Despite ongoing threats to the the environment as a whole, there are many reasons for optimism regarding the world’s oceans and seas, according to experts. A coral reef biologist for the Smithsonian National Museum for Natural History in Washington DC says that, contrary to what you may think, the efforts in marine conservation all around the globe have had a real impact, with measurable results.
Although she admits ocean temperatures are rising, some countries have still not gotten a handle on pollution in the seas, seawater is acidifying and coral reefs continue to be endangered, there is a great deal of good news to share.
Dr. Nancy Knowlton says that, contrary to popular belief, many marine conservation efforts around the world are finally making a difference and we are reaping the rewards already.
“There are a lot of successes out there, and most people don’t know about them,” Knowlton tells Smithsonian Magazine.
Marine life rebounding after decades of efforts
We have all heard the unending admonitions to help protect marine life in every way that we can, by stopping the pollution of our waters, using biodegradable products that don’t harm our ecosystems, and minimizing our carbon footprint so that the warming of the oceans and seas will be slowed down.
It’s important to share the successes that we have experienced, she notes, to avoid any feelings of hopelessness, that no matter what we do, nothing can reverse the damage that has been done to the earth and the oceans.
We must also share any knowledge that we do have regarding approaches that work, she adds; that’s why she began using the Twitter hashtag #oceanoptimism.
Organizations including Conservation Optimism and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative have taken this theme and run with it, helping to get the word out regarding conservation success stories and sharing resources that have worked.
In the realm of marine conservation, Knowlton stated, “successful efforts typically are neither quick nor cheap and require trust and collaboration.” Using a bit of psychology here, she states that focusing on actual successes helps to motivate people to work toward the creation of even more successful actions and campaigns.
Whale populations experience huge increases in world’s oceans and seas
For starters, Knowlton mentions the international moratorium on commercial whale hunting that was broadly instituted in the 1980s. She states that this has had just the profound results that its creators had hoped.
While the North Atlantic right whale, which had been hunted nearly to the brink of extinction, is still considered to be critically endangered, other whale species are experiencing huge increases in numbers.
Humpback whales, which had also been critically endangered, with a population bottoming out at 450 in the South Atlantic in the 1950s, now number approximately 25,000 — and incredibly, that is the same number of animals that roamed that part of the ocean before hunting even began, according to scientists’ estimations.
The International Whaling Commission says that there may now be as many as 120,000 humpbacks in the oceans and seas of the world. In other rarely-reported news, the populations of blue, bowhead, fin and sei whales are also growing all around the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Sea turtles, which are protected nearly all around the globe now, have experienced large increases in numbers as a direct result of the efforts to protect them and their habitats.
As Smithsonian noted, the majority of the populations of turtles included in a recent survey were found to be growing. Even in Florida, where the human population is growing rapidly, scientists state that the number of green turtle nests came to 37,341 in 2015 — a staggering increase from a low of 62 in 1979.
In Texas, one of the most populous states in the US, nests belonging to Kemp’s Ridley turtles rose from just one to 353 over the same time period, according to Knowlton. By any measure, these are enormous improvements in marine conservation.
Fisheries major part of marine conservation efforts
Many fisheries are reasonably well-managed across the world now, Knowlton says, thanks to the tireless efforts of conservationists.
In many areas, she admits, the ocean is still seriously overfished.
However, according to environmental economists Christopher Costello of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Daniel Ovando of the University of Washington in Seattle, the world’s most valuable fisheries are doing fairly well.
Such large fisheries constitute approximately 34 percent of the fish take worldwide, as the researchers wrote in the “Annual Review of Environment and Resources” in 2019.
Although debates continue regarding the status of many species that were terribly overfished for decades, there is already evidence that sustainable management is occurring for certain species in some seas of the world.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 34.2 percent of the world’s marine fisheries are currently overfished; however, the amount of harvests have held relatively steady for many other fisheries, including Alaska pollock to European sardines (pilchards) to Indian mackerel and even yellowfin tuna.
It is much more difficult to patrol the high seas, far away from coastlines. There, large fishing vessels can operate almost with impunity, largely without legal restrictions.
Sometimes, according to whatever fish are present, hundreds of vessels will target a certain region and make huge catches.
