- Marine scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, share their list of the top 10 ocean news stories from 2021.
- Hopeful developments this year included big investments pledged for ocean conservation, baby steps toward the reduction of marine plastic pollution, and the description of two new whale species, Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei) and Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu).
- At the same time, rising ocean temperatures, a byproduct of climate change, had profound effects on marine species up and down the food chain, and action on key measures to maintain ocean resilience in the face of multiple threats hung in the balance.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
1. The ocean-climate nexus
The presence of the ocean was felt more strongly than ever at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 26), held Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. In fact, the COP designated an entire day as “ocean day.” Importantly, the negotiating language explicitly mentioned the ocean for the first time. Many countries included commitments to conserve, restore and sustainably manage coastal marine ecosystems that store “blue carbon,” such as mangrove habitats, seagrass meadows and coral reefs, as part of their nationally determined contributions. Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, illustrated just how critical the link between climate and ocean is by delivering his speech knee-deep in rising seawater surrounding the Pacific island. A coalition of ocean advocates and heads of state, the Blue Leaders, also called for immediate action to address the impacts of climate change on the ocean. With 2021 marking the start of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science, the increased focus on the ocean at COP26 was timely.
2. Big investments for conservation
This was a year that big donors stepped up big for oceans and the planet. Jeff Bezos pledged to donate $1 billion to ocean and land conservation over the next decade as part of the Bezos Earth Fund. Some of the programs in the fund include ocean carbon sequestration projects, such as mangrove restoration and seaweed farming. Building on previous commitments to fight climate change, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne Benioff, announced a $300 million funding package to advance ecosystem restoration and climate justice that includes opportunities for coastal and marine protection. (The Benioffs also fund the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where we work.) Prince William’s Earthshot prize, launched this year, also included a category dedicated to innovative ocean leaders. Important aspects of many of the projects these funds support are their global reach and involvement of local voices and leadership, something that should be an integral part of all conservation programs.
3. Maritime shipping backlogs and emissions
The maritime shipping industry, which connects and supports the global economy, is experiencing major disruptions due to strict COVID-19 restrictions, an increased demand for goods, and labor shortages in the supply chain. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest port complex in the U.S. and one of the busiest in the world, experienced an unprecedented number of ships waiting to dock: up to 100 ships in October. The congested supply pipeline, which will likely persist until 2023, has created not only higher prices of goods but also an increase in pollution. As the ships idle, waiting to dock, their diesel-powered auxiliary engines increase airborne particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that disproportionately affect communities living near the ports. The October oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, also came from a cargo ship. Its anchor caught and dragged a pipeline, spilling thousands of gallons of crude oil off the coast. The shipping industry burns an estimated 300 million metric tons of fossil fuels yearly, emitting 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, comparable to Japan’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. In June, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) set new fuel-efficiency requirements for ships with the goal of reducing carbon intensity by 40% by 2030. However, the industry will have to eliminate all carbon emissions by 2050 in order to meet the Paris climate agreement target. The U.S. and EU are taking big strides toward curbing carbon emissions from shipping. By 2026, companies that travel to and from EU ports will have to pay for their emissions through a trading system, and the U.S. has set goals for a zero-emissions shipping industry by 2050.
4. New whale species described
New species discoveries, especially for animals as large as whales, are rare. In the 1990s, scientists believed that the small, resident whale population in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico was the Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei) that’s found globally in warm waters. They first suspected that the population was unique after a 2008 genetic data analysis compared samples collected from the Gulf population and Bryde’s whales. In addition to the resulting genetic differences, a 2019 Florida stranding allowed scientists to collect morphological data on a member of the Gulf population that showed a noticeable difference between the skulls. The genetic and morphological data helped identify this population as a new species that scientists named the Rice’s whale (B. ricei), after biologist Dale Rice. With fewer than 100 individuals, the newly described species is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Another whale species was described in 2021, named Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu). In 2011, when a beaked whale was found on a New Zealand beach, it was thought to be a True’s beaked whale (M. mirus), but after closer analyses, Ramari Stewart, a Mātauranga Māori whale expert, found it wasn’t a perfect match. By comparing genetics and skull shapes, scientists determined that True’s beaked whales in the Northern Hemisphere are a different species than the newly described Ramari’s beaked whales in the Southern Hemisphere. Beaked whales rarely surface, and few skeletons are found, making them difficult to study. Adding to their mystery, the Ramari’s beaked whales feed at depths of more than 900 meters (3,000 feet) and spend considerable time at depths of nearly 2,000 meters (6,000 feet). This year’s discoveries reaffirm just how much we still have to learn about the world’s oceans.
5. Progress on plastics
As the severity of the plastic pollution crisis has become more evident, 2021 delivered some hope through technological and policy advances. Chemical recycling, which breaks plastic down into its chemical building blocks that can then be used for fuels or to reincarnate new plastics, is gaining attention, though cost barriers remain a challenge. It would represent a significant advancement over the mechanical recycling process that is now common; mechanical recycling generally only works for certain plastics like PET and tends to result in material of reduced quality. Initiatives such as the Clean Currents Coalition are deploying a range of plastic capture technologies to prevent plastic pollution from reaching the ocean. These projects not only remove plastic waste from rivers and other waterways, but are also developing innovative ways to recycle and repurpose that waste, especially the traditionally lower-value plastics, for instance by manufacturing pavement blocks and children’s play structures for community parks.
