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By Tara Lohan
The Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean between the Caribbean and Bermuda, has bedeviled sailors for centuries. Its namesake — sargassum, a type of free-floating seaweed — and notoriously calm winds have "trapped" countless mariners, including the crew of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria.
Results from the global data-driven conservation planning analysis showing priority areas to be considered for protection (green) in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. Visalli et al
Quantifying the Great Unknown<p>The high seas make up two-thirds of the ocean, much of which is remote. Scientists are still learning about the diversity and complexity of life there.</p><p>"We're discovering new species in the high seas all the time," said Morgan Visalli, lead author of <em>Marine Policy</em> study and a project scientist with U.C. Santa Barbara's <a href="https://boi.ucsb.edu/" target="_blank">Benioff Ocean Initiative</a>.</p><p>But at the same time, her colleague and study coauthor Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, said there's also a lot we <em>do</em> know that can help guide conservation.</p><p>They began their study by reaching out to networks of colleagues across the world to help gather data.</p><p>"I was really impressed by how much we actually know — how much data we have for what is out there, biologically speaking," he said. "And also what people are doing in that space. We can't fall back on the excuse of not knowing enough."</p><p>The researchers ended up analyzing 22 billion data points — a huge data-processing challenge — to identify areas of the high seas that could warrant protection.</p><p>That included looking at indicators such as seafloor habitat, ocean productivity, diversity and richness of species, and extinction risks. They also identified certain physical features — like seamounts and hydrothermal vents — where changes in elevation and temperature help foster biodiversity.</p><p>Their results identified <a href="https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2020/03/a-path-to-creating-the-first-generation-of-high-seas-protected-areas" target="_blank">priority regions</a> in nearly all the major ocean basins, with the largest areas in the South Pacific Ocean. Key areas also included the Sargasso Sea, as well as the Costa Rica thermal dome in the Pacific Ocean; the South Tasman Sea; the Emperor Seamount Chain northwest of the Hawaiian Islands; the Mascarene Plateau in the Indian Ocean; and the Walvis Ridge, an undersea mountain range off southwestern Africa.</p>
UCSB analysis; Marineregions.org; Natural Earth. © 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts<p>Their model avoided areas of high fishing activity in order to avoid what the study calls "real or perceived negative socioeconomic impacts" of setting aside conservation areas. It also took into consideration how climate change could alter biodiversity by selecting areas critical today and ones likely to be important in the future as well.</p>
The Need for Protection<p>The research comes at a critical time for the future of the ocean — and the high seas, specifically.</p><p>A new United Nations treaty to protect and conserve biodiversity in the high seas is<a href="https://therevelator.org/high-seas-treaty/" target="_blank"> currently being negotiated</a>, and a focus of those talks is how to create a framework for establishing marine protected areas outside of national waters. This could help ensure that unique ecosystems like the Sargasso Sea and others identified in the <em>Marine Policy</em> study aren't overexploited.</p><p>The current law that governs the high seas, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was finalized in 1982. But since then, our collective impact is starting to reveal gaps in governance.</p><p>Marine shipping traffic is up 1,600 percent and plastic pollution has increased 100-fold. At least one-third of fish stocks are being overharvested, and many migratory fish species, such as tuna, have declined more than 60 percent. Technological advances have led to more prospecting in the ocean's depths for minerals and other genetic resources, as well as more destructive practices, like trawling along the ocean floor. Climate change, which is warming waters and increasing acidification, poses even more risks to ocean life.</p>
Coral bleaching in the Gulf of Thailand. Petchrung Sukpong / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>This has all taken a toll.</p><p>A <a href="https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/" target="_blank">landmark report</a> last year from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found massive declines in biodiversity globally — including in the ocean, with one-third of all reef-forming corals and marine mammals threatened with extinction.</p><p>A recent study in the journal <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2146-7" target="_blank" style="">Nature</a>, published just a few days after the <em>Marine Policy</em> study, suggests that we've come to a critical crossroads.</p><p>"We are at a point at which we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disrupted ocean, for the generations to follow," wrote the researchers, led by Carlos Duarte, a professor of marine science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.</p><p>They posited that with enough resources and global will, we can see a "substantial recovery of the abundance, structure and function of marine life" by 2050. But to do that, we need to scale up efforts to protect vulnerable species and habitats, reduce pollution and — most critically — curb climate change.</p><p>That's why Visalli and McCauley believe efforts like the emerging high seas treaty are important.</p><p>So far fully implemented marine protected areas span just 5 percent of the ocean. And the vast majority of these reserves are in national waters, which are only one-third of the ocean. But a high seas treaty would help create a framework to more easily set aside conservation-rich areas in a much greater expanse.</p><p>"Even though there is industry out there and it has been increasing over the past several decades," said Visalli, "there is still a lot of wilderness in the high seas, and we are at this moment where we have an opportunity to protect these wild places before industry continues to expand even further."</p><p>To truly protect and restore ocean health, scientists have been calling for a bare minimum of 30 percent of the ocean to be protected. More protected areas in the high seas are important for meeting that goal. But just as crucial as how much space, is also <em>where</em> that space is.</p>
