward people for protecting the oceans with something they care about.  If they medal, the world wins.

That’s what the Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) is all about.

Elliott Norse, Founder and Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Institute

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