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Seabirds often follow fishing vessels to find easy meals. Alexander Petrov / TASS via Getty Images

By Jim Palardy

As 2021 dawns, people, ecosystems, and wildlife worldwide are facing a panoply of environmental issues. In an effort to help experts and policymakers determine where they might focus research, a panel of 25 scientists and practitioners — including me — from around the globe held discussions in the fall to identify emerging issues that deserve increased attention.

By Jim Palardy

As 2021 dawns, people, ecosystems, and wildlife worldwide are facing a panoply of environmental issues. In an effort to help experts and policymakers determine where they might focus research, a panel of 25 scientists and practitioners — including me — from around the globe held discussions in the fall to identify emerging issues that deserve increased attention.


The panel, coordinated by the UK-based Cambridge Conservation Initiative, conducted a horizon scan — an effort to spot early signs of significant phenomena — of global biological conservation issues. For the resulting study, which was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the panel winnowed down an initial list of 97 topics, settling on the following 15 because of their novelty or their potential to move the conservation needle in either a positive or negative direction over the coming decade.

1. Seabirds Could Help Spot Illegal Fishing

Seabirds often follow fishing vessels to score easy meals. Now, scientists are hoping to exploit this behavior to help spot illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, which accounts for up to .5 billion worth of seafood every year, or 1 in 5 fish sold. Researchers have had some success attaching transmitters to seabirds to locate fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean, but more study is needed to validate the use of this tactic.

2. Marine Vessels and GPS Spoofing

Vessels plying the ocean navigate and transmit their locations and identities mainly through the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and automatic identification system (AIS). The panel points out that a recent rise in GNSS spoofing and AIS cloning incidents could facilitate the trade of illegal goods and hamper authorities’ efforts to identify vessels engaged in illicit resource extraction activities such as fishing and dredging.

3. More Corals May Suffer From Lack of Oxygen

Several factors — including climate-driven marine heat waves and nutrient runoff from land — can lower oxygen levels in the ocean. Corals in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans have died from this hypoxia, and, although those events weren’t widespread, some scientists fear that the threat may grow significantly as climate change further warms the ocean. Research is needed to better understand the extent and impact of low oxygen conditions on coral reefs.

4. Understanding the Impacts of Increased Dissolved Iron on Coastal Polar Ecosystems

Coastal zones in polar latitudes are among Earth’s most productive — that is, they create and support large numbers of organisms ranging from tiny marine plants to animals such as polar bears and seals — a characteristic driven by the availability of dissolved iron from glaciers and ice. Increased melting in the polar regions will result in higher iron concentrations, which in turn will probably fuel more intense phytoplankton blooms and enable organisms on the seafloor to capture more carbon and other nutrients. Such changes could have wide-ranging effects — including impacts on the structure of the region’s marine ecosystems and on carbon sequestration — and warrants investigation.

5. What to Do With a Growing Number of Decommissioned Offshore Energy Platforms

It is estimated that 3,000 offshore oil and gas platforms will be decommissioned in the coming decades and that the number of offshore wind farms will continue to grow. Currently, decommissioning practices vary by country and include full removal, conversion of platforms to artificial reefs, and abandonment. As new offshore energy infrastructure is built and old platforms are phased out, nations will need to evaluate the immediate and long-term impacts of their decommissioning strategies on the marine environment.

6. A Drug Problem in the Water

When some chemicals used in pharmaceuticals and in garden and farm products are introduced into waterways — usually through runoff or via sewage systems directly or in human waste — they can cause changes in fish and other organisms, including altering the number of female to males in a population, lower fertility, and deformities. There is emerging evidence that the effects of exposure can be multigenerational, affecting organisms that were never directly exposed.

7. Changes in Low Cloud Cover

Low clouds shade sizable portions of the planet in subtropical regions. It is predicted that these clouds will become increasingly unstable if atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to rise at current rates. The resulting changes could have negative effects on wildlife and human communities.

8. Tree Planting as a Simple Carbon Sequestration Solution

Pledges to plant large areas of trees to help tackle climate change are often perceived as a win for conservation. However, tree planting must be planned and implemented with a clear understanding of regional ecosystems to avoid negative effects on biological diversity.

9. Logging to Reduce Fire Risk

As nations around the world contend with more extreme wildfires, some policymakers suggest that tree removal may be part of the solution. However, the effectiveness of such policies is uncertain, and any short-term gains from removing trees are often offset by the growth of non-native grasses and flowering plants, which may themselves be highly flammable.

10. Large-Scale Adoption of Sustainable Farming Techniques Across India

Driven by government policies and local innovations, sustainable farming practices are becoming more prevalent in India. The state government of Sikkim has adopted organic farming as policy, and the state of Andhra Pradesh, with 6 million farmers, plans to adopt natural farming practices by 2025. Other states across the country plan to follow suit. Early evaluations indicate that these large-scale transitions boost crop yields and incomes, improve the health of farmers, and increase women’s access to microfinance. With such results, there is the potential for similar large-scale shifts in other parts of the world.