However, because we can’t recycle or clean our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, policy approaches to reducing the generation of plastic waste have gained increased attention. Support for a global treaty on plastic pollution continued to build this year: The U.S., the world’s largest producer of plastic waste, announced it would participate in U.N.Environment Assembly (UNEA) talks in February 2022 on protecting oceans from the growing global harms of plastic pollution. Exciting developments also emerged at more local levels. In California, for example, an initiative is headed to the ballot in 2022 that would require single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and would tax producers of single-use plastic packaging.
6. A step closer to opening up international oceans to seabed mining
In June, the Pacific island nation of Nauru moved the world one step closer to the start of deep-sea mining by triggering an obscure clause that set the clock ticking for the International Seabed Authority to complete regulations on ocean mining by July 2023. As the mining industry also pushes to speed up the start of mining, a global group of more than 600 leading marine scientists and policy experts issued a statement calling for a pause on deep-sea mining, citing the potential for significant damage to the marine environment. Members of the IUCN voted for a moratorium on deep-sea mining at the World Conservation Congress in September, adding to calls from multiple NGOs and the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Vanuatu. Several businesses, including major electric vehicle manufacturers that would be key consumers of minerals from deep-sea mining, have also supported a moratorium. These include BMW, Volvo Group, Samsung, Philips, Volkswagen Group, Triodos Bank and Patagonia.
7. Momentum on ending harmful fisheries subsidies
With the arrival of a new director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in March 2021, there has been a sense of growing momentum this year for WTO members to finally reach a deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies after more than 20 years of negotiations. Eliminating these subsidies — public money totaling more than $22 billion every year that funds activities that encourage overfishing — is enshrined as a commitment in the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14. A chorus of voices has continued to grow in 2021 in support of a deal — ranging from scientists to business leaders and beyond — all focusing on the WTO’s postponed Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) as the key moment for action. MC12 was due to take place Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced another last-minute adjournment, and it is now expected to take place early in 2022. Meanwhile, talks continue, aiming to ensure a deal is sealed when the ministers finally gather in person.
8. Increasing temperatures impact ocean ecosystems globally
The warming planet continues to have unprecedented impacts on ocean ecosystems. Increasing algal blooms, likely driven by climate change, are contributing to population declines in manatees in Florida and commercial fish species in the Red Sea. Seabirds, an indicator species for the ocean’s health, have been dying in their thousands off the coasts of England and Scotland in a mass mortality event that experts suspect is linked to decreasing prey availability as waters warm. Recent research has also raised concerns by predicting future weakening of currents in the Atlantic that could have far-reaching impacts, causing sea levels to rise in North America and more extreme winter weather across the Atlantic.
9. China tests the water on ocean leadership
As the world’s largest country by population, the second-largest economy, and the biggest producer and consumer of seafood, China has a great responsibility and great opportunity to become a global leader for the ocean. In 2021, China continued advancing its Belt and Road Initiative, the world’s largest infrastructure push, with various projects rising around the globe. Expanded maritime port development under the initiative poses risks to critical coastal habitats, such as seagrass beds and mangroves, and to hundreds of marine species. However, if carefully and intelligently deployed, these investments could provide a unique opportunity to take an internationally coordinated approach to ecologically sensitive development. To this end, China has initiated a few bilateral “Blue Partnerships” with other countries along its Maritime Silk Road. These are aimed at “jointly protecting and sustainably utilizing marine resources to achieve harmony between man and the ocean,” according to a government statement.
China’s efforts to set up marine protected areas within its waters were shown this year to be better than previously appreciated by those in the international marine science and conservation community, who generally point to the country’s heavy fishing practices. These protections are especially strong for coastal and shallow marine habitats, although significant progress is still required. As China looks to expand and strengthen domestic conservation, it would be prudent to increase protection of habitats that are currently poorly protected and to more transparently share information on the performance of these marine parks. There is also great need for the country to affirm this commitment to the value of marine protection in conversations about international marine protected areas, where Chinese leadership has thus far been especially lacking.
10. 30 by 30: What does this mean for the ocean?
Last New Year, the world fell short of our global target to conserve at least 10% of our ocean. Today, only 7.9% of the ocean is protected; much less if you count only fully protected ocean. Our sprint over the last decade to protect the seas appears to have largely stalled this past year — notwithstanding significant recent announcements by Costa Rica. However, there were positive signals that progress may be resuming, with calls rising this year for us to do even more for the ocean and ocean-dependent communities by protecting 30% of our seas by 2030. Seventy-five nations signed a statement supporting this “30 by 30” goal, and the United States, the U.K., Canada and the EU have made similar pledges. As we consider how to advance this momentum into 2022, it is worth noting that progress on ocean protection to date has often been uneven. For example, more than 90% of the fully protected marine areas in the U.S. are in remote parts of the Pacific. These remote underwater Yosemites and Yellowstones are a vital component of U.S. ocean legacy. But we must now work to bring a new wave of ocean parks closer to our coastal communities so the benefits they provide — food, wealth and jobs — can be more readily shared by all. The road map ahead must also include more Indigenous leadership, following efforts being explored now on land.
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. Molly Morse is a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative, where she advances the organization’s projects on preventing marine plastic pollution and generating data about protected species. Callie Steffen is a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative, where she works on projects that are developing science- and technology-based solutions to ocean problems, such as the Whale Safe project. Her background is in conservation planning, particularly with marine mammals.
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