World First Map Of Ocean Wilderness Reveals Only A Fraction Remains

The world's marine wilderness is rapidly disappearing and there's almost no legislation protecting what's left.

The first systematic analysis of marine wilderness around the world has located the last areas of the ocean left untouched by humans and the results are troubling.

Just 13.2 percent of the world's oceans can still be classified as wilderness, the Australian-led study revealed, highlighting the degree to which humans have affected the 70 percent of our planet that is under water.

Wilderness refers to areas of the ocean that have experienced low or no impacts of human activity.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society said they were shocked by just how little remains of these areas, adding that what wilderness does exist is found primarily in the Arctic, Antarctic and around remote Pacific Island nations.

Area of marine wilderness (blue) are located largely outside of the jurisdiction of individual countries. Image: Provided, Jones et al

“We knew that in coastal areas where people are that we were unlikely to find a lot of wilderness just because that’s where a lot of fishing and shipping activity occurs,” lead author of the study Kendall Jones told ten daily.

“But in the high seas, in these places that are far from anywhere, we were expecting to find more areas that were fairly untouched or pristine.”

The authors of the study, published in Current Biology today, analysed the most comprehensive global data on 15 human stressors to the ocean, including fertilizer and sediment runoff, several types of fishing and commercial shipping.

Areas that experienced the least impact -- the bottom 10 percent -- were classed as wilderness.

In order to capture differences in human influence by ocean regions, the team repeated their analysis within 16 ocean realms and discovered a wide variation in the degree of human impacts, even in polar regions that due to melting ice cover, are now vulnerable to human and climate stressors like never before.

Despite their conservation purpose, marine protected areas (MPAs) only host 4.9 percent of global marine wilderness.

“Increased fishing technology, increased populations, increased boats on the water means that all these places are inundated with humanity,” Director of Science at the Wildlife Conservation Society Professor James Watson  said in a video abstract for the report.

“No place is safe.”

Troubled International Waters

Areas of marine wilderness play an important environmental role due to their unparalleled levels of marine life and biodiversity, number of endemic species and apex predators, and their subsequent resilience to global stresses like climate change.

But despite these qualities, less than 5 per cent of global marine wilderness is currently protected, the study found. There is no recognition of wilderness in any international environmental agreement.

Jones said the reason the majority of marine wilderness is currently unprotected is due in part to a lack of political will from governments, but is due mostly to the fact that, unlike on the land, “a lot of wilderness is found outside national waters which means no country has the power to protect it.”

Fishing technology is taking humans further out to sea than ever before. Image: Getty

Last year the United Nations began the historic two-year process of creating the first-ever international treaty to protect the international waters that cover nearly half of the planet.

If successfully put in place, conservationists hope the treaty will act as the "Paris Agreement for the ocean”, and allow for management of human activities in the high seas and efforts to retain remaining wilderness.

“People have this idea of the ocean as this vast, uninhabited, almost endless place and that means they think ‘oh well, it’s all wild out there, there’s nothing that we can do, we can never exhaust these fisheries, we can never cover the whole ocean with our impacts,’” Jones said.

“But what we’re showing is that improvements in fishing and shipping technology allow us to go farther from the coast for longer so we actually can impact so much of it.”