As Costello and Ovando wrote, scenarios such as that would lead anyone to fear that there was “a tremendous threat to sustainability of the world’s fisheries.” But in reality, they say, “Somewhat incredibly, this does not appear to be the case.”
Deepwater fishing to come under closer scrutiny
There are several factors at play here, and not altruistic ones: it could be that the open-water fishing far away from coasts represents only six percent of global fish harvests; the fact that pursuing fast-swimming, unpredictable fish like tuna can be extraordinarily expensive; or also that regional fisheries management organizations already do supervise many catches on the high seas.
Such deepwater fishing may come under even better scrutiny in the near future through the implementation of a United Nations treaty on marine biodiversity, which might be finalized next year after many years of negotiations.
This would greatly increase the international resources available for proper fisheries management anywhere on the world’s oceans and seas.
Of course, like everywhere else in the world, technology is changing everything regarding fisheries management, according to Heather Koldewey, a senior technical advisor at the Zoological Society of London.
She states that organizations such as Global Fishing Watch and Ocean Mind routinely track large fishing vessels via satellites, making it easy to identify suspicious activities, including groups of vessels in a protected zone.
After Global Fishing Watch partnered with the US Coast Guard in the Pacific in 2019, for example, the patrol tripled its number of boardings of fishing vessels. Also in 2019, Ocean Mind joined with the international police authority Interpol and law enforcement authorities from several different nations in tracking and seizing an illegal fishing vessel in Indonesia.
“Marine protected areas” are regions of the world’s oceans designated to guard ecosystems that are considered crucial for preserving biodiversity or withstanding severe threats.
Almost eight percent of the ocean has been designated as MPAs, although less than half of that is fully protected against fishing and other resource loss. However, the areas are growing. Just several months ago, in April of 2021, the European Commission and 15 countries announced their support for two MPAs that would altogether protect more than 3 million square kilometers of the Southern Ocean off the continent of Antarctica.
Although that is not their primary reason for being, the MPAs also offer real benefits to human communities, including reestablishing fish populations that can be sustainably fished outside these areas.
In an encouraging sign, an analysis of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off Hawaii, the third-largest protected area in the world, found “little, if any, negative impacts on the fishing industry,” according to an article in the journal Nature Communications in 2020.
Even off the urban coast of Southern California, MPAs that completely prohibit fishing in 35 percent of one coastal area led to an incredible 225 percent increase in the catch of spiny lobsters after just six years, according to scientists writing a paper for Scientific Reports in 2021.
A worldwide initiative dubbed “30 by 30” seeks to protect an amazing 30 percent of the waters on the globe by the year 2030, with backers including the powerful G7 group of wealthy industrial nations.
Banning leaded fuel restored oceans in just 30 years
Regarding pollution, enormous strides have been made in the last several decades in the waters of the earth. Carlos Duarte, a marine ecologist at King Abdullah Science and Technology University in Saudi Arabia, cites as one example a series of government restrictions that began in the 1970s to ban leaded fuel in vehicles, which less than one lifetime ago was a major source of ocean pollution.
Duarte and his colleagues researched levels of lead found in the oceans of the world during a global expedition in 2010 and 2011 and found they had dropped to “negligible” levels. This is a staggering statistic for anyone who may feel despair at what they perceive as the lack of progress in caring for our environment.
“By banning leaded fuels, we actually restored the whole ocean within 30 years,” Duarte declares.
Surprisingly, the amount of oil spilled into the oceans and seas from tankers has also dropped dramatically over the decades. This is primarily thanks to the tightening of regulations such as those included in the International Maritime Organization’s “International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.”
Plastics continue to pose a problem in marine conservation
Anyone can easily conjure up images of floating plastics in our oceans — some of them floating on top, like the gigantic floating gyre in the Pacific just off Hawaii, or some that make their way through the waters, appearing to look so much like fish that they are easily ingested by larger predators.
Sadly, despite public awareness of the threat of plastics increasing all over the globe, as much as 23 million metric tons of plastic waste still enters aquatic systems each year, as noted in an article in Science last year.
But this problem may be headed off at the pass in the future, without having to worry quite as much about the plastics that survive long enough to make their way into the oceans, according to some environmental scientists.
The manufacture and use of plastics, says Marcus Eriksen, who is an environmental scientist at 5 Gyres Institute in Santa Monica, California, is at the crux of the issue.
