Reasons To Be Cheerful #15

Ocean Optimism

September was a great month for ocean conservation, check out some of the positive news below.

Huge pub chain cuts out straws

Wetherspoons, a huge UK pub chain, has announced that it’s going to phase out plastic straws from its pubs, switching to paper straws instead from January 2018. This is great news as this chain is such a large user of plastic straws that it could prevent up to 70 million plastic straws from reaching landfill or the oceans each year. It’s also helping the wider campaign to stop using plastic straws to gather momentum by adding its well known name to the list of big brands who are ditching plastic straws for the health of the ocean.

Great step forward for Pacific Bluefin tuna

At the latest meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, who are the brains behind the management of tuna stocks in the western Pacific Ocean, an agreement was made to recover this population to a sustainable level and to make a long term plan for the health of the stock. The stock is currently about 2.6% of the historical population size; however, the aim is to get it back to about 20% of historic levels by 2034. This is a massive step forward, and a great target, but the countries involved must stick to their commitments and carefully monitor their catches to make sure that these targets remain feasible. More research is also needed to understand the migration patterns of these tuna, and more about their biology. With tight controls on the number caught of fish caught, these tuna will get the chance to recover from intense fishing pressure.

Easter Island Marine Protected Area

One of the biggest marine protected areas has just been created off the coast of Easter Island. It’s called the Rapa Nui marine park, and it’s about the same size as Chile. The hope is that it will provide protection to 142 species that are only found in this area, and 27 of these are thought to be at risk of going extinct. This is a really productive area of ocean, meaning there are huge numbers of fish and several types of high level predator, including scalloped hammerhead sharks and humpback and blue whales. The marine park was voted for 73% in favour by the the Rapa Nui population of Easter Island, and extractive activities and industrial fishing will be banned from taking place inside the boundaries.

Great Barrier Reef is on the mend

Recent research dives to some of the most bleached parts of the coral reef are showing hopeful signs of recovery. Small eggs have been found in amongst the bleached coral, showing that there is still some healthy coral there and it’s capable of producing eggs. The research team also observed that a large proportion of the coral colonies on the inshore reefs had recovered and had regained their colour. There was some growth in in extent of the corals, showing that they are recovering well. It remains to be seen whether the eggs that are produced are able to be fertilised at the next annual spawning event, but if so this could represent a significant step forward in coral reef recovery.

Sea turtles spring back

A new analysis of global sea turtle abundance has been released, which shows that most populations of sea turtles are bouncing back after historical declines. This shows that efforts to protect sea turtles from their greatest threats, including getting caught accidentally in fishing nets and being caught for aphrodisiacs or decoration, are working. Even better news is the discovery that, with adequate protection, really small populations of sea turtles at risk of extinction can bounce back. This research reveals the success of long term turtle conservation efforts so far, but the researchers point out that this must be maintained in order to keep the future bright for sea turtles.

 

Cover photo by Tashiana Photography

 

Reasons To Be Cheerful #14

Ocean Optimism

Here’s some of the good stuff that happened for the sea in July 2017. Got to keep that balance.

 

Zimbabwe bans polystyrene

Zimbabwe is banning polystyrene for health and environmental reasons, and it’s going to help solve a whole lot of pollution problems. Kaylite, as polystyrene is known in Zimbabwe, is very common but not easily recyclable. As it’s made of expanded plastic particles, it breaks apart easily and is blown into waterways leading to the ocean. It can take hundreds of years to break down in the sea, never fully disappearing completely and causing huge marine pollution problems. This ban is being put in place by the Environmental Management Agency in Zimbabwe, making it illegal to manufacture or import kaylite for use or commercial distribution. There are concerns about what alternatives are available for the near future, but from an environmental point of view there’s no doubt that this is a fantastic move for ocean health.

Hobart cuts out convenience plastics

The city of Hobart, Tasmania, has pledged to phase out use of single-use plastic cutlery and containers by 2020. This is a huge move, as thousands of these items are given out every day in the city, but they’re only used for a few minutes before being thrown away. Customers frequently don’t recycle these items, or they are dropped littering the streets, so this convenience culture has become a huge waste problem. The plan is to replace the plastic with natural and biodegradable materials, such as bamboo and cornstarch, or less environmentally damaging materials like cardboard. By cutting out single-use plastic items in this way, the city of 220,000, plus its visitors, can make a huge step forward in reducing plastic waste, and can set a great example to other cities.

