14 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2014
Chances are you’ve come across some ocean news lately. And it may even have been positive! Yes, the ocean is still in serious trouble due to overfishing, pollution, climate change and habitat destruction, but there are more and more success stories to point to, and point I shall.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
1. Big year for big marine reserves. Kiribati, Palau, and the Cook Islands each closed more than 50 percent of their waters to commercial fishing, and the U.S. quintupled the size of the Pacific Remote Island National Monument. This is not happening because conservation gives political leaders warm fuzzy feelings, and not just because (as Enric Sala explains) it makes good economic sense for fisheries, but because it’s good PR for tourism and for nations’ international reputations.
2. World leaders gathered to focus on ocean issues. The U.S. Department of State’s Our Ocean conference felt like a turning point in ocean policy. The focus was on success stories, solutions, and government commitments to conservation (see #1, above). Leonardo DiCaprio gave an impassioned keynote speech that became a cover story, and the conference is slated to become an annual event. There was also a Global Ocean Action Summit in The Hague, focused on the ocean economy.
3. We know what needs to be done to repair Caribbean coral reefs. A report co-authored by 90+ scientists, and analyzing data from 35,000 surveys of Caribbean reefs conducted over 42 years showed that coral has declined 50 percent since 1970. Yikes! But it also showed that if we protect key herbivores (like parrotfish and urchins) so they can eat the algae off reefs, and if we control coastal pollution and construction, then we may be able put Caribbean reefs on the mend. (See New York Times Op Ed I co-authored with Jeremy Jackson, We Can Save the Caribbean’s Coral Reefs).
4. Shark week viewers turned their focus toward conservation. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is the ocean conservation equivalent of the Super Bowl—it’s the most attention the ocean gets from the media all year. Most of the content is designed to make sharks seem like ravenous, terrifying man-eaters, and a shocking amount of it is fabricated. Viewers took to social media to say they’d had enough of this vilification and prevarication, and this year most shark week media coverage was critical. Sharks also got love from the public when Western Australia’s bizarre and horrible “shark culling” policy was met with widespread protests.
5. Ocean zoning is gaining traction as a management approach. More than 30 countries have embraced ocean zoning as a management tool. The latest is the Blue Halo Initiative in Barbuda, where the Waitt Institute partnered with the local government to develop comprehensive management plans for their waters. After 17 months of community consultations, this resulted in a zoning map that includes protection of 33 percent of the coastal waters in marine reserves.
6. There is a new wave of scrappy, effective ocean conservation groups. The old guard of large NGOs is holding steady, but it’s exciting to see some new kids on the block. Special shout-outs to The Black Fish (combatting illegal overfishing), SeaSketch (technology for participatory mapping), SoarOcean (drones for ocean enforcement), SkyTruth (remote sensing for fisheries enforcement), Smart Fish (improving value chains for communities), Future of Fish (business solutions for sustainable seafood) and Parley for Oceans (leveraging fashion for conservation).
7. A big commercial fishery recovered from overfishing. In 2000, the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery was so overfished that it was declared a federal disaster. This year, after years of hard work and collaboration amongst the federal government, fishers, and NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund, the stocks were rebuilt enough that the fishery was certified as sustainable. Sound management works!
8. The Clinton Global Initiative is focusing on oceans. CGI (an initiative of the Clinton Foundation) has a strong history of fostering cross-sectoral action on important issues, via its promotion of concrete commitments from member organizations. CGI’s burgeoning Ocean Action Network will convene in 2015 to co-create solutions amongst industry, governments, NGOs and philanthropists.
9. Seafood traceability is being tackled by policymakers and technologists. The trade in illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) catches is difficult to eradicate because the seafood supply chain is largely opaque. In the U.S., up to 32 percent of imported, wild-caught seafood was caught illegally, and about 33 percent of seafood is mislabeled. A White House task force is addressing this issue, and a bunch of small organizations (like This Fish) are working to solve hook-to-plate tracking. Eating locally-caught seafood also addresses this problem, and that is gaining traction via community supported fisheries.
10. Plastic pollution in the ocean is getting sustained attention. A new scientific study estimates there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles in the ocean. As the world watched, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane was complicated by the amount of debris on the ocean’s surface. But the invention that can supposedly collect tons of plastic out of the ocean?—sorry, not gonna work (though see these proven ways to reduce ocean plastic pollution). Meanwhile, in fashion, Pharrell, Bionic Yarn and Parley for Oceans partnered with G-Star to make quite nice clothing out of ocean plastics.
11. Local efforts to combat ocean acidification are increasing. A large portion of global CO2 emissions are absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. This threatens ocean life in many ways, from melting corals and eating away the shells of shellfish, to making fish behave oddly and become more vulnerable to predators. But since ~1/3 of ocean acidification is caused by land-based pollution, Washington State (to protect the waters where many delicious oysters are grown) developed an action plan to address local pollution, and Maryland and Maine are following suit.
12. Bristol Bay in Alaska was protected from oil and gas drilling. Forty percent of the U.S.’s wild seafood comes from Bristol Bay. The area has one of the world’s largest salmon runs, and is teaming with whales, seals and birds. Local and national activists have been fighting for this area’s protection, and succeeded in having the area closed to oil and gas drilling by presidential decree. Next step is to protect the headwaters from the proposed Pebble Mine.
13. A feature documentary was released about ocean hero Sylvia Earle. Marine biologist and ocean activist Dr. Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to raising awareness about ocean issues and lobbying for conservation. The film Mission Blue captures her story, which is also a story of the ocean conservation movement, and an inspiring story of women in science. Check it out on Netflix. (Dr. Earle was also named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year)!
14. Communication on ocean issues is getting better and better. We are (finally! yay!) building critical mass for good communications on ocean issues. Complex issues are being distilled in ways that people get and can relate to. Special shout-outs to the perennial efforts by Upwell, Smithsonian Ocean Portal, National Geographic Ocean Views blog, Marine Affairs Research and Education, One World One Ocean and The TerraMar Project that are helping all this news bubble to the top. And for more on what’s working in ocean conservation, stay tuned to #OceanOptimism.
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The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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