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Viruses, pollution and warming ocean temperatures have plagued corals in recent years. The onslaught of abuse has caused mass bleaching events and threatened the long-term survival of many ocean species. While corals have little chance of surviving through a mass bleaching, a new study found that when corals turn a vibrant neon color, it's in a last-ditch effort to survive, as CBS News reported.
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The depths of the oceans are heating up more slowly than the surface and the air, but that will undergo a dramatic shift in the second half of the century, according to a new study. Researchers expect the rate of climate change in the deep parts of the oceans could accelerate to seven times their current rate after 2050, as The Guardian reported.
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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>
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New York state has rejected the controversial Williams pipeline that would have carried fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, running beneath New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean before connecting to an existing pipeline system off Long Island.
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When beaches in Florida reopened last week, people flocked to them to absorb the sun, sand and water. Unfortunately, many forgot to take their trash with them when they left.
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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>
Road Ahead<p>Even though official treaty negotiations are on hold awaiting a decision on rescheduling the talks, work continues among governments as they review and refine their positions on numerous proposals submitted by states and NGOs.</p><p>The United States has been a participant in the talks, but the treaty process has largely flown under the radar among the general public so far. Given President Trump's position on <a href="https://therevelator.org/environment-deregulation-trump-two-years/" target="_blank">environmental protections</a> and distain for <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/climate/trump-paris-agreement-climate.html" target="_blank">multilateralism</a> (like the Paris climate agreement), that's been pretty intentional on the part of environmental NGOs.</p><p>But as efforts may be nearing the finish line, this is starting to shift. Karan says there's more interest from legislators about high seas governance and more need to have an engaged public who can advocate for strong conservation protections.</p><p>Things are complicated, though, by the fact that the United States never ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, widely considered a "Constitution" for the ocean.</p><p>There is hope from some of the participants that the United States could ratify the high seas treaty if it comes to fruition, say Karan. But no one is holding their breath for that. Kalas says the goal is that the treaty, once completed, would be widely supported, although it remains to be seen how many countries will sign on. "If only 40 countries ratify it, that wouldn't make it as strong of an agreement as if all the United Nation's 193 nations ratified the agreement," she said.</p><p>But there's a fine line between having an agreement that's universally supported and one that establishes concrete conservation actions and protections.</p><p>"Our concern is that in trying to get everyone in the tent as it were, we're going to wind up with a status-quo agreement," said Karan. "As much as we want a treaty, we want one that will make concrete change on the water."</p><p>And it's worth remembering, we're talking about a lot of water. When the next session convenes, she said, "states will decide the ocean's fate."</p>
By Jiraporn Kuhakan
Thailand has found the largest number of nests of rare leatherback sea turtles in two decades on beaches bereft of tourists because of the coronavirus pandemic, environmentalists say.
Staff at a national park in the southern province of Phanga Nga bordering the Andaman Sea found 84 hatchlings after monitoring eggs for two months. REUTERS / Mongkhonsawat Leungvorapan<p>"This is a very good sign for us because many areas for spawning have been destroyed by humans," he told Reuters. No such nests had been found for the previous five years.</p><p>"If we compare to the year before, we didn't have this many spawn, because turtles have a high risk of getting killed by fishing gear and humans disturbing the beach."</p><p>Leatherbacks are the world's largest sea turtles. They are considered endangered in Thailand, and listed as a vulnerable species globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.</p><p>They lay their eggs in dark and quiet areas, scarce when tourists thronged the beaches. People have also been known to dig into their nests and steal eggs. </p><p>Late in March, staff at a national park in the southern province of Phanga Nga bordering the Andaman Sea found 84 hatchlings after monitoring eggs for two months.</p>
Leatherbacks are the world's largest sea turtles and considered endangered in Thailand. REUTERS / Mongkhonsawat Leungvorapan
Scientists have discovered the highest concentration of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor—1.9 million pieces in one square meter (approximately 11 square feet) of the Mediterranean.
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