Reasons To Be Cheerful #8

Ocean Optimism

In a month where we all need a bit of optimism, here’s a quick round up of some good stuff that’s happening for the sea.

Air China refuses to carry shark fin cargo

Air China has taken a bold step and banned cargoes of shark fins on its services which is a huge step forward in combatting the shark fin trade that is decimating shark populations and driving some species to endangered status. As much of the fin cargo is transported by sea, this decision will not single-handedly curb the shark fin trade, but it’s such great news because this decision by a big company to put ethics and environment over business shows a change in China’s attitude to the health of the oceans.

Super fragile deep-sea ecosystems defended from fishing gear

A new conservation measure has been approved by the European Parliament this month that will protect deep sea ecosystems in the North-East Atlantic from trawling. Deep-sea ecosystems are often overlooked and they are so fragile that any damage caused by fishing gear can take hundreds of years to recover. So banning trawling in these very deep areas (deeper than 800m) that are delicate and largely unknown is a positive for the North-East Atlantic marine environment. Deep-sea species like monkfish, orange roughy and ling will be protected from longlines, gillnets and bottom trawlers. These species are particularly at risk because they are slow growing, so continual fishing pressure doesn’t give stocks a chance to recover before the next catch. The UK’s largest fishing association is onside with these developments too, saying they approve and are pleased to be able to maintain deep-sea biodiversity through these new regulations.

Protection for Mid-Atlantic deep-sea canyon creatures

Deep-sea corals in the US waters of the Mid-Atlantic are now safe from damage by trawling. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is the first of eight of these US Councils to use the power that they have to be able to cordon off areas of the deep sea to damaging fishing gear. A new zone has just been designated, called the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep-Sea Coral Protection Area and it’s 40,000 square miles of safe space for deep sea corals. It includes lots of undersea canyons, particularly deep and narrow sections of seafloor that harbour very fragile and rare species. The regulations and boundaries of this new zone were carefully considered by the stakeholders, and big discussions were held regarding the boundaries of the zone. This is great news as it shows that legislative powers held by Fishery Management Councils are being put to good use, and now it’s time for the others to take steps to protect the deep-sea in their areas too.

Where the whale sharks are…

An exciting drone project has been developed to help fill in gaps in our knowledge about whale shark movements. Whale sharks are particularly difficult to track because they dive very deep and migrate vast distances. So the development of the ‘Wave Glider’, a wave-powered drone that listens for signals from whale sharks that are tagged with an acoustic tag and then communicates information about their location back to land, is great news. The study found whale sharks in places where they weren’t expected to be at that time of year, which shows that this tool will be able to teach us a lot about their movements. These drones can power themselves using solar power and can be left alone to do their thing for a year, making them a really important tool. They can gather more location data in real-time than a team of research vessel-based scientists, and the acoustic trackers can track the whale sharks when they dive deep, which is useful because satellite signals sometimes drop out when the animal dives below a certain depth. So hopefully in the coming years we’ll know more about what whale sharks do all year and where they go, and this will help us to protect them. If we know their breeding grounds and places where they regularly visit, then we can focus the designation of Marine Protected Areas on this places. More information = better planning = more effective protection = happier sharks.


Reasons to be cheerful #7

Ocean Optimism

President Obama bans oil and gas drilling in Arctic, indefinitely

President Obama has permanently banned drilling for oil and gas in the majority of US Arctic waters, and is preventing future leasing.  Importantly, he has taken steps to prevent the undoing of this new ocean protection legacy that he will leave behind him in the new year. This designation is said to be permanent, so it won’t need reviewing every few years, and could be difficult to roll back by the next President due to the use of a law from 1953, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which means that this ban can be in operation indefinitely. What’s also great is that Canada has announced a similar ban in conjunction with this one. Prime Minister Trudeau has also banned the allocation of oil and gas drilling licences in Canadian Arctic waters, and this will be reviewed every 5 years. These announcements mean that fragile Arctic marine ecosystems and communities who live in these regions will be protected from the risk of damage by oil spills. Species in the Arctic often exist at the edge of their physical capabilities, which makes them really vulnerable to the impacts of human activities. Such a large scale ban in this area will offer protection to a large portion of fragile ecosystem, and the legal basis used by the Obama administration will hopefully prevent the undoing of this great step forward in the near future.


