Tag Archives: protection of oceans

The Trash Islands

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports on March 23, 2018, the mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about 1.6 million square kilometers in size — up to 16 times bigger than previous estimates. That makes it more than double the size of Texas.  Ghost nets, or discarded fishing nets, make up almost half the 80,000 metric tons of garbage floating at sea, and researchers believe that around 20% of the total volume of trash is debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The study — conducted by an international team of scientists with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company — utilized two aircraft surveys and 30 vessels to cross the debris field.

Along with nets to survey and collect trash, researchers used two six-meter-wide devices to measure medium to large-sized objects. An aircraft was also fitted with advanced sensors to collect 3D scans of the ocean garbage. They ended up collecting a total of 1.2 million plastic samples and scanned more than 300 square kilometers of ocean surface.  The bulk of the pile is made up of larger objects while only 8% of the mass is microplastics, or pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size.

The patch is so big that last fall environmentalists called on the United Nations to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a country, called “The Trash Isles,” complete with its own passport and currency, called debris...Research scientist Britta Denise Hardesty, who wasn’t involved in this study, said while discarded nets may make up almost half of the findings, the problem may be more nuanced.  It’s estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year.

Excerpts from A massive garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now three times the size of France, CNN, Mar. 24, 2017

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Turning Oceans into Muck

image from http://recon.sccf.org/events

Oxygen is critical to the health of the planet. It affects the cycles of carbon, nitrogen and other key elements, and is a fundamental requirement for marine life from the seashore to the greatest depths of the ocean. Nevertheless, deoxygenation is worsening in the coastal and open ocean. This is mainly the result of human activities that are increasing global temperatures (CO2-induced warming) and increasing loads of nutrients from agriculture, sewage, and industrial waste, including pollution from power generation from fossil fuels and biomass.

Facts: During the past 50 years the area of low oxygen water in the open ocean has increased by 4.5 million km2. The world' oceans are now losing approximately  1 gigaton of oxygen each year.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released by the UN in 2005 reported that nitrogen containing compounds (e.g. sewage, fertilizers) release into the oceans grew 80 percent from 1860 to 1990.

Increasing temperatures will reduce the capacity of the ocean to hold oxygen in the future;
Oxygen deficiency is predicted to worsen in estuaries, coastal areas and oxygen minimum zones in the open ocean;
The ocean’s capacity to produce oxygen will be reduced in the future.
Habitat loss is expected to worsen, leading to vertical and horizontal migration of species;
Oxygen deficiency will alter biogeochemical cycles and food webs;
Lower oxygen concentrations are projected to result in a decrease in reproductive capacity and biodiversity loss;
There are important local decreases of commercially important species and aquaculture production;
Harmful Algal Blooms will be exacerbated from nutrients released in bottom waters due to hypoxia (e.g. in the Baltic Sea);
Reduced ocean oxygen concentrations will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, thereby initiating feedbacks on climate change;

Excerpts from UNESCO, Jan. 2018

View Extensive Abstract

Background paper (pdf)

Global Ocean Oxygen Network: Through the participation of high level scientists from across the world, the IOC expert group, the Global Ocean Oxygen Network GO2NE, established in 2016, is committed to providing a global and multidisciplinary view of deoxygenation, with a focus on understanding its multiple aspects and impacts.

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Floating Power Plants: the Cayman Islands

otec floating power plant

A United States company OTEC International is in talks with Caribbean Utilities Company (CUC), Grand Cayman’s electrical provider, to supply renewable energy to the island via Ocean Thermal Energy from a platform at North Side.  According to the company:

"The Cayman Islands has documented its storm history with precision, which made it easier for OTEC International to identify locations where  Floating Power Platforms (FPPs) can be securely sited and appropriately designed to survive strong storm conditions.  The first phase of the Cayman project would be the generation of 6.25-MW renewable electricity* from an FPP that would be permanently moored less than a mile from shore. At this distance from shore, the plant’s visual impact will be minimal because of the platform’s overall low profile. The power generated would be transported to a substation onshore via cable and connected to the island’s CUC grid.....A comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) will be completed before the project can receive all necessary licenses and permits from various governmental authorities."

