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15 Huge Ocean Conservation Victories of 2015

Overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction and pollution remain major threats to the world’s ocean. But amidst all that there is some seriously good ocean conservation news worth celebrating. So, to continue the tradition started last year with listing 14 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2014, here’s a rundown for 2015 that will hopefully fill you with #OceanOptimism. These wins represent the diligent efforts of organizations and individuals too numerous to list, so let’s just start with a blanket shoutout to all of #TeamOcean for a great year.

1. More than 2 million square kilometers of ocean was protected in big new marine reserves. Marine reserves are areas completely closed to fishing, and 2015 saw more ocean protected in a single year than ever before. Chile created Desventuradas Marine Park (297,000 square kilometers) and Easter Island Marine Park (631,000 square kilometers). New Zealand created Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary (620,000 square kilometers), Palau created Palau National Marine Sanctuary (500,000 square kilometers), the UK announced the Pitcairn Island Reserve (833,000 square kilometers), and protected areas are in the works for Patagonia. However, there is a broad consensus that 30 percent of the ocean should be fully protected in reserves, and these new designations only get us up to 1 percent—but we’ll take it!

The Rock Islands in Palau in the Pacific Ocean are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo credit: Matt Rand / The Pew Charitable Trusts

2. New technology is being developed to combat illegal fishing. Designating all these new reserves means little without enforcement, and we can’t enforce unless we know what’s happening out on the water. One big tech effort launched this year is Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Skytruth, Google and Oceana to track fishing vessels and identify illegal fishing. Another similar program is the Pew Charitable Trust’s Virtual Watch Room. These technologies are in prototype phase and need significant improvement before they live up to expectations, but it’s a promising and exciting development.

3. Illegal fishing boats are being chased down and caught! Sea Shepherd chased a pirate fishing boat on Interpol’s most wanted list for 10,000 miles, until the boat sank (potentially on purpose to drown the evidence of illegal fishing). Another boat was chased for four days, caught, and fined $2 million for illegally fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. The Black Fish and Environmental Justice Foundation have also been stepping up to make sure enforcement happens, but hopefully we can soon rely on law enforcement organizations, not environmental groups, to do this work.

4. Ocean conservation is one of the UN’s new sustainable development goals. These goals set the UN’s agenda for the next 15 years, and it wasn’t clear the ocean would make the cut, but (voila!) Goal 14 is to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.” Specific targets include, by 2020, conserving 10 percent of the ocean (but see #1 above for how far we have to go and whether 10 percent is even enough), halting overfishing and illegal fishing, and ending the subsidies that encourage them. Addressing marine pollution and ocean acidification, and supporting small island states and small-scale artisanal fisheries are also priorities.

5. The Port State Measures Agreement is close to being ratified. Another one from the UN, this is an agreement aiming to “to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing through the implementation of robust port State measures.” In other words, boats have to come into port eventually, so it’s important to have international cooperation in place to prosecute the bad guys when they come ashore. IUU fishing is a major issue, representing ~$20 billion annually, and this measure will greatly increase enforcement capacity. The agreement will enter into force after 25 countries ratify it—nine more ratifications to go, all expected in 2016.

6. The ocean is getting some good ink and screen time. Racing Extinction premiered in theaters, bringing the issues of trade in endangered species, overfishing and ocean acidification to the big screen. The Discovery Channel promised to stop with all the fear-mongering and straight up fake documentaries during Shark Week. Richard Branson’s philanthropy launched Ocean Unite, to pull together and support the ocean conservation community on communications. And see #6 below.

7. Sustainable fishing became understood as a human rights issue. Reporter Ian Urbina produced a slew of impressive investigative articles exposing the widespread human trafficking, slave labor and other horrors associated with major fisheries. Upworthy produced a series of pieces to get this info to a broader audience. Greenpeace has been fighting for fishers’ rights, teaming up with five of the largest labor unions. The “Statement of Solidarity With Greenpeace Campaign to Reform the Tuna Industry” begins: “We know that environmental and social justice issues are absolutely intertwined and increasingly solutions that protect workers are the same solutions that safeguard the environment and natural resources.” Hear, hear! And if you eat shrimp, unless you’re paying like $20 a pound, it’s totally unsustainable and slaves probably peeled it for you, so please find something else to dip in cocktail sauce.

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8. Small island states are leading the way and getting support on ocean management. Not only did small island states come together as a powerful voice at COP 21 in Paris, this year also saw the launch of Blue Guardians at the Clinton Global Initiative. This new partnership that includes a broad collaboration of organizations (SIDS DOCK, Digital Globe, The Nature Conservancy, World Bank, Clinton Climate Initiative, Waitt Institute and others), and is focused on simultaneously protecting oceans and supporting coastal economies in the context of a changing climate.

9. A nonpartisan coalition is bringing ocean issues into the 2016 U.S. elections. The Sea Party Coalition was launched by Blue Frontier, with tea party and liberal Congressmen, environmental NGOs, an evangelical minister, climate activists, ocean scientists and philanthropists participating. The hope is to use the crosscutting sentiments for ocean conservation and against offshore drilling to get some traction for ocean issues in the 2016 elections.

10. Anonymous is hacking for ocean conservation. The hacking collective claims credit for shutting down government websites of Japan and Iceland in retribution for their whaling. Both countries continue to kill whales via a loophole in the International Whaling Commission agreement that allows whaling for “scientific research.”

11. Oil companies may be giving up on drilling in the ArcticGreenpeace activists suspended themselves from a Portland bridge for two days attempting to block a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker from heading to the Arctic. This year also saw the rise of “kayaktivists” forming barriers to oil drilling equipment leaving port in Portland and Seattle. Shell has at least temporarily ceased oil exploration in Alaska, and, though the fight isn’t over, the Obama administration has put a two-year ban on drilling there. Greenpeace has shared the inside story of the #ShellNo protests in “People vs. Shell.”

