By Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jaclyn Mandoske
From my hotel balcony in Honolulu, Hawaii, I gaze across the Pacific Ocean thinking about the last time my team and I embarked on an expedition from here. In 2003, we voyaged nearly 2000km to one of the most remote island chains in the world.
A region so remote that it has no permanent human populations, no easily accessible mode of transportation, millions of migrating seabirds but yet tons of the world’s plastic is making its way onto the isolated beaches of the North-western Hawaiian Islands.
Extensions of the main islands, the North-western Hawaiian Islands are a secluded wilderness that few people have ever set foot on, or dove in their surrounding waters. We were eager to explore these vast regions whose isolation and inaccessibility shielded them from the worst of human impacts. Or so we once thought.
It did not take us long to find the footprints of humanity on some of these remote island chains that may have never before seen actual human footprints. As we walked along remote beaches we found pieces of plastic scattered everywhere.
In the stomachs of dead seabirds I pulled out plastics from countries around the world: lighters, toothbrushes, kids’ toys and more. We were shocked as we watched endangered monk seals eating plastics from the sea, unaware of their dangers. These island chains we believed were protected from human influence, were actually sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean gyre, circulating currents dragging pollution from around the world onto these once pristine island beaches.
The beauty and horror of our PBS Special to the North-western Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), Voyage to Kure inspired then- President George W Bush to create the then-largest marine sanctuary in the world to protect the region’s coral reefs, shark populations, endangered monk seals and millions of seabirds. More than a decade later back in Hawaii, I was filled with joy and delight as news of President Obama’s further expansion of the NWHI Papaha–naumokua–kea National Marine Monument made its way across national headlines. Extending out to the fullest 320km around all the islands and atolls across the NWHI island chain, the expanded Marine National Monument was once again to become the largest marine protected area in the world.
Conservation on the world stage
This wonderful news was only the beginning. In September 2016, joined by my daughter Celine Cousteau, we attended the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, an event held once every four years. It was the first time the conference had been hosted by the United States in its 68 year history and the event included 9,500 delegates from over 190 countries, making it one of the largest environmental gatherings to date.
Of the 85 conservation motions put to the vote the IUCN adopted all of them, including actions to protect the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal found only in the upper parts of the Sea of Cortez, and improving conservation of coral reefs. The IUCN is also strengthening business engagement for biodiversity preservation and recognising the cultural and spiritual significance of nature in protected and conserved areas, among many others.
I left the conference with a feeling that more people, governments, industries and decision- makers are truly beginning to understand the vital importance of protecting and conserving life on our water planet…
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