New High Seas Treaty Could Be a Gamechanger for the Ocean
By Tara Lohan
Most of us have never been to the world's immense last wilderness and never will. It's beyond the horizon and often past the limits of our imaginations. It contains towering underwater mountain ranges, ancient corals, mysterious, unknown forms of life and the largest seagrass meadow in the world.
Yet it begins just 200 nautical miles off our shores. Technically referred to as "areas beyond national jurisdiction," these remote expanses are known to most people simply as "the high seas."
Their vast, dark waters encompass roughly two-thirds of the ocean and half the planet and are the last great global commons. Yet just 1 percent are protected, leaving these vital but relatively lawless expanses open to overfishing, pollution, piracy and other threats.
That could change soon.
In 2018, after more than a decade of groundwork at the United Nations, negotiations officially began for a new treaty focused on conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the waters beyond national jurisdiction.
The proposed treaty is being developed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982 and defined nations' rights and responsibilities for use of the world's oceans. The Convention itself is a landmark agreement that established many key environmental protections and policies, but over the years it's become obvious that some gaps in its governance policy have left the ocean's ecosystems open to ongoing and emerging threats.
The new treaty is intended to help fill those gaps, although, as with any international agreement, that presents challenges. Representatives of world governments gathered in 2018 and 2019 for three rounds of negotiations, but many parts of the key issues remained unresolved. Among them are plans to establish a framework for evaluating and implementing area-based management tools, which include marine protected areas, since no such systems exist now for the high seas.
Other items requiring agreement include establishing uniform requirements for conducting environmental impact assessments; how benefits from marine genetic resources may be shared among nations; and capacity building for management and conservation.
Many experts hoped the fourth negotiation session, originally scheduled to begin March 23 at the U.N. headquarters in New York, would lead to the finalization of the treaty's text, but the meetings were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That pause gives us an opportunity to understand what's at stake a bit better.
"This is the first time that there's been a treaty process devoted to marine biodiversity in the high seas and the first ocean treaty really to be negotiated in over 30 years," said Peggy Kalas, director of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 environmental nonprofits and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "It's a big deal, and it's been a long time coming."
But this historic opportunity is also one that could be squandered if the treaty fails to enact protections strong enough to actually safeguard ocean life.
"It has the potential to be a gamechanger for the oceans," said Douglas McCauley, a professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology at U.C. Santa Barbara and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative. "But it's still to be determined whether it will be just the treaty version of lip service."
The Need for Protection
We're all connected to the high seas, even if we never actually see them, says Morgan Visalli, a project scientist at Benioff Ocean Initiative at U.C. Santa Barbara. "It's incredibly important for helping to regulate the climate, for providing oxygen, food and jobs."
Even on land we depend on a healthy ocean. Phytoplankton in the ocean generate half our oxygen, and the ocean plays a key role in mitigating climate change — absorbing 25 percent of our CO2 emissions and 90 percent of heat related to those emissions. It's also home to a rich diversity of species, some of which we're still discovering.
But marine ecosystems face grave threats from an onslaught of abuses: chemical, plastic and noise pollution; deep seabed mining and other kinds of resource extraction; increased shipping; overfishing and illegal fishing; and climate change, which is altering both the temperature and chemistry of the waters.
Cargo ship at sea. Bernard Spragg / public domain
Numerous strategies are needed to tackle these problems, including the bedrock component of reducing greenhouse gases.
But a key tool that scientists have identified to help restore biodiversity is establishing reserves, often referred to as ocean parks or marine protected areas.
We know pretty well how to do this in national waters — there are more than 15,000 of them already in places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Florida Keys. But few such protected areas exist in the high seas because there is no international framework to guide the process. One such effort to establish a marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea took years of research and diplomacy to implement.
It's simply not feasible to scale the process — especially in the time we'd need to do it. That's why creating such a framework for marine protected areas in waters outside of national waters is a key part of the new high-seas treaty negotiations.
And that fits into a larger global vision.
The participant nations in another international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, are set to convene this fall. The agenda includes a goal of enacting an international framework to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030.
It's a goal that scientists call a bare minimum. And it's one that may be impossible to meet without the high-seas treaty.
