2018 has been a year that has shown a bright light on the world’s oceans issues. From plastic pollution to climate change to red tide and the health of coral reefs, each of these issues are complex, multi-faceted and approaching crisis proportions. But along with the bad news, glimmers of light keep breaking through. Innovations in technology, a better understanding of coral reef resiliency, creative financing for marine parks and implementation of sustainable tourism are all helping to resolve our top ocean issues of 2018.
Coral Reefs & #IYOR2018
2018 was the International Year of the Reef and the issues impacting these vital ecosystems were given much needed attention. Coral Bleaching caused by warmer ocean temperatures was especially destructive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, unfortunately help for the world’s largest reef ecosystem was hampered by indecisive government action.
Finding, growing and populating reefs with coral species more resilient to higher temperatures is one important goal of researchers around the world. Aiding in coral restoration were citizen science programs and organizations like Force Blue.
From Palau to Hawaii laws were passed to protect coral reefs from harmful ingredients in popular sunscreens. These products can not only be detrimental to corals but to other marine life as well.
The last year also saw the discovery of some spectacular new reef ecosystems. The most amazing must be the ancient, 9,000 year-old, glass sponge reefs in the Pacific off the coast of Canada’s British Columbia. Located in waters 200 meters deep they are considered living fossils and were only discovered in 1987. To protect these fragile organisms Canada created its newest Marine Protected Area, one of many important areas worldwide that received this designation in 2018.
Orcas and Vaquitas: Marine Species in Peril
For 17 days we grieved along with a mother orca that refused to abandon her newborn, dead calf. The images focused our attention on the plight of a small pod of Southern Resident Orcas off Vancouver Island that has been critically endangered by shipping, loss of fish stocks and pollution. As this mother drew international attention, her obvious mourning pulled heartstrings worldwide and inspired an empathetic reaction to climate effects.
2018 continued to bring disheartening reports on the vaquita porpoises in the Sea of Cortez. Now possibly numbering just half a dozen they are currently the world’s most endangered marine mammal. The demise of the vaquita is a direct result of black market greed, illegal gill net fishing and a misplaced need for “traditional medicine.”
Amidst this decline in wildlife, is the silent heroism of rangers working to protect endangered species from sea turtles and the pangolin to rhinos and elephants.
Plastic pollution had a moment in 2018 and it might have been a tipping point. A scuba diver swimming off the coast of Bali encountered a sea of plastic and the distressing video he created went viral. Other images captured the collective imagination, like those of Asian rivers clogged with plastic garbage and a filter-feeding manta ray open-mouthed in garbage.
Researchers found plastic debris in the Arctic and at 36,000 feet deep in the Mariana Trench. China rocked globalism by deciding to no longer accept the West’s waste, exposing the hypocrisy behind our recycling industries.
But did you know that “single use” had become the 2018 Word of the Year? Bans on single use plastic straws, plastic grocery bags, plastic bottles and packaging became the law in cities, states and countries around the globe. Creative and innovative plans to finance plastic recycling were launched, changing our perception of plastic garbage from something to be thrown away into something of value to be repurposed. And biodegradable alternatives to plastic are being explored and brought to market. For a complete list of global plastic laws, delve into this report from the UN Environment Program.
An enormous floating boom towed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge for trials in the Pacific, Its purpose is to collect floating debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch north of Hawaii.
Steps were taken to reduce the plague of lost and abandoned fishing gear. Known as “ghost gear” these entangling fishing nets may be the single most serious threat to marine mammals and have been estimated to represent up to 40% of all marine plastic debris.
We saw the very real impact of climate change in the devastating hurricanes, heat waves and forest fires that took lives and wreaked havoc in the U.S. and around the world in 2018. The impact was also felt in our oceans, bleaching coral reefs and altering the migration patterns of endangered marine mammals and commercial fish stocks. Will these changes effect our ability to feed hundreds of millions of people in the future?
“Time is running out” is the dire message punctuating recent scientific reports. The Global Climate Report described what will happen if unprecedented actions are not taken now to mitigate the causes of climate change. The conclusion is that we have a window of only twelve years, until 2030 in which to act.
COP24 just concluded in Poland where delegations from over 200 countries attended the most important climate summit since the Paris Accord was signed in 2015. Resistance from fossil fuel producing countries led by the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia was fierce, but so was the message from scientists and environmentalists that “time is running out.”
Impassioned climate marchers around the globe carried the same message, holding their political leaders accountable for inaction on the issue of climate change. Especially gratifying was to see thousands of young people demonstrating for a cleaner and more secure future free of fossil fuels.
Red Tide and Sargassum
Red tide is a natural, algae bloom that normally occurs in salt water off southern Florida and Texas almost every year. But in 2018, instead of lasting for several weeks or months it has gone on for well over a year and has spread into Florida’s panhandle and along the Atlantic coast. Alarmingly, there is no indication it is about to end.