Shark fin soup falling out of favour

Sales of shark fin soup are falling in China, one of the top importers and users of shark fins. WildAid research shows that sales of shark fins have fallen between 50-70% on last year. There’s been a recent state drive to reduce consumption of this expensive, luxury product and WildAid have been campaigning strongly against the consumption of shark fins. There’s also a changing attitude amongst young people in China towards eating shark fin soup, with many turning it down for the sake of the sharks. Big name transport companies are also starting to refuse to carry shark fins. These falling sales show a positive change in attitude and consumer decisions in one of highest consuming countries of shark fins. On average 73 million sharks are killed for their fins each year, so this changing attitude can’t happen soon enough.

Tesco scrapping 5p bags

 UK supermarket giant Tesco are scrapping their 5 pence bags, and just offering their 10p bags for life. They’re trialling this plan in stores in Aberdeen, Norwich and Dundee to see if it reduces plastic bag usage even more, then Tesco plans to roll the pilot out across the country. The initial signs from the trial are looking positive, and bag purchases have been falling. However, the Marine Conservation Society are slightly concerned that 10 pence might not be enough of a deterrent to stop people buying so many of the bags. It’s a positive move for ocean conservation as if all of Tesco’s 5p bags aren’t being manufactured and sold, they can’t end up in the sea.

UK strengthens microbeads ban

The UK government has strengthened its ban on microbeads in cosmetics, pledging to ban them from any ‘rinse-off’ personal care and cosmetics items – so anything that washes down the drain. This will mean that shower gels, exfoliating face washes and toothpastes that are manufactured from the 1st of January 2018 will not contain microplastics. Any existing products won’t be able to be sold from 30 June 2018, meaning no more tiny plastic particles washing straight from our houses to the sea from the middle of next year.

Cover photo by the amazing Tashiana Photography 

Reasons To Be Cheerful #13

Ocean Optimism

Big commitments at the United Nations Ocean Conference

The Ocean Conference took place in New York at the beginning of June, a solid week of negotiations and partnerships for ocean conservation. It was a groundbreaking week of commitments, which led to the release of a strong call to action for the health of the oceans. With more than 1300 voluntary commitments made to strengthen the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 14, the ocean conservation goal, the conference has been seen to be a turning point in efforts to make progress in marine conservation. The commitments are voluntary, but if they are put into practice effectively, they will go a long way to achieving Goal 14. Commitments made included the designation of more Marine Protected Areas, more single-use plastic bans, greater restrictions on the release of known marine pollutants and sewage, pledges to carry out more scientific research and new approaches to tackling illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Ocean optimism was a theme that ran through the conference, particularly when talking about the issue of marine plastic pollution. It’s a big issue, but one with a tangible solution that different organisations, governments and communities can work together to achieve, and that’s a great source of hope.

Canada taking final steps to phasing out microbeads

Canada announced in June that new regulations concerning the use of microbeads, tiny plastic particles that are used in many toiletries and are highly damaging to marine life, will be coming into force from January 2018. These plastic particles are less than 5mm in size, so tiny that they can be eaten by the smallest marine organisms who often mistake them for food. Plastic also absorbs contaminants, meaning that the plastic particles can choke and poison the organisms that eat them. They’re too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment systems, so they go down the sink and straight out to sea. So what’s great is that these new rules will mean that products containing microbeads won’t be made, imported or sold in Canada from January 1, 2018, unless they’re natural health products or non-prescription drugs. If they are, the ban will come in a bit later in July 2018.

