Countries fringing the Mediterranean need to turn at least 30% of its waters into Protected Maritime Areas (MPAs) by 2030 and rein in overfishing and pollution, urged the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) in a report published by its German branch Tuesday.
The 26-page WWF report also calls for "well-connected" efforts between riparian nations to save already depleted Mediterranean seagrass beds and coral clusters — home to many fish species and vital in stabilizing coastlines and capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The report also warns residents they face losing fishing livelihoods and Mediterranean culture like cuisine if biodiversity is not restored and deadly industrial impacts reduced.
"The Mediterranean is no longer the sea that we once knew," said Heike Vesper, maritime protection director at WWF Germany, which urged "resilience" strategies, including the sea's integration in the UN's biodiversity and climate frameworks.
Although it covers an area of only 1% compared to all world seas, the Mediterranean is home to 10% of all known maritime species, with a quarter of these creatures endemic to the enclosed sea basin between Africa and Europe.
"Spreading north and west every year" this process of tropicalization was displacing old species preferring cooler waters, said the WWF, citing replacement jellyfish plaguing fishers and tourists alike and "complete" upheavals in maritime ecology.
One example it gave was the shallow Israeli coastal shelf. Only 5-12% of native molluscs were still present, and that seascape had become "unrecognizable," said researcher Paolo Albano in the report.
"Voracious" rabbitfish (Siganus rivulatus and Siganus luridus) had caused a 40% reduction in native Mediterranean species in some waters.
Swimming in large shoals, they gobbled up algae forests, such as large seaweeds, leaving largely rocky barrens underwater off Greece and Turkey.
In Turkey's Gokova area, a massive 98% of its herbivore fish biomass was already rabbitfish.
Another invader, the lionfish (Pterois miles), first caught in an Israeli trawl in 1991, had since spread to waters off Lebanon and Greece, but also off Libya and Italy.
With venomous spines, it ate "large quantities of small native fish and crustaceans," said the WWF, and like rabbitfish was likely to spread "across the Mediterranean."
"Fishers [anglers] have a big role to play: both [species] are good to eat," said the WWF, encouraging Mediterranean spearfishing and net-catching experts to hunt them.
Decades of overfishing had removed local predators such as dusky groupers that would have otherwise kept these invasive species in check, said the WWF.
Jellyfish too, thriving on eutrophication and land-sourced pollution, had become the "new top predators," replacing larger but overfished rivals such as sharks and tuna, the report added.
Die-offs in recent years, down to 40 meters (130 feet) deep, had left fragile coral and seagrass beds "ravaged" around the Mediterranean, said the WWF.
Seagrass prairies are ecologically valuable nurseries for "many commercial species," stemming waves and currents, and storing CO2, it explained.
Ecologically rich seagrass "prairies" resemble rain forests on land.
Incentives putting people "at the center" of remedial efforts were needed to help keep these "essential" carbon storage reservoirs intact, said the WWF.
Soft corals admired by divers, and known as gorgonians or "sea fans," were also being killed by Mediterranean warming, said the WWF, citing "mass mortalities" in Ligurian waters off Italy since the 1990s.
"Abandoned fishing gear (mainly lines) tangled around deeper [coral] colonies also proved to be a major threat, rubbing against the coral … damaging living tissue."
Coral reef off Capri, Italy.
Indigenous fan mussels (Pinna nobilis) that filter detritus, boosting water clarity, were devastated from 2016 in so-called mass mortality events. As a result, the large molluscs — hit first in the Spanish Mediterranean and then off Italy, Sicily and Corsica — were declared critically endangered in 2019.
Warming could be behind this die-off, said the WWF, calling for a "multi-stakeholder collaboration" to repopulate areas with resilient Pinna larvae.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
For the first time, researchers have identified 100 transnational corporations that take home the majority of profits from the ocean's economy.
Referred to as the "Ocean 100," the corporations accounted for 60 percent of $1.9 trillion generated from core industries in the ocean economy in 2018 alone, according to an article by the Duke Nicholas Institute. The research was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances by researchers at Duke University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
"Now that we know who some of the biggest beneficiaries from the ocean economy are, this can help improve transparency relating to sustainability and ocean stewardship," the lead author John Virdin, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, said in an article by the Duke Nicholas Institute. Some of the identified corporations included Saudi Aramco and Brazil's Petrobras, Reuters reported.
More than three billion people depend on the ocean for their livelihoods, according to a report by the OECD. Yet across eight industries studied, including offshore drilling, seafood production and processing and cruise tourism, researchers found that just 10 companies in each of the industries generated 45 percent of the industry's revenue.
"The fact that these companies are headquartered in a small number of countries also illustrates that concerted actions by some governments,could rapidly change how the private sector interacts with the ocean," co-author Henrik Österblom, science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said in the article by the Duke Nicholas Institute.
In response, the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, which for the first time sought to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development."
But such agreements overlook the ocean's potential to mitigate climate change, Janis Searles Jones, the Ocean's Conservancy CEO wrote in a Nature article. "We need greater ambition to give the ocean a fighting chance," she added.
The researchers' identification could help environmental groups like the Ocean Conservancy pressure corporations into adopting sustainability goals that include climate mitigation strategies.
"Senior executives of these few, but large companies, are in a unique position to exercise global leadership in sustainability," Virdin added.
In 2015, Österblom and his colleagues published a paper that analogized transnational corporations to keystone species, according to the article by the Duke Nicholas Institute. They noted both have a major impact on how ecosystems function and disproportionate power to determine how other species in the ecosystem operate.
"Just knowing who they are is the first step in getting them involved in what needs to be done," Österblom noted in Reuters.
But depending on corporations to adopt sustainable practices may not be enough to reach international sustainability goals.
"In 2018, Chevron announced it would invest $100 million that year in lowering emissions through its new Future Energy Fund," Michael O'Leary and Warren Valdmanis wrote on Vox on holding companies accountable to their climate commitments. That same year, Chevron invested $20 billion in oil and gas.
"For those who put their faith in corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a panacea for our ailing society, we have the unfortunate reality: This kind of allocation of efforts is not uncommon. Superficial public commitments on issues like sustainability and diversity are much easier for companies than substantive action," they added.
Oceans will play an increasingly critical role in the global economy, the researchers note. Whether pressuring the ocean's major actors to adopt sustainable practices will translate into tangible corporate responsibility will reveal itself sooner or later.
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For nearly as long as solar panels have been gracing rooftops and barren land, creative people have been searching out additional surfaces that can be tiled with energy-generating photovoltaic (PV) panels. The idea has been pretty straightforward: if solar panels generate energy simply by facing the sun, then humans could collectively reduce our reliance on coal, oil, gas and other polluting fuels by maximizing our aggregate solar surface area.