The Need for Protected Spaces<p>The major driver for changing and threatening biodiversity in the long term is climate change, said McCauley, which makes protecting these spaces vital in the short term.</p><p>"We are already seeing the first manifestation of these threats and we need to think about climate change and always manage the oceans — from fishing regulations to ocean parks — with that in mind," he said. "Climate change is changing where biodiversity will be in the high seas, and we can use data to plan for that."</p><p>Duarte and authors of the <em>Nature</em> study wrote that "Climate change is the critical backdrop against which all future rebuilding efforts will play out." But well-managed marine protected areas, they said, can help ecosystems be better equipped to handle threats from climate change, like warming temperatures and changing ocean chemistry.</p><p>Getting there won't be cheap. A global network of marine protected areas that conserves 20–30 percent of the ocean could cost $5–19 billion a year, the researchers write in <em>Nature</em>.</p><p>But supporting local economies, feeding communities, and fostering biodiversity don't have to be mutually exclusive. The money spent on conservation will be more than returned in economic gains from the new jobs, revenue from ecotourism, restored fisheries, and protections for coastal areas, their research found.</p><p>But establishing the policy and international agreements, like the high seas treaty, to set plans in motion will require a lot of compromise, said McCauley.</p><p>"We need that space to have an ocean economy and we need that space to have biodiversity," he said. "Can we find a sweet spot?"</p>
As the COVID-19 virus was spreading around the world, deforestation in the world's rainforests rose at an alarming rate, the German arm of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in a study published on Thursday.
Indonesia Forests Hit Hardest<p>The forests most heavily hit by deforestation in March were in Indonesia, with more than 1,300 square kilometers lost. </p><p>The Democratic Republic of Congo saw the second-largest forest loss with 1,000 square kilometers followed by Brazil with 950 square kilometers.</p><p>The Brazilian non-profit research institute Imazon told news agency DPA that deforestation was up in April as well. The institute recorded a loss of 529 square kilometers in the Amazon in April, a rise of 171% compared to last year.</p>
Tied to COVID-19<p>The WWF says there's ample evidence to suggest the boom in rainforest deforestation is being fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p>With stay-at-home orders and strict lockdowns in place in countries around the world, authorities haven't been able to patrol nature preserves and indigenous territories as often — a situation that criminal organizations and illegal loggers have been using to their advantage.</p><p>The virus has also prompted massive job losses in many countries, leaving many newly-unemployed people increasingly desperate for sources of income.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Marie Quinney
Biodiversity is critically important – to your health, to your safety and, probably, to your business or livelihood.
1. Biodiversity Ensures Health and Food Security.<p>Biodiversity underpins global nutrition and food security. Millions of species work together to provide us with a <a href="https://www.cbd.int/health/doc/Summary-SOK-Final.pdf" target="_blank">large array of fruits, vegetables and animal products essential to a healthy, balanced diet</a> – but they are increasingly under threat.</p><p>Every country has indigenous produce – such as wild greens and grains – which have adapted to local conditions, making them more resilient to pests and extreme weather. In the past, this produce provided much-needed micronutrients for local populations. Unfortunately, however, the <a href="http://www.fao.org/3/a-i1620e.pdf" target="_blank">simplification of diets, processed foods and poor access to food have led to poor-quality diets</a>. As a result, <a href="https://www.bioversityinternational.org/research-portfolio/diet-diversity/biodiversity-for-food-and-nutrition/" target="_blank">one-third of the world suffers from micronutrient deficiencies</a>.</p><p>Three crops – wheat, corn and rice – <a href="https://enviroliteracy.org/food/crops/" target="_blank">provide almost 60% of total plant-based calories consumed by humans</a>. This leads to reduced resiliency in our supply chains and on our plates. For example, <a href="http://www.fao.org/3/a-i1620e.pdf" target="_blank">the number of rice varieties cultivated in Asia has dropped from tens of thousands to just a few dozen; in Thailand, 50% of land used for growing rice only produces two varieties</a>.</p><p>People once understood that the conservation of species was crucial for healthy societies and ecosystems. We must ensure this knowledge remains part of our modern agricultural and food systems to prevent diet-related diseases and reduce the environmental impact of feeding ourselves.</p>
2. Biodiversity Helps Fight Disease.<p>Higher rates of biodiversity have been linked to an increase in human health.</p><p>First, plants are essential for medicines. For example, <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf" target="_blank">25% of drugs used in modern medicine are derived from rainforest plants</a> while <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf" target="_blank">70% of cancer drugs are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature</a>. This means that every time a species goes extinct, we miss out on a potential new medicine.</p><p>Second, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2010.644" target="_blank">biodiversity due to protected natural areas has been linked to lower instances of disease</a> such as Lyme disease and malaria. While the exact origin of the virus causing COVID-19 is still unknown, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5711306/" target="_blank">60% of infectious diseases originate from animals</a> and <a href="https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/631980-Machalaba-Anthropogenic%20Drivers%20of%20Emerging%20Infectious%20Diseases.pdf" target="_blank">70% of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife</a>. As human activities encroach upon the natural world, through deforestation and urbanization, we reduce the size and number of ecosystems. As a result, animals live in closer quarters with one another and with humans, creating ideal conditions for the spread of zoonotic diseases.</p><p>Simply put: <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2010.644" target="_blank">more species means less disease</a>.</p>
