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2020’s top ocean news stories (commentary)

  • Marine scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, share their list of the top 10 ocean news stories from 2020.
  • Hopeful developments this year included some long-overdue attention to Black and other underrepresented groups in marine science; new technologies to prevent deadly ship-whale collisions and track “dark” vessels at sea remotely; and surprising discoveries in the deep sea.
  • At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in more trash than ever being dumped in the sea, and stalled international negotiations aimed at protecting waters off Antarctica and in the high seas. 2020 also brought the first modern-day marine fish extinction.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

1. The ocean in a worldwide pandemic

As the year that challenged the world with a widespread pandemic draws to a close, COVID-19 has affected almost every aspect of life as we knew it. Even the ocean, the most powerful force in the world, is not immune to its effects. The amount of marine plastic pollution, 13 million tons of which was already entering the ocean each year, has certainly grown with the addition of improperly disposed personal protective equipment, such as single-use masks and gloves. People are using an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month; one report predicts that 1.56 billion face masks could end up in the ocean this year. State and city rollbacks on bans of plastic items like bags and utensils due to concern over spreading the virus via reusable options could contribute as well. The influx of yet more plastic to the sea not only poses a threat to human health, but also heightens the risk of injury or death to some 600 wildlife species that may consume debris they mistake for food. On a brighter note, the early days of the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to study a quieter underwater habitat resulting from reduced worldwide trade. Researchers examined underwater sound in real-time near the port of Vancouver and found a consistent reduction in low-frequency sound attributed to ship traffic from January to April, when imports and exports dropped 20%. This study and others are providing much-anticipated evidence about the effect noise pollution has on marine life.

A face mask found during a beach cleanup in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Image by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash.

2. Ocean justice and diversity in marine science

What is “ocean justice”? According to marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, it is the meeting place of ocean conservation and social equity. It is hard to miss this ocean warrior and scientist’s writing and voice, laying out how action against climate change is slowed by racism. She also co-edited a book on climate composed entirely of female voices, released in 2020. Johnson is joined by a community of Black marine scientists doing important research. This year, multiple campaigns highlighted and celebrated Black representation in many areas of science. One of them, #BlackInMarineScienceWeek, founded by environmental ecologist Tiara Moore, underscored a historically underrepresented group’s contributions to the field and inspired younger generations to pursue a career in marine science. Diverse representation and the inclusion of gender, race and socioeconomics in the conversation about the impacts of climate change are critical: marginalized groups often bear a greater burden of effects like flooding and pollution, while groups with privilege and power often benefit more from conservation initiatives. It is imperative for all members of the marine science field to help ensure the progress and recognition continues well beyond the week-long campaign.

Climate justice banners outside Minneapolis City Hall in 2016. Image by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

3. The future of the blue ocean economy

The reach that COVID-19 has had in the ocean does not stop at health factors; the pandemic has also disrupted the “blue economy.” The ocean would be the world’s seventh-largest economy if it were a nation, with marine jobs, services and products valued at $2.5 trillion a year. Border closures and diminished restaurant demand have drastically impacted the seafood industry, with fishing activity declines of up to 80% in China and West Africa. The U.S., one of the top seafood exporters and importers, also experienced a 40% decline in catches, along with similar declines in imports and exports. Ocean-based tourism is an important contributor to the GPD of many countries, with a global value of $390 billion before the pandemic. Small island developing states that depend on ocean-based tourism for foreign exchange have been particularly vulnerable to the effects of halted travel, with a potential global impact on tourism amounting to a loss of $7.4 billion and risking 75 million jobs. Looking into the post-COVID-19 future, there are opportunities for rebuilding a stronger and more sustainable ocean economy. To find a balance between using the world’s oceans and protecting them from overexploitation, a panel of leaders from 14 nations convened to develop a detailed set of goals that prioritize sustainable seafood production, climate change, biodiversity loss, economic recovery, and holistic ocean management,along with science-backed plans for how the member nations can reach them by 2025. The panel invites other nations to join, aiming for 100% of the ocean under national jurisdictions to be managed sustainably as a new blue economy emerges by 2030.

A fish market in Catania, Italy. Image by Francesco Ungaro via Unsplash.