Supermarkets agree to ‘Switch The Stick’

Loads of leading UK supermarkets and health and beauty retailers have pledged to ‘switch the stick’ and stop selling cotton buds with plastic stems and switch to rolled paper stems instead. Thanks to a campaign by, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Boots and Superdrug have all agreed that their own brand cotton buds will be plastic free by the end of 2017. This is brilliant news for the sea because plastic cotton bud stems are one of the major polluters of coastlines (23.7 of these plastic cotton buds were found on average every 100 METRES during the Great British Beach Clean 2016).  They’re often flushed down the loo and, as a result, can find their way into the oceans. Once they’re in the sea they are near impossible to remove, and become only more difficult over time as they break down into smaller plastic fragments and eventually microplastics that cause a whole load of other problems. So phasing out plastic from this very common product is a real step forward and will help to cut down on plastic sewage related debris in the oceans.


More than 5% of global ocean now protected

2016 was an exceptional year in terms of the designation of new Marine Protected Areas. At the beginning of the December, the percentage of the global ocean that is now designated as any form of MPA hit 5%. This is massive news, and shows a growing global commitment to the health of the oceans. It’s been calculated that 3.6 million square kilometres of ocean have been designated since April, which is pretty staggering, and means that finally the global percentages of protected waters are creeping up. Most of this was in the form of 5 Very Large Marine Protected Areas (VLMPAs).  It’s so great that the MPA coverage percentages are increasing, and at the rate that they are too, but it’s important to remember that designating them alone is not enough – they need to be effectively managed and monitored so that they actually do the job on the ground (water) that they were designated for. Drawing a line on a map won’t automatically mean that an area in real life suddenly becomes well managed and pressures on the marine environment are removed or balanced out. We need to have effective management plans in action for each of these areas to make sure that the impact of this wave of MPA designation that has happened in 2016 is maximised. These new designations form a basis that we can now work to protect effectively, and offer real positivity in marine conservation for the start of 2017.


 The MPA wave keeps on going

The fact that new MPA designations keep featuring in each of these monthly positive rundowns is reason to be cheerful in itself. Here are a few more designations that have been announced in December that are helping the global coverage percentage creep up:

  • Four new MPAs have been designated in Mexican waters – tripling the amount of existing areas and taking the total to 91 million hectares.
  • The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area protects 112,300 square kilometres of the Bering Sea, which is a hugely rich, complex and fragile marine environment. It’s depended upon by ‘40 tribes of coastal Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples’, and this designation will help protect these communities and ecosystems from encroachment by activities such oil and gas exploration and shipping, that combined with the impacts of climate change, are threatening livelihoods in the area.
  • There are now four new Marine Conservation Zones in Northern Ireland that will contribute to creating an ‘ecologically coherent network’ of these MCZs across the UK. These new designations will offer protection to fragile seagrass systems, sections of deep sea, a submerged coastline (which proves global sea level change), the ocean quahog (a kind of edible clam) and sea pens. Find out more about where they are


 Chasing down ghost nets to help threatened vaquita

A tiny population of very small porpoises, vaquita, in the Gulf of California are getting the help that they need. They’re threatened by ghost nets, that is, fishing nets that are dumped at sea or otherwise become detached from fishing vessels and continue to drift around, unmanned, catching anything in their path. They currently pose a large risk in the Gulf of California to vaquita, the ‘world’s most rare marine mammal’ as there are fewer than 60 individuals left and they all live in the same place. The good news is that the threat is decreasing because large areas of the Gulf of California are being trawled by Mexican authorities and scientists to remove as many of these nets as possible from the area. So far they have removed 103 nets, and have been using drones and navy ships to deter the illegal release of nets in the area.