Human activity is eroding biodiversity. World Economic Forum Nature Risk Rising
3. Biodiversity Benefits Business.<p>According to the World Economic Forum's recent <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Nature Risk Rising Report</a>, more than half of the world's GDP ($44 trillion) is highly or moderately dependent on nature. Many businesses are, therefore, at risk due to increasing nature loss. <a href="https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/biodiversity/protected_areas/arguments_for_protection/goods_services/medicine/" target="_blank">Global sales of pharmaceuticals based on materials of natural origin are worth an estimated $75 billion a year</a>, while natural wonders such as <a href="https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/" target="_blank">coral reefs are essential to food and tourism.</a></p><p>There is great potential for the economy to grow and become more resilient by ensuring biodiversity. <a href="http://wedocs.unep.org/xmlui/handle/20.500.11822/31813" target="_blank">Every dollar spent on nature restoration leads to at least $9 of economic benefits.</a> In addition, <a href="https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/global-report/" target="_blank">changing agricultural and food production methods could unlock $4.5 trillion per year in new business opportunities by 2030</a>, while also preventing trillions of dollars' worth of social and environmental harms.</p>
4. Biodiversity Provides Livelihoods.<p>Humans derive approximately <a href="https://livingplanetindex.org/home/index" target="_blank">$125 trillion of value from natural ecosystems each year</a>. Globally, <a href="http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2016-water-and-jobs/" target="_blank">three out of four jobs</a> are dependent on water while the agricultural sector employs over <a href="https://www.conservation.org/priorities/livelihoods" target="_blank">60% of the world's working poor</a>. In the Global South, forests are the source of livelihoods for <a href="https://www.conservation.org/priorities/livelihoods" target="_blank">over 1.6 billion people</a>. In India, forest ecosystems contribute <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19915547" target="_blank">only 7% to India's GDP yet 57% of rural Indian communities' livelihoods</a>.</p><p><span></span>Ecosystems, therefore, must be protected and restored – not only for the good of nature but also for the communities that depend on them.</p><p>Although some fear environmental regulation and the safeguarding of nature could threaten businesses, the "restoration economy" – the restoration of natural landscapes – provides more jobs in the United States than most of the extractives sector, with the potential to create even more. According to some estimates, the restoration economy is worth <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0128339" target="_blank">$25 billion per year and directly employs more than the coal, mining, logging and steel industries altogether</a>. Nature-positive businesses can provide <a href="https://www.greenbiz.com/article/10-things-you-need-know-about-restoration-economy" target="_blank">cost-effective, robot-proof, business-friendly jobs</a> that stimulate the rural economy without harming the environment.</p>
5. Biodiversity Protects Us.<p>Biodiversity makes the earth habitable. Biodiverse ecosystems provide <a href="https://www.nature-basedsolutions.com/" target="_blank">nature-based solutions</a> that buffer us from <a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_protect.html" target="_blank">natural disasters such as floods and storms</a>, <a href="https://digital.iucn.org/water/nature-based-solutions-for-water/" target="_blank">filter our water</a> and <a href="https://www.naturebasedsolutionsinitiative.org/publications/the-superior-effect-of-nature-based-solutions-in-land-management-for-enhancing-ecosystem-services/" target="_blank">regenerate our soils</a>.</p><p>The <a href="https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/miracle-mangroves-coastal-protection-numbers" target="_blank">clearance of over 35% of the world's mangroves for human activities</a> has increasingly put people and their homes at risk from floods and sea-level rise. If today's mangroves were lost, 18 million more people would be flooded every year (an increase of 39%) and annual damages to property would increase by 16% ($82 billion).</p><p>Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems is vital to fighting climate change. Nature-based solutions could provide <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/114/44/11645" target="_blank">37% of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed by 2030</a> to maintain global warming within 2°C (35.6 F).</p><p>Natural ecosystems provide the foundations for economic growth, human health and prosperity. Our fate as a species is deeply connected to the fate of our natural environment.</p><p>As ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity, acknowledging the benefits of biodiversity is the first step in ensuring that we look after it. We know biodiversity matters. Now, as a society, we should protect it – and in doing so, protect our own long-term interests.</p>
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By Tara Lohan
Most of us have never been to the world's immense last wilderness and never will. It's beyond the horizon and often past the limits of our imaginations. It contains towering underwater mountain ranges, ancient corals, mysterious, unknown forms of life and the largest seagrass meadow in the world.