So, what kind of unobstructed surfaces are built in every community and in between every major city across the globe? Highways and streets. With this in mind, the futuristic vision of laying thousands, or even millions, of solar panels on top of the asphalt of interstates and main streets was born.
While the concept art looked like a still from a sci-fi film, many inventors, businesses and investors saw these panels as a golden path toward clean energy and profit. Ultimately, though, the technology and economics ended up letting down those working behind each solar roadway project — from initial concepts in the early 2000s to the first solar roadway actually opened in France in 2016, they all flopped.
In the years since the concept of solar roadways went viral, solar PV has continued to improve in technology and drop in price. So, with a 2021 lens, is it time to re-run the numbers and see if a solar roadway could potentially deliver on that early promise? We dig in to find out.
Solar Roadways: The Original Concept
Solar roadways are complex in execution, but in concept, they're as simple as they sound. They're roads "paved" with extremely strong solar panels that are covered in glass that can withstand environmental stressors and the weight of vehicles driving over them on a consistent basis.
The idea was something that got people really excited when the initial Solar Roadways, Inc. project (which is still seeking funding) burst onto the scene in 2014:
More advanced designs included solar roadways outfitted with LED lights that could be used to illuminate lane lines, communicate to drivers and more. Other iterations included weight sensors that would detect when obstructions were on the road or could alert homeowners if unexpected vehicles were approaching their driveway. Embedding these kinds of technology into the solar roadways renderings only added to their appeal and the initial hype around the concept.
Key Selling Points of Solar Roadways
Early innovators of solar roadways touted the numerous benefits of their ideas. These included:
- Sunlight shines down on roads at no cost, making the energy not only readily available, but also free (aside from installation and maintenance).
- The ability to power street lights with solar roadways eliminated the need to pull extra energy from the grid.
- Having electronics embedded into the roadway opened up a world of possibilities for communicating with drivers in ways that didn't require painting and repainting of roads.
- The ingenuity to attach weight sensors on the solar panels could be used to alert drivers about potential obstructions, such as animals, disabled vehicles or rocks on the road.
- In a future of electric vehicles, the possibilities were seen as even more beneficial, as solar roadways could be used to power electric vehicle charging stations or to charge the cars while they're driving.
While some early thinkers may also have envisioned these roadways sending solar energy to the local power grid, the most impactful way solar roadways could utilize the energy they generated is right around the road itself: lighting street lights, heating mechanisms to melt snow on the roadway, or powering small emergency equipment on road shoulders.
Using the energy for on-road applications would mean that the power didn't have to be sent long distances before being used, which results in energy loss. However, in more rural or remote locations, having the solar roadway energy available for nearby homes and businesses could be a huge benefit, especially if there's an outage in the overall grid.
Why Solar Roadway Tests Have Failed
To much of the general public — and especially to people who weren't well versed in the intricacies of solar panels or road structures — solar roadways seemed like a slam-dunk solution that both looked futuristic and had benefits that went far beyond electricity generation. It was the kind of innovation that had people exclaiming: "How has no one done this yet?!" But in reality, the execution of solar roadways was much more complex than the idea.
Here are a few reasons solar roadway tests have failed:
Cost of Manufacturing and Maintenance
The cost of the energy from the sun may be free, but the investment to install and maintain the solar roadways was undeniably prohibitive. The reason asphalt is used by default to pave roadways is because it is immensely affordable and low-maintenance, which is especially critical on vast, expansive roadways and interstates.
In 2010, Scott Brusaw, co-founder of Solar Roadways, Inc., estimated a square foot of solar roadway would cost about $70. However, when the first solar roadway was built in France by a company called Colas, it measured 1 kilometer and cost $5.2 million to build — or about $1,585 per foot of roadway. Of course, this was a small iteration and bulk manufacturing would cost less, but either way, it's hard to believe the cost of a solar roadway would ever be competitive with the price of asphalt, which is about $3 to $15 per square foot.
Further, the cost and complexity to send a crew to repair individual panels that fail would far outweigh those to maintain asphalt. So, while one of the presumed benefits of solar roadways is the cost savings associated with self-generated energy, even back-of-the-envelope math highlights how the numbers would simply not add up to be more cost-effective in the long run.
Energy Required to Produce the Panels
Another limiting factor appears when considering the energy it takes to make asphalt versus high-durability glass and solar panels. Most asphalt used on roads today is a byproduct of distilling petroleum crude oil for products such as gasoline, which means it makes use of a substance that would otherwise be discarded as waste.
The solar roadway panels, although intended to save energy in the long run, take much more to produce. Typical rooftop solar panels can easily make up for the extra energy used in production because the glass doesn't need to withstand the weight of vehicles driving over them, but solar roadways have that added complexity.
Power Output of the Panels
When estimating power output, early optimists seemed to perform calculations based on the raw surface area they could cover — and not much else. However, beyond the stunted energy generation that any solar panels face on cloudy days or at night, solar roadways presented unique new performance challenges.
For example, vehicles constantly driving over solar roadways would interrupt sun exposure. Plus, they'd leave behind trails of fluid, dirt and dust that can dramatically reduce the efficiency of solar panels. Being installed on the ground is a challenge in itself because of how readily shade would find the roads; that's the reason you find most solar panels on rooftops or elevated off the ground and angled toward the sun.
Issues With Glass Roadways
Lastly, driving on glass surfaces is simply not what modern cars are designed to do. Asphalt and tires grip each other well, being particularly resilient in wet conditions. If the asphalt is replaced with glass — even the textured glass that's used for solar roadways — tire traction could be reduced dramatically. Wet or icy conditions could lead to catastrophic situations on solar roadways.
Could Recent Advances in Solar Technology Bring Solar Roadways Closer to Reality?
For all of these challenges and even more roadblocks that early solar roadway projects have run into in the past, the reality is that solar technology continues to improve. In the seven years since the first Solar Roadways, Inc. video went viral, solar panels have developed to be more durable, more cost-effective and more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. To put some numbers behind these trends:
- The average solar PV panel cost has dropped about 70% since 2014.
- In 2015, FirstSolar made news with panels that were 18.2% efficient. Today, the most advanced prototypes are able to exceed 45% efficiency.
- Total solar energy capacity in 2021 is nearly six times greater than in 2014, and with that explosion has come advances to flatten the learning curve and increase the general public's acceptance of the benefits of solar.
- Solar jobs have increased 167% in the last decade, giving the industry more capable workers able to take the reins of a solar roadway project and more professionals who know how to affordably install solar.
The question to ask is whether these advances are enough to bring solar roadways from failure to success.
Despite the improvements, many of the original challenges with solar roadways remain, and the scale of execution is immense. Even with decreasing solar PV costs, outfitting long stretches of roadway with such complex technologies will require tremendous capital.
Rather than a future where solar roadways cover the country from coast to coast, a more likely outcome is that these advances will bring solar roadways to viability in narrow, niche applications.