Red tide produces potent neurotoxins that kill large numbers of fish and has taken a toll of hundreds of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and even a whale shark. It can affect humans by contaminating fish and shellfish that we consume. With wave action the toxins can become airborne causing serious respiratory irritations.
These toxic blooms are occurring more frequently and persisting longer, as a result of global warming and increased agricultural runoff from the enormous sugarcane fields surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Tourists don’t want to go to the beach and smell rotting fish, putting Florida’s two main industries, tourism and agriculture on a collision course.
Sargassum is a different kettle of fish or bloom or algae. Unlike kelp, sargassum does not grow from the seafloor, it is a fast growing, free floating, marine algae or seaweed that can be carried for hundreds of miles by ocean currents. Although the Sargasso Sea in the South Atlantic has been observed by mariners for centuries, over the last several years a new problem of vast proportions has developed in the Gulf of Mexico. And last year was the worse ever. Reasons for this proliferation of sargassum is still being studied and theories abound.
Some indications are that the bloom begins in tropical waters off northeast Brazil where it thrives on rising ocean temperatures and nitrogen pollution from fertilizer runoff. The mass is then carried by ocean currents into the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, eventually being carried by the Gulf Stream as far north as Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, where it finally meets its demise in colder temperatures.
Some researchers believe that climate change is causing a slowing of the Gulf Stream with the result that less sargassum is being flushed out of the Caribbean into the Atlantic.
In June of 2018, Cancun reported that they had removed 717 tons of sargassum seaweed from their beaches in the first half of the year. Although nontoxic, sargassum is a disaster for tourism and local economies. It can be harmful to marine animals like sea turtles and it smothers coral reefs. Some Caribbean locations like Barbados have declared the sargassum invasion a major, national emergency.
Island Paradise Trashed by Tourists
This year, we saw national governments take a radical stand against overtourism. Beautiful Maya Bay a spectacular beach surrounded by towering cliffs in Thailand, was made famous in the Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach.”
But the small bay was engulfed by upwards of 5,000 tourists a day until the Thai government was forced to close Maya Bay indefinitely to tourism. The Philippines made a similar decision with Boracay Island, closing it after President Duterte called it a “cesspool.”
These may be extreme reactions to the masstourism effects of sewage, pollution, over-development, and misuse of the marine ecosystem. However, extreme may be the right approach in 2018. Recently rangers in Maya Bay recorded sharks returning to the bay only six months after the closure.
Other island destinations have taken important steps to ensure that their tourism industries are sustainable. Mauritius launched a Tour Guide Certification Course to raise awareness on environmental issues.
Palau made the pivotal decision that less is more. Applied to tourism, that translates to fewer tourists spending more for a better and more sustainable experience. Palau now asks all visitors upon arrival to sign an “Eco-Pledge” to respect the island’s environment during their stay.
Palau is leading in many ways. The country plans to produce nearly 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. While offshore 80% of Palau’s territorial waters are now designated as marine sanctuary. Chile is also leading by declaring nearly 450,000 square miles of it’s Pacific waters as protected in three new Marine Parks.
Unfortunately, many tourism destinations are not following the “less is more” philosophy. Blue Ocean published an important series on the impact of mass tourism on fragile ecosystems.
This past year we saw the introduction of innovative plans to finance the creation of new Marine Protected Areas. The Seychelles created the first Blue Bond, a financing tool that swaps national debt for dolphins. A plan that will fund two new marine parks while aiding the local tourism-based economy.
The Freeing of Marine Mammals
In 2018 we witnessed the freeing of dolphins and orcas from aquariums and dolphinariums in many countries. SeaWorld announced that they would no longer breed captive orcas, saying, “the killer whales in our care will be the last at SeaWorld.”
The 23 orcas in the three SeaWorld marine theme-parks located in Florida, California and Texas will be the last created in the park’s breeding program. SeaWorld also pledged $50 million toward the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals.
After three years of debate Canada announced a ban that makes it a crime to hold or breed dolphins and whales in captivity. This will impact Marineland in Niagara Falls that keeps Beluga Whales, dolphins and the orca Kiska.
Just the opposite occurred in France where a high court overturned a ban on breeding captive dolphins and orcas. The change allows Marineland in southern France, Europe’s largest marine attraction, to continue its controversial marine mammal amusements.
What Does 2019 Hold?
What we know for sure is that the Top Ocean Issues of 2018 will once again be center stage around the globe, they are not going away. The best we can hope for is that we might be a little closer to resolving some of them. Plus, several developing stories will continue to unfold in the coming year. We are on the cusp of mining in the deep sea. Is this going to result in a new gold rush? And aquaculture will play an increasing role in providing protein to a large segment of the world’s population. Will this industry step up and initiate sustainable practices? We can only wait, hope and remain vigilant.
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