Ocean Scientists Create Global Network to Help Save Biodiversity
Ocean scientists have been busy creating a global network to understand and measure changes in ocean life. The system will aggregate data from the oceans, climate and human activity to better inform sustainable marine management practices.
EcoWatch sat down with some of the scientists spearheading the collaboration to learn more.
"There is the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON). We're trying to put them together," explained Frank Muller-Karger, a professor at the University of South Florida studying phytoplankton, a member of the Biology & Ecosystems Panel (BioEco Panel) of GOOS and a co-founder of MBON.
GOOS recommends what kinds of essential measurements should be collected to address particular problems. Over the last few decades, physical variables (salinity, temperature, oxygen, etc.) have helped improved weather forecasts and understanding of how the ocean redistributes heat around the world, Muller-Karger said.
Climate models are predicting faster warming of the North Atlantic Ocean, which will shift the Gulf Stream. NASA
MBON has established biodiversity variables (genetics, number of species at a certain depth, ecosystem structure, etc.) to understand the structures of life in the oceans, explained Patricia Miloslavich, executive director of the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research at the University of Delaware and member of both the BioEco Panel and MBON.
Now, scientists are trying to bridge the gap between the two observing networks by creating one "language" both systems can speak and in which all data can be collected and shared. A major goal is to be more efficient and effective in solving issues that affect people around the world by leveraging the oceans' resources sustainably. The effort will be a key contribution to the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021 - 2030), an international effort under which top researchers have been collaborating to reverse ocean decline.
"Data have to be formatted and have to carry a measure of precision if you want any hope to understand how the world is changing," Muller-Karger said. "It's so difficult to make measurements in the sea, that if we don't follow standards, we end up with things we cannot compare. It complicates things even further."
Woody Turner, who works with NASA and remotely sensed data that will be incorporated into the new system, said the entire endeavor is about "coordination at a global scale to get a global view of the planet." He noted that people have been looking at phenomena in the ocean for centuries and that the hard part has always been stitching these diverse observations together.
"That's why the U.N. Decade is such a big deal. It's an effort to bring together natural and social scientists from around the world to deliberately tie things together and create a standardized global observation system for it all," he said.
The system will also link into a similar global climate observation system that has been in place for over 40 years, as well as account for human intervention. In this way, scientists hope to more fully understand how the two biggest stressors on the oceans — climate change and human activity — affect biodiversity and abundance of life in the oceans, Miloslavich said.
"This can be used by policymakers to better manage how we use the oceans," she added.
For example, through the system, scientists could explain the fact that the oceans off the northeast U.S. are warming and document the how and why of a northward-migration of lobsters to forecast whether specific action may prevent the impending collapse of current fisheries and the resultant shift towards new species in the ecosystem.
Traditional climate data would show the effect of increased emissions of greenhouse gases, the GOOS might measure higher water temperatures, and the MBON might separately register the disappearing lobster populations, but the new system would hopefully be able to connect it all. Fisheries managers could then anticipate shortening or shifting a catch season accordingly, making the fishery more effective and profitable.
"We really need to be measuring life and the diversity of life, because that's ultimately what we depend on," Muller-Karger said. "We don't eat bulk carbon; we eat fish and potatoes."
Fundamentally, the scientists are trying to create a way to link physical and chemical measurements to the changes in biodiversity and life in the oceans.
"We need to be able to harness all that information so we can profit more from the info we're collecting," said Nic Bax, co-chair of the BioEco Panel. "That multi-disciplinarity is really needed now."
Critically, the new integrated observing system also shows how human actions can increase biodiversity in a particular region, so that abundance and productivity can be used to improve human life in various ways, Bax explained.
For example, Turner and Maury Estes apply space-based satellite imagery of the Earth with sea-based measurements to improve aquaculture practices in Palau. This combats overfishing while sustaining the health of the people and the economy of the island nation. They are also applying such technologies to mangrove conservation and restoration efforts in Kenya, where carbon credits are purchased to maintain mangroves as essential fish spawning grounds, increasing biological resilience while reducing human poverty.
"As we understand more, how we talk about sustainably developing the environment won't be just about how to not lose diversity, but about how to bring it back," Bax said. "A lot of things just require someone to invest in them, and financial markets need to be informed about what's going on in the larger system. This is a way to generate profit while improving the lives of people."
Turner added, "It's not only about saving life on the planet, it's about saving ourselves. It's a global problem, so we have to address it top-down, globally."
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At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0<p>According to <a href="https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/israeli-kitchen/beekeeping-how-to-keep-bees" target="_blank">From the Grapevine</a>, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.</p><p>U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/10/health/avocado-almond-vegan-partner/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a> reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.</p><p>Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.</p><p>Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.</p>
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0<p>Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.</p><p>The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wild-bees-crop-shortage-2646849232.html" target="_self">trigger food security issues</a>.</p><p>Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"</p>
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