Marine reserves help boost hawksbill sea turtle numbers

A healthy juvenile population of an endangered species of sea turtle has been discovered on Glover’s Reef Atoll in Belize which falls inside the Glovers Reef Marine Reserve. This is positive news for the highly endangered hawksbill sea turtles, as there is concern that their population size is falling, therefore discovering a group of young individuals offers hope for the future. This group of juveniles is likely to have appeared due to the protected waters status of the reef, which offers a safe space for species to develop away from human activity. Hopefully, this indicates that more effectively managed marine reserves will help the recovery of more species that are under pressure.


Reasons to be cheerful #6

Ocean Optimism

November has been a bit of a turbulent one for the conservation world, but it’s important to remember that there is a lot of good stuff going on and a lot of positive, passionate conservationists out there who will continue to do their thing. So here are some of the reasons to be cheerful about the state of the oceans this month.

$1.5 billion additional funding for Canadian Ocean Protection Plan  

Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged $1.5 billion to the Canadian Ocean Protection Plan, to fund improvements in marine management along the Canadian coastline. The idea is to improve marine safety and help the recovery of fragile marine ecosystems. Oil spills have recently affected the Canadian coastline, and so some of this funding will be used to research how best to deal with oil spills to minimise the environmental damage. With such a long and busy coastline, it’s really important that Canada has the resources available to be able to manage it effectively, and this funding will be a welcome boost.

President Obama bans new oil drilling in Arctic for 5 years

New offshore oil drilling has been banned in the Arctic between 2017 and 2022, and existing leases won’t be able to be renewed. This is big news for two reasons. Firstly, the Arctic has large oil reserves and extracting and burning these means that we will be adding to our fossil fuel emissions, therefore speeding up the onset of climate change. If we don’t extract it then we can’t burn it. Secondly, the Arctic is an ecologically fragile area, and drilling for oil comes with the constant risk of oil spills and damage to the sea bed. So now that drilling for oil will be banned in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, these areas will remain healthy and therefore help to build up resistance to climate change. Drilling will still be allowed in some areas that have the ‘highest resource potential, lowest conflict and established infrastructure’. Even so, President Obama’s decision to limit drilling activity is definitely a positive step forward for climate change mitigation and the protection of the Arctic marine environment.

5p charge leads to 40% drop in plastic bag use

It’s estimated that more than billion plastic bags were given out by big supermarkets in England in 2014. That’s an insane amount of single-use plastic, and we see the problems it causes all the time in cities, waterways and the open oceans. The great news is that single use plastic bag use is down 40% in England as a result of the 5p charge. The number of plastic bags given out dropped to 600 million in the first 6 months after the ban, and now Defra estimates that we’ve used 85% fewer plastic bags than last year. This is a brilliant success, and just shows what a positive change a small charge on widely available and environmentally damaging products can make.

California is first US state to ban plastic bags

California has become the first US state to ban single use plastic bags. There were already some local bag bans within the state, but this new ban that was voted for by a referendum on November 8th is statewide. The win was pretty narrow, 51.97% to 48.03%, but now it has passed it’s hoped that this ban will cut down on the amount of single use plastic given out in the state, and that it might encourage other states to follow suit. We’re starting to see evidence that a charge on bags is working in England, so hopefully a ban in California will be even more effective.

Signs of success with coral reef transplanting

Coral reefs are in need of a helping hand, and research into advanced restoration approaches is underway, potentially offering a ‘glimmer of light’ for damaged reefs. As global ocean temperatures are rising, it’s becoming too warm for some corals and they become stressed or bleached. This is a huge problem affecting reefs worldwide. However, a solution is on the horizon, and scientists are developing programmes where small pieces of healthy coral are transplanted into a new area, helping to form the base of a new reef in the future. Studies in Florida are showing potential for this transplanting approach in the future, where coral microfragments that were planted 3 years ago are now 6 to 8 times larger and are starting to fuse together. Another transplanted reef in Japan  has developed far further and has been seen to spawn, the natural way in which reefs replenish themselves. This is heartening as it shows we might be able to manually replenish struggling reef systems, and then with time they will continue to look after themselves. Plenty more research is needed, but microfragmentation could offer hope to struggling reefs in the future.

