- Marine scientists from six international research and conservation institutions share their list of the top ocean news stories from 2023.
- Hopeful developments this past year include a monumental global treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas and the regulation of international trade in 97 species of sharks and rays under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
- At the same time, 2023 was the hottest year on record, with widespread bleaching of corals in the Caribbean and Great Barrier Reef, and many more hot years forecast as humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming continue.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
1. Record heat in 2023
2023 is widely regarded as the hottest year on record, with monthly, seasonal and annual records spiking in the ocean and atmosphere, and repeated headlines in global media. The graph of last year’s global average temperatures (see below) shows a step-change increase from the temperature records of the last 10 years, themselves clearly separated from the cooler preceding decades.
Ocean temperatures through the Northern Hemisphere summer reached record highs, with global sea surface temperatures 0.99° Celsius (1.78° Fahrenheit) above average in July through August due to El Niño development in the eastern Pacific that strengthened and intensified to the end of the year. Mass bleaching of coral reefs is one of the most immediate indicators of ocean heat impacts, and record levels of bleaching occurred in the wider Caribbean from July through September. Reports of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef soon followed, as its summer season began in late 2023, potentially a harbinger of another multiyear bleaching event that could outdo the last one in 2014 through 2017. As we come out of a relatively stable global temperature regime capped by the three-year La Niña from 2020 through 2022, will the coming years represent a step toward or even past potentially irreversible tipping points in the global climate system?
This unprecedented increase in warming formed the backdrop to countries and a wide range of stakeholders gathering at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai in early December to negotiate whether to turn off the fossil-fuel tap. There are just seven years left for major greenhouse gas emitters to rein in their emissions enough to cap warming at 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels, the threshold beyond which extreme climate effects are likely. For the first time, a primary message at the COP was that while achieving long-term stabilization at 1.5°C remains theoretically possible, it is almost certain that a short-term overshoot of a few tenths of a degree Celsius is unavoidable. Although the COP28 cover decision, or final agreement, cites the full range of critical issues that need to be addressed, it predictably fails to call for the phase-out of fossil fuels that many scientists see as necessary to minimize this overshoot.
2. Two steps forward, one step back on deep-sea mining
The push to launch a new and destructive marine industry, deep-sea mining, has been gathering pace, resulting in intense opposition and calls for a moratorium in international waters. In a giant leap forward, a further 12 countries committed to a moratorium or precautionary pause in 2023, including the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada and Brazil, bringing the total number to 24 in just two years.
Several stakeholder groups also weighed in on this debate for the first time in 2023, laying more groundwork for positive action. On the back of new scientific research from authors of this article highlighting potential future conflict between tuna fisheries and deep-sea mining in the Pacific, some of the largest players in the seafood industry issued a statement in July advocating for a pause in deep-sea mining development until the socioeconomic and environmental impacts are more thoroughly analyzed. Among the signers are the Global Tuna Alliance, whose 48 industry partners account for 32% of the global tuna trade, and the Sustainable Seafood Coalition, which represents 45 U.K. seafood organizations. Indigenous leaders and groups have called for governments and the International Seabed Authority, the U.N.-mandated deep-sea mining regulator, to enact a ban immediately. Opposition also went one step further this year, taking to the remote waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, where Greenpeace protesters prevented mineral exploration activities for more than 200 hours in November.
At odds with this movement, in September, a majority coalition in the Norwegian Parliament agreed to open an area of Arctic seafloor just smaller than Italy at about 280,000 square kilometers (108,000 square miles) for deep-sea mining exploration. The proposal for exploration was approved as this article went to press, on Jan. 9. Many see this push by Norway to become the first to conduct commercial deep-sea mining in one of the most important and fragile parts of the planet as being at odds with the country’s co-leadership of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. Even the panel’s Norwegian co-lead called the proposed opening a “warned disaster.”
3. The high seas no longer out of sight and out of mind
After almost two decades in the making, the so-called Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty (also known as the BBNJ Treaty and the High Seas Treaty) was formally adopted by consensus on June 19, 2023, and opened for signature on Sept. 20 during the 78th United Nations General Assembly. The BBNJ Treaty symbolizes a triumph of international cooperation and is a testament to our shared responsibility for the well-being of our planet. It encapsulates a shared vision for a future where the biodiversity of our ocean is cherished, protected and used sustainably for the benefit of present and future generations.