4. Technology for whales

Endangered North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) continued to make headlines as their dwindling numbers drew increasing concern from scientists. In October, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a new population estimate of just 366 individuals as of January 2019, an 11% decrease from the year before. With only around 94 reproductive females, the species has struggled with reproduction while also experiencing high mortality from collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear. New technologies aim to help address the collisions and entanglements. Ropeless fishing traps made progress this year. These stow the ropes used to haul up the traps on the seafloor until fishers release them with an acoustic signal. The ropes currently extend from the trap to a buoy at the surface, and they entangle many whales. A new “Right Whale Slow Zones” campaign launched along the U.S. East Coast, where the whales spend much of their time. It provides vessel operators with information about where right whales have been detected. New technology in southern California is also addressing ship collisions with endangered whales. Our institution, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, launched an online tool called Whale Safe that draws on information from AI-powered ocean sensors, big data models and direct whale sightings, the first time the three data sources have been combined. The tool integrates the data streams to detect endangered whales and disseminate whale-presence data to mariners in near real-time. These technological approaches to whale conservation offer scalable and reproducible solutions for whale-ship collisions worldwide.

A Pacific blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) swims outside Los Angeles Harbor. Image courtesy of the Port of Los Angeles.

5. Transparency in fishing

After the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions on North Korea in 2017, international fishing within North Korean waters became illegal. A new study by Global Fishing Watch revealed that in 2017 and 2018 Chinese “dark fleets” illegally caught an estimated 160,000 tons of Pacific flying squid (Todarodes pacificus) worth $440 million in North Korean waters. The presence of hundreds of comparatively advanced Chinese vessels has pushed some North Korean fishers to make the dangerous journey in their wooden ships to fish illegally in Russian waters, often with deadly results.To spot the Chinese fleet, which was invisible to ordinary monitoring methods because the vessels were not publicly broadcasting their positions, the researchers used an innovative combination of four satellite technologies, creating new transparency in fishery management. In another bid for transparent fisheries, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) has moved toward real-time electronic monitoring of fishing activities aboard vessels that operate in its jurisdiction in the eastern Pacific. Tuna fisheries there, worth $5.1 billion in 2018, are subject to illegal fishing and overexploitation, and as a deterrent the IATTC requires fishing vessels to carry human monitors to record their activities. Due to the pandemic, however, the IATTC and other regional fisheries management organizations have modified those requirements, underscoring the need to transition to electronic monitoring systems. Advocates are calling for the IATTC to ensure comprehensive implementation.

Electronic monitoring on board a tuna vessel in Australia. Image courtesy of AUS Fisheries Management Authority and Archipelago Asia Pacific via the Fishnet.ai database.

6. Deep-sea discoveries

Although a lot of science was done from home this year, some researchers were still able to get out in the field, and their discoveries made global headlines. Using the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s underwater ROV SuBastian in the waters off western Australia, researchers discovered both the longest animal ever recorded, a 46-meter (150-foot) siphonophore, and a coral reef taller than the Empire State Building. These discoveries, in an area as well known as the Great Barrier Reef, reveal how little we still know about the deep ocean. Even when new species are discovered it can take years for scientists to describe and classify them, as was the case with a deep-sea comb jelly that NOAA discovered in 2015 but only formally described this year. Deep-sea scientists are on a mission to change this, and recently announced plans for a decade-long research program called Challenger 150. The deep sea, which officially begins 200 meters (656 feet) below the surface, may soon be opened up to more than just research. Regulations to allow mining of the seafloor could be finalized in 2021. At least 10 NGOs, including Greenpeace, and three Pacific Island states have expressed concern, and David Attenborough is among those who have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

A 47-meter (154-foot) Apolemia siphonophore recently discovered in Ningaloo Canyons, Australia. Image courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute.

7. Missed protection targets

Marine protected areas (MPAs) play an essential role in ocean ecosystem health, and are a key target of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14. Despite rapid growth in the designation of MPAs in the last decade, the international community fell disappointingly short of a pledge to protect 10% of the oceans by the end of 2020 under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi targets. Current global MPA coverage, including those pledged but not yet implemented, amounts to 7.6%. This year did still see big announcements of MPA commitments moving us closer to the goal. The government of Tristan da Cunha, one of the most remote and pristine island archipelagos in the world, will create the biggest “no-take” zone in the Atlantic Ocean, protecting 90% of its waters from fishing and other extractive activities. The islands support tens of millions of seabirds, including the endangered northern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi) and yellow-nosed albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos). The Seychelles, a country that relies heavily on its ocean economy, announced plans to expand MPA coverage to 30% of its exclusive economic zone. There were high hopes that 2020 would be the year the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR) would designate new MPAs in the Southern Ocean, providing vital protection for species suffering the impacts of climate change and overfishing, such as the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) and Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides). Disappointingly, most of the discussions at this year’s meeting in November focused on renewing fishing permits, leaving limited time to consider the MPA proposals. Countries failed to reach an agreement on the proposed MPAs, which would have boosted global ocean protection by another 1%; negotiations have been pushed back to 2021.