Reasons to be cheerful #5

Ocean Optimism

Antarctica’s Southern Ocean getting MPA attention 

Marine Protected Area designations are gaining momentum this year, and now Antarctica is getting its turn. The importance of Antarctic waters as the ‘engine room of the ocean’ is being recognised, and discussions are underway for three potential new Marine Protected Areas to be designated to protect fragile polar ecosystems. Krill form a part of these ecosystems, and they may be small but they are hugely important to the stability of the food chain in the Antarctic. Healthy krill stocks will help support a healthy marine ecosystem. Krill are thought to be particularly affected by climate change, therefore we need to protect a large area of this ecosystem to help it resist the onset of climate change-induced issues and resist the decline of the small but mighty krill.  The area is classified as ‘high seas’, meaning that it doesn’t come under any one country’s jurisdiction, and so these areas are much harder to protect. In order to set up meaningful and effective protective measures for Antarctic waters, collaboration is needed between lots of different governments and organisations. What’s great is that this is exactly what’s happening at the moment. There’s a meeting in Hobart, Australia, between representatives from 25 different governments and the aim is to discuss the designation of 3 new Marine Protected Areas for this fragile and hugely important ecosystem. Fingers crossed that commitments are made and plans for new designations are confirmed so that the krill can keep doing their thing into the future.

Cracking down on illegal fishing – tracing by numbers

One of the difficulties with tracking fishing vessels at sea is that they can change their name, call sign or the flag they fly (the country that they say they are from) pretty easily, and this makes it easier to dodge the authorities if they are fishing illegally. Having an IMO number attached to a vessel helps authorities to monitor them more closely and spot suspicious activity like attempts to mask the identity of a fishing boat. It’s a number that is unique to the boat and cannot be changed. It’s imprinted on the engine and the hull and attached to everything the boat does for its whole life.  Any time the vessel changes its name, flag or any other details, the records attached to their IMO number are updated. So it increases transparency, making it easier to conduct a background check on the ownership of vessels in the seafood supply chain. The good news is that IHS Maritime, the company that regulates the IMO number, will now be allocating IMO numbers to a greater range of fishing vessels.  Previously only merchant vessels and fishing boats of 24m and larger that weigh more than 100 gross tonnes could apply for an IMO number, but it has just been changed so that fishing vessels that are 12 metres or longer and that weigh under 100 gross tonnes can have one too. The Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, who authorise vessels to fish on the high seas, will now require all eligible vessels who fish in their region to have an IMO number. It’s at no extra cost to the fishermen and is hoped that more vessels with IMO numbers will mean greater traceability in the fishing industry and will help increase transparency and crack down on illegal fishing.

Ecuador, Costa Rica and Columbia create giant marine reserve

Fish can’t read charts. When they’re swimming in the South Pacific, off the coast of Ecuador, Costa Rica or Columbia they aren’t aware when they cross imaginary lines into different national waters. The marine environment pays no attention to the lines we draw as it works as one big interconnected system, and that’s how we should be seeing it in order to manage it effectively. This is what the Presidents of Ecuador, Costa Rica and Columbia have agreed to do – to swap their charts and knowledge of the rich biodiversity of their national waters and to discuss how best to protect them. There’s talk of expanding the three UNESCO World Heritage sites that fall into this area to protect more fragile marine ecosystems and their shark populations from fishing. This collaboration between neighbouring countries in the name of marine conservation has been said to be an ‘historic moment’ by Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. It’s great because it shows pride and respect for the underwater world, and the desire to protect it for future generations. It’s a positive change in approach, and something to be optimistic about.