Top fishing companies team up for positive progress worldwide

Some of the biggest fishing companies across the world have agreed to work together to improve sustainability and working conditions in the fishing industry. Although there are millions of small-scale fishers across the world, a lot of the commercial catches are actually controlled by a small number of big companies. It’s thought that about 13 companies control about 11 to 16% of the global catch, which means they have a huge ecological and socioeconomic impact across the world.  This commitment comes as part of the development of a new initiative, the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), that’s creating a working partnership between big companies from Asia, Europe and the US. Part of the voluntary commitment is to eliminate catches from illegal sources, also known as ‘black fish’. These might be fish that are caught as a result of piracy, slavery or fish that are caught without a license. The companies taking part in this initiative are also cracking down on traceability and transparency in supply chains, pledging to tackle the major issue of slavery in the fishing industry by designing a code of conduct. This initiative may be voluntary; however, the fact that these discussions are taking place and drawing attention to the large amount of power that a small number of companies holds over the health of the ocean is a key milestone in marine conservation.

Vamizi Island reefs are thriving

The Vamizi Island coral reefs off the East coast of Africa appear to be resisting the impacts of climate change due to some great management and some fortunate ecological conditions. The great management is done by the local communities, who are responsible for overseeing how the area is used and enforcing management actions that are put into place to protect it. Without this it’s likely that the reef would be long overexploited. The other factor is the helpful location of the reefs themselves. They’re in an area that receives cooler currents which helps to counteract the gradually rising ocean temperatures that are causing coral reef bleaching. The reef is also in a great place to receive extra nutrients that are brought up from the seabed by a process called upwelling.

 

 

Reasons To Be Cheerful #12

Ocean Optimism

May 2017 marks a whole year of Reasons To Be Cheerful. Here’s some positive ocean news from last month.

Basking shark hangout could get MPA status

A new proposed marine protected area could be designated to protect endangered basking sharks off the coast of Scotland. It’s normally really difficult to protect species that migrate a long way, like sharks, whales, dolphins and tuna, because they don’t stay still long enough for it to be worth designating a specific area. This population of basking sharks off the west of Scotland has been tagged and monitored for a while now. What’s great is the data is showing that they’ve been returning to this proposed marine protected area for consecutive years, which could mean that it’s an important breeding or feeding ground. Protecting this area will help preserve these basking sharks’ favourite haunt, encouraging them to keep returning year on year and supporting the growth of this endangered population.

Talk about potential plastic straw tax

There’s talk of a need for a plastic straw tax, in the same way as a plastic bag tax, which is being driven by a recycling and waste firm, Business Waste. Plastic straws are hugely wasteful, they’re used for a few minutes and then thrown away, and they’re one of the top items of litter found on UK beaches. Business Waste suggested that a tax could encourage people to think twice about whether they need a straw, and could offer a way to get around the cost and complexity of creating and rolling out something new to replace straws in our everyday lives. The UK 5p plastic bag tax was really effective at cutting down on plastic bag usage, and so it’s great that conversations are now starting to happen about whether this is something we need to do with plastic straws.

The Ocean Cleanup hits funding target

The team behind one of the biggest ocean cleanup proposals so far this month announced that they have reached the fundraising target they needed to begin their pilot trials in the Pacific this year. They’ve raised US$ 21.7 million, allowing them to test the new technology that they have also recently announced. Previously the cleanup technology was going to be fixed to the seabed, but now it’s going to be mobile to aim to collect more plastic and faster than previously planned. This is a great step forward, and The Ocean Cleanup team says that they’re looking to get the technology working in the most polluted areas of the Pacific in the first half of 2018.

Helpful coral reef neighbours

A new study has shown that unhealthy reefs recover best when they are close to patches of healthy reef, so that coral larvae can spill over and repopulate the areas that have been damaged. A coral reef reproduces by releasing eggs and sperm into the water at the same time. These then form larvae in the water and drift to nearby areas with the current. This new study has identified that it’s not the quantity of coral larvae that drifts into the damaged reef area, but it’s actually how regularly the larvae drift and settle that is more important. This is a great discovery in coral reef science because it means that we can focus on protecting networks of coral reefs. We need patches of healthy reef dispersed as widely as possible, so that there is a consistent spillover that can reach and help the unhealthy areas recover.