The Need for Protection<p>We're all connected to the high seas, even if we never actually see them, says Morgan Visalli, a project scientist at Benioff Ocean Initiative at U.C. Santa Barbara. "It's incredibly important for helping to regulate the climate, for providing oxygen, food and jobs."</p><p>Even on land we depend on a healthy ocean. Phytoplankton in the ocean <a href="https://therevelator.org/phytoplankton-climate-change/" target="_blank">generate half our oxygen</a>, and the ocean plays a key role in mitigating climate change — absorbing 25 percent of our CO2 emissions and 90 percent of heat related to those emissions. It's also home to a rich diversity of species, some of which we're still discovering.</p><p>But marine ecosystems face grave threats from an onslaught of abuses: chemical, plastic and noise pollution; deep seabed mining and other kinds of resource extraction; increased shipping; overfishing and illegal fishing; and <a href="https://therevelator.org/ocean-climate-change/" target="_blank">climate change</a>, which is altering both the temperature and chemistry of the waters.</p>
Cargo ship at sea. Bernard Spragg / public domain<p>Numerous strategies are needed to tackle these problems, including the bedrock component of reducing greenhouse gases.</p><p>But a key tool that scientists have identified to help restore biodiversity is establishing reserves, often referred to as ocean parks or marine protected areas.</p><p>We know pretty well how to do this in national waters — there are <a href="https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/02/22/how-much-of-the-ocean-is-really-protected" target="_blank">more than 15,000</a> of them already in places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Florida Keys. But few such protected areas exist in the high seas because there is no international framework to guide the process. One such effort to establish a marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea took years of research and diplomacy to implement.</p><p>It's simply not feasible to scale the process — especially in the time we'd need to do it. That's why creating such a framework for marine protected areas in waters outside of national waters is a key part of the new high-seas treaty negotiations.</p><p>And that fits into a larger global vision.</p><p>The participant nations in another international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, are set to convene this fall. The agenda includes a goal of enacting an international framework to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030.</p><p>It's a goal that scientists call a bare minimum. And it's one that may be impossible to meet without the high-seas treaty.</p><p>"The science is clear, if we're going to sustain a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem, we need to be protecting at least 30% of the world's oceans," said Liz Karan, who leads <a href="https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/projects/protecting-ocean-life-on-the-high-seas" target="_blank">efforts to protect the high seas</a> for Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the High Seas Alliance.</p><p>In anticipation of the treaty's passage, scientists like Visalli and McCauley have already started modeling how new <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X19309194#!" target="_blank">priority areas could be identified</a>.</p>
The Challenges<p>Of course the devil is in the details.</p><p>While thousands of marine protected areas already exist, they come with varying levels of protections — much like we see with public lands. Some can be very restrictive, like national parks, or continue to allow extractive activities, such as in national forests.</p><p>Current marine protected areas range from no-take reserves that ban all extraction to areas allowing multiple uses — the latter are more common. Not surprisingly, though, <a href="https://academic.oup.com/icesjms/article/75/3/1166/4098821" target="_blank">scientific studies</a> have shown that the no-take reserves do a much better job at protecting and restoring biodiversity.</p><p>Whether the treaty will be a landmark conservation effort or enshrine the status quo has yet to be determined, said Karan. "Both potential pathways are currently reflected in the draft treaty text" at this time.</p><p>From a scientific standpoint, McCauley says, marine protected areas should actually protect the wild character of the area and that means no activities — like mining or bottom trawling — that would disturb habitat. And the protections need to extend down from the ocean's surface, through the water column, to the seafloor.</p>
A kelp forest in a marine protected area off the coast of California. Camille Pagniello / CC BY 2.0<p>To do that means figuring out how the new treaty would fit with a tangle of more than 20 existing governance organizations that regulate seabed mining, fisheries management and shipping regulations.</p><p>"One of our hopes is that this treaty would knit those pieces together and provide a little bit more coherence and compatibility with those issues, particularly with regards to conservation and sustainable use," said Karan.</p><p>There would also need to be a process for scientifically evaluating areas proposed for protections, and how the established reserves would be managed, and the restrictions enforced.</p><p>"The whole process, the whole vision and opportunity to think about doing something smarter and better — for the ocean, for biodiversity, for us — ends if we don't get strong language in the treaty and get that treaty to pass," said McCauley. "There's historical potential for the oceans, but we need to make sure people on the outside are watching the people on the inside [at the United Nations] in New York."</p>