It’s been a depressing few weeks in ocean news. I’ve seen lots of downer headlines lately about new studies saying we’ve “screwed the oceans” with carbon dioxide pollution, left a dirty “bathtub ring of oil” in the Gulf of Mexico, and dumped so much plastic in the ocean that whales are choking to death. Plus I can’t escape the bickering in every media outlet about whether or not the carbon emissions agreement between U.S. and China means anything. You’re probably exhausted by it all too. But before you totally tune out, thinking that the ocean’s problems are just TOO big, let me tell you why I haven’t given up on the ocean.
As you know, I’m a scientist, so I like to think first about how science will help us out of this fix. My colleagues and I have been working on ways to break down what puts individual communities at risk for ocean acidification. We did this recently for Alaska, and now we’re finishing a similar study for the whole United States. Turns out, it’s not just oceanography that puts human communities at risk – it’s also the ways humans depend on marine harvests, and the ways communities are put together socially. This is great news for community leaders, who can encourage future regional development that will decrease these risks. The scientists who reported on the Gulf’s oily bathtub ring also point out that their research sheds light on how oil moves and breaks down in deep water, which offers ways to “avoid and mitigate oil spills in the future.” This is great news for accident response planners and restoration experts. And finally, studies of how marine animals eat plastic debris does shed light on how these animals hunt and behave (a tiny silver lining in a very, very, dark cloud), but most importantly, these studies have grabbed everyone’s attention. People around the world are appalled by this. And as a result, there is a growing movement to address ocean trash that is co-led by plastics manufacturers.
Good news! The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just dismissed a case in which Shell sued Ocean Conservancy and several other conservation and Alaska Native organizations.
That’s right. Shell sued us. And not just once—three times.
Several years ago, federal agencies issued a series of permits that Shell needed to carry out drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean. Shell was worried that conservation organizations like Ocean Conservancy would challenge the validity of those permits, which might hinder its ability to drill. In response, Shell initiated a series of highly unusual preemptive lawsuits, naming Ocean Conservancy and others as defendants and asking the court to declare that the federal permits were lawful in all respects.
At this month’s Arctic Council meeting in Yellowknife, Canada, the U.S. Department of State announced key initiatives that it plans on pursuing when it assumes the two year Chair of the eight-nation council in April 2015.
These initiatives, presented under the theme of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities,” will focus largely on reducing the causes of and impacts from climate change and will include projects ranging from reducing emissions of short lived climate pollutants to developing a circumpolar Arctic network of Marine Protected Areas.
The prognosis for the long-term recovery of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico brightened considerably last Thursday with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s passage of a measure known as “Amendment 40”—also known to fishermen as “Sector Separation.” Amendment 40 will allow separate management of private recreational anglers and for-hire charter vessels that fish for red snapper.
Although the red snapper fishery in the Gulf is managed as a single stock, the reality is that fishermen from the Florida Keys to South Texas face different situations and fish for different reasons. A for-hire captain who takes customers out of Southwest Florida and deep into federal waters may have a different set of concerns or needs than the weekend recreational angler who has a boat and likes to go red snapper fishing with friends and family but might not venture far from their home marina in the Florida Panhandle, Louisiana, or Texas. It is because of these vastly different situations among fishermen that a new management strategy was needed to address individual concerns, while also ensuring that conservation and rebuilding of the stock remains paramount.
“Ocean acidification is a pocketbook issue here. It’s about dollars and cents and jobs,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell in Massachusetts at Monday’s conference on Ocean Acidification and Southern New England. Organized by the Woods Hole Research Center, this workshop brought together fishermen, planners, ocean acidification experts, and policymakers to jumpstart action on ocean acidification. Mayor Mitchell noted, “There is no more appropriate place to discuss ocean acidification” than in New Bedford, where smart fisheries management has led to a scallop boom. In fact, the city is the sea scallop harvest capital of the U.S. and its port consistently brings in the highest commercial fishery revenue in the country each year.
The workshop began reviewing the science of ocean acidification as it relates to Massachusetts’ oceanography and fisheries. There’s still a lot to learn, particularly about how iconic fisheries like sea scallops and lobster respond to ocean acidification. But it’s clear that there is a lot to be worried about in New England. Seawater acidity is greater in these waters today than it was 35 years ago.
Traditional fishery management has been a lot like the movie Finding Nemo, where fishery managers focus on the life of a single species of fish. But, as we saw in the movie, single species of fish do not live alone; they depend on habitat like anemones, they encounter predators like Bruce, and there are human impacts such as removing fish from reefs. Our current management system often fails to consider the bigger picture: the habitats that ocean wildlife require at each stage of life, their roles as predator and prey (Bruce’s attitude on fish as ‘friends not food’ doesn’t really hold true in the ocean), the natural variations in populations in different places and at different times, such as sea turtle migrations, and of course the critical and varied impacts of humans—climate change, pollution, ocean acidification, cultural uses, and demands for food and recreation.
In short, we need an ecosystem approach—a modern, big-picture system that maintains the overall health of the ocean ecosystem by explicitly considering the above. Ensuring the long-term viability of fish populations and communities that depend on them requires a greater focus on the fitness and resilience of the ecosystems that support productive fisheries.
The good news is that U.S. fishery managers are recognizing the need to consider the whole ecosystem.A new report by the NOAA Science Advisory Board takes stock of the shift toward ecosystem-based fishery management across the nation. The report found that the use of ecosystem science in fishery management varies greatly by region, and the last several years have proven to be a time of experimentation in the ecosystem approach. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.
Marine mammals are some of the most beloved animals in our ocean. Whether you have a soft spot for majestic whales, playful seals or adorable sea otters, you have reason to celebrate. Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an important piece of legislation that protects all marine mammal species found in U.S. waters.