Just like tidal energy is a great opportunity for small coastal communities but can't be scaled to solve the energy crisis across the world, it's conceivable that limited-scope solar roadways could be constructed around the world. However, large-scale solar roadways may never be more than a pipe dream.
San Diego-based sustainable seafood creator BlueNalu has been selected to compete in the semifinal round of the next XPRIZE Foundation Challenge – Feed the Next Billion. The food tech company's success is a good indicator of the opportunities in fish.
The concept of sustainable seafood – whether it exists, what it means and if it will help our ocean – is white-hot right now. And it's no wonder: seafood is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the United Nations has placed its hope in feeding the world on aquaculture and finding ways to sustainably source ocean resources. In fact, the global seafood market is slated to reach $133.9 billion by 2026, PR Newswire reported.
The XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion (FTNB) competition hopes to drive innovations that will do just that. The multi-year, $15M contest aims to inspire companies to produce chicken breast or fish fillet alternatives that replicate or outperform conventional chicken and fish in access, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition and health, as well as taste and texture, Business Wire reported. The goal is to "reinvent how humanity will feed future generations" by addressing the need for alternative proteins at scale, the report and the XPRIZE website noted.
"Over the past several years, as our global population continues to grow and the demand for meat products increases, it has become clear that our current global food chain cannot keep up," said Caroline Kolta, XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion Program Lead, reported Business Wire. "We know we need more nutritious, environmentally-friendly and sustainable alternatives to conventional animal-based products, and that wide-scale adoption will require additional innovation continuously being brought to market. I am thrilled about the international cohort of Semifinalists selected to embark on this journey of innovation and exploration to shape a future of food, starting with chicken and fish."
After stringent evaluation, BlueNalu was named as one of 28 semifinalist teams out of about 270 global applicants. Collectively, the semifinalists will share a portion of a total of $500,000 awarded this round to support the development of their product. Over the next year, semifinalists will also work closely within the XPRIZE ecosystem to develop the first iteration of their products.
"We're thrilled that the XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion competition was created as it not only recognizes that our food supply chain needs innovative change but also it continues to validate that this new way to produce seafood is close to reality," BlueNalu President and CEO Lou Cooperhouse told EcoWatch.
Lou Cooperhouse, BlueNalu's President and CEO, in front of their headquarters and pilot food production facility in San Diego, California. BlueNalu
BlueNalu has made a name for itself in the cell-cultured industry, specifically in the seafood space. All of BlueNalu's cell-cultured seafood products are healthy for humans, humane for sea life and sustainable for our planet, Cooperhouse said. The company specifically targets species that are overfished, primarily imported and difficult to farm-raise. In doing so, they aim to reduce fishery pressure, displace the need for imports, create jobs, enhance food security, and redefine local seafood in each region they go to market, he added.
But what exactly is cell-cultured fish?
Well, for starters, it's actual fish. It looks like, cooks like and tastes like fish because it is fish. BlueNalu produces its seafood in a new way, directly from the cells of target fish species, Cooperhouse explained. They grow cells of muscle, fat and connective tissue in large, stainless-steel tanks, "similar to a brewery." These different cell types are then formed into fillets, cubes for poke and other dishes and products that consumers enjoy.
"Our cell-cultured seafood will provide the same taste, texture, nutritional, and culinary attributes of conventional seafood products, but without any mercury, microplastics, pathogens, parasites or other harmful contaminants that might otherwise be found," he added.
BlueNalu's whole-muscle, cell-cultured yellowtail prepared in a poke bowl. BlueNalu
BlueNalu's goal is to provide a third option to complement wild-caught and farm-raised seafood, to alleviate the stressors on wild fisheries and allow them to replenish, Cooperhouse said.
"Demand for seafood is at an all-time high and anticipated to increase significantly in the years ahead, yet our global supply chain is increasingly vulnerable, and there is already a very challenging and fundamental gap in our ability to feed the planet with high-quality protein that will continue to widen during the coming decades," Cooperhouse said. BlueNalu hopes to fill in that impending gap in the seafood supply chain, he added.
BlueNalu's entry into the global competition will be a cell-cultured bluefin tuna fillet, which is also the initial product they anticipate launching in commerce at a large scale. The company decided to compete with this "prized fish of the sea" because the species has been severely overfished and is known to contain high amounts of mercury, yet still remains in high demand, Cooperhouse said.
The semi-final round of judging will take place in Fall 2022, and the top ten teams will then compete in the final round of judging in late 2023. The grand prize team will create at least twenty-five cuts of structured chicken breast or fish fillet analogs of 115 grams, or four ounces, that replicate the sensory properties, versatility, and nutritional profile of conventional chicken or fish, Business Wire reported. They will take home a $7 million prize.
The interest in and financing of cell-based foods like BlueNalu's tuna point to widespread popular concern over the health of the oceans. There has been a shift in consumer behavior to desire products that are healthy for humans and the planet, Cooperhouse said. National governments are also increasingly concerned about food security and are providing support to the new cell-cultured foods sector as a possible solution, he added. Overall, people want to find ways to enjoy resources from the sea without worry or guilt. Competitions like XPPRIZE help to drive innovation and create that reality.
BlueNalu's whole-muscle, cell-cultured yellowtail prepared in acidified form in a kimchi recipe. BlueNalu
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By Johnny Wood
To the uninitiated, mangroves might appear to be merely coastal cousins of inland forests, but these rich ecosystems support the planet and people in unique ways, from providing breeding grounds for fish to carbon storage, to protection against flooding.
Yet despite their importance, mangrove forests are under threat. Over a third have already disappeared, and in regions such as the Americas they are being cleared at a faster rate than tropical rainforests.
Much of that clearance is to reclaim land for agriculture, industrial development and infrastructure projects.
In addition to climate change and pollution, there are also local threats. These include overharvesting of wood for fuel and construction, dams and irrigation that reduce the flow of water reaching the forests, and overfishing causing disruption to food chains and fish communities.
Joel Vodell / Unsplash
We are destroying a coastal ecosystem that helps sustain life and livelihoods. Here are five of the many reasons we should be doing much more to preserve mangrove forests.
1. They are a natural coastal defense.
The sturdy root systems of mangrove trees help form a natural barrier against violent storm surges and floods. River and land sediment is trapped by the roots, which protects coastline areas and slows erosion. This filtering process also prevents harmful sediment reaching coral reefs and seagrass meadows.
In 2017, the UN Ocean Conference estimated that nearly 2.4 billion people live within 100 km of the coast. Mangroves provide valuable protection for communities at risk from sea-level rises and severe weather events caused by climate change.
2. They are carbon sinks.
Coastal forests help the fight against global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, most of which is stored within the plant. When mangrove tree roots, branches and leaves die they are usually covered by soil, which is then submerged under tidal water, slowing the breakdown of materials and boosting carbon storage.