*This type of ocean-thermal electricity plant takes advantage of the temperature difference between warm surface water and cold deep seawater.

Excerpts from Company providing floating ocean power platform technology to supply renewable energy to Cayman Islands in talks, Cayman inews, Sept. 21, 2014


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The Plastic in the Oceans

Marine debris on Hawaiian coast. Image from wikipedia

The steady build-up of garbage in the world’s oceans is a “tremendous challenge” and a growing threat to the planet’s marine ecosystems with the potential for “significant socio-economic consequences,” the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) heard today.  In the final day of the 16th Global Meeting of the Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans, held in Athens, Greece, scientists, policymakers and delegates gathered amid growing global concern over the accumulation of plastic waste in oceans and seas – a problem that could pose an estimated $13 billion in damage to marine life and habitats, and which demands a comprehensive remedy.

Addressing the meeting, Jacqueline Alder, Coordinator of UNEP’s Freshwater and Marine Ecosystem Branch, applauded the creation of a “visioning roadmap” seeking to chart a way forward for oceans governance in the coming decade, particularly in the areas of extraction, governance, impacts of a changing climate, ocean acidification, and pollution.

The meeting generated broad agreement among experts and policymakers regarding the issue of microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic less than one millimetre in size – which, they said, deserved more attention in order to better grasp their physical and biological impact on the marine ecosystems they pollute.  In addition, they advised a three-tier approach tackling marine litter at the national, regional and municipal levels as municipalities tends to have responsibility for solid-waste management....

The five garbage patches, or gyres, that have amassed in the world’s oceans as plastic waste and other jettisoned materials are carried by the currents. The patches themselves now occupy a total of 15, 915, 933 square kilometres of ocean, threatening the marine environment and the plants and animals living within it.

UN meeting hears call for greater marine protections as plastic waste accrues in oceans, UN Press. Release, Oct. 1, 2014

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Governing the Oceans: a Dysfunctional Family

manganese nodules in seabed. Image from wikipedia

About 3 billion people live within 100 miles (160km) of the sea, a number that could double in the next decade as humans flock to coastal cities like gulls. The oceans produce $3 trillion of goods and services each year and untold value for the Earth’s ecology. Life could not exist without these vast water reserves—and, if anything, they are becoming even more important to humans than before.

Mining is about to begin under the seabed in the high seas—the regions outside the exclusive economic zones administered by coastal and island nations, which stretch 200 nautical miles (370km) offshore. Nineteen exploratory licences have been issued. New summer shipping lanes are opening across the Arctic Ocean. The genetic resources of marine life promise a pharmaceutical bonanza: the number of patents has been rising at 12% a year. One study found that genetic material from the seas is a hundred times more likely to have anti-cancer properties than that from terrestrial life.

But these developments are minor compared with vaster forces reshaping the Earth, both on land and at sea. It has long been clear that people are damaging the oceans—witness the melting of the Arctic ice in summer, the spread of oxygen-starved dead zones and the death of coral reefs. Now, the consequences of that damage are starting to be felt onshore...

More serious is the global mismanagement of fish stocks. About 3 billion people get a fifth of their protein from fish, making it a more important protein source than beef. But a vicious cycle has developed as fish stocks decline and fishermen race to grab what they can of the remainder. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a third of fish stocks in the oceans are over-exploited; some estimates say the proportion is more than half. One study suggested that stocks of big predatory species—such as tuna, swordfish and marlin—may have fallen by as much as 90% since the 1950s. People could be eating much better, were fishing stocks properly managed.

The forests are often called the lungs of the Earth, but the description better fits the oceans. They produce half the world’s supply of oxygen, mostly through photosynthesis by aquatic algae and other organisms. But according to a forthcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC; the group of scientists who advise governments on global warming), concentrations of chlorophyll (which helps makes oxygen) have fallen by 9-12% in 1998-2010 in the North Pacific, Indian and North Atlantic Oceans.

Climate change may be the reason. At the moment, the oceans are moderating the impact of global warming—though that may not last.,,Changes in the oceans, therefore, may mean less oxygen will be produced. This cannot be good news, though scientists are still debating the likely consequences. The world is not about to suffocate. But the result could be lower oxygen concentrations in the oceans and changes to the climate because the counterpart of less oxygen is more carbon—adding to the build-up of greenhouse gases. In short, the decades of damage wreaked on the oceans are now damaging the terrestrial environment.

