BUENOS AIRES — The core goal of the conservation movement, in all its currents, is to protect the autonomy of natural forms of life. Because without conservation, human engineering could soon replace natural selection.

In its early days, conservationism concentrated its efforts on land species and environments. The concept of the national park prospered and spread. Today, 10-15% of all land surfaces are, to some degree or other, designated as protected areas. But what about the sea? The sea is a recent arrival at the conservational forum. For centuries, nobody thought of the ocean as needing protection. It seemed so vast, infinite and inexhaustible.

Little by little, the sea is being drained of life and filled instead with trash and pollutants.

Thus the zeal with which whales were hunted in the 19th and 20th centuries. Within a short time, this pursuit showed how with a bit of enterprise and technology, people could bring such spectacular forms of life as the blue whale to the brink of extinction. And yet, even as fantasy of the limitless oceans began to dissipate, large-scale exploitation — with the industrial fishing fleets of the 20th and 21st centuries — continued. Little by little, the sea is being drained of life and filled instead with trash and pollutants. Our filth is there today in the waters and on coastlines, and our poisons in the flesh of sea creatures.

Marine conservatism in progress

The scale and pace of destruction in the seas have had an unexpected result, namely an about-face on the need to protect marine species and environments. Nowadays the sea is the star of conservationism. Congratulations! The objective today is to reserve 10% of all seas as protected zones (from insane fishing and activities degrading environments and destroying life forms).

In Argentina, marine conservation growth began, halfheartedly, with coastal protection. But it has progressed faster in recent years, reaching a milestone in 2013 with the declaration of the underwater Burdwood Bank as a marine protected area. Since then, the Argentine government has announced plans to create more Marine National Parks.

Peninsula Vardes, Argentina — Photo: Martin Zabala/Xinhua via ZUMA

Eight such areas were created worldwide between 2009 and 2016, raising the total protected marine surface area in the world from 0.8% to 2.8%. That's still a ways off the 10% mark. But for those of us involved in marine conservation, it's also a reason to feel both satisfied and optimistic, especially considering that until very recently, people were skeptical about any talk of marine conservation.

This optimism, however, raises the question of whether our growing interest in safeguarding the seas is because we've given up on protecting land areas. The answer is no. An emphatic no. At least let's hope so, because across the globe, big farming is eating into forests and plains; desertification follows the bulldozers; and populations are even exerting unceasing pressure on certain, exceptionally important national parks. Could these indicate a crisis in land conservation?

15 minutes of fame

The oceans are the last frontier, with areas that are still relatively unexplored and untouched. Those place provide us with creative opportunities such as the creation of seasonal national parks to protect species at crucial points in their lives, or mobile marine parks focused on productive areas like the "frontal zones," where marine animals and intensive fishing meet.

The sea is currently living its 15 minutes of fame. In Argentina, there has been an upsurge in recent years of awareness, with numerous seminars being organized by organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Ecocentro observatory in Puerto Madryn, and CONICET, the state research institute. As the Science Ministry argues, Argentina's sea areas are its "blue pampas."

All these initiatives are welcome. Indeed, in this era of significant human impact on the environment — what some call the Anthropocene epoch — species and spaces need all the help they can get to retain their autonomy. Conservation, in other words, is crucial. For all the intensive fishing and pollution they've had to endure, the seas still have some autonomy. It's our job to make sure it stays that way.

*The author is an Argentine physician and biologist

See more from Culture / Society here