Research shows that coastal mangroves outperform most other forests in their capacity to store carbon. An examination of 25 mangrove forests across the Indo-Pacific region found that per hectare, they held up to four times more carbon than other tropical rainforests.
3. They provide livelihoods.
Many people living in and around mangroves depend on them for their livelihood. The trees are a reliable source of wood for construction and fuel, which is prized for its hardy resistance to both rot and insects. However, in some areas, the wood has been harvested commercially for pulp, wood chip and charcoal, raising concerns about sustainability.
Plant extracts are collected by locals for their medicinal qualities and the leaves of mangrove trees are often used for animal fodder.
The forest waters provide local fishermen with a rich supply of fish, crabs and shellfish to sell for income.
4. They encourage ecotourism.
Sustainable tourism offers a stimulus to preserve existing mangrove areas, with potential to generate income for local inhabitants.
Often located near to coral reefs and sandy beaches, the forests provide a rich environment for activities like sports fishing, kayaking and birdwatching tours.
Of course, it is important to maintain a balance between visitor numbers and protecting the forests' delicate ecosystem.
If held at sustainable levels, ecotourism could provide the perfect motivation to protect mangroves, instead of clearing them for mass tourism developments.
5. They are rich in biodiversity.
Human activity has caused huge biodiversity loss in land and marine ecosystems around the globe, endangering many plant and animal species.
By filtering coastal waters, mangroves form a nutrient-rich breeding ground for numerous species that thrive above and below the waterline.
A huge variety of wildlife lives or breeds in the mangrove ecosystem, including numerous fish, crab and shrimp species, molluscs, and mammals like sea turtles. The trees are home to an array of nesting, breeding and migratory birds. When mangrove forests are cleared valuable habitat is lost, threatening the survival of myriad species.
But that's not the whole story. The forests are also a potential source of undiscovered biological materials that could benefit mankind, such as antibacterial compounds and pest-resistant genes, which are also lost when coastal areas are cleared.
Land clearance of mangrove areas and other forests like the Amazon has had a major impact on different species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List shows that of 68,574 species of invertebrates, 8,374 were on the brink of extinction.
Protecting natural ecosystems like mangrove forests not only helps preserve biodiversity, it also helps preserve a vital resource for local communities.
Reposted with permission from the World Economic Forum.
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In his latest documentary, 27-year-old British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi calls out the commercial fishing industry for harming the oceans in the pursuit of fish. Since its release, the polarizing film has gone viral and climbed to Netflix's top ten across the globe. The exposé has sparked countless questions about and investigation into the seafood industry's claims and practices.
Tabrizi opens the film with scenes from his childhood. His love of the ocean came from watching orcas and dolphins perform in marine theme parks. As an adult, he came to understand the harm associated with captive mammals. The storyline quickly progresses to cover mass dolphin killing in Taiji, Japan along with overfishing for tuna. Everything is connected, and the chain of destruction goes on until "the documentary loses its shock factor" because "the bleak statistics cease to surprise," reported The Independent. The message is clear: "we are destroying sea life at rapid speed."
Seaspiracy alleges that overfishing for tuna helps keep demand and prices high. Netflix
In the film, Sylvia Earle, famed marine biologist and ocean explorer, warns that since humans excel at extracting enormous amounts of marine life from the sea, commercial fishing itself will go extinct because eventually there will be no fish left.
A Thrillist review said Seaspiracy connects all of the dots between commercial fishing, ocean destruction and slavery with a "wobbly line" and the "indictment of the myth of sustainability."
With each new scene, Tabrizi reveals the fraud, corruption and greed currently destroying the oceans. Through figures and expert cameos, he claims:
- Discarded plastic fishing gear accounts for most ocean debris and is killing whales and other animals;
- The oceans will be emptied of fish in 27 years;
- Safe seafood labels are compromised by "pay-to-play" profit structures and lack enforcement;
- Overfishing is more damaging to the environment than deforestation;
- Farmed fish are disease-ridden, pollution-creating and resource-intensive;
- Thai fishing fleets use slave labor to remain profitable;
- "Sustainable seafood" is a myth; and
- The only solution is to stop eating fish.
Shark bycatch is seen being dumped overboard in West Africa. Sea Shepherd
Tabrizi's takeaway is a scathing condemnation of the multibillion-dollar seafood industry and the governments, groups and companies complicit with the ocean's destruction. Seaspiracy calls for a collective shift away from eating seafood and toward vegan and plant-based alternatives.
"The amount of fish being taken out of the ocean is absolutely stunning — five million fish a minute," Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Founder Capt. Paul Watson told EcoWatch. "We're strip-mining life from the sea. There is no sustainable fishery anywhere on the planet."
The marine conservation organization, known and sometimes criticized for its direct action techniques, features prominently in Tabrizi's film. Tabrizi films from Sea Shepherd ships as they confront an illegal Chinese fishing vessel and encounter starving artisanal fishers in West Africa who have lost their jobs and food source to industrial fisheries.
When asked if the state of the oceans is as dire as depicted in Seaspiracy, Watson told EcoWatch, "I think it's actually worse than presented in this film. For the most part, these problems are out of sight, out of mind. And, if the ocean dies, we die."
The Sea Shepherd fleet of ships patrols the world's waters. Thomas Le / Sea Shepherd
To date, millions have watched the documentary, and reactions from viewers and marine organizations run the gamut.
"I think it was a brilliant film," Watson said. "It's the first opportunity to get the message out about what's happening in our oceans. Many people are being confronted with information that they never paid attention to before."
One Twitter user agreed, saying, "So modern fishing with nets large enough to sweep up cathedrals is wiping out ocean ecosystems which we rely on to regulate the planet. We are literally killing ourselves...." Another user urged, "Do watch it if you care about oceans/fish. I'm gonna stop eating fish, starting today. A must watch."
Critics of the film have also been vocal, denouncing the underlying facts presented, the film's possible vegan agenda and its reductionist and sensationalist approach, Global Aquaculture Alliance reported. The New York Times likened the tone to "a cheap imitation of hard-hitting investigative journalism" full of "conspiratorial thinking." Some accused the film of perpetuating a "white savior complex," The Independent reported.
Leading seafood certification group Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a target throughout the documentary, refused Tabrizi's numerous interview requests. After the documentary's release, MSC agreed that, "There is a crisis in our oceans, and an urgent need to end overfishing." The organization also rebutted, "... it is wrong to claim that there is no such thing [as] sustainable fishing and that the only solution is to stop eating fish. Some of the problems that the film highlights — bycatch, overfishing and destruction of marine ecosystems — are precisely the issues the MSC certification process is designed to address."