11. Low Earth-Orbiting Satellites May Mislead Animals Responding to Celestial Cues

More than 2,600 artificial satellites currently orbit the earth, a number that is rapidly increasing. Many species of mammals, insects, and birds use celestial cues to migrate long distances and to orient themselves in local habitats and could be affected by the proliferation of satellites.

12. Bitcoin Mining With Stranded Energy

An emerging use for stranded energy sources, such as low-value methane byproducts vented from oil wells and excess energy produced by wind turbines and solar panels, is to power computers used for Bitcoin mining — the process of creating new Bitcoin by solving complex algorithms. Monetizing stranded energy in this way is a mixed bag that decision-makers will probably have to evaluate. The practice could increase carbon emissions from marginal fossil fuel sources but also could incentivize the deployment of renewable energy by guaranteeing a minimum selling price.

13. Open-Source Investigations of Environmental Threats

Scientists demonstrated some success with using online videos, social media posts, and other open-source data to document the effects of the locust swarms in East Africa in 2020. As faster internet connections and access to smartphones continue to grow globally, the use of open-source data may become an effective tool for researchers.

14. Self-Healing Building Materials

The potential to engineer building materials made of chemicals, polymers, and bacteria that can fix themselves when damaged could reduce the need for repairs and shrink the environmental footprints of construction projects. Recently, scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder used a type of cyanobacteria found in the ocean, along with other materials, to engineer a living building material that can regenerate when fractured.

15. A Waterway to Connect the Baltic and Black Seas

A planned 1,200-mile inland navigable waterway connecting the Baltic and Black seas would alter the flow of cargo and trade in the region. However, the waterway, which would pass through Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, could alter habitat in 70 wildlife areas and numerous international conservation areas, introduce non-native species, and change the region’s rivers and wetlands. Additionally, dredging in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could disrupt radioactive sediment.

Jim Palardy is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science program. He served on this year’s horizon scan panel and is a co-author on the resulting study.

Reposted with permission from The Pew Charitable Trust.

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By Grantly Galland

The North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) works to ensure that high-seas fishing for Pacific chub mackerel, Pacific saury, two squid species and other stocks across the north Pacific Ocean is legal, transparent and sustainable. The Pew Charitable Trusts shares those goals and will for the first time attend the commission's annual meeting, July 11-18 in Tokyo, as a formal observer.

By Grantly Galland

The North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) works to ensure that high-seas fishing for Pacific chub mackerel, Pacific saury, two squid species and other stocks across the north Pacific Ocean is legal, transparent and sustainable. The Pew Charitable Trusts shares those goals and will for the first time attend the commission’s annual meeting, July 11-18 in Tokyo, as a formal observer.


Pew’s international fisheries work spans the globe and includes advocacy with regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and related bodies. These efforts center on promoting science-based fisheries management, modern enforcement mechanisms and biodiversity protection.

As one of the world’s youngest RFMOs, the NPFC has an opportunity to base its policies on the most modern practices in fisheries management. To do that, and help achieve its goals, the commission can take these four steps during its Tokyo meeting:

1. Commit to greater transparency in the fisheries management process by making all meeting documents — including draft conservation and management measures submitted by members, and annual compliance reports — publicly available on the NPFC website.

2. Follow standard RFMO practice by requiring that all vessels engaged in fishing activities — including those that transship NPFC-managed species — are registered (flagged) to an NPFC member government. That would mean that more vessels operating in these waters are subject to commission rules. Alternatively, the commission could develop a system in which cooperating non-members are recognized by the commission when they have fleets operating in the region.

3. Adopt a centralized vessel monitoring system to enhance the collection and reporting of ship location data for scientific purposes and contribute to NPFC monitoring, control, and surveillance programs.

4. Combat illegal fishing by advancing the establishment of a compliance monitoring scheme to help NPFC members better adhere to commission policies, with the aim of adopting that scheme in 2020 or soon after.

By taking these steps, the NPFC could make significant strides toward preventing illegal activity from undermining its conservation and management efforts. These accomplishments would also clear the way to develop harvest strategies for Pacific chub mackerel and other north Pacific stocks, implement best practices for transshipment, and adopt policies in line with the Port State Measures Agreement — three priorities for several NPFC members that could be addressed in 2020 and beyond.

Grantly Galland is an officer with Pew’s international fisheries team.

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Greenpeace / Roger Grace

Further, the international bodies tasked with protecting bigeye and yellowfin fisheries also manage skipjack, and they have been reluctant to adopt measures to reduce the impact of FAD fishing on bigeye and yellowfin populations out of fear those measures would hurt the skipjack industry.