Once it enters into force, the treaty will enable the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) and mandate the conduct of environmental impact assessments to regulate human activities on the high seas. It will also provide mechanisms to ensure fair and equitable access to and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources from species living in the high seas, as well as enable capacity building and transfer of marine technology from wealthier to poorer nations so everyone can benefit from this shared global commons.
A healthy, thriving, productive ocean is fundamental for the survival of humankind. We are at a juncture where tipping points could be reached. With the unprecedented climate change-generated multistressors of warming, deoxygenation, acidification and marine heat waves that the ocean faces today, coupled with pollution and overfishing, it is high time for life in the high seas to be protected, conserved and used in a sustainable manner.
For the treaty to come into force and be effective, at least 60 states must ratify it (so far 84 have signed, a key step on the way to ratification), political will must be sustained, and the capacity of all states party to the treaty must be built. Observers hope it will take effect in 2025.
4. The “Nobel Prize of the Environment” recognizes ocean and fisheries science
The John and Alice Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement marked its 50th anniversary in 2023, recognizing two ocean fisheries scientists, Daniel Pauly and Rashid Sumaila, for their ground-breaking work. This is a big win for ocean science because the prize, often described as the “Nobel Prize of the Environment,” is awarded to scientists from all fields of environmental science and sustainability.
The selection of Sumaila (an author of this commentary) and Pauly as joint winners reflects the breadth of their work on ocean health, the foundational role of fisheries in driving ocean health and supporting people, human health and economies across the globe, and the increasingly urgent need to plan effectively for future sustainability. Pauly was honored for his innovations in fisheries ecology, including ecosystem-based analytical methods demonstrating global declines in fish stocks, and for making this understanding more accessible to policymakers, scientists and the public through projects like the Sea Around Us and FishBase. Sumaila was recognized for his groundbreaking work integrating economics, ecology and other disciplines to promote the sustainable management of ocean fisheries. His application of game theory to the management of shared fish stocks has touched on setting catch quotas, reducing fishing subsidies and ensuring long-term sustainability of fisheries resources.
The recognition of their work in 2023 mirrors the growing awareness both of the planet harboring one ocean interconnected across scales, and the interdependence of all biomes and countries across our one planet. Both scientists have made invaluable contributions across all spatial scales, ranging from local communities and small-scale fisheries to global-scale challenges. Equally crossing temporal scales, Pauly’s work popularized the concept of “shifting baselines,” which illustrates how our understanding of environmental declines can erode over time, while Sumaila’s work looks into the future to capture the long-term value of fisheries resources. Both scientists have focused on equity in fisheries, particularly the income and nutritional security and rights of small-scale fishers in low-income countries, to ensure a healthy ocean legacy for future generations.
5. Recognizing and empowering the tropical majority
Efforts to acknowledge and dismantle systems of oppression that either intentionally marginalize minoritized groups or naively choose to “not see color or identity” have been spilling out through movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the growing focus on Indigenous peoples as recognition of different cultural and value systems grows globally. This is reflected in mounting awareness of and organization around issues of ocean justice and diversity, such as in relation to human rights abuse and organized crime in the seafood industry revealed in October 2023 in The New Yorker.
In ocean sciences, several groups are leading the charge on inclusive practices; among them are Black In Marine Science, Black in Geography, and Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science. Furthermore, the widespread recognition that those most vulnerable to changing ocean conditions are often not the ones engaging in the destructive practices driving those changes has strengthened calls for environmental justice and prompted scientists to emphasize the importance of taking action.
Our 2023 paper, co-authored by emerging and established leaders from across the global tropics, highlighted the importance of engaging with the “tropical majority,” the majority of ocean-dependent people who live in low- to middle-income countries across the tropics. This call to action reflects a move across sectors from building awareness to enacting measures to reverse ocean-related environmental injustices by centering equity in ocean governance, reconnecting people and marine environments, redefining ocean literacy by expanding ways of knowing to include traditional and Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices and decolonizing science.
6. Important steps on the long road to recovery for sharks and rays
Globally, one-third of the 1,240 known species of sharks, rays and chimaeras now face a high to extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, primarily as a result of overfishing. As shark and ray species play fundamental roles in maintaining ecosystem balance and in supporting fisheries, the collapse of their stocks will have devastating impacts on ecosystems and on coastal fisher livelihoods and incomes.