Sea Shepherd Founder Paul Watson considers commercial fishing the biggest threat to the future of the oceans. Sea Shepherd
Mark J. Palmer, who is connected to the Earth Island Institute, the firm that manages the "dolphin-safe" label for tuna, is featured in a pivotal scene in the film. On camera, Tabrizi asks Palmer whether he can guarantee that all tuna cans labeled dolphin-safe caused no harm to dolphins. The latter responds, "Nope. Nobody can," and justifies his answer by saying, "Once you're out there in the ocean, how do you know what [fishermen are] doing? We have observers onboard — observers can be bribed and are not out on a regular basis."
Palmer has since tried to dampen his statement and suggests that Seaspiracy took his remarks out of context, IntraFish, a seafood news site, reported. Newsweek fact-checked the film's claims and Palmer's defenses and concluded that "[b]ased on comments made by the Earth Island Institute and other experts, it is not possible to say whether all canned tuna that is labeled 'dolphin-friendly' is guaranteed to have not harmed dolphins in the fishing process."
Regardless of whether or not they are fans of the film, most conservationists and scientists agree that the oceans matter in the fight against the climate crisis, both for providing food security for millions worldwide along with protecting cultural ways of life.
According to The Guardian, Callum Roberts, a marine conservationist featured in Seaspiracy, offered this conclusion for the film's critics: "My colleagues may rue the statistics, but the basic thrust of it is we are doing a huge amount of damage to the ocean and that's true. At some point, you run out. Whether it's 2048 or 2079, the question is: 'Is the trajectory in the wrong direction or the right direction?'"
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By Ajit Niranjan
Storms, floods, wildfires and droughts drove more than 30 million people from their homes last year, as rising temperatures wrought extra chaos on the climate, according to a report published Thursday by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC).
Together with wars and violence, which forced 9.8 million people to flee within their borders, extreme weather brought the number of new internal displacements in 2020 to 40.5 million people, according to the IDMC. The Geneva-based research organization estimates a record-breaking 55 million people were living displaced within their own country by the end of the year.
That's twice the number of refugees in the world.
Extreme weather is growing unnaturally strong as people burn fossil fuels and warp the climate. It is projected to drive more and more people from their homes through sudden shocks like floods and storms, as well as slower-burning crises like crop failures and drought. In rich countries, politicians have raised fears that more migration from poorer regions could overwhelm public services as the planet heats up.
The idea that climate change will trigger mass migration towards rich countries is a "distraction" from the fact that most displacement is internal, said Bina Desai, head of programs at the IDMC. "It's a moral obligation to really invest in supporting people where they are — rather than just thinking about the risk of them arriving at the borders."
The annual report, in its sixth year, found more than 80% of the people forced from their homes in 2020 were in Asia and Africa.
In Asia, most of the people forced to flee did so because of extreme weather. In countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia — where hundreds of millions of people live on low-lying coastlines and deltas — a combination of population growth and urbanization has left more people exposed to floods that have grown stronger as sea levels have risen.
The most severe cyclone to hit India in two decades made landfall on Monday, forcing authorities to evacuate 200,000 people in the state of Gujarat. But while early warning systems can save lives by pulling people out of harm's way, many of the displaced do not have a home to come back to. When Cyclone Amphan struck Bangladesh last year it forced 2.5 million people to flee and destroyed 55,500 homes, according to the report, suggesting that 10% of the people displaced were left homeless.
In Africa, most displacements in 2020 were due to conflict. Persistent violence forced people from their homes in countries like Burkina Faso and Mozambique, while new wars sprang up in other countries like Ethiopia. The IDMC estimated half a million people had fled fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray region by the end of last year. Since then, UNICEF has put the figure above one million.
Some conflicts were coupled with unusually long and heavy rainy seasons that brought floods and crop losses to countries already affected by violence. Heavy rains forced people already displaced once to flee again in countries like Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Niger, according to the report. Such environmental disasters triggered 4.3 million displacements in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. At least half of them were still displaced by the end of the year.
Migrants from rural areas to cities are often "forced to settle in areas that are not safe for habitation and prone to flooding or other hazards," said Lisa Lim Ah Ken, a regional climate specialist at the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Kenya. "A lot can be done, starting with prevention."
Researchers say the links between climate and migration are poorly understood and sometimes overstated. While the IDMC compiles data on internal displacement — most of which comes from sudden disasters like floods and storms — there is little data on how many people leave homes because of slow-burning environmental crises like rising temperatures and sea levels.
Still, a meta-analysis published in March by the University of Potsdam's Center for Economic Policy Analysis found that disasters that unfold over a long time like heatwaves and drought are more likely to increase migration than disasters that hit suddenly like floods and hurricanes. The researchers suggest this is because people need money to migrate, which is often lacking after sudden shocks, even though they cause immediate displacement across shorter distances.
Those who stay put — often without insurance to rebuild houses or livelihoods — can be trapped in a cycle of extreme weather that prevents them from leaving, though others may choose to stay behind for other reasons.
"If you want to migrate, then you need some resources to do so," said Barbora Sedova, an economist studying conflict and migration at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and co-author of the study. "What is not so much talked about is the populations that are trapped at the origin and that actually lack the resources to migrate."
Increasingly Extreme Weather
Climate change has already made extreme weather even more extreme — including in rich countries.
A study published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences in March found that the risk of intense fire during the 2019/2020 Australian wildfire season was made 30% more likely by human changes to the climate. The fires killed 34 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
On Tuesday, a study published in the journal Nature Communications found that 13 percent of the $62.5 billion in damages when Hurricane Sandy struck New York City in 2012 was the result of sea-level rise. Had humans not heated the planet, and assuming all other factors stayed constant, the floods would have hit 70,000 fewer people, the modelers found.
Climate migration researchers have called for governments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions swiftly, adapt to the changing climate and continue to support displaced communities once the immediate danger has passed.
"If we create opportunities for these people in cities — in terms of employment, housing, life and dignity — then migration does not necessarily have to become an issue of international security," said Sedova. "If it's well managed, it can even have positive consequences for the country."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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"Nowhere is the world's nature crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the rapid decline in freshwater fish populations. They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine, and we must heed the warning," Stuart Orr, WWF global freshwater lead, said in a statement Tuesday announcing the report.
WWF is one of the many organizations behind the report, along with the Alliance for Freshwater Life, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, to name a few. Together, the groups emphasized the incredible diversity of the world's freshwater fish and their importance for human wellbeing.
There are a total of 18,075 freshwater fish species in the world, accounting for 51 percent of all fish species and 25 percent of all vertebrates. They are an important food source for 200 million people and provide work for 60 million. But their numbers are in decline. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has declared 80 to be extinct, 16 of those in 2020 alone. The numbers of migratory freshwater fish such as salmon have declined 76 percent since 1970, while mega-fish such as beluga sturgeon have fallen by 94 percent in the same time period. In fact, freshwater biodiversity is plummeting at twice the rate of biodiversity in the oceans and forests.
Despite this, freshwater fish get much less attention than their saltwater counterparts, the report authors say. Titled "The World's Forgotten Fishes," it argues that policy makers rarely consider river wildlife when making decisions.
