The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation provided a three-year, $3 million grant that is allowing Oceana to expand conservation work across the Pacific Ocean and approach conservation from a hemisphere-wide scale. This article uncovers some of the beatiful, biodiverse locations that Oceana is focusing on because of this grant. This feature originally appeared in the summer issue of Oceana magazine.
Pole to Pole: DiCaprio Funds Conservation Across the Entire Eastern Pacific
9,600 miles. As the crow files, that’s roughly the distance between Alaska’s northern coastline and Tierra del Fuego, Chile. In between lie two massive coastal currents, vast shoals of commercial fish, and a multitude of marine ecosystems.
A three-year $3 million grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation will allow Oceana to expand our conservation efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean — from the Arctic’s cold seas to Chile’s teeming Humboldt Current. This hemisphere-wide approach will protect Pacific apex predators by reducing bycatch of keystone species, setting conservative catch limits for important prey, and protecting critical breeding, feeding and nursing habitats from industrial fishing.
“Leonardo DiCaprio’s grant will fund critical conservation work along the entire eastern Pacific coastline, protecting species, and restoring fisheries across a vast stretch of ocean,” says Andrew Sharpless, chief executive officer of Oceana.
The U.S. Arctic’s cold, clear waters are one of the most productive ocean habitats on the planet. Vast plankton blooms fuel an ecosystem that is home to iconic species, including roaming polar bears, raucous walrus, and nimble beluga whales. Millions of seabirds migrate from all seven continents to feed here. And the Arctic is an important source of food for humans, too. Native subsistence cultures have fished these waters for thousands of years, and the Bering Sea produces the most commercially caught fish by weight in the United States, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Even land-based ecosystems depend on the ocean’s bounty — migrating salmon transport critical nutrients to inland streams, fertilizing the landscape and providing food for bears and other land animals.
Yet climate change is irreparably altering this ice-dominated ecosystem. Arctic sea ice coverage reached a record low in the summer of 2007, declining an estimated 42 percent compared to ice coverage in the 1980s, according to a 2007 study by scientists at the University of Colorado.
“With the loss of sea ice, the Arctic is becoming more and more open to industrial activities,” says Susan Murray, Oceana deputy vice president for the Pacific. In order to best protect these ecosystems, Oceana is identifying and mapping important ecological areas throughout the U.S. Arctic in a series of four atlases.
“We are melding science with local knowledge from people who live in the Arctic,” says Murray, “to better understand how the ecosystem functions and identify areas that need protection.” The resulting atlases are designed to help decision makers identify areas that are essential for both the health of the ecosystem and local communities that depend upon the oceans for food.
Murray says that these atlases will aid Oceana’s efforts to protect the Arctic from increasing industrial pressures, including energy exploration, shipping, and fishing.
Alaska’s Aleutian Islands stretch for 1,100 miles across the Bering Sea, following a fissure along the northernmost edge of the Pacific tectonic plate. The westernmost island, Attu, is closer to Russia than it is to mainland Alaska. These remote, rocky islands are home to the western population of Steller sea lions. The boisterous, reddish-brown marine mammals can dive up to 400 meters below the ocean’s surface in search of fish.
In the 1960s, there were more than 300,000 Steller sea lions in western Alaska, according to estimates from NMFS. “But when industrial fishing descended upon the Aleutians, fishermen shot the sea lions and took their food,” says Murray. In 1997, the western population was declared endangered under the Endangered Species Act. By the year 2000, the population plummeted to fewer than 42,500 animals, less than 80 percent of historic levels, according to NMFS.
“Even though Steller sea lions were protected, industrial fishing continued to decimate their food source,” says Murray, “and the sea lions weren’t recovering.” In 2010, Oceana and our allies were successful in protecting sea lion prey by closing 12,000 square miles of sea lion habitat to bottom trawling. Murray says that Oceana is now fighting to maintain and expand these closures and secure reductions in the catch of important prey species, including Pacific cod, Atka mackerel, and pollock.
“The Steller sea lion is still facing a slow road to recovery, and the Aleutian Islands are key to their survival,” says Jon Warrenchuk, Oceana senior scientist and campaign manager, in a press release.