Three-quarters of the fish stocks in European waters are over-exploited and some are close to collapse... Farmers dump excess fertiliser into rivers, which finds its way to the sea; there cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) feed on the nutrients, proliferate madly and reduce oxygen levels, asphyxiating all sea creatures. In 2008, there were over 400 “dead zones” in the oceans. Polluters pump out carbon dioxide, which dissolves in seawater, producing carbonic acid. That in turn has increased ocean acidity by over a quarter since the start of the Industrial Revolution. In 2012, scientists found pteropods (a kind of sea snail) in the Southern Ocean with partially dissolved shells...

The high seas are not ungoverned. Almost every country has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which, in the words of Tommy Koh, president of UNCLOS in the 1980s, is “a constitution for the oceans”. It sets rules for everything from military activities and territorial disputes (like those in the South China Sea) to shipping, deep-sea mining and fishing. Although it came into force only in 1994, it embodies centuries-old customary laws, including the freedom of the seas, which says the high seas are open to all. UNCLOS took decades to negotiate and is sacrosanct. Even America, which refuses to sign it, abides by its provisions.

But UNCLOS has significant faults. It is weak on conservation and the environment, since most of it was negotiated in the 1970s when these topics were barely considered. It has no powers to enforce or punish. America’s refusal to sign makes the problem worse: although it behaves in accordance with UNCLOS, it is reluctant to push others to do likewise.

Specialised bodies have been set up to oversee a few parts of the treaty, such as the International Seabed Authority, which regulates mining beneath the high seas. But for the most part UNCLOS relies on member countries and existing organisations for monitoring and enforcement. The result is a baffling tangle of overlapping authorities that is described by the Global Ocean Commission, a new high-level lobby group, as a “co-ordinated catastrophe”.

Individually, some of the institutions work well enough. The International Maritime Organisation, which regulates global shipping, keeps a register of merchant and passenger vessels, which must carry identification numbers. The result is a reasonably law-abiding global industry. It is also responsible for one of the rare success stories of recent decades, the standards applying to routine and accidental discharges of pollution from ships. But even it is flawed. The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, a German think-tank, rates it as the least transparent international organisation. And it is dominated by insiders: contributions, and therefore influence, are weighted by tonnage.

Other institutions look good on paper but are untested. This is the case with the seabed authority, which has drawn up a global regime for deep-sea mining that is more up-to-date than most national mining codes... The problem here is political rather than regulatory: how should mining revenues be distributed? Deep-sea minerals are supposed to be “the common heritage of mankind”. Does that mean everyone is entitled to a part? And how to share it out?

The biggest failure, though, is in the regulation of fishing. Overfishing does more damage to the oceans than all other human activities there put together. In theory, high-seas fishing is overseen by an array of regional bodies. Some cover individual species, such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT, also known as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna). Others cover fishing in a particular area, such as the north-east Atlantic or the South Pacific Oceans. They decide what sort of fishing gear may be used, set limits on the quantity of fish that can be caught and how many ships are allowed in an area, and so on.

Here, too, there have been successes. Stocks of north-east Arctic cod are now the highest of any cod species and the highest they have been since 1945—even though the permitted catch is also at record levels. This proves it is possible to have healthy stocks and a healthy fishing industry. But it is a bilateral, not an international, achievement: only Norway and Russia capture these fish and they jointly follow scientists’ advice about how much to take.  There has also been some progress in controlling the sort of fishing gear that does the most damage. In 1991 the UN banned drift nets longer than 2.5km (these are nets that hang down from the surface; some were 50km long). A series of national and regional restrictions in the 2000s placed limits on “bottom trawling” (hoovering up everything on the seabed)—which most people at the time thought unachievable.

But the overall record is disastrous. Two-thirds of fish stocks on the high seas are over-exploited—twice as much as in parts of oceans under national jurisdiction. Illegal and unreported fishing is worth $10 billion-24 billion a year—about a quarter of the total catch. According to the World Bank, the mismanagement of fisheries costs $50 billion or more a year, meaning that the fishing industry would reap at least that much in efficiency gains if it were properly managed.