The main threats to freshwater fish include building dams, syphoning river water for irrigation, releasing wastewater and draining wetlands. Other factors include overfishing, introducing invasive species and the climate crisis.
"As we look to adapt to climate change and we start to think about all the discussions that governments are going to have on biodiversity, it's really a time for us to shine a light back on freshwater," Orr told NBC News.
To protect these forgotten fishes, the report authors outlined a six-point plan:
1. Let rivers flow more naturally;
2. Improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems;
3. Protect and restore critical habitats;
4. End overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes;
5. Prevent and control invasions by non-native species; and
6. Protect free-flowing rivers and remove obsolete dams.
They also called on world leaders to include freshwater ecosystems in an ambitious biodiversity agreement at the upcoming UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Kunming, China.
But the solution will require more than just government action.
"It's now more urgent than ever that we find the collective political will and effective collaboration with private sector, governments, NGOs and communities, to implement nature-based solutions that protect freshwater species, while also ensuring human needs are met," Carmen Revenga of The Nature Conservancy told BBC News.
How can you tell that the fish on your plate is the real thing? You can't — and that's the problem.
A new report in The Guardian's "Seascape" series on the state of the world's oceans surveyed 44 separate studies published since 2018, and found that almost 40 percent of 9,000 seafood products from restaurants, markets and fishmongers were mislabelled. According to Food & Wine, the report detailed how rampant seafood fraud has become on a global scale.
The U.S. and Canada had the highest rates of mislabeling followed by Europe, Eat This reported. Food & Wine also highlighted how seafood fraud is not a new issue: in 2017, a study found that half of Los Angeles sushi was not what it claimed to be, while a 2018 study revealed that more than 25 percent of supermarket fish in New York was mislabeled.
"And yet, despite government action and the promise of technical solutions like detectors and databases, it's not getting better," Food & Wine lamented.
The studies in the Seascape report used new DNA techniques and tests to ascertain exactly what was ending up on consumers' plates. They found fish substitutions from the same family, such as low-grade tuna species, being sold as higher-valued species, such as bluefin. The lower-value, lower-quality substitutions point to fraud more than error, the report suggested.
There are "so many opportunities along the seafood supply chain" to falsely label low-value fish as high-value species, or farmed fish as wild," Beth Lowell, deputy vice-president for U.S. campaigns at Oceana, told The Guardian. She noted that all the studies found mislabeling in the global seafood industry to be common and pervasive.
There were also substitutions for entirely different species, including Singaporean prawn balls that repeatedly tested negative for containing prawn DNA, and were instead made almost entirely of pork, Seafood Harvest reported. Other mixed seafood products turned out to be similarly mislabeled.
Among the most alarming substitutions were rare and endangered species being marketed otherwise. One study found that 70 percent of UK snapper instead consisted of 38 different species of fish, many of them critical reef-dwellers, The Guardian reported. This deceptive swapping is a problem for coral reefs that already suffer from overfishing of key fish species that eat algae and allow for a healthier ecosystem, The Guardian added.
The final mislabeling category that the Seascape report highlighted involves laundering illegally caught fish. Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist, explained to The Guardian how fish laundering is often linked to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that threatens the sustainability of many fish stocks worldwide. Oceana's examples of IUU fishing include fishing without authorization, ignoring catch limits, operating in closed areas, targeting protected wildlife and fishing with prohibited gear. Then, too often, illegal and legal catches are commingled when they are processed aboard ships with little monitoring and less transparency. This makes it nearly impossible to trace what is and isn't illegal, let alone what comprises a specific catch. The fraud continues with relative ease and a lot of profit, Sumaila told The Guardian.
In a press statement urging President Biden to increase transparency and traceability in American seafood, Oceana called IUU fishing "one of the greatest threats to our oceans" and estimated that it costs the global seafood industry up to $50 billion each year. In the U.S., up to 90 percent of fish consumed is imported, the statement noted. This non-transparent, foreign supply chain has allowed for a high degree of U.S. imports to come from IUU fishing, the statement claimed.
"IUU fishing is a low-risk, high-reward activity, especially on the high seas where a fragmented legal framework and lack of effective enforcement allow it to thrive," Oceana said. The Guardian's reporting also found the complex and opaque seafood supply chains to be highly vulnerable to mislabeling that is profitable and relatively easy to execute.
Lowell said in the Oceana statement, "Americans have a right to know more about the seafood they eat and should have confidence that their dollars are not supporting the pillaging of the oceans or human rights abuses at sea." She concluded that, "All seafood sold in the U.S. should be safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced and honestly labeled. Until then, honest fishermen, seafood businesses, consumers and the oceans will pay the price."
Still, some in the industry have hope. In another article by The Guardian, Organic Ocean Seafood in Vancouver, Canada, was singled out for its DNA testing. Dane Chauvel, the company's co-founder, uses e-DNA testing to fight seafood fraud. Chauvel supplies many high-end restaurants with wild-caught salmon and other gourmet fish, and can prove that his fish supply is legitimate thanks to the world's first random DNA testing program for authentication. This removes any lingering doubt about its origins for his top-end clients, Chauvel said. The test can even identify the origin river of a specific fish sample.
Generally, "The fishing industry is a mess," Chauvel admitted to The Guardian. "It's dysfunctional." He urged others to follow his lead and voluntarily submit their products for testing and authentication. It would be even better if regulatory agencies followed suit, he added. Chauvel told The Guardian, "I hope using DNA testing becomes more commonplace in the industry. It's been a great business advantage for us."
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bpperry / Getty Images
By Tara Lohan
Each year the amount of plastic swirling in ocean gyres and surfing the tide toward coastal beaches seems to increase. So too does the amount of plastic particles being consumed by fish — including species that help feed billions of people around the world.
A new study published in the journal Global Change Biology revealed that the rate of plastic consumption by marine fish has doubled in the last decade and is increasing by more than 2% a year.
The study also revealed new information about what species are most affected and where the risks are greatest.
The researchers did a global analysis of mounting studies of plastic pollution in the ocean and found data on plastic ingestion for 555 species of marine and estuarine fish. Their results showed that 386 fish species — two-thirds of all species — had ingested plastic. And of those, 210 were species that are commercially fished.
Not surprisingly, places with an abundance of plastic in surface waters, such as East Asia, led to a higher likelihood of plastic ingestion by fish.
But fish type and behavior, researchers found, also plays a role. Active predators — those at the top of the food chain, like members of the Sphyrnidae family, which includes hammerhead and bonnethead sharks — ingested the most plastic. Grazers and filter‐feeders consumed the least.
Blue shark at Cape Point, South Africa, 2016. Steve Woods / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Overall, the likelihood of plastic ingestion decreases with depth," the researchers found.
