Next year, the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship could set sail, voyages that will take tourists to the Titanic will launch and a team of scientists will visit the collapsed Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica to explore a marine ecosystem that has been hidden for 120 years.
In the United States, many are watching how the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress will act on ocean policy. Going into the new year, the White House is considering expanding offshore oil drilling and changing how several marine monuments are managed, and Congress may seek to revise the key federal fisheries law, to the outcry of many scientists. Meanwhile, for World Oceans Day in June, a large coalition of advocates has started planning a March for the Ocean in Washington, D.C.
Oceans Deeply will be following these and many other stories in the coming year. Below we talk to experts about three issues worthy of particular attention in 2018.
Moving Forward to Protect Biodiversity on the High Seas
This Christmas Eve, just when everyone else was winding down for the year, the United Nations agreed to move forward with what ocean conservation advocate Peggy Kalas described as “the biggest thing to happen in decades.”
The General Assembly resolution, co-sponsored by 140 nations, sets in motion a treaty process for unprecedented protection of the high seas – the two-thirds of the world’s oceans that don’t belong to any one country but harbor rich biodiversity, from the strange creatures on hydrothermal vents to the surface plankton that produce the oxygen we breathe. The resolution to move forward was at least a decade in the making, but became real over a series of meetings in the past two years (see coverage here and here).
Conservation advocates like Kalas, who directs a coalition of environmental groups under the umbrella of the High Seas Alliance, say a new agreement would fill a major gap left by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, written in the early 1980s before the term “biodiversity” even existed. The goal now is to make new rules that would provide a defined path for establishing protected areas in international waters, sharing marine genetic resources and requiring science-based environmental assessments for potentially damaging ocean activities, such as deep-sea fisheries or even, one day, climate geoengineering. Right now, with a few exceptions, such as regulations governing the fishing of tuna, “about half the planet is just a free-for-all,” said Kalas. “If you can get out there, you can do it for the most part.”
These are all goals, and now nations have agreed to sit down and formally work on a text over the course of four meetings that will begin in September and end in 2020 with, if all goes well, an agreement in hand.
That makes 2018 the year when the hard negotiating begins.
In April, there will be a preliminary meeting to organize the logistics of the talks and – importantly – decide which country will lead the negotiations. “The chair will be critical. If you have a good chair, the deadline will be met, the content of the treaty will be good and all opinions will be taken into account,” said Marta Marrero Martin, director of ocean governance for The Nature Conservancy. “But if the chair is not neutral or not strong… then we will suffer.”
Then, prior to the first September meeting in New York, conservation advocates will work with governments championing an agreement, including the European Union, Mexico, New Zealand and many Caribbean and African nations, to advocate that a preliminary working draft be presented. “Not everyone is supportive of having a treaty text [in advance], but we think to make the most of that September meeting, we hope there is a draft circulated in advance,” Kalas said.
Nations with major ocean-based economies, including Japan and South Korea, have been mostly supportive of the process in the last year, but countries that could pose stumbling blocks to an agreement include Russia, which has opposed the treaty in concept, and the U.S., especially because the Trump administration has made all international agreements more uncertain. However, right now, Marrero Martin said, neither nation has been particularly engaged – “the challenge will be to either keep it that way, or if they have something to say, they should say it early on.”
Issues that will surely need to be worked out include, for example, decisions on which activities will require environmental assessments, how evaluations will be done and what weight they will hold. “We are very hopeful that governments will continue their very collaborative approach, as they have been,” Kalas said. “We never expected four years ago to be at the point that we are at now.”
Will There Be a Paris Agreement for Shipping?
International shipping accounts for less than 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as Germany – but it is a slice that is expected to grow rapidly in coming decades if no action is taken to curb them. However, partly because ship emissions are hard to attribute to any single nation, shipping, along with aviation, has been exempted from emissions reductions under the U.N. Paris climate agreement. With 90 percent of global trade linked to shipping, it’s also a subject that some export- and import-dependent nations, as well as those with big shipping industries, have historically wanted to avoid.
That may finally change in 2018. After pressure on the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to take action on greenhouse gas emissions for over a decade, the governing body now plans to issue its long-awaited initial climate strategy in the new year. It will be a first step to finalizing a longer-term strategy by its stated goal of 2023.
“The expectation is that there will be some kind of initial strategy finalized,” said Meinhard Doelle, an expert in climate and environmental law at Canada’s Dalhousie University. “The obvious questions are ‘how strong will it be?’ and ‘will it be by consensus or something less than that?’”
At an IMO meeting in April, expect to see some kind of emission reduction goals put forward – how concrete they will be is currently up in the air – and a list of measures, from carbon emissions trading to slowing ships down, that are on the table for achieving them.