 The MCS Plastic Challenge

The Marine Conservation Society Plastic Challenge was announced last month, which is encouraging people to take real steps to cut their single-use plastics this month. The aim of the challenge is to swap out as many single-use plastics as possible, swapping in reusable, long-lasting alternatives. It’s also a sponsored challenge, and all money raised goes towards helping the MCS tackle plastic pollution on our coasts. Find out more about the challenge, get some plastic-free tips and sign up here.

Cover photo by Tashiana Photography

Reasons To Be Cheerful #11

Ocean Optimism

April was a pretty cheerful month for the oceans, particularly for the people that were brought together at events around the world on Earth Day.

 #MakeTheOceanFamous

 The Sustainable Oceans Summit was held at Georgetown University on Earth Day with the aim to ‘Make The Ocean Famous’. The Summit was focused on solutions more than problems, with a good helping of hope, and aimed to mainstream the importance of the ocean and hold conversations about how to protect it. There were sessions by renowned people in the field, like Dr Enric Sala, who talked about the power of No-Take Marine Reserves as a tool to help recover species that are under threat and Maggie Thompson, who talked about the power in numbers of the upcoming generations. The Summit focused on new approaches to target these younger generations, who will one day be the ones making big decisions about our impact on the planet. To do this we need to switch away from negative messaging and over-used images, instead focusing on positive and successful behaviour changes for the oceans.

 #ConservationOptimism

The Conservation Optimism Summit, held at Dulwich College in London, was three days of optimistic conservation energy, hearing from inspirational people working in conservation and sharing their successes. The focus on what works was strong, as platforms such as PANORAMA were shared, where conservationists can record the ‘building blocks’ of their success. One of the key messages, was that anyone can call themselves a ‘conservationist’. You don’t need to have a science degree, a lab coat or a passion for a certain type of starfish. You just have to recognise that there are issues with how we’re managing our resources and our impact on the oceans, and that we need to take steps to do a better job. It’s all about believing in the need for change, and in our ability to do so. Read more on my thoughts about the Summit here.

Turning waste plastic into roads

A small Scottish start-up is working to revolutionise the way we dispose of plastic, and the way we make roads. At the same time. Toby McCartney has developed a process where waste plastic is transformed into pellets, that are mixed with quarried rock and bitumen and then used to make road surfacing. McCartney says that the plastic approach is longer-lasting, stronger and makes fewer potholes than conventional roads. He also turns industrial farm waste that would normally be incinerated or sent to landfill, two enormously polluting processes, into pellets instead. These pellets are integrated into the process just the same as waste plastic bottles, and then laid to make road surfaces. Cumbria Council are already trying it, using their local waste plastic to resurface their local roads.  It seems like a way better idea to be using waste plastic to create the huge amounts of new road surface that we need every year, rather than continually extracting more and more oil to do the same thing.

 Plastic breakdown, powered by caterpillars

One of the reasons plastic is so great, is also its main downfall. Plastic is strong and malleable, and for this reason a plastic bottle will outlive us by hundreds of years, yet we probably only use it for a few hours at most. So as we continue to buy and throw away plastic, it never actually goes away, it just piles up in landfill and in the sea. A small amount is recycled, but not enough to balance out what we produce. However, a breakthrough has happened in the shape of a caterpillar. The larvae of a wax moth can munch through a piece of plastic in 30 minutes, and scientists have worked out that it’s the enzyme that the caterpillars use to break down and digest beeswax, which also helps them digest plastic bags. Scientists think that this could be a way to help break down the mountains of plastic sat in landfill sites, but there is some way to go with the research to see how it might work in the long term.

 Bioplastic coffee cups

Bioplastic coffee cups have been engineered so that now your coffee can be totally compostable. Bioplastic looks and behaves like normal plastic, but in fact it’s made from plant materials so it can go out to be composted with your food waste and breaks down back into the soil. In the UK we drink about 8 million takeaway coffees every day, which adds up to a vast amount of plastic waste that ends up on the streets, in landfill or in the sea. So the invention of these fully compostable coffee cups, if they can be rolled out on a wide scale into coffee shops nationwide, will help cut this mountain of waste down to size.