“Today, the optimism is around the innovators, the private sector rising to the challenge to fill the consumer need without the externalities of pollution,” he explains.
Eriksen notes that there are manufacturers who are now producing a range of innovative biomaterials such as microbially-synthesized polymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, designed to be completely degradable by microbes in the seas and other natural environments.
The more responsible plastics currently under development must eventually result in less plastic trash in our ocean and seas in the future.
Still, products must be tested in real life, not in cherry-picked conditions. A recent experiment involving plastics that were submerged under a dock for two years showed that they did not degrade as quickly or well as advertised, according to Eriksen’s group 5gyres.org.
Coastal mangrove ecosystems restored on large scale
While admittedly, huge stretches of healthy coastal ecosystems around the world have already been lost to pollution, uncontrolled urban development, and other human activities, not all is lost.
To the contrary — especially where it concerns mangroves — the dense forests of bushes and trees that populate tropical coastlines. Along with being crucial environments for sea life, they provide an essential cushion, protecting our coastal cities from the full force of storm waves.
“We’ve seen a slowdown of the losses of mangroves — and in many regions of the world we’re starting to see an increase,” Duarte says. “We are very, very capable of restoring mangroves at scale, and I think it’s doable to restore them to almost their historical extent within the next 30 years.”
The most striking example of this, Duarte states, is the restoration of 1,400 square kilometers of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta mangrove forest, which was for the most part destroyed in the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
“When I worked there in the late 1990s, if I wasn’t a trained mangrove ecologist I would have thought I was in a pristine mangrove forest,” he says in wonder. “And that mangrove sequesters an amount of carbon that is very significant compared to the emissions of Vietnam, which has a huge positive role in mitigating climate change.”
2004 Tsunami clearly showed essential role of mangroves
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed almost a quarter of a million people, laid bare the need for mangroves in the protection of towns and cities along shorelines.
As clearly seen by scientific analyses after the catastrophe “it was clear that in the villages where there was a pocket of mangrove sheltered between the shoreline and the village, there was almost no human cost,” Duarte says. “Even property losses were severely reduced.”
Koldewey says that in the Philippines “We’ve made huge progress in science-based but community-led mangrove restoration projects. Within five years, they’re functioning, trapping loads of carbon, stopping waves eroding shore or damaging people and habitats, and doing their mangrove thing.”
Salt marshes and oyster reefs, commonly seen historically along the coasts of Europe and the United States, are also now being restored on a large scale, according to Duarte’s Nature paper from last year.
There are now a total of 140 saltmarsh restoration projects in Europe, and equally enormous efforts are now underway in Louisiana and Florida, where the continual threat of hurricanes is a reminder of how essential these natural features are. “Restoration attempts of seagrass, seaweed and coral reef ecosystems are also increasing globally, although they are often small in scale,” the authors state in the Nature article.
Pandemic allowed nature to take a break from overfishing, pollution
Just over a year ago, Greek scientists were noting a remarkable recovery of fish stocks and marine life as a whole, due to the lockdowns and restrictions imposed on fishing at that time.
Thanasis Tsikliras, an Associate Professor of the Department of Biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, explained that fishing had been severely curtailed as a result of the first few months of the pandemic. “It may have dropped by 60-70 percent in the last three months and in some areas it may have even reached 100 percent.”
A year later, Tsikliras says that “The reduction of pollution on a global level is impressive. In Greece we have notable improvements, observed in all ecosystems.”
He explains that pollutant measurements, done in real time, “show that chemical pollutants and marine trash were significantly reduced within a month.” He added Greece “will benefit in multiple ways from this.”
According to Tsilkliras, the restrictive measures from Greece’s first lockdown in the spring of 2020 were responsible for a “great reduction in pressure on fishing reserves across all fishing activities, whether by professionals or amateurs.”
Of course, no one wants to return to the era of complete lockdowns that put a stop to all commercial fishing, and no responsible person would want to minimize the threats to the world’s seas that still exist.
But what occurred over the last year, coupled with the great successes from the campaigns that have been waged worldwide, show that we can have significant success in restoring the oceans and seas.
“We’re not being naive,” Koldewey says. “There’s a lot of bad news, but we’re balancing the narrative with: How do we solve it? There are reasons to be optimistic and everybody has a role to play in being part of the solution.”