Although bioaccumulation of plastic and its associated chemicals can cause health problems, this isn't causing noticeable fish population problems — yet. The research revealed that the majority of the species they found to have ingested plastic remain abundant.
But at the same time, 35 species were listed as threatened or near threatened. Another 26 species are vulnerable to overfishing. The authors identified the blue shark, Atlantic bluefin tuna and chinook salmon as "species of high concern due to their threatened status, vulnerability to overfishing and frequent plastic ingestion."
Meanwhile the researchers found that three-quarters of commercially fished species ingested plastic, including ones common in recreational fisheries and aquaculture that "have the highest likelihood to be part of the supply chain." Common sole was found to be "most worrisome."
Even more troubling is that there's still a lot we don't know because some areas are better studied than others.
Some nearshore areas are among those where research is lacking. "Only four studies were conducted within the continental United States' Exclusive Economic Zone, despite more marine plastic originating from the United States than any other developed nation," the researchers wrote.
Oceanic gyres, those swirling eddies of plastic in the open ocean, are also a black hole when it comes to research. "We uncovered no studies from the Indian, South Atlantic or western North Pacific gyres though there is extensive knowledge of surface debris accumulation in these regions," they found. "Similarly, there was a paucity of data from high‐latitude seas and none from the Southern Ocean, even though the polar oceans are a sink for microplastic debris with new fisheries developing in these regions as ice retreats and climate changes."
By comparison, coastal waters — including estuaries — are well studied, as are the seas surrounding Europe. And they found a "recent flurry of studies" from East Asia.
Even with a growing amount of research, the scope and severity of the problem is likely still underestimated.
Filling in these knowledge gaps will be crucial to better understand the extent of the problem, but the researchers say we'll also need to study top predators more to learn how plastic bioaccumulates in the food chain and how these mobile predators may redistribute plastic across the ocean as they travel.
Little is known about how ingested plastic affects fish and marine ecosystems, and even less about how human health could be affected when plastic-eating fish end up on the dinner table.
"Current evidence for humans ingesting plastic directly from fish remains scant, but there is growing concern," the researchers wrote. "In particular, the continued aggregation and analysis of information on plastic ingestion by marine fish is vital as these data are inextricably linked to ecosystem and human health."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
Four gray whales have washed up dead near San Francisco within nine days, and at least one cause of death has been attributed to a ship strike.
More whales than usual have been washing up dead since 2019, and the West Coast gray whale population continues to suffer from an unusual mortality event, defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."
"It's alarming to respond to four dead gray whales in just over a week because it really puts into perspective the current challenges faced by this species," Dr. Pádraig Duignan, director of pathology at the Marine Mammal Center, said in a press release.
As the world's largest marine mammal hospital, the Sausalito-based center has been investigating the recent spate of deaths. The first involved a 41-foot female who washed up dead at San Francisco's Crissy Field on March 31, SFGate reported. The cause of death remains a mystery, as the whale was in good condition with a full stomach. The second, another female, washed up on April 3 at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve on Moss Beach.
"That animal's cause of death, we suspect, was ship strike," the Marine Mammal Center's Giancarlo Rulli told SFGate. "Our plan is to eventually head back out to that whale and take more samples."
The third whale washed up April 7 near Berkeley Marina, The AP reported. The center determined it was a 37-foot male in average condition, with no evidence of illness or injury.
A 41-foot female turned up the next day on Marin County's Muir Beach. She suffered bruising and hemorrhaging around the jaw and neck vertebrae, indicating a vessel strike.
Vessel strikes are one of the leading causes of death for gray whales examined by the Marine Mammal Center, along with entanglements in fishing gear and malnutrition. While the species is not endangered, the population has declined by 25 percent since last assessed in 2016, CNN reported.
West Coast gray whales travel 10,000 miles every year between Mexico and the Arctic, according to The AP. They spend the winter breeding off of Baja California, and feed along the California coast in spring and summer on their way back north. The Marine Mammal Center began noticing a problem for the migrating whales in 2019.
"Our team hasn't responded to this number of dead gray whales in such a short span since 2019 when we performed a startling 13 necropsies in the San Francisco Bay Area," Dr. Duignan said in the press release.
The 2019 deaths led NOAA to declare an unusual mortality event for West Coast gray whales. It is similar to another event that happened from 1999 to 2000, after which the whales' numbers rebounded to even higher levels. This suggests population dips and rises may not be uncommon for the species. However, it is also possible that the climate crisis is playing a role. The 2019 deaths were linked to malnutrition, and warmer waters can reduce the amount of food whales have to eat in the Arctic, giving them less energy for their migration, CNN explained. Overfishing can also play a role in depriving whales of food, the Marine Mammal Center said.
Dr. Jeff Boehm, Marine Mammal Center CEO and veterinarian, told CNN that he had observed an uptick in shipping traffic after the pandemic caused a slowdown. At the same time, the center is less able to conduct research because of COVID-19 safety precautions. And even in the best of times, only around 10 percent of dead whales wash up on shore, The AP reported.
"This many dead whales in a week is shocking, especially because these animals are the tip of the iceberg," Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Oceans program, told The AP.
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A major new literature review published in Science on Thursday found that noise from vessels, sonar, seismic surveys and construction can damage marine animals' hearing, change their behaviors and, in some cases, threaten their ability to survive.
"When people think of threats facing the ocean, we often think of climate change, plastics and overfishing," Neil Hammerschlag, a University of Miami marine ecologist who was not involved with the paper, told The Associated Press. "But noise pollution is another essential thing we need to be monitoring."
Sound is key to how ocean animals communicate with each other and navigate their environments. Underwater, it is only possible to see for tens of yards and to detect a chemical signal from hundreds of yards away, The New York Times explained. Sound, on the other hand, can travel thousands of miles, which is why many marine creatures have evolved to detect and emit it.
However, the singing of whales and groaning of coral reefs contribute to an underwater soundscape that is significantly changing because of human activity. To better understand, a 25-author research team reviewed more than 10,000 papers on the topic.
For one, the researchers wrote, overfishing and habitat loss have decreased the sounds generated by ocean life.
"[T]hose voices are gone," Carlos Duarte, study lead author and Red Sea Research Center marine ecologist, told The Associated Press.
The climate crisis is also altering sounds from geophysical sources such as sea ice and storms, the study found.
Then there is the noise humans have added through shipping traffic, fossil fuel exploration and even intentional attempts at deterrence. Evidence shows that these noises harm marine mammals, but several studies show that they impact fish, invertebrates, sea birds and reptiles as well.
For example, salmon farms in British Columbia's Broughton Archipelago installed sonic harassment devices to keep seals from eating the fish, The New York Times reported. This had the unintended consequence of driving away killer whales until the devices were removed.
Another example are clownfish, who rely on sounds to guide them back to the coral reefs where they were born, after drifting on the open ocean as larvae. But human-caused noise can now obscure the cracking and snapping of coral, forcing some clownfish to drift forever.
