New EU Biodiversity Strategy Can Reduce Risk of Future Pandemics — If It Fully Addresses Wildlife Trade
By Arnaud Goessens
As the planet faces the multiple impacts of COVID-19 on human health, well-being and economies, it's time for governments across the globe to show leadership and take the necessary steps to help prevent future major pandemics.
The emergence of COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases, which spread from wildlife to humans, shows that our relationship with the environment must now be rethought. We have no other choice but to protect nature and put an end to biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and climate change. There's no secret about it. Our health depends on the health of the planet — a fact supported by innumerable scientific studies.
With this in mind, many of us in the conservation community are now waiting for the European Union to deliver on its promised Green Deal.
When discussing the EU COVID-19 recovery recently, European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans made a welcome statement and declared that the Green Deal is not a luxury but something that's essential for Europe's future. Done right, this plan for a sustainable economy can send a strong message to its citizens and to the world: We're all in this together, and we will protect nature and people.
As part of the Green Deal, the EU has started developing or reviewing major initiatives, including the EU Biodiversity Strategy. The new version of the Strategy, published May 20, sets the EU's biodiversity conservation objectives for the next 10 years. It also guides the EU's engagement within international agreements to which it is a party, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Nature restoration is a central element of our recovery plan from the coronavirus pandemic. The #EUBiodiversity st… https://t.co/Z4sjx7eWWb— European Commission 🇪🇺 #UnitedAgainstCoronavirus (@European Commission 🇪🇺 #UnitedAgainstCoronavirus)1590836400.0
The implementation of this strategy could represent new hope. If the actions it outlines are fully implemented and financed, it will be a critical tool to ensure the reduction of direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss at a global scale, including the EU's global ecological footprint, and to address the drivers of ecosystem degradation and deforestation.
This is important, because the EU — like any major government or region — has a critical role to play, not only within its own borders but around the globe.
While it is, of course, essential that the EU protect native biodiversity within its 27 member states, the majority of global biodiversity lies in the tropics, where thousands of species are deeply affected by EU policies. So it's vital that the EU addresses the biodiversity beyond its borders through a global dimension.
Trade, Biodiversity and Diseases
The strategy, as published, does a great job acknowledging that efforts to address wildlife trade and consumption will help prevent and build up resilience to possible future diseases and pandemics.
But it doesn't go far enough. The EU must also assist the global community in ending the commercial trade and sale in markets of wildlife for human consumption — particularly birds and mammals — as a key outcome to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks.
Although much of the wildlife sold in these markets is legal, the illegal trade in wild animals continues to harm both wildlife and local communities. It can also produce the conditions for disastrous and deadly pandemics. The EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking — first published in 2016 and due to expire this year — will therefore be a critical instrument for reducing that threat. The Biodiversity Strategy calls for the revision of the wildlife trafficking plan in 2021.
Southern white rhino, a frequently trafficked species, in Uganda. Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0
This commitment is welcome and will provide an opportunity for the EU and its Member States to step up their efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and finally treat it as serious crime. Hopefully it will include a commitment to deploying a similar level of resources and penalties as currently devoted to crimes like drug trafficking. Without such deterrents in place, the EU — like any government or region — won't be able to put an end to wildlife trafficking.
The EU is also now determining its long-term budget — the Multiannual Financial Framework — and will soon set spending targets for the next seven years. The MFF and the next EU development-aid budget (the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument) are critical in outlining the EU's top priorities.
Those priorities must include high, ambitious spending targets for climate, environment and biodiversity. Without proper financing mechanisms, the EU won't be able to implement any strategies or actions to preserve our environment and health. While the Biodiversity Strategy states that the EU's ready to increase its support to developing countries for biodiversity after this year, no detailed financial pledge has yet been made. The EU has missed an opportunity to make a much-needed commitment in this regard, but it's not too late to establish one.
The EU has all the cards in its hands to make the right decisions — not only to significantly reduce the risk of future major pandemics but to build a new paradigm in which we can live in harmony with nature. It published a well-thought-out strategy that provides the foundation for ambitious actions to tackle the biodiversity crisis; now it needs to put its money where its mouth is.
The EU and its member states have established bold and immediate measures to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on human health, wellbeing and security. Now it must do the same to tackle the biodiversity crisis — whose impacts on our society are likely to be far worse than those of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EU has a unique opportunity to show leadership, to be a game-changer, and to be on the right side of history a model that other governments and regions across the globe can emulate. Let's hope it doesn't let us down.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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