Activists participate in the sHell No Flotilla part of the Paddle In Seattle protest. Nearly a thousand people from country gathered May 16, in Seattle's Elliot Bay for a family-friendly festival and on-land rally to protest against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. Photo credit: Greenpeace

12. Ocean zoning continues to gain traction as a key policy approach. The Waitt Institute’s zoning-focused Blue Halo Initiative has been scaled up from the pilot project in Barbuda to launch two new partnerships, with the governments of Montserrat and Curaçao. Perhaps more importantly, at least a dozen other island nations are interested in developing similar comprehensive, science-based, community-driven sustainable ocean management plans for their waters.

13. Plastic microbeads are getting banned. New research shows that there are at least 15 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, at least three times more than previously thought. Plastic microbeads, the sneakiest tiny bits of plastic, are in all sorts of toiletries (like face scrubs and toothpaste). They end up in the ocean in droves, then in creatures’ bellies and gills, and cause all sorts of problems. The good news is the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have passed bills that will ban the use of microbeads. Fear not!—there are plenty of non-plastic, non-toxic ways to exfoliate.

14. An end to subsidies for unsustainable fishing is gaining steam. Much of the world’s overfishing and illegal fishing is financed by government subsidies. But now, in a WTO Ministerial Statement, 27 countries have committed to ending subsidies “that negatively affect overfished fish stocks” or that support IUU fishing. This is also a target of the UN’s new ocean goal (see #2 above).

15. The COP 21 climate agreement mentioned the ocean. Given that the ocean is the majority of the planet and a lynchpin of the climate system and carbon cycle, it’s a bit nutty that just getting the ocean mentioned was something we needed to fight for. However, the ocean was not originally included in the agreement’s text, and it is due to strong collective presence of the ocean community at COP 21 that the ocean got mentions in the final document. Yet, note this analysis of how the agreement is not nearly as lovely, equitable, and transformative as most reporting would have you believe, and that it’s certainly insufficient for saving coral reefs.

Other good oceany things happened this year too. The U.S. and Cuba agreed to collaborate on management of marine protected areas. XPrize launched a $7 million ocean exploration prize competition. Adidas and Parley teamed up to launch 3-D printed shoes made of plastic ocean trash. World leaders gathered at the Our Ocean conference, which is becoming a key annual diplomatic event. Citizen science is on the rise. And Atlantic salmon just spawned in Connecticutfor the first time since the 1700s. There are invariably other wins I’ve missed—please shout them out in the comments!

If this trend of ocean wins from last year and this year continues, we may well avoid the most dire predictions of ocean ecosystem collapse. To maintain this positive inertia, we must keep coming together and collaborating, and draw others into the fold to ensure (as we say at the Waitt Institute) sustainable, profitable and enjoyable use of the ocean for this and future generations. Hopefully 2016 will be the year of really coming to grips with how to use the ocean without using it up. Happy new year!

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Tuna auctions are a tourist spectacle in Tokyo. Outside the city's most famous fish market, long queues of visitors hoping for a glimpse of the action begin to form at 5 a.m. The attraction is so popular that last October the Tsukiji fish market, in operation since 1935, moved out from the city center to the district of Toyosu to cope with the crowds.

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By Nicole Greenfield

Kristan Porter grew up in a fishing family in the fishing community of Cutler, Maine, where he says all roads lead to one career path: fishing. (Porter's father was the family's lone exception. He suffered from terrible seasickness, and so became a carpenter.) The 49-year-old, who has been working on boats since he was a kid and fishing on his own since 1991, says that the recent warming of Maine's cool coastal waters has yielded unprecedented lobster landings.

"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine is creating the right conditions for lobster, so it's helped our industry—and it's been a big boost for the Maine economy," Porter, the current president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said. "But you never know what lies ahead. If it continues to warm, it may end up going the other way."

The Gulf of Maine is setting frequent temperature records and warming faster overall than 99 percent of the world's oceans, due in large part to climate change. Meanwhile, its lobster population skyrocketed by 515 percent between 1984 and 2014. In 1990, for example, lobster landings in Maine totaled 28 million pounds. Ten years later that figure was up to 57 million pounds. And in every year since 2011, the take has exceeded 100 million pounds, peaking at 132.6 million pounds in 2016 and turning lobster into a half-billion-dollar industry for the state.

Fishermen like Porter have been reaping the benefits of the boom, but he's right — as the Gulf of Maine's waters inevitably continue to warm, lobster populations will almost certainly decrease. The crustaceans thrive at temperatures between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water hits 70 degrees, its oxygen levels plummet, to the detriment of a host of marine plants and animals, lobsters included. According to a 2018 study, the gulf's lobster population could fall by 40 to 62 percent over the next 30 years, returning the industry — the nation's most valuable fishery — to early-2000s numbers.

"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."

Maine lobsters are normally brown, but about one in every two million is blue.

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Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."

State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)

Such a head-on response to the impacts of climate change facing Maine offers a much-needed boost to the future of both lobsters and the coastal communities that rely on the fishery. Meanwhile, the iconic sea creatures have already benefited from generations of conservation efforts, as noted by Pershing and his fellow researchers. In addition to heeding minimum and maximum catch size limits, fishers must refrain from taking any egg-bearing female lobsters. Instead, when they catch these breeders, they clip their tails with a "V notch,"—a mark that will stay with a lobster through several molts—then release them. (The clipped tail signals to other fisherman who may encounter the same lobsters that they are off-limits.)

Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."

The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.

The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.

While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."

Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.

"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."

Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.

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As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.


Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.

AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.

"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."


The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.

"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.

As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."

"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."

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