Several European Union and Pacific island nations have formed the “High Ambition Coalition” and are pushing for relatively aggressive emission reductions in coming decades to be in line with global temperature limits set by the Paris climate accord. (The E.U. also plans to regulate shipping emissions regionally if the IMO blows its 2023 deadline, something the industry also wants to avoid.) Advocates are also hoping more simple, short-term measures can be put in place quickly.
“The targets might look scary, but there are measures that the shipping industry can implement in the short term that would actually reduce their burden quite a large extent,” said Faig Abbasov, shipping and aviation officer with the non-profit Transport & Environment and representative for the Clean Shipping Coalition. His organization has pushed one idea that will be among measures discussed: slowing down ships at sea to significantly cut fuel usage and thus emissions.
A major hurdle, said Doelle, will be overcoming concerns of key developing nations, which fear their economies will be disproportionately hurt by greenhouse gas regulations on shipping. “I think progress on this issue of equity will be critical,” Doelle said.
The maritime industry generally supports climate action but has been vague about exactly how aggressive overall emission cuts should be by 2050, according to Abbasov.
Bryan Wood-Thomas, vice-president of the World Shipping Council, which represents the majority of the world’s container and vehicle carrier shipping lines, says it is important to focus on the emission reduction measures adopted. “It’s one thing to say we want to reduce emissions by X amount by this a particular year, or we want to decarbonize,” he said. “The question is what programs are you are putting in place that plausibly can take you there.”
The shipping council believes the IMO should structure and fund a legally binding maritime research-and-development program to develop technologies that reduce climate and other air emissions, to which the industry would contribute the core of the funding. (The industry is also under a deadline to reduce the sulfur content of its fuels). It would also like to see IMO develop a program that would require investments in the existing fleet to further reduce carbon emissions in the near-term.
“Radical change in technology is necessary if the industry is to achieve the dramatic changes in carbon currently being discussed at the IMO,” Wood-Thomas said. “Shipping has gone through major propulsion changes in a relatively short period of history. We had sail for centuries, then it went to coal and steam and that was replaced by diesel. It’s only natural that diesel will also be replaced, but if are going to see a step change in propulsion and fuels technology, our perspective is you need major R&D investment.”
Sustainable Aquaculture at a Turning Point
Demand for seafood as a healthy source of protein to feed a growing world population, is rising even as populations of wild fish in the sea decline. That’s why more investors, governments and environmentalists are looking to advanced sustainable aquaculture to feed the world.
To date aquaculture, while steadily growing in the last few decades so it now supplies more than half the world’s seafood, has been held back by a host of environmental and health challenges, including unsustainable feeds, antibiotic use and the risk of spreading disease to wild fish. Technologies and projects that directly address these challenges, reduce costs and improve and expand farm operations both offshore and especially on land, however, are making progress, according to Amy Novogratz, managing partner of the Netherlands-based investment firm, Aqua-Spark.
“If we are really going to have enough aquaculture to feed the world in 2050, we’ll need eight times the amount of feed we currently produce,” she said. “We would like to see really different feed formulations, and I think you’ll see a lot of progress in that in the next year.”
In one example, she noted that the cost of using insects as feed is dropping, and the E.U. and Canada, two relatively large aquaculture producers, recently approved their use in aquaculture facilities. Insects, along with microalgae, seaweed and microbe-produced proteins, are more sustainable alternatives than existing feeds, which are usually composed of fish oil or meal made from wild species. “You are starting to see the really big players investing more [in developing new feeds], companies like Cargill and Nutreco,” Novogratz said.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. – which is a small fish in the global aquaculture industry – an unclear regulatory path has been one of the barriers to growth. Although there are shellfish farms, it was not until the end of 2016 that fin-fish operations were first approved in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), though there are no commercial operations yet. Moving forward, the Trump administration is interested in expanding domestic production to reduce a “seafood trade deficit,” according to Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator for operations at NOAA Fisheries, noting that 90 percent of seafood is imported to the U.S. today. Moreover, it’s clear that greatly increasing wild caught fish isn’t an answer, he said.
“I’m very bullish on the outlook for aquaculture in the U.S,” said Doremus, who also serves as assistant secretary for conservation and management. “I think we’re finally at a turning point, and I think there’s commitment in the administration.” In the next year or so, he said, the NOAA and members of Congress will work together to look for ways to streamline what is now a complex permitting system.
However, progress in expanding production should be expected more on a five- to 10-year horizon. “To really meaningfully move numbers in an industry this large and with the investment requirements as steep as they are, this will take a while for us to really build capability that I think is urgently needed,” Doremus said.
“Getting going now is very important, and I think we are in a good position to do so, but it will take a while to get the conditions in place and to see the investment… and demonstration of commercial potential in ways where there would be a lot of follow-on investments.”
This article was updated on January 3, 2018 to clarify that the High Seas Alliance is advocating for a preliminary working draft of a treaty to protect high seas biodiversity.