The Top 10 Ocean Biodiversity Hotspots to Protect
By Tara Lohan
The Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean between the Caribbean and Bermuda, has bedeviled sailors for centuries. Its namesake — sargassum, a type of free-floating seaweed — and notoriously calm winds have "trapped" countless mariners, including the crew of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria.
For the past 500 years, most of the stories that have come from the Sargasso have been about stranded ships and sunken vessels. But in recent years scientists have rewritten the sea's narrative. It's not a life-stealing sea, but a life-giving one. The seaweed alone helps support 100 species of invertebrates, 280 species of fish and 23 species of birds.
That's one of the reasons why a team of scientists from 13 universities and institutions included the Sargasso Sea as one of 10 biodiversity hotspots in the high seas — areas of the ocean outside of national boundaries — that their research indicates should be considered for designation as marine protected areas.
Their recommendations, published earlier this year in the journal Marine Policy, took more than a little bit of work to develop.
Results from the global data-driven conservation planning analysis showing priority areas to be considered for protection (green) in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. Visalli et al
Quantifying the Great Unknown
The high seas make up two-thirds of the ocean, much of which is remote. Scientists are still learning about the diversity and complexity of life there.
"We're discovering new species in the high seas all the time," said Morgan Visalli, lead author of Marine Policy study and a project scientist with U.C. Santa Barbara's Benioff Ocean Initiative.
But at the same time, her colleague and study coauthor Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, said there's also a lot we do know that can help guide conservation.
They began their study by reaching out to networks of colleagues across the world to help gather data.
"I was really impressed by how much we actually know — how much data we have for what is out there, biologically speaking," he said. "And also what people are doing in that space. We can't fall back on the excuse of not knowing enough."
The researchers ended up analyzing 22 billion data points — a huge data-processing challenge — to identify areas of the high seas that could warrant protection.
That included looking at indicators such as seafloor habitat, ocean productivity, diversity and richness of species, and extinction risks. They also identified certain physical features — like seamounts and hydrothermal vents — where changes in elevation and temperature help foster biodiversity.
Their results identified priority regions in nearly all the major ocean basins, with the largest areas in the South Pacific Ocean. Key areas also included the Sargasso Sea, as well as the Costa Rica thermal dome in the Pacific Ocean; the South Tasman Sea; the Emperor Seamount Chain northwest of the Hawaiian Islands; the Mascarene Plateau in the Indian Ocean; and the Walvis Ridge, an undersea mountain range off southwestern Africa.
UCSB analysis; Marineregions.org; Natural Earth. © 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts
Their model avoided areas of high fishing activity in order to avoid what the study calls "real or perceived negative socioeconomic impacts" of setting aside conservation areas. It also took into consideration how climate change could alter biodiversity by selecting areas critical today and ones likely to be important in the future as well.
The Need for Protection
The research comes at a critical time for the future of the ocean — and the high seas, specifically.
A new United Nations treaty to protect and conserve biodiversity in the high seas is currently being negotiated, and a focus of those talks is how to create a framework for establishing marine protected areas outside of national waters. This could help ensure that unique ecosystems like the Sargasso Sea and others identified in the Marine Policy study aren't overexploited.
The current law that governs the high seas, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was finalized in 1982. But since then, our collective impact is starting to reveal gaps in governance.
Marine shipping traffic is up 1,600 percent and plastic pollution has increased 100-fold. At least one-third of fish stocks are being overharvested, and many migratory fish species, such as tuna, have declined more than 60 percent. Technological advances have led to more prospecting in the ocean's depths for minerals and other genetic resources, as well as more destructive practices, like trawling along the ocean floor. Climate change, which is warming waters and increasing acidification, poses even more risks to ocean life.
Coral bleaching in the Gulf of Thailand. Petchrung Sukpong / CC BY-SA 2.0
This has all taken a toll.
A landmark report last year from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found massive declines in biodiversity globally — including in the ocean, with one-third of all reef-forming corals and marine mammals threatened with extinction.
A recent study in the journal Nature, published just a few days after the Marine Policy study, suggests that we've come to a critical crossroads.
"We are at a point at which we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disrupted ocean, for the generations to follow," wrote the researchers, led by Carlos Duarte, a professor of marine science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
They posited that with enough resources and global will, we can see a "substantial recovery of the abundance, structure and function of marine life" by 2050. But to do that, we need to scale up efforts to protect vulnerable species and habitats, reduce pollution and — most critically — curb climate change.
That's why Visalli and McCauley believe efforts like the emerging high seas treaty are important.
So far fully implemented marine protected areas span just 5 percent of the ocean. And the vast majority of these reserves are in national waters, which are only one-third of the ocean. But a high seas treaty would help create a framework to more easily set aside conservation-rich areas in a much greater expanse.
"Even though there is industry out there and it has been increasing over the past several decades," said Visalli, "there is still a lot of wilderness in the high seas, and we are at this moment where we have an opportunity to protect these wild places before industry continues to expand even further."
To truly protect and restore ocean health, scientists have been calling for a bare minimum of 30 percent of the ocean to be protected. More protected areas in the high seas are important for meeting that goal. But just as crucial as how much space, is also where that space is.
The Need for Protected Spaces
The major driver for changing and threatening biodiversity in the long term is climate change, said McCauley, which makes protecting these spaces vital in the short term.
"We are already seeing the first manifestation of these threats and we need to think about climate change and always manage the oceans — from fishing regulations to ocean parks — with that in mind," he said. "Climate change is changing where biodiversity will be in the high seas, and we can use data to plan for that."
Duarte and authors of the Nature study wrote that "Climate change is the critical backdrop against which all future rebuilding efforts will play out." But well-managed marine protected areas, they said, can help ecosystems be better equipped to handle threats from climate change, like warming temperatures and changing ocean chemistry.
Getting there won't be cheap. A global network of marine protected areas that conserves 20–30 percent of the ocean could cost $5–19 billion a year, the researchers write in Nature.
But supporting local economies, feeding communities, and fostering biodiversity don't have to be mutually exclusive. The money spent on conservation will be more than returned in economic gains from the new jobs, revenue from ecotourism, restored fisheries, and protections for coastal areas, their research found.
But establishing the policy and international agreements, like the high seas treaty, to set plans in motion will require a lot of compromise, said McCauley.
"We need that space to have an ocean economy and we need that space to have biodiversity," he said. "Can we find a sweet spot?"
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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