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On the 8th of June we celebrate the World Oceans Day, a day to remind everyone of the major role the oceans have in everyday life. Some of you might think that the world currently has more pressing urgencies than worrying about the health of our oceans, but even at times of a health crisis and protests the ocean is setting an example. The oceans are an incredible reservoir of new compounds that have led to the development of new antibacterial and antiviral treatments. Even the test used for the detection of COVID-19 relies on enzymes that were first discovered in deep-sea bacteria back in 1969. The most successful conservation projects are the results of communities standing by each other and working towards a common goal of improving livelihoods and protecting ecosystems.
The theme of the UN World Oceans Day 2020 is “Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean”. The oceans are currently suffering from the combined effects of the climate crisis, overfishing, and habitat degradation. As the challenges to the ocean continue to grow, so does the need for novel solutions and the people driving them. At times, the information relating to the current state of the oceans (think coral bleaching, endangered species, mangrove deforestation) can be overwhelming, and downright depressing. What we all need right now is some #oceanoptimism to remind ourselves that there is hope of positive change, which is why we have chosen 5 inspiring marine conservation success stories that highlight projects that have made a difference.
1. Community participation in the protection of hawksbill nesting sites
The first story is that of the hawksbill turtle , which is listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Until as recently as 2007, the hawksbill turtle was thought to be essentially extinct in the Eastern Pacific. However, during an international workshop, experts shared local knowledge from their perspective areas, including nesting reports, which brought new hope for the species in the Eastern Pacific. In 2009, a team of experts visited the Estero Padre Ramos Nature Reserve in Nicaragua, which was rumoured to host a significant number of hawksbill turtles. What they found exceeded all expectations: the estuary hosts 40% of the known hawksbill nesting sites in the entire eastern Pacific. Unfortunately, the majority of nests were being poached for subsistence.
The Nicaraguan Hawksbill Project was initiated in 2010 and builds on the cohesive participation of local communities, government institutions, and various NGOs. The project has had a tremendous impact, resulting in the protection of more than 500 nests, the release of more than 50,000 hatchlings, satellite tracking of individual turtles, and monitoring of nesting beaches. Their secret to success? The community is directly involved in the decision-making process and the locals receive compensations for reporting nesting hawksbill as an incentive to protect rather than poach nests. That way the scientists have more allies in the field to monitor vast strips of beaches and the locals are given a sustainable alternative to poaching.
2. Accelerating heat tolerance in corals
Coral reefs aren’t doing well to put it mildly. The coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef decreased by about half due to summer heat waves in 2016 and 2017, followed by an 89% drop in coral larval recruitment in 2018. Despite this rapid loss, scientists have made a discovery that brings some hope for corals. Generally, when the water gets too warm, corals expel the algal symbionts that live in their tissue, leading to coral bleaching. Buerger and colleagues grew these algal symbionts at elevated temperatures (31°C) in the laboratory for 4 years. Their hope was to increase the heat-tolerance of the symbiont, which could, in turn, increase the heat-tolerance of corals when reintroduced into the host. And did it work? Three of the 10 laboratory heat-evolved algal symbionts indeed increased bleaching tolerance in corals. These findings are unlikely to be the desperately needed quick-fix to the problems that corals face. However, the study significantly improved our understanding on heat-tolerance in corals and, maybe, such heat-evolved algal symbionts could be used in coral reef restoration projects.
3. Comeback of the Leviathans
Some whales have still not recovered from commercial whaling. Of particular concern is the case of the North Atlantic right whale of which there are only about 400 animals left. However, other species have made a successful comeback following international bans on commercial whaling. The nearly complete protection of the fin whale, the second largest animal after the blue whale, throughout its range has allowed the global population to reach around 100,000 mature individuals, population trend increasing. This trend is so encouraging that the status was moved from “endangered” to the less severe “vulnerable” category on the IUCN list of endangered species in 2018. Fin whales generally live in deep, off-shore waters, where there is minimal fishing or shipping intensity, which could explain why they fared so much better than the North Atlantic right whales. However, other whales with offshore distributions, such as blue whales, still only number a few thousand individuals in the North Atlantic. The different recovery rates among species, despite the international ban on commercial hunting, highlight that whales now face a plethora of challenges, related to increased fishing and shipping intensity and climate-induced ecosystem changes.
4. Tubbataha Reef: A Shark Eden
Located in the coral triangle in the Philippines, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park was found to host an incredibly high number of reef sharks during a recent expedition led by researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, the Tubbataha Management Office, and the Marine Megafauna Foundation. These numbers provide hope because worldwide many shark populations are in decline and reef health is deteriorating. That is why the find of such a healthy reef with frequent shark sightings is indeed reason to celebrate! Using underwater visual surveys and underwater camera traps, the scientists studied the abundance and biodiversity of sharks and rays at this reef, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1993. They observed some of the highest abundances of grey reef sharks and whitetip reef sharks known worldwide! There are multiple reasons for the success of this natural park. One of the most important factors is that the park is very well managed and rules of no-take are enforced thanks to the dedicated staff of the Tubbataha Management Office and the Rangers of Tubbataha Reefs. Its remoteness, size and