A landmark measure for shark and ray conservation entered into force in 2023: 97 shark and ray species were brought under trade regulation through listing in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The convention now covers more than 90% of shark and ray species traded globally for their fins, which should now be permitted for international trade only if such trade is not detrimental to wild populations.
Although critical, these listings are just one of the first steps toward sustainable trade and improved conservation for sharks and rays. Nations have been slow to implement measures mandated by the listings, and meanwhile, trade has continued, often in breach of trade controls.
MPAs have long been advocated to protect marine species but are rarely designated specifically to protect sharks and rays, and few include ecologically important areas for these species. Two years ago, the IUCN Species Survival Commission Shark Specialist Group initiated the Important Shark and Ray Areas (ISRAs) project to identify places to protect. In 2023, the project mapped a further 190 ISRAs, six candidate ISRAs and 65 Areas of Interest in the Western Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean and Black seas regions. These areas should be incorporated into national marine spatial planning processes, which would support area-based protections for sharks and rays and could contribute to achieving Target 3 of the Global Biodiversity Framework, which commits nations to protecting 30% of land and sea areas by 2030.
Such trade controls and spatial protections, along with effective fisheries management, can secure the necessary conservation changes to halt or even reverse declines in shark and ray populations. But the road to recovery will be a long one. There is no quick fix for heavily overfished stocks of species vulnerable to overexploitation.
7. 29 countries sign on to end harmful fisheries subsidies
After trying since 2001, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) reached a historic global agreement to control harmful fisheries subsidies in June 2022. Articles of the agreement specifically prohibit government subsidies to vessels or operators engaged in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing; the fishing of overfished stocks; and fishing on the unregulated high seas.
While the successful negotiation of this agreement is certainly commendable, substantial work lies ahead. The good news is that WTO members themselves recognize that ongoing negotiations are essential to strengthen the foundations of the June 2022 agreement. In 2023, the first 29 countries accepted the agreement, marking the first critical step in the long road to implementation. The agreement must still undergo ratification by two-thirds (or 109) of the WTO’s member states in order for it to enter into force, but the pace of ratification has been slower than anticipated.
Following ratification, the next significant challenge and opportunity will be to effectively implement the agreement. This will require collaborative efforts from civil society, businesses, governments and, most importantly, active engagement from concerned citizens worldwide.
Banner image: A coral reef and its residents in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Image ©Greg Asner/divephoto.org.
David Obura is a founding director of CORDIO East Africa, translating experience from coral reefs, climate change and small-scale fisheries to global sustainability challenges. Diva Amon is a Caribbean marine scientist at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, University of California Santa Barbara, where she works on ocean stewardship, including the little-known habitats and animals of the deep ocean and how our actions are impacting them. Rhett Bennett is the program manager for the Western Indian Ocean Shark and Ray Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, where he coordinates capacity building, collection of ecological, fishery and trade data, and supports governments to develop policy for improved conservation and management of sharks and rays in the Western Indian Ocean region. Minna Epps is a marine biologist and the head of the IUCN Global Ocean Programme, directing IUCN’s ocean conservation, including ocean governance, blue economy, blue finance and plastics work. Ana Spalding is a marine social scientist and the director of the Adrienne Arsht Community-Based Resilience Solutions Initiative at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where she stewards marine conservation and ocean governance through science, innovation and equity. U. Rashid Sumaila is a University Killam Professor at the University of British Columbia focusing on bioeconomics, marine ecosystem valuation and the analysis of global issues impacting the ocean.
Amon, D. J., Palacios-Abrantes, J., Drazen, J. C., Lily, H., Nathan, N., Van der Grient, J. M., & McCauley, D. (2023). Climate change to drive increasing overlap between Pacific tuna fisheries and emerging deep-sea mining industry. npj Ocean Sustainability, 2(1). doi:10.1038/s44183-023-00016-8
Spalding, A. K., Grorud-Colvert, K., Allison, E. H., Amon, D. J., Collin, R., De Vos, A., … Thurber, R. V. (2023). Engaging the tropical majority to make ocean governance and science more equitable and effective. npj Ocean Sustainability, 2(1). doi:10.1038/s44183-023-00015-9
Dulvy, N. K., Pacoureau, N., Rigby, C. L., Pollom, R. A., Jabado, R. W., Ebert, D. A., … Simpfendorfer, C. A. (2021). Overfishing drives over one-third of all sharks and rays toward a global extinction crisis. Current Biology, 31(22), 5118-5119. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.11.008
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