 Sea otters bounce back

 Sea otter numbers are bouncing back in Glacier Bay, Alaska, having been decimated for 250 years because of intense hunting for the fur trade. It wasn’t looking good for sea otter populations for a while, but then they popped up again in 1988, thriving off the rich marine resources that the retreating glacier had exposed in the Bay as it melted. Recently a study has been released which shows that the sea otter population in Glacier Bay grew 21% per year between 1993 and 2012. The great news is that this shows that the abundance of natural resources, and the sustainable management of the area as a Marine Protected Area, is helping to bring threatened populations back to a healthy state.

Cover photo by Tashiana Photography 

10 things I’ve learnt about conservation optimism

Ocean Optimism, Step Up For The Sea
  1. ‘Conservation optimism is about planning for the future, not just holding the line’ – Elizabeth Bennett. Conservation optimists are focused on making positive change and taking real steps forward for recovery, turning passion into practice.
  1. It’s a powerful movement that’s growing fast, thanks to the drive of hundreds of motivated and inspirational conservationists.
  1. We need to widen who can call themselves a ‘conservationist’. As Heather Koldewey spoke about at the Summit, anyone can be a conservationist. You don’t have to have a science degree – this is for anyone from any discipline, with concern for our environment and the drive to work to protect it for future generations. No lab coat required.
  1. The passion showed by young people is the engine of the movement. School children’s voices have been seen to have strong weight in political decision-making, and the skills and optimism shown by young conservation professionals entering the field will help to drive the movement forward.
  1. There’s a real practical element to the movement. The ‘let’s focus on what works’ attitude is strong, with partnerships and strategy sharing at the heart of the movement.
  1. Conservation optimism isn’t a quick fix – it’s about laying strong foundations and setting up networks of people to support this movement, thereby establishing a new positive approach that will show results on the ground over time.
  1. We need to get cleverer with our communications. There are so many great things happening for the environment all over the world, but as conservationists we all need to do our bit to make sure the news leaves our bubble and reaches the public. This is how we can help encourage ocean-friendly public behaviour changes.
  1. Persistence is key, even if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Conservation optimists can be the drivers of positive attitudes, but even the most optimistic of us will have bad days. It’s about continuing with what we know works, and allowing all the little things to add up to positive change.
  1. There’s interest in setting up other Conservation Optimism Summits around the world. Africa and the Philippines were mentioned as places where future Summits would be well received, and holding these conferences would help to propel the development of the movement.
  1. We need to keep conservation optimism as something that is owned by everyone – it’s a movement, not an organisation or a business. It’s got potential to be taken forward by individuals, groups of people or wider networks who see ways to promote optimism around an issue or a place, and it’s the creativity of optimists who are going to make optimism one of the most powerful tools we’ve got.

 

Cover picture from Anna Oposa’s plenary talk

 

Reasons To Be Cheerful #10

Ocean Optimism

From vaquita rescues to dugong drones and plastic bag bans to hydrophones, a lot of good stuff happened for the sea in March 2017.

New study reveals success of Palau MPAs

 A new study has just been published showing that Marine Protected Areas in Palau are working really well and are effectively increasing fish stocks. This is exactly what is hoped for when a new MPA is designated. The study in Palau has found that there were more of the top predators in the protected areas than in the open areas, and that bigger protected areas allow for the recovery of a more individuals and habitats, which are often larger in size. There are also additional benefits to the fishing that takes place in the open areas right next to a No-Take MPA, because the fish don’t know where the boundaries are so they swim out of the area and can be caught nearby. So there are benefits to the marine environment, but also to the local fishing economy. This is a really positive study that shows the comparison between protected and unprotected areas, proving that protected areas really help fisheries recover. A healthy and diverse marine environment is more resilient to withstanding the impacts of climate change, so it’s clear that we need to designate and effectively manage more areas of the ocean.

 Kenya bans plastic bags

The Kenyan Government will be implementing a ban in the next six months on imported plastic bags for commercial and household packaging. Some of the major supermarket chains in Kenya have shared their support for the move, deeming it to be a great step forward in the mission to tackle the country’s plastic pollution problem. Recyclable plastic bags and paper or cardboard alternatives will be offered to ease the transition away from single-use plastic convenience bags. Kenya hopes to follow Rwanda in their successful clean-up mission, where they phased out single-use plastic bags nine years ago, leading to a significantly cleaner environment.

