Seven reasons to be optimistic about the world’s oceans

world's oceans

Yes, we’ve got an ocean of bad news. Climate change is warming and acidifying seawater, stressing or destroying coral reefs. Marine species ranging from whales to algae are endangered; overfishing is crushing many subsistence fisheries.

Coastal ecosystems have been wiped out on a grand scale; key ocean currents may be faltering; mining firms are preparing to rip up the deep seafloor to harvest precious minerals, with unknown ecological costs. And let’s not even talk about ocean pollution.

But there’s good news, too, says Nancy Knowlton, a coral reef biologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In fact, she says, many marine conservation efforts around the globe are seeing good results.

“There are a lot of successes out there, and most people don’t know about them,” Knowlton says.

It’s important to share those successes, she adds, to avoid paralyzing feelings of hopelessness and to spread the knowledge of approaches that work.

That’s why she and her allies began pushing the #oceanoptimism Twitter hashtag in 2014.

Organizations such as Conservation Optimism and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative have broadened her theme, helping to share conservation stories, findings, resolve and resources.

In marine conservation, “successful efforts typically are neither quick nor cheap and require trust and collaboration,” Knowlton wrote in a 2020 Annual Review of Marine Science paper promoting ocean optimism. Focusing on success stories, she stressed, helps motivate people to work toward new successes.

Here are glimpses of a few bright spots in the pitched battle for the blue planet.

Some high-profile conservation efforts are already paying off

An international moratorium on commercial whale hunting that started in the 1980s has shown dramatic results, even though a few species are still hunted by several countries and indigenous groups.

While some whale populations remain very much in trouble — the North Atlantic right whale, for instance, is critically endangered — others are rebounding.

The population of humpback whales in the western South Atlantic, which had dropped to around 450 in the 1950s, now is estimated at around 25,000 — near the level scientists estimate existed before hunting began.

The International Whaling Commission estimates the global population of these whales now maybe around 120,000 animals. Blue, bowhead, fin and sei whale populations are also growing globally, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Sea turtles are another success story.

Most populations of turtles included in a recent survey were found to be growing, even though the animals must be protected on both land and sea.

In Florida, scientists estimate that the population of green turtle nests climbed from 62 in 1979 to 37,341 in 2015. And in Texas, Kemp’s Ridley turtle nests rose from just 1 to 353 over roughly the same time period, Knowlton notes.

Many fisheries are reasonably well managed

In many areas, the ocean is dangerously overfished. But the world’s most valuable fisheries, which make up roughly 34 percent of global captures, are relatively healthy in general, environmental economists Christopher Costello of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Daniel Ovando of the University of Washington in Seattle wrote in the 2019 Annual Review of Environment and Resources.

Hot debates continue about the status of many species that were massively overfished for decades.

But there is good evidence that sustainable management is now being achieved for some species in some regions.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 34.2 percent of the world’s marine fisheries are currently overfished, but harvests have held relatively steady for fisheries ranging from Alaska pollock to European sardines (pilchards) to Indian mackerel and yellowfin tuna.

On the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, fishing vessels largely operate without legal restrictions, and sometimes hundreds of vessels will target a given region and make huge hauls.

Such incidents may suggest that the unregulated high seas “would be a tremendous threat to sustainability of the world’s fisheries,” Costello and Ovando wrote.

“Somewhat incredibly, this does not appear to be the case.”

Among the likely explanations: High seas fishing accounts for only 6 percent of global fish catch; pursuing highly mobile and unpredictable species such as tuna can be extremely expensive; and regional fisheries management organizations do watch over many catches in the high seas.

The high seas may come under better control through a United Nations treaty on marine biodiversity, which may be finalized next year after many years of meetings.

This would greatly broaden the international resources available for proper fisheries management anywhere on the ocean.

Moreover, technology is changing the game in fisheries enforcement, says Heather Koldewey, a senior technical advisor at the Zoological Society of London.

Organizations such as Global Fishing Watch and Ocean Mind track large fishing vessels via satellite imaging, making it easy to track suspicious activities such as clusters of vessels in a protected zone.

In 2019, for example, after Global Fishing Watch partnered with the US Coast Guard in the Pacific, the patrol tripled its number of fishing vessel boardings.

Also in 2019, Ocean Mind joined with Interpol and several nations and successfully tracked and seized an illegal fishing vessel in Indonesia.

There’s also hope for an end to the large governmental subsidies given to high-seas fisheries that are ecologically unsustainable and also, by World Trade Organization assessment, don’t make economic sense. Continue reading

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