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Top 10 Ocean News Stories of 2017

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Top 10 Ocean News Stories of 2017
A manta ray in the South China Sea. Greg Asner / Divephoto.org

By Douglas McCauley and Paul DeSalles

(The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.)

1. U.S. Drops Out of Paris

In our 2015 ocean top 10 list, we celebrated the adoption of the Paris agreement as a monumental achievement for slowing the warming, acidification and deoxygenation of our global oceans. In 2017, remaining nations like Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Syria ratified the agreement, bringing the total number of ratifying nations to 171. But in a radical about-face of global leadership on climate action, the Trump administration officially declared that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement, citing unfair impacts on the American economy.


The Eiffel Tower in ParisJoe deSousa via Pexels

2. Most Expensive Hurricane Season Ever

Perhaps the most apropos follow-up to the item above on this top 10 list is hurricanes. This year's hurricane season yielded a total of 17 named storms and 10 hurricanes in the Atlantic, with three Category 4 storms hitting the U.S. for the first time on record. In aggregate, disaster modelers assessed damages from 2017's hurricanes at just over $200 billion—the most expensive season on record for the U.S. While no single hurricane can be attributed directly to climate change, observed increases in overall hurricane activity and intensity in the Atlantic may be linked to climate change.

Experimentally colored satellite image of Hurricane Irma as it passed the eastern end of Cuba on Sept. 8, 2017 NOAA/CIRA

3. Vaquita vs. Extinction

2017 saw the launch of a bold and desperate collaborative plan, VaquitaCPR, to save the very small and very endangered vaquita porpoise from extinction. With perhaps only 30 vaquita (Phocoena sinus) left on Earth, VaquitaCPR spent months attempting to capture members of the elusive species with the aim of keeping them safe and perhaps breeding them in captivity until the danger of extinction had passed. But after the death of a captured vaquita, the VaquitaCPR team ended the program and called for renewed focus on enforcing a Mexican ban on gillnets, the leading cause of vaquita deaths in the animal's tiny home range in the upper Gulf of California.

VaquitaCPR team members with a vaquita calf that had been taken into captivity and held in a floating sea pen VaquitaCPR

4. Plastic Pollution

This year brought a number of notable advances in our understanding of how plastic pollution is affecting our oceans, as well as a surge in action to address this growing threat to ocean health and human health. This summer, researchers produced the first global assessment of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured. They concluded that a whopping 8 billion metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date. Perhaps even more alarmingly, they determined that only 9 percent of our global plastic waste is recycled, an issue that may be exacerbated by China's announcement this summer that it would drastically curtail the import of plastics and other waste for recycling. On the bright side, philanthropists, celebrities and the United Nations created a series of exciting campaigns to reduce single-use plastics and innovation prizes to reduce plastic waste. On the policy side, 2017 also saw California ban carry-out plastic bags, many states in Malaysia ban Styrofoam products, and Kenya enforced a nationwide ban on plastic bags.

A sculpture made of plastic trash collected from beaches, on exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC, in 2015 Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea / Smithsonian's National Zoo / Flickr

5. Iceberg A-68

At some point between July 10 and 12, 2017, a chunk of ice weighing more than a trillion metric tons broke free from the Antarctic Peninsula. While this particular calving event did not raise the sea level, there is great interest in what events like this may mean for the future of the Antarctic ice sheet and global sea-level rise. It remains to be seen whether the calving of the iceberg known as A-68 is a "normal" calving event or if it instead foretells the weakening or collapse of the Larsen C ice shelf to which it was once attached.

On July 12, 2017, the Landsat 8 satellite's Thermal Infrared Sensor captured this false-color image of iceberg A-68 breaking away from Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf. Orange shows the warmest areas, particularly the crack between the iceberg and the ice shelf.NASA

6. Spying on Coral Reef Destruction

In a year of yin and yang, marine researchers made exciting advances in our technological capacity to observe from space how people are impacting oceans, and in so doing learned more about just how dire the scope is. In one notable 2017 study, for example, researchers developed techniques to use flocks of new shoebox-size satellites and documented that military base construction in parts of the South China Sea had led to the reduction of regional coral reefs by up to 70 percent.

Layang Layang Atoll, Spratly Islands, South China SeaGreg Asner / Divephoto.org

7. First Large-Scale Seabed Mining

This was also the year that humans broke ground on the world's first large-scale mineral extraction project in the ocean. The project, led by Japan, was launched 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers) from the island of Okinawa at a depth of about 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) near an inactive hydrothermal vent. Japan plans to begin commercially mining this site for ore that includes zinc, gold, copper and lead by 2020. The activities of mining vessels associated with this project, along with all seabed mining exploration worldwide, can now be tracked online. Also of note this year, the International Seabed Authority made important advances in developing a global Mining Code for the high seas, taking the world a step closer to bringing full-scale seabed mining into international waters.

Okinawa, JapanGoogle Maps

8. Arctic Fishing Ban

Historically, thick ice has prevented commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. However, recent accelerated loss of summer sea ice has raised questions about the future of fishing in these delicate polar regions. In a prescient move, nine countries and the European Union agreed in late November 2017 to make the central Arctic Ocean off-limits to fishing for at least 16 years until more can be learned about the ecology and sensitivity of potential fisheries in the region.

9. New Mega Marine Parks

Another bright spot in 2017 ocean news was the establishment of massive protected areas in the ocean. Mexico created a protected area larger than Greece around a series of volcanic islands in the Revillagigedo Archipelago that host manta rays, sharks and sea turtles. The government of Chile and the people of Rapa Nui confirmed the establishment this year of an even larger marine protected area, roughly the size of the Chilean mainland, that was first announced in 2015. And the Mongolia-size Ross Sea Marine Protected Area near Antarctica, established in 2016, came into force on Dec. 1.

Humpback whales off the Revillagigedo Islands near MexicoThe Pew Charitable Trusts

10. Steps Toward a High-Seas Treaty

This year saw the United Nations take promising steps toward safeguarding marine life on the high seas, the immense stretches of open water beyond countries' jurisdictions that comprise two-thirds of global oceans. In July, a UN planning committee officially recommended that treaty negotiations begin. To close out 2017, on Dec. 24 the body resolved to kick off the treaty-negotiation process and planned a series of four meetings between 2018 and mid-2020. The treaty's final text is anticipated by late 2020. Hopefully this process will lead to the adoption of improved strategies and the creation of new policy tools, such as internationally sanctioned protected areas, that will help protect high-seas biodiversity.

Clouds over the Atlantic OceanWikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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