On October 18, 2017, National Geographic hosted the Mapping the World Public Policy Dialogue Forum on Ocean Conservation. During the forum, National Geographic Society President & CEO Gary Knell convened a conversation with National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and leader of the Pristine Seas project Dr. Enric Sala and Co-Chair of the bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Dr. Sala and Senator Whitehouse both provided insights into the connections between marine reserves, sustainable fishing practices, legislation focused on protecting our oceans, and the economy.

The ongoing Mapping the World Public Policy Dialogue was created by National Geographic as a space where facts can be discussed and solutions developed. As part of these conversations, we compiled the following resources on ocean conservation.


General Facts


1. A marine reserve is an area that is permanently protected from activities that remove animals or plants, or those that alter habitats, except as needed for scientific monitoring. Compared to other areas nearby, when a marine reserve is created, on average:

  • The number of species increases 21 percent;
  • The organisms are nearly 30 percent larger;
  • The abundance (number of fish per square meter) increases over 170 percent; and
  • The biomass (the mass of living biological organisms in an area) is 4.5 times greater.

This population growth is not limited to the reserve areas – fishing yield also increases in the surrounding areas. Despite the evidence supporting marine reserves, only 3 percent of the ocean is protected.

2. Every year, up to 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate in our marine environments.

  • Up to 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources.
  • Plastic has been found in nearly two-thirds of seabird species and every single turtle species, which often mistake plastic in the ocean for food.

3. Oceans and coastal ecosystems provide a significant benefit to the U.S. economy.

  • They support more than 28 million jobs.
  • U.S. consumers alone spend over $55 billion on fishery products.
  • Coastal areas account for 85 percent of U.S. tourism revenue.

4. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing includes all fishing that breaks fisheries laws or occurs outside the reach of fisheries laws and regulations. IUU fishing:

  • Costs the global economy an estimated $23 billion annually;
  • Threatens the food security of almost 3 billion people who depend upon fish for food and nutrition;
  • Undercuts prices for law-abiding fishermen;
  • Impacts the ocean ecosystem by removing key species; and
  • Is connected with transnational crime such as drug, arms and human trafficking.

Download the ocean conservation general fact and resource sheet below.

Download the Facts


Harnessing the Regenerative Power of the Ocean through the Pristine Seas Project

Shared by National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and leader of the Society’s Pristine Seas project Dr. Enric Sala during the National Geographic Forum on Ocean Conservation

1. We’re removing fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce.

  • One-third of the fisheries in the world have already collapsed.
  • Half of the world’s fisheries are either already overexploited or on the verge of overexploitation.
  • If nothing changes by 2050, most of the world’s major fisheries – and the livelihoods they support – will have collapsed.

2. Plastic pollution is an increasingly critical issue.

  • Of the eight million metric tons of plastic that enter our ocean every year, 90 percent of plastic in the ocean comes from only 10 rivers.
  • As an example of the ongoing dangers this creates, new nanoplastics – which measure 1/1,000,000 of a meter in size – are so small that they can enter and crush the blood-brain barrier in fish.
  • Due to this plastic pollution, when we eat fish, we have a 30 – 50 percent chance that we’re also digesting plastic.

3. Pristine Seas is helping to create marine protected areas that allow the ocean to regenerate itself.

  • Working with the U.S. Department of State and countries and leaders around the globe, the Pristine Seas project has facilitated the creation of 17 of the largest marine reserves in the world.
  • Pristine Seas has helped protect more than 5.2 million square kilometers in nine years.

4. Enric Sala recently published a paper showing:

  • When a marine area is fully protected from fishing and other activities, the biomass of fish is almost 700 percent greater than surrounding unprotected areas.
  • By contrast, protected areas that still allowed industrial fishing could not even double the biomass.

5. The more marine protected areas that exist, the more parts of the ocean can be structured to work for the fish, work for the people, and work for the economy.

  • Increased abundance of fish and other wildlife in these areas have brought in millions in revenue to local communities through ecotourism and other means.
  • Ninety-seven percent of the ocean is open to fishing and functions like a checking account from which everyone can withdraw. The approximately 2 percent of the ocean that is fully protected functions like an investment account with compound interest that will produce long-term returns.



Shared by Co-Chair of the bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island during the National Geographic Forum on Ocean Conservation

1. Oceans issues are a promising avenue for achieving conservation advocacy results in the United States Senate. Given thoughtful organization and consideration of the problems facing the world’s oceans, the Senate Oceans Caucus has made meaningful progress.

  • The Senate Oceans Caucus is bipartisan and includes membership from more than one-third of the Senate.
  • Under the leadership of the Oceans Caucus, the Senate has passed four treaties on pirate fishing, port states measures enabling legislation, and the Save Our Seas Act – the first piece of marine plastic debris legislation ever undertaken by the Senate – all by unanimous consent.

2. Striking a balance between environmental protective measures, local economies, and cultural heritage is important for ensuring the future of ocean communities and marine areas.

  • State and local leaders are on the front lines of this effort. In Rhode Island, for example, programs and relationships exist between the commercial fishing and scientific communities.
  • Efficiency and flexibility in the fishery regulatory system is a crucial factor in maintaining this harmony.

3. The amount of oceans legislation has increased dramatically in recent years. In fact, marine debris is one of the few environmental issues that currently enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress.

  • The economic impact of this issue is tremendous, with estimates ranging up to $100,000 per mile in coastal cleanup costs.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program works to combat marine debris in and around the U.S.
  • The United States has the power to be a leader and influence other countries around the world to reduce and eliminate their contribution of plastic into the ocean.

4. Looking toward the future, meaningful change can be accomplished through setting and reaching achievable goals, such as investing more in advanced oceans research projects, eliminating wasteful bycatch practices, and cutting down on marine debris.