It’s been a packed year of ups and downs for the ocean. Since Oceans Deeply launched during the United Nations Oceans Conference this June, we’ve covered more major developments concerning the environment, science and economy of the world’s oceans than we can count – and that was in only half of 2017.
Below, we review some of the important stories that arose this year, paired with just a few of our favorite reads that appeared both on Oceans Deeply as well as in other publications.
Conservation and Biodiversity
While President Trump’s administration is considering scaling back protections for several marine monuments in United States waters and an intense Atlantic hurricane season wreaked havoc on coastal ecosystems, governments and conservation advocates also made progress in protecting ocean environments in many parts of the world in 2017.
Mexico created North America’s largest fully protected marine protected area (MPA), which could serve as a model for ocean conservation, and the world’s largest MPA, in the international waters of Antarctica’s Ross Sea, came into effect. Chile and the tiny South Pacific island of Niue were examples of two other countries that made conservation commitments in their waters, but nations meanwhile failed to build momentum from the Ross Sea MPA and agree on new conservation areas in the Southern Ocean. Overall, the MPA concept – as a means of buffering ocean ecosystems against increasing human degradation – is gaining increasing traction, though nations clearly also struggle with how to enforce protected areas and balance local economic interests.
While a good year for marine habitat conservation, 2017 was unsurprisingly a rough year for much marine life. Innumerable species faced major threats this year from habitat destruction, fishing, pollution and climate change, but the story of the vaquita is a particularly dramatic example. The population of the small porpoise that only lives in the northern part of the Gulf of California in Mexico has fallen to fewer than 30 individuals. The marine mammal species has been wiped out by illegal fishing nets set to catch another endangered animal, the totoaba. A last-ditch effort to capture and protect the vaquita failed in November. Meanwhile in the wake of last year’s unprecedented bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, scientists focused on coral resilience, racing to decode coral DNA and replanting some damaged reefs.
Some favorite reads: Why Mexico’s Massive New Marine Reserve Is a Model for Ocean Protection (Oceans Deeply), Avoiding Extinction and No Happy Ending for the Vaquita (Hakai Magazine), As Big Marine Reserves Proliferate, a New Focus on Enforcement (Oceans Deeply), How Coral Researchers Are Coping With the Death of Reefs (The Atlantic), Behind the Plan to Protect the Serengeti of the Arctic (Oceans Deeply), Sri Lankan Whale Researcher Calls for an End to Parachute Science (Oceans Deeply), Loss of Federal Protections May Imperil Pacific Reefs, Scientists Warn (The New York Times).
Governance, Climate Change and Plastics
There was plenty of action on the ocean in the international arena this year, not the least of which was the $8 billion that governments, business executives and advocates pledged at the fourth annual Our Oceans conference in October.
After years of talks, the United Nations voted on December 24 to begin negotiations to draft an international treaty to preserve biodiversity on the high seas – the 60 percent of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction. Negotiations are set to begin in 2018 and conclude in 2020. One goal is that a new treaty would require environmental impact assessments for extractive activities in the open ocean – an important issue as the International Seabed Authority continued to move closer to allowing deep seabed mining to proceed. The governing body met amid growing calls for it to be far more transparent about the environmental consequences of mining the seafloor.
Small island nations made a splash on the world stage this year, transforming themselves into big ocean powers. Notably, Fiji, in chairing both the first United Nations Ocean Conference in June and the annual climate talks in Germany, pushed the concerns of island states to the forefront and advanced discussions of ocean protection as a means of mitigating global warming.
The changing Arctic Ocean, which increasingly resembles the Atlantic amid the unprecedented retreat of sea ice, is where many climate and ocean governance issues are coming to a head as nations eye commercial and strategic interests in newly open Arctic areas. In a model for how nations can handle such issues, 10 countries agreed to a historic accord late in December that would ban commercial fishing in the formerly ice-covered central Arctic Ocean for 16 years while scientists study the area.
The issue of marine plastic pollution also continued to receive more attention on both the international and corporate stage, even as scientists continued to uncover the extent to which plastic has penetrated the far reaches of the marine environment. Under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Assembly, nations came together in December around the goal of eliminating plastic pollution in the ocean; however, no binding timetable or targets were set. Meanwhile, major brands, designers and cities looked at new ways to reduce the use of plastic products in the first place – a ban on plastic straws anyone?
Some favorite reads: Seabed Mining: The 30 People Who Could Decide the Fate of the Deep Ocean (Oceans Deeply), How Small Island States Are Transforming Themselves Into Big Ocean Powers (Oceans Deeply), International Accord Bans Fishing in Central Arctic Oceans, Spurs Science (Oceans Deeply), Strawless in Seattle: How One City Is Tackling Ocean Plastic Pollution (Oceans Deeply), Plastics Found in Stomachs of Deepest Sea Creatures (The Guardian).
Fisheries and the Blue Economy
Although fish face a litany of threats, overfishing is still high on the list. In the U.S., a fight has been developing over legislation that could weaken the key federal fisheries law, and scientists spoke out on the issue, which will likely continue into next year. Meanwhile, a fisheries concept called ecosystem-based management – managing all the species in an ecosystem holistically, rather than as individual species – continued gaining traction, though not as quickly as conservation advocates would like.
In the international sphere, expectations that the World Trade Organization would finally act to end harmful subsidies that promote overfishing and illegal fishing were dashed as its biennial meeting ended in failure in December. Meanwhile, in a bright spot, companies, governments and watchdogs ramped up the use of new data and monitoring technologies to detect illegal fishing, limit bycatch and trace wild seafood through the supply chain.
There is also growing worldwide recognition that there is not enough wild seafood to feed the world – especially not as demand grows with population. Investors became increasingly interested in ramping up aquaculture production – both in the ocean and on land – as well as improving technologies that address some of the significant environmental challenges associated with farmed fish. One company is even working on growing seafood from cells without farming live fish.
Other parts of the blue economy also grew in 2017. More companies and governments than ever are investing in offshore wind energy, with scientists recently estimating that open ocean wind farms could theoretically power the planet. There were two important milestones in 2017. First, the world’s first commercial “floating” offshore wind farm came online in Scotland this year, opening the door to more farms in deeper waters. Second, with costs dropping for offshore wind energy in Europe, the Dutch and German governments successfully held zero-subsidy auctions for projects that would have no government support. Slower development continues in the United States, even as the Trump administration has put more of a focus on offshore oil drilling.
Some favorite reads: One of the Most Important Jobs at Sea May Get More Difficult and Dangerous (Oceans Deeply), China’s Appetite for Fish Pushes Fisheries to the Brink (The New York Times), Fish Farms in B.C.: Occupied by Protesters (The Vancouver Sun), Is Bluefin Tuna Grown in a Lab the Next Wave of Sustainable Seafood? (Oceans Deeply) International Talks to Ban Harmful Fishery Subsidies Collapse (Oceans Deeply), World’s First Floating Wind Farm Begins Operating in Scotland (Bloomberg).