Urgent Changes Needed

By Rachel Hopkins

Tropical tuna species—skipjack, bigeye and yellowfin tunas—are important economic assets for coastal communities across the globe, and even far from the ocean they are a favorite on supermarket shelves and in sushi bars. These three species—together worth close to $40 billion annually at the final point of sale—prompted eight Pacific island countries to launch World Tuna Day on May 2, 2011. In 2016, the UN officially adopted the date to highlight the importance of sustainable tuna management.


Despite that designation, however, concern for the future of these fish continues. Through the increased use of fish aggregating devices (FADs)—man-made floating rafts that attract fish in the open ocean—over the past three decades, purse seine fleets have seen dramatic increases in skipjack catch. But this has come at a cost to bigeye and yellowfin populations. Because FADs attract juvenile bigeye and yellowfin in addition to skipjack, increased skipjack fishing on FADs has resulted in fewer bigeye and yellowfin surviving to adulthood, which means fewer of those species in the water for crews fishing with other gear, such as longlines and pole and line.

Further, the international bodies tasked with protecting bigeye and yellowfin fisheries also manage skipjack, and they have been reluctant to adopt measures to reduce the impact of FAD fishing on bigeye and yellowfin populations out of fear those measures would hurt the skipjack industry.

The result has essentially been a years-long stalemate, the consequences of which are being borne out around the globe, in part because managers are also debating how much to restrict fishing with purse seine nets and longlines. The population of bigeye in the Pacific, which also faces pressure from longliners catching adult fish, has been decreasing and scientists recommend against further increases in fishing mortality. Atlantic bigeye populations are already experiencing overfishing, and scientists consider both Atlantic bigeye and yellowfin to be overfished. Bigeye have just a 38 percent chance of recovery by 2028, according to an analysis based on 2016 catch levels. Yet, due to insufficient controls by international managers, catch of both Atlantic stocks exceeded the agreed quotas in 2016.


Materials that can make up FADs are piled on the deck of a purse seine vessel in Micronesia.The Pew Charitable Trusts

Urgent Changes Needed

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the body responsible for managing tropical tunas in the Atlantic Ocean, is on the hook to adopt a new tropical tuna measure, including a revised recovery plan for Atlantic bigeye, at its annual meeting in November. To be successful, ICCAT’s new measure must:

  • Set the Atlantic bigeye quota at a level that will give the stock at least a 70 percent chance of recovery by 2028 and ensure that the total catch, from both major and minor harvesters, does not exceed the overall quota.
  • Take steps to reduce juvenile Atlantic bigeye and yellowfin catch via FAD management reform, including by reducing the number of FADs that may be deployed and the amount of purse seine fishing effort allowed on tuna schools associated with FADs.
  • Ensure that ICCAT managers develop a more transparent and proactive approach to management—through a modernized approach known as a “management procedure,” in which managers agree in advance on the goals for a fish stock and harvesting rules to ensure the goals are met—for tropical tunas, which will return the stocks to healthy levels or keep them there, over the long term. ICCAT needs to make sufficient progress this year to meet its agreed 2020 deadline to adopt management procedures for tropical tuna stocks.

In the western and central Pacific Ocean, tropical tunas are managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). The bigeye population there is doing better than in the Atlantic but has declined, and FADs are still proliferating at an alarming rate. WCPFC has catch limits for bigeye for the fleets of major longline harvesting nations and prohibits purse seiners from fishing on FADs for a period every year. Despite that, the purse seine fleets fishing on FADs may be catching as much as four times the number of bigeye as the longline fleets, and data suggest that a more effective way of managing the purse seine impact on bigeye would be to agree on a science-based limit on the number of times vessels can fish on FADs.

To better understand and thus regulate the level of FAD use, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement—eight countries that are members of the WCPFC and in whose waters more than 90 percent of FAD fishing in the commission’s purview occurs—are using satellite technology to better track the devices. But to ensure sustainability of the bigeye/tropical tuna fisheries across the western and central Pacific, the WCPFC must:

  • Take steps to ensure that the longline and purse seine catch of bigeye is within the limits advised by scientists and, in the purse seine fishery, replace the FAD closure with science-based limits on the number of times vessels can fish on the devices.
  • Make progress on developing a harvest strategy for western and central Pacific bigeye in order to adopt a full strategy by 2021, with the goal of keeping the population at a sustainable level over the long term, with little risk of the stock falling into the danger zone.

This World Tuna Day, managers in the Pacific and Atlantic must take immediate action to help ensure the long-term sustainability of tropical tuna fisheries or continue to let shortsighted economic and political pressures determine their actions. Doing the right thing now would benefit the fish, and all who rely on them, far into the future.

Rachel Hopkins is acting director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global tuna conservation campaign.

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