"The science is clear, if we're going to sustain a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem, we need to be protecting at least 30% of the world's oceans," said Liz Karan, who leads efforts to protect the high seas for Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the High Seas Alliance.
In anticipation of the treaty's passage, scientists like Visalli and McCauley have already started modeling how new priority areas could be identified.
The high seas are our last global commons & essential to life on earth. As the UN weighs a groundbreaking #HighSeas… https://t.co/RZM4DToxhU— Benioff Ocean Initiative (@Benioff Ocean Initiative)1586294980.0
The other parts of the treaty, including environmental impact assessments and genetic resources, remain vital areas of discussion, but conservation groups have stressed the importance of protected ocean reserves for protecting the planet.
"If we want the ocean to continue its role in climate adaptation and being able to absorb the excess heat that it does, we need to create areas of resilience for the ocean," said Kalas. "And the best way to do that is marine protected areas."
Of course the devil is in the details.
While thousands of marine protected areas already exist, they come with varying levels of protections — much like we see with public lands. Some can be very restrictive, like national parks, or continue to allow extractive activities, such as in national forests.
Current marine protected areas range from no-take reserves that ban all extraction to areas allowing multiple uses — the latter are more common. Not surprisingly, though, scientific studies have shown that the no-take reserves do a much better job at protecting and restoring biodiversity.
Whether the treaty will be a landmark conservation effort or enshrine the status quo has yet to be determined, said Karan. "Both potential pathways are currently reflected in the draft treaty text" at this time.
From a scientific standpoint, McCauley says, marine protected areas should actually protect the wild character of the area and that means no activities — like mining or bottom trawling — that would disturb habitat. And the protections need to extend down from the ocean's surface, through the water column, to the seafloor.
A kelp forest in a marine protected area off the coast of California. Camille Pagniello / CC BY 2.0
To do that means figuring out how the new treaty would fit with a tangle of more than 20 existing governance organizations that regulate seabed mining, fisheries management and shipping regulations.
"One of our hopes is that this treaty would knit those pieces together and provide a little bit more coherence and compatibility with those issues, particularly with regards to conservation and sustainable use," said Karan.
There would also need to be a process for scientifically evaluating areas proposed for protections, and how the established reserves would be managed, and the restrictions enforced.
"The whole process, the whole vision and opportunity to think about doing something smarter and better — for the ocean, for biodiversity, for us — ends if we don't get strong language in the treaty and get that treaty to pass," said McCauley. "There's historical potential for the oceans, but we need to make sure people on the outside are watching the people on the inside [at the United Nations] in New York."
Even though official treaty negotiations are on hold awaiting a decision on rescheduling the talks, work continues among governments as they review and refine their positions on numerous proposals submitted by states and NGOs.
The United States has been a participant in the talks, but the treaty process has largely flown under the radar among the general public so far. Given President Trump's position on environmental protections and distain for multilateralism (like the Paris climate agreement), that's been pretty intentional on the part of environmental NGOs.
But as efforts may be nearing the finish line, this is starting to shift. Karan says there's more interest from legislators about high seas governance and more need to have an engaged public who can advocate for strong conservation protections.
Things are complicated, though, by the fact that the United States never ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, widely considered a "Constitution" for the ocean.
There is hope from some of the participants that the United States could ratify the high seas treaty if it comes to fruition, say Karan. But no one is holding their breath for that. Kalas says the goal is that the treaty, once completed, would be widely supported, although it remains to be seen how many countries will sign on. "If only 40 countries ratify it, that wouldn't make it as strong of an agreement as if all the United Nation's 193 nations ratified the agreement," she said.
But there's a fine line between having an agreement that's universally supported and one that establishes concrete conservation actions and protections.
"Our concern is that in trying to get everyone in the tent as it were, we're going to wind up with a status-quo agreement," said Karan. "As much as we want a treaty, we want one that will make concrete change on the water."
And it's worth remembering, we're talking about a lot of water. When the next session convenes, she said, "states will decide the ocean's fate."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Coronavirus Shines Light on Zoos as Danger Zones for Deadly Disease Transmission Between Humans and Animals
By Marilyn Kroplick
The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
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Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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