A pair of albatrosses on Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago. Image by Paul Tyler and Alison Rothwell via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

8. Ocean action opportunity in Washington, D.C.

Human politics shape the future of our ocean. In the case of the U.S., with the possible exception of the Save Our Seas Act to prevent marine debris, particularly plastics, and recent efforts to expand ocean exploration and mapping, it has been a very bleak few years for global ocean leadership from Washington, D.C. The forthcoming change in administration sets the stage for regaining momentum to protect ocean health and promote the ocean economy, both domestically and abroad. First and foremost, the U.S. needs to rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one of the Biden-Harris administration. The health of the ocean is intrinsically linked to the state of the climate. The new administration has a special opportunity to begin fulfilling its campaign promise to protect 30% of U.S. waters by 2030. To do so it would need to bump up the extent of highly protected MPAs from the current 23%. There will also be important decisions to make as to whether and how the country will play catch-up with marine industries that have become pillars of the blue economy in other regions but have barely taken hold in U.S. marine waters, such as aquaculture and ocean energy. The new administration can and must double down on addressing environmental justice concerns affecting coastal communities and promote inclusion in ocean science and conservation. A new U.S. president can do an immense amount for our global ocean by taking strong leadership positions for the sustainable management and protection of the high seas, Arctic and Antarctic. The recent appointment of John Kerry, a long-time advocate for the ocean, blue economy and ocean science, to the new position of special climate envoy is a positive signal for progress in 2021.

The first U.S. offshore wind farm at Block Island, Rhode Island. Image by Dennis Schroeder / NREL via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

9. First modern-day marine fish goes extinct

Many believe that the oceans are happily behind the curve when it comes to extinction relative to the waves of extinction that appear to be starting on land and in freshwater ecosystems. Fish, in particular, have been considered especially difficult to drive totally extinct. In 1998 the barndoor skate (Dipturus laevis) was feared on track to become one of the planet’s first confirmed extinct marine fishes. The skate, however, was found taking refuge in deeper waters than expected and the species made a spectacular comeback. Unfortunately, 2020 appears to be the year in which the first moderndaymarine fish was officially declared extinct by the IUCN. The smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis), a species with the ability to “walk” on the seafloor using its pectoral fins, likely went extinct due to habitat loss and destructive fishing practices, and scientists are now worried about the fate of the remaining handfish species. As the ocean becomes more industrialized and climate change advances, other marine species may go the way of the smooth handfish. Furthermore, the true scope of species loss can be challenging to assess in a space as vast as the ocean, particularly when we are regularly discovering new marine species. This year alone, scientists discovered 30 new invertebrate species in waters off the Galápagos Islands. With increasing environmental changes, there is a chance that some species, particularly in the deep ocean, may go extinct before they are even discovered.

A critically endangered red handfish (Thymichthys politus). Its relative, the smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis), likely went extinct this year. Image by John Turnbull via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

10. ‘Super year’ for the ocean, take two

2020 had been billed as the “Super Year for the Ocean.” Observers were anticipating international agreements to protect biodiversity on the high seas, regulate deep-sea mining, and draft a post-2020 Biodiversity Framework that would renew the expired Aichi targets. However, as the world shut down for the pandemic, negotiators put treaty discussions on pause and postponed meetings until next year. Those that did go ahead, such as CCAMLR and World Trade Organization negotiations to reform fisheries subsidies, gave disappointing results and look set to continue into 2021. Even so, the end of the year has brought some promising developments for the ocean and the planet. The U.K. joined the push for a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution. China announced its goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, and Japan and South Korea followed swiftly with pledges to reach net-zero by 2050. The pressure is now on other major carbon emitters, such as the U.S., to set out their so-called nationally determined contributions and create achievable roadmaps to meet them. With global ambition remaining high there is still the potential for real momentum for the ocean in 2021. Further inspiration comes from the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science beginning next year, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen global ocean management with scientific knowledge.

A diver conducting a fish survey in Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in Georgia, U.S. Image by Greg McFall, Gray’s Reef NMS, NOS, NOAA via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Callie Steffen is a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she works on projects that are developing science- and technology-based solutions to ocean problems, such as the recently launched Whale Safe project. Her background is in conservation planning, particularly with marine mammals. Emma Critchley is a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she works on projects such as SharkEye, using AI technology and drones for shark monitoring, and Deep Sea Mining Watch. Her background is in marine spatial ecology, particularly the overlap of marine top predators and human activities. Douglas McCauley began his career as a fisherman but later transitioned to marine science. He now serves as an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative. McCauley studies how marine ecosystems function and what management practices best support ocean health. 

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