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Our Gerrymandered Ocean

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Three weeks ago, an armed, irritable, and ill-prepared posse of privateers laid claim to the Deepwater Horizon National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Their demands–access to the infamous 30-year-old borehole, as well as new fishing quotas and deregulation of the GoMex Tuna Mariculture industry–are as bizarre as they are indefensible. Gulf oil production has slowed to a crawl. Even if the notorious Macondo Deep were reopened, an act that geologist from within the offshore oil and natural gas industry admit would be catastrophic, there would still be no demand for their crude.

Deregulating tuna mariculture would also be an industry disaster, as federal regulations on the import of foreign tuna is the only thing keeping their sea pens afloat. And you can’t raise quotas on fish that no longer exist.

These privateers are just the latest in the oft-parodied march of Entitlement Militias–cranky young men with few marketable skills who, unable to succeed in the free market, demand vast, and vastly disproportionate, government handouts, paradoxically under an anti-government or anti-federalist banner. Often, they take federal property by force (more accurately the illusion of force, as, historically, they have, to a man (and it’s always men) folded like paper dolls at the first hint of confrontation).

There is a reason that the privateers have chosen DWHMNS (poetically, if inaccurately pronounced Dawn Hymns by its stewards) rather than a larger or more productive area, and it goes back to the history of Marine Protected Areas in the United States.   

Getting to the POOP of it.

Dawn Hymns is the first marine protected area created as a Punitive Parks (PP). Punitive parks were established to act a legal and financial punishment for industries participating in widespread illegal practices. After the great revelation that oil companies, like tobacco companies before them, had concealed decades of evidence that their product caused (and continues to cause) global climate change, while fighting for regulations and loopholes that would allow them to abdicate any responsibility to correct the damage they create, one of the many actions that the federal government took was to create Dawn Hymns. As a national monument, it would serve as a reminder of the human cost of corporate malfeasance. But it also served to lock up the last great oil reserve in the Gulf of Mexico, effectively crippling the industry’s ability to continue operating in the Gulf.

As far as marine ecosystems go, Dawn Hymns is not what anyone would call pristine. Devastated by decades of offshore exploration, runoff from the delta, and severe overfishing (not to mention an ever-growing hypoxic zone driven by the tune mariculture industry the privateers want totally deregulated), the seafloor is home to sparse, remnant communities, and the water column bears barely a tenth of a percent of its original biomass. Any recovery is expected to happen over a millennial timescale.

Punitive Parks at least carry the motivation of principle. Much more conflicted are the notorious Parks of Opportunity–marine protected areas created not for ecologic or punitive reasons, but because it was politically expedient to do so. They serve no real function, other than to lock future stakeholders out of development. By definition, parks of opportunity have few to no contemporary stakeholders, that’s why they’re politically easy to create. That’s also why they’re functionally useless. If there’s no stakeholders, there’s already no threat to the environment. The parks were already de facto protected by virtue of obscurity.

Until things change.

The ocean is changing. Climate change is altering ranges, shifting both ecosystems and baselines. New resources are emerging, some of which are better for the environment and some of which are not. But marine protected areas are static, they don’t move with the changing tides, and so parks of opportunity become parks of missed opportunity. And this makes a lot of potential stakeholders very, very angry.

On the other side of the equation are Parks Only On Paper, delightfully dubbed POOPs. The United States coastline is covered in POOP–marine protected areas that are entirely unenforced. POOPs essentially become lawless seas, where anything goes and stakeholders feel entitled to the protected areas. Some POOPs have been passed down for generations.

So when, three years ago, the President mandated that we flush the POOPs and begin enforcing existing maritime law, the freeloaders, who had been exploiting the system for personal gain, decided to push back, declaring public waters *their* waters, and hang the rest.

It not surprising that most of them failed, pretty much immediately. Their fervor was matched only by their incompetence.

There’s a larger issue at play here that goes far beyond the insincerity of a few privileged miscreants. The system of marine protected areas we created over the last 5 decades to buffer the ocean against human insult has gerrymandered the sea. While specific regions were granted the most stringent protection offered by law, much of the rest of the ocean fell to heavy exploitation. As marine ecosystems began moving with the changing climate, these protected areas became political minefields, making it extremely difficult to protect relocated ecosystems or to allow access for new industries that could, conceivably, have a net benefit on the global environment. The focus on geography, rather than use, production, cultural, social, ecologic, and economic value (what would still be called marine spatial planning if Education Secretary Munroe hadn’t restricted federal documents to the ten hundred most common words) has created a system of high and low value ocean districts, with little political will to change them.

So the privateers are pissed. They’re also wrong. And wrong in profoundly stupid ways to boot. But we do have problems with the way we allocate and manage our oceans, and with few solutions in the works, I can understand their frustration.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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