"The soundtrack of home is now hard to hear, and in many cases has disappeared," Duarte told The New York Times.
While this is distressing, the good news is that something can be done about it. Noise is what is known as point-source pollution, the study explained, meaning you can identify the place or activity that is causing the problem and remove it, reversing its effects.
"In theory, you can reduce or turn off sound immediately — it's not like plastics or climate change, which are much harder to undo," Francis Juanes, study coauthor and University of Victoria ecologist, told The Associated Press.
Despite this, noise is not mentioned in the UN's Law of the Sea B.B.N.J. agreement or its 14th sustainable development goal, which focuses on ocean life, The New York Times reported. Researchers hope that their work will inspire policy makers to take ocean noise seriously and deploy already available solutions.
"Slow down, move the shipping lane, avoid sensitive areas, change propellers," Steve Simpson, study co-author and University of Exeter marine biologist, told The New York Times.
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By John R. Platt
Humans and whales have a complex relationship.
We've hunted whales for food for centuries, celebrated them in our art and culture, admired their familial relationships and songs, and even worshipped them as gods.
But at the same time, we've overhunted multiple whale species to the brink of extinction, overfished their prey, poisoned their bodies and habitats, and scarred or killed them with our oceanic vessels.
While we've made great strides on many of those fronts, there's still a lot to do and many reasons to worry. Here are some of them, followed by an archive of related stories from The Revelator:
1. We're Still Discovering What's Out There — and What's Not
You'd think a large species like a whale would be easy to find.
Several new cetacean species have been discovered in the past few years, most recently the rarely seen Rice's whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Previously thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde's whale, the newly recognized species was identified just in time. Scientists estimate that fewer than 100 Rice's whales remain — perhaps as few as 60 — and say the species is critically endangered.
Similarly, it's often hard to realize what we're losing in the vast expanses of the ocean. In part that's because whales are hard to count — especially dead ones. While many whale carcasses wash up on beaches, most sink to the bottom of the ocean or are consumed by scavengers. That presents a challenge to understanding how many whales are being killed or, if we do find a body, how they died. This has important conservation implications. For example, recent research suggests we're undercounting the deaths of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales by 64% — and that's one of the world's most heavily monitored whale species, which all too often die after being struck by shipping vessels.
North Atlantic right whales. Sea to Shore Alliance / NOAA, under NOAA permit #15488
Speaking of which…
2. Ships vs. Whales
Globalization means more and more gigantic shipping vessels traversing the globe every day, where they can cross into whale feeding grounds or through migratory routes.
And when a ship strikes a whale, it's not the ship that loses.
Kees Torn / CC BY-SA 2.0
Most recently, necropsies revealed that at least two gray whales found dead near San Francisco Bay had been injured by ships, while an injured humpback whale was observed near Vancouver. Similar stories play out regularly around the globe.
And it's not just big ships. Fishing vessels of all sizes pose threats, either directly or through lost fishing gear. This April a research drone captured footage of a baby gray whale entangled in fishing line, dragging a buoy behind it.
3. Climate Change Comes Calling
Warming oceans pose multiple threats to whales, some of which relate once again to the shipping industry. In recent years the industry has rushed to newly ice-free waters in the Arctic, bringing with them noise, pollution and other harmful changes.
Additional threats from climate change continue to emerge, and exactly what's happening isn't always clear. One recent study found that a population of bowhead whales failed to make its annual autumn migration away from solid ice in the Bering Sea, but the reason remains undiscovered. One theory is that warming waters could have resulted in an increase in their food supply. Another theory suggests changing temperatures could have allowed more killer whales to block the bowheads' migration.
Similarly, climate change has resulted in decreased herring abundance in Quebec's Gulf of St. Lawrence, and this loss of food has resulted in fewer humpback whale pregnancies coming to term.
Meanwhile, there's a big reason to protect whales from climate change: their very existence helps protect us from climate change. Their feces help feed phytoplankton, which photosynthesize and absorb carbon dioxide before dying, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and sequestering that world-changing greenhouse gas. Whale bodies, similarly, also store an enormous amount of carbon that can be sequestered when they die.
4. Plastic: A Painful Threat
When whales accidentally consume plastic waste that they find floating in the ocean, the results can be deadly — either immediately or over time.
All too often, investigations into the cause of whale deaths find plastic to blame. One of the most recent examples occurred in Bangladesh, where two dead whales washed up near a resort town in April. "Primarily we think the two have died from consuming plastic and polluted objects," Jahirul Islam, executive director of Marine Life Alliance, told AFP.
And remember that new whale species that was just discovered? One of the reasons we know the species exists is because a carcass washed up near the Florida Everglades in 2019. Scientists found that it was killed by a tiny, 2.5-inch piece of jagged plastic that lodged in its stomach and caused internal bleeding and necrosis.
Smaller plastic particles may also have health implications for whales in even the most remote locations. A study published in 2020 found that seven beluga whales harvested by Inuvialuit hunters all had plastic fibers and fragments in their digestive systems. All the particles were what's considered microplastic, smaller than 5 millimeters in size. These may not be immediately fatal, but nearly half of the particles contained chemicals that could cause potential health problems, much like they could in humans. The risks whales may face from microplastics remains a field of active scientific investigation, with hundreds of papers published in just the past year.
A team of specially trained NOAA rescuers successfully free a humpback whale from a life-threatening tangle of fishing gear off the Kona Coast of Hawaii. R. Finn / NOAA MMHSRP permit #932-1905
Larger plastic waste, such as lost or discarded fishing lines and nets, poses an even bigger threat. "Imagine walking around with weights tied to your ankles," researcher Greg Merrill recently wrote in New Security Beat. "Whales struggle to get untangled from large nets and they end up dragging this weight along with them, expending extra energy they need to migrate and raise their young. An increasingly common tragedy is when whales become so overburdened by the weight of the plastic debris they cannot surface to breathe and drown."
5. Public Perception Still Lags
People generally love whales and support their conservation, but how much do they really know about whales and the threats the face?
Not much, it turns out.
A recent scientific survey found that the majority of people cared about legislation to protect whales, but at the same time they didn't know much about various whale or cetacean species. The researchers found that people thought common species such as bottlenose dolphins needed the most protection, didn't know about some of the most endangered species such as the vaquita, and believed more countries actively engaged in whaling than really do today.
Perhaps most strikingly, the survey presented people with the names of several fictional whale species (like the "pygmy short-finned whale"), which respondents said they believed needed protection more than real at-risk species.
This might not seem like a huge problem at first, but the future of whale conservation may rely once again upon grassroots efforts from caring citizens. As the researchers concluded, "A lack of awareness of the conservation status of whales and dolphins and continued whaling activities suggests that greater outreach to the public about the conservation status of whale and dolphin species is needed."
Reposted with permission from the Revelator.