Most regional fishery bodies have too little money to combat illegal fishermen. They do not know how many vessels are in their waters because there is no global register of fishing boats. Their rules only bind their members; outsiders can break them with impunity. An expert review of ICCAT, the tuna commission, ordered by the organisation itself concluded that it was “an international disgrace”. A survey by the FAO found that over half the countries reporting on surveillance and enforcement on the high seas said they could not control vessels sailing under their flags. Even if they wanted to, then, it is not clear that regional fishery bodies or individual countries could make much difference.

But it is far from clear that many really want to. Almost all are dominated by fishing interests. The exceptions are the organisation for Antarctica, where scientific researchers are influential, and the International Whaling Commission, which admitted environmentalists early on. Not by coincidence, these are the two that have taken conservation most seriously.

Countries could do more to stop vessels suspected of illegal fishing from docking in their harbours—but they don’t. The FAO’s attempt to set up a voluntary register of high-seas fishing boats has been becalmed for years. The UN has a fish-stocks agreement that imposes stricter demands than regional fishery bodies. It requires signatories to impose tough sanctions on ships that break the rules. But only 80 countries have ratified it, compared with the 165 parties to UNCLOS. One study found that 28 nations, which together account for 40% of the world’s catch, are failing to meet most of the requirements of an FAO code of conduct which they have signed up to.

It is not merely that particular institutions are weak. The system itself is dysfunctional. There are organisations for fishing, mining and shipping, but none for the oceans as a whole. Regional seas organisations, whose main responsibility is to cut pollution, generally do not cover the same areas as regional fishery bodies, and the two rarely work well together. (In the north-east Atlantic, the one case where the boundaries coincide, they have done a lot.) Dozens of organisations play some role in the oceans (including 16 in the UN alone) but the outfit that is supposed to co-ordinate them, called UN-Oceans, is an ad-hoc body without oversight authority. There are no proper arrangements for monitoring, assessing or reporting on how the various organisations are doing—and no one to tell them if they are failing.

Governing the high seas: In deep water, Economist, Feb. 22, 2014, at 51

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The Coral Triangle, biodiversity, fisheries and climate change

Stretching across six countries in Southeast Asia and Melanesia (Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste), the Coral Triangle contains the richest marine ecosystems on earth. While encompassing just over 1.5% of the world’s oceans (and1% of the earth’s surface), it contains a staggering proportion of the world’s marine diversity: 76% of reef-building coral species, and 37% of coral reef fi sh species. The Coral Triangle is the epicentre for the biodiversity of not only corals and fi sh, but many other marine organisms as well....The signifi cance of the marine ecosystems lining over 132,800 km of coastline within the Coral Triangle goes far beyond their biological value or evolutionary signifi cance. Coastal ecosystems in this region are critically important for human livelihoods and communities, providing food and resources to over 100 million people. Many people in this region forage on coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, to collect their daily food and income. Commercial fi sheries provide over $3 billion per year to the six nations. These ecosystems also contribute to the maintenance of water quality along coastlines, with mangroves and seagrass beds stabilising sediments and acting as fi ltration systems as water runs from land to sea. Coral reefs provide important coastal barriers in many regions, reducing the power of waves and preventing damage to human communities and infrastructure. These functions cannot be replaced if these ecosystems are removed.

Unfortunately, coastal ecosystems throughout the Coral Triangle are being severely threatened by the activities of humans. These threats arise from two distinct sources. The first set arise from local sources such as destructive fishing practices, deteriorating water quality, over-exploitation of key marine species, and the direct devastation of coastal ecosystems through unsustainable coastal development. The second set arise from rapid anthropogenic climate change, which is caused by the build up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. These threats are escalating and ecosystems like coral reefs are already showing major changes to sea temperature and acidity. Further changes are putting the future of these important biological systems in serious doubt.

Excerpt from Executive Summary from THE CORAL TRIANGLE AND CLIMATE CHANGE, (2009)

More on the Threats and Recommendation for action (pdf)

See also Integrating Fisheries, Biodiversity, and Climate Change Objectives into Marine Protected Area Network Design in the Coral Triangle (pdf, 2012)

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