Extra protection for sharks and rays

Some sharks and rays can swim happier this month. Thresher sharks, Silky sharks and Devil rays are now listed under CITES Appendix II which means that they are offered some protection from the international shark fin trade. Appendix II is where species are put that need protection to make sure that trade doesn’t undermine their sustainability. It means that only fins from sustainable sources will be able to be traded internationally, and that any sharks that are caught will have to be recorded to help monitor numbers – something that isn’t consistently done at the moment. Some people think that listing species helps the stocks to recover because they are more closely regulated, but others also think that listing them makes them appear more valuable and that it won’t necessarily stop overfishing. At least the threat to these species is being recognised and steps are being taken to attempt to slow their decline.





Reasons to be cheerful #4

Ocean Optimism

New MPAs in UK Overseas Territories

The UK has designated a huge area of our Overseas Territories as marine protected areas. The areas are located around islands in the Pacific and Atlantic, where some areas will fully ban commercial fishing, but will continue to allow smaller-scale, more sustainable fishing. Some will allow some commercial fishing, but will ban activities such as mining.The area will be monitored using new ‘Eyes on the Seas’ technology, combining information from satellites and drones to monitor the levels of compliance with the rules in very remote areas.

Global Fishing Watch

Speaking of satellite technology, a new tool, Global Fishing Watch, has just fully launched. It allows anyone to login and see what commercial fishing is happening all over the world. It’s a great tool to be able to track fishing vessels to show if they are law-abiding, or to have evidence if they’re not. It will also allow the public to take an interest in our global fisheries and how they’re managed.

France taking big steps to reduce single-use plastic

France has become the first country to ban disposable plastic cups and plates. 4.73 billion disposable cups are thrown away every year in France, but from 2020 they will need to be made of at least 50% biodegradable products that the public will be able to compost at home. This figure will be increased to 60% by 2025. France also banned single-use plastic bags in July this year, meaning they’re taking great steps forward in the campaign to reduce plastic waste.

New MPA protecting undersea volcanoes

There’s a new MPA off the coast of New England. Nearly 5000 square kilometres of ocean has been protected through the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. This area protects undersea volcanoes and canyons, and these areas harbour deep water and often endangered species. Each new designation is helping the overall percentage of the world’s oceans that are protected to creep up.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument expanded

President Obama has expanded an existing marine reserve, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, taking it up to 582, 587 square miles. Commercial fishing and mining will not be allowed in the area, but some low level recreational fishing will be. Protecting large areas like this will help remove pressure on the marine ecosystems from human activity and will help fish stocks to recover. More individuals will be able to reach reproductive size and will therefore be able to start to rebuild the fish stocks. This expanded MPA is great news, but it won’t actually mean anything unless it is well policed and the regulations enforced. Otherwise we’re celebrating a line on a piece of paper, a ‘Paper Park’. Without good policing, vessels will still be able to fish in the area, but developments in satellite monitoring technology mean the future is getting brighter for fisheries enforcement.





Reasons to be cheerful #3

Ocean Optimism, Step Up For The Sea

There are a lot of positive people out there who are stepping up for the sea and making changes to protect it. Here are a few reasons to be cheerful about the state of the ocean from the last month.

Ikea goes circular

Our society is pretty wasteful, but Ikea are taking a step towards tackling this by creating a ‘Circular Ikea’. The idea is that new products made of recycled materials will be integrated into their range, and existing products will be able to be repaired and recycled. Everyone loves Ikea so it’s great that they’re flagging up how we’ve reached ‘peak home furnishings’, and they’re a powerhouse in their field so it’s time for other companies to follow on. The more we recycle, the less plastic will find its way into the sea.

