What's the problem? Please remember I'm busy.

There are always people trying to bother you with some matter that seems terribly important to them, but turns out to be trivial, or just another crank theory for saving the world. Why should you even think about marine reserves?

Well, our whole world is mainly sea (about two-thirds of the planet's surface), but because we have been so busy with our affairs on land, we haven't given the sea much real thought yet. We have just done whatever seemed useful, and let anyone else do the same. As a result, we have already made quite a mess of the sea, and it's getting worse.

There are so many things wrong that those concerned could easily spend all their energy rushing from problem to problem, solving crises and generally fire-fighting. We do. If it isn't wall-of-death nets, oil spills or saving the whales, it's marinas, rubbish dumping or quotas for orange roughy. We need an opportunity to think about basics. What do we really want from the sea? Is this sustainable? Somehow we have to stop behaving like kids raiding a lolly shop. We must stop assuming that the only problems are about sharing out the goodies and not getting in each other's way. We have to think about the sea itself.

This is very difficult. The sea is big, mobile, wild and intractable. It doesn't fit our land-based ideas. Finding out anything about the sea is very hard. But we make it worse. We spread our activities anywhere we can get some profit, fun or an easier life. Each year there is more activity in more places. What is the baseline, where is natural, how does it all really work?

Marine reserves will not solve all the problems, but they would certainly help us think clearly. If we decided to have some places in the sea as undisturbed and natural as possible, we could learn what was natural, instead of just imagining it. If we had some clear baselines, we could measure the effects of our activities, instead of just arguing about them. If we had better ideas about how the sea operates as a system, we could plan sustainable harvests and sensible manipulations, instead of having booms and busts. We could even show our children what the marine world was like (education), enjoy looking at it ourselves (recreation) and invite others to do so (tourism).

In New Zealand, we still have the option. It is quite practical to have a network of non-extractive marine reserves. We have the idea, some examples that work, plenty more areas for others, the legislation and administrative systems to create a real network, and the democratic system to make the decision. All we need to do is to think about it and decide. The only serious danger is that we won't bother to do that, we could easily say we were too busy.

Bill Ballantine