Conservation news

2015’s top 10 developments for the ocean

Steel jacket foundations rise at the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

Douglas McCauley began his career as a fisherman but later transitioned to marine science. He now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Sloan Research Fellow in the Ocean Sciences. McCauley studies how marine ecosystems function and what management practices best support ocean health. Earlier this year, he and several colleagues reviewed the past and future of marine life in the global oceans.




Aquaculture for rearing salmon in the Faroe Islands. Photo courtesy of Erik Christensen.

1. The end of wild fish?

For the first year in history, the people of the world ate more farmed-raised fish than wild fish, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. On land, the balance between the consumption of wild meat and farmed meat shifted thousands of years ago in most areas. Caution is needed to ensure that this new shift doesn’t mean that the oceans lose their capacity to serve up free-range fish for dinner, as happened long ago in many of our forests, prairies, and savannas.


2. Undersea gold rush

In 2015 companies staked mining claims in more than 1 million square kilometers of deep-sea ecosystems in international waters. Contractors from countries like China, India, the United Kingdom, the Cook Islands, and Russia participated in the rush to claim areas from which they hope to extract gold, manganese, copper, and rare earth metals. This year a group of international scientists called for a halt in the authorization of new mining contracts until networks of marine protected areas were established around areas targeted for mining. This advice, unfortunately, was ignored by the International Seabed Authority, which continued to issue new contracts.


Fish swim off Easter Island, where the Chilean government announced its intent to establish a massive marine protected area in October, encompassing more than 631,000 square kilometers (243,630 square miles). Photo by Geografica, courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

3. Marine mega-park boom

More of the ocean, in fact more of the planet, was protected in 2015 than ever before. Various governments announced they would protect an area totaling more than 2.5 million square kilometers of ocean. Palau, one of the smallest countries in the world, committed 500,000 square kilometers and Chile announced its intent to protect close to 1 million square kilometers around Easter Island and the Desventuradas Islands. The average size of the new marine protected areas announced in 2015 was approximately 650,000 square kilometers — compared to an average size of about 1,000 square kilometers in the year 2000. The next great challenge will be finding effective strategies to enforce protective measures in vast swaths of ocean so these massive ocean conservation gains do not become ineffectual.


Plastic on a beach in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Susan White, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

4. Sea of plastic

New research released in 2015 shined the global spotlight on the magnitude of the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. This means that for every pound of tuna we fish from of the ocean, we are now putting back two pounds of plastic. This is a transfer ratio that we cannot continue to sustain.



5. Combating lawlessness on high seas

This year, the United Nations made a first ever commitment to negotiate a legally binding international treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas. This was a huge step forward for marine life in the 64 percent of the oceans that lie outside of national jurisdictions.


A genetically modified salmon dwarfs a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon of the same age. Photo by AquaBounty Technologies.

6. GMO fish

In 2015 the United States approved the world’s first genetically modified animal for human consumption. The animal in question was a triploid salmon that is part Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), part Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), and part ocean pout (Zoarces americanus), an eel-like fish. GMO salmon are reported to grow twice as fast as natural Atlantic salmon.


7. Global coral bleaching

The third global coral bleaching event in history was declared this year by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency predicts record ocean temperatures will cause mass bleaching and coral reef loss well into next year. By the close of 2015, NOAA estimated that almost 95 percent of U.S. coral reefs will have been exposed to conditions that can cause corals to bleach.


Pacific Ocean sea surface temperature anomalies during the last major El Niño in 1997 and in 2015. Image courtesy of NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

8. Godzilla El Niño

One of the strongest El Niños in history, if not the strongest one, spiked sea-surface temperatures in large swathes of the Pacific. The so-called “Godzilla El Niño” sent bio-oddities like sea snakes and warm-water sea turtles travelling far along cold-water coastlines like California’s. An El Niño of this magnitude deeply disrupts patterns of ocean productivity and global weather. The El Niño of 2015 contributed to California’s highest recorded strandings of marine animals like sea lions by reducing food availability and to a record number of whales there becoming entangled in fishing gear by creating unusual oceanographic conditions that scientists believe led whales to spend more time inshore.


Steel jacket foundations rise at the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

9. Ocean power plants

Construction began this year off the coast of Rhode Island on the first offshore wind power plant in the United States, which will include a grand total of five turbines. While Europe and Asia operate thousands of offshore wind turbines, this move potentially signals a radical shift in America’s apprehensiveness to getting involved in marine power. 2015 also saw two of the world’s largest tidal power projects, located in the United Kingdom, move closer to completion. Together the two tidal projects are slated to produce around 700 megawatts of electricity — about the same output as a small nuclear power plant.


10. A less hot, less sour ocean future

2015 has crushed temperature records on land and sea and will emerge as the hottest year for which we have written records. One hundred ninety-six nations responded by deciding in Paris during the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties that they don’t want a hotter and more acidic ocean — and that the world will endeavor to control emissions and hold increases in global temperature to well below two degrees Celsius. Small island nations in the Pacific that will be heavily affected by ocean warming, acidification, and sea-level rise assumed a strong leadership role in these dialogues of change. Making good on the promises of the Paris Agreement will be essential to securing an ocean future we want and will need.

CORRECTION 12/31/15: A previous version of this story stated that Palau committed to protect 500 square kilometers of marine habitat. Palau actually committed to protect 500,000 square kilometers.