5p plastic bags success

It looks like the plastic bag charge is working for the sea. Some estimates have been made and scaled up, and it looks like, if we carry on using bags at the same rate as we did in the first six months after the 5p charge came in in England, then usage will have dropped by 83% from the 2014 figure of 7.64 billion plastic bags. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all saw reductions of between 70-80% in bag usage in the first year after the charge was brought in. So good news, everyone keep doing what you’re doing – it’s going well.

Talking about polystyrene

People are making noise about needing to ban polystyrene because of the impact it has on the ocean. It takes hundreds of years to decompose, leaks carcinogenic chemicals into water bodies and can cause choking and starvation in marine life. Wales was the first country in the UK to charge for plastic bags, and this move was driven by the consumers. Now environmentally conscious shoppers are concerned about the amount of single use polystyrene and they’re calling for a ban for polystyrene fast food containers. Looking at the success of the plastic bag charge, this one is definitely worth pursuing.

The next UNESCO World Heritage Sites might include the deep sea

At the moment the deep oceans are barely protected. To be honest, we don’t even know much about what’s down there to protect. However, there’s talk that the next UNESCO World Heritage Sites may include deep ocean habitats. This would be a massive deal. It would mean the importance of the deep sea and high seas is being recognised, but it would also be a positive step towards the protection of deep sea species and important breeding grounds from damaging human activities.

RePlast – building blocks from ocean plastic

Once plastic has found its way into the ocean it’s notoriously difficult to remove, but some people are finding a way. Gregor Gomory created RePlast, building blocks made of compressed marine plastic that don’t need any glue. The plan is to use them as an alternative building material for low-cost housing. They help to reuse existing plastic, they’ve got a low carbon footprint and they’re a good incentive to chase marine plastic and extract it. Good for people and good for the sea.

Reasons to be cheerful #2

Ocean Optimism, Step Up For The Sea

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of negative news about the ocean, and so here are some cheerier things to think about that have been in the news recently. It’s not all bad.

Microbeads are going to be banned in the UK

There was talk a while ago about the government working with the cosmetics industry to phase out microbead use voluntarily, but now the UK will be following the US and banning them completely. This is such great news for the ocean because toiletries are often full of tiny plastic microbeads that are used as an exfoliant. They’re too small to be filtered out by waste water treatment works so they just go straight out to sea where they’re eaten by marine life. Banning microbeads is a simple(ish) way of cutting down on our marine plastic pollution as it’s a problem many people don’t even know about.

Numbers of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are creeping up

Since the rapid increase in the number of very large MPAs at the end of last year, the pace has slowed down but new MPAs are still springing up which is great news for ocean health. In the last couple of months both Cambodia and Malta have taken steps to protect their marine environment: Cambodia has designated its first MPA to protect vulnerable marine species and habitats and Malta has designated eight Special Protection Areas (to protect birds).

Edible 6 pack rings

This is a great idea by Saltwater Brewery in Florida. They have piloted edible and biodegradable 6 pack rings made from barley and wheat left over from beer production. Huge numbers of 6 pack rings end up in the sea and marine life gets tangled in them. These ocean-friendly 6 pack rings can be eaten by marine life, and if not eaten they’ll totally biodegrade rather than drift for hundreds of years as plastic would. Hopefully this can set an example to the industry and cut down on future plastic use. Watch a video about it here.

Protection for deep sea species in the North-East Atlantic

It has recently been agreed that there will be a ban on fishing below 800 metres deep in the North-East Atlantic which is great news for conservationists (and the fish). Deep sea ecosystems are really fragile because they grow so slowly that if they are wiped out by fishing gear they can take many hundreds of years to grow back. However, some conservationists argue that these negotiations have taken a long time to agree on and that protection like this is needed far more widely than just the North-East Atlantic.

#oceanoptimism is on the rise

The power of positivity as a fuel for change is being more widely recognised. Articles like this one talk about how too much negativity can turn people off from important conservation issues as people feel overwhelmed, guilty or think that it’s too late to do anything. Pointing out the good news is so important to try to keep a balance, and to motivate people to stay engaged with the issues and step up for the sea where they can.