 Don’t Let Go

A balloon release at a party or event might seem like a great idea, but what goes up must come down. Balloons and sky lanterns are released regularly in their thousands, but then burst and fall to the ground or straight into the ocean. Even if they fall to land they can very easily be washed into watercourses after heavy rainfall, and end up at sea anyway. Seabirds and marine life confuse balloons for food and mistakenly eat them, causing some serious health issues. As they’re made of plastic they can take years to break down in the ocean. Sky lanterns also have a metal frame which causes further pollution problems and lasts a lot longer. What’s great, though, is that the impact of balloons and sky lanterns is being recognised and Scottish councils are starting to ban the release of helium balloons and sky lanterns on their land. Last month, Torfaen Council, Wales, also stepped forward to introduce a voluntary ban on sky lanterns, bringing Wales a step closer to a wide scale ban on sky lantern releases.

 Drones for dugongs

Dugongs are vulnerable to extinction, and they’re often killed by getting caught up in fishing nets. Their behaviour makes them seem super secretive: they’re slow moving, don’t splash around or jump out of the water and they normally swim at a depth of about 5 to 10m. Even though they have to surface to breathe, sightings are few and far between and so conservationists are often not sure how many there are left. But now the IUCN in Sri Lanka are stepping up their conservation game by integrating drones into their conservation and management strategies. The drones can film large areas of water from a height and search for evidence of dugongs surfacing to breathe. So this drone tech is going to be crucial in gathering data to monitor dugong numbers, track their movements and to help crack down on the fishing activity that is threatening the numbers of these gentle sea creatures.

Power to the Philippine fishermen

The Philippine Government, in conjunction with the NGO Rare, has announced that small-scale fishing communities will have more influence and control over the management of their fisheries and marine sanctuaries as part of the 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan. This is said to be a ‘pivotal point for fisheries management in the Philippines’, and it’s expected that involving the fishing communities more with the management of the coastal waters and resources will improve the sustainability of the marine environment. The plan aims to establish networks of Marine Protected Areas, and the local fishing community will be heavily involved in the protecting these areas, in return for preferential access to other managed-access fishing grounds outside the MPA. As one of the ‘top 10 fishing nations in the world’ with a strongly ocean-based economy, it’s super important that steps like this are taken to ensure that the marine environment is adequately protected, which will in turn support the national economy and ensure improved and sustained food security for Philippine coastal communities.

 Emergency measures funded to save the last 30 vaquitas

The vaquita population has hit an all-time low, but drastic measures have been organised to allow the last 30 individuals a chance to recover away from danger. The vaquita is a critically endangered porpoise that only lives in the Gulf of California, and it is extremely vulnerable to the totoaba fishing industry in the area which uses gillnets that these porpoises become tangled in. The severity of the situation has been recognised and an emergency action plan is being put in place to rescue and protect the remaining 30 vaquitas, to prevent them from harm. The remaining vaquitas will be taken to a temporary sanctuary area, where they will be safe from the gillnets that they so often get caught in. This temporary measure is being funded by the Mexican government’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, who have committed $3 million to kickstart the construction of a sea pen to house the vaquitas, but the project is also appealing for funding support from the public. Fingers crossed that rehoming the vaquitas, just for a while, will help their numbers recover and boost the resilience of this tiny porpoise to dangers they face everyday.

Hydrophones reveal evidence of rare whales

Hydrophones, acoustic recording devices that are anchored on moorings, were set up in Cook Strait, New Zealand, last summer by a team of marine ecologists from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research for New Zealand. The equipment was set up to listen out for whales that were passing through the area. The results are now being released and scientists think that it could be the first time that audio of the Gray’s and strap-toothed beaked whales have been recorded in New Zealand’s waters. Other whales have been identified too, including Antarctic blue whales and Antarctic minke whales. These audio recordings tell us more about which species pass through New Zealand’s waters, and this is really helpful from a conservation perspective because it means we are now learning so much more about which species we need to protect, and where they’ve been. This information needs to be incorporated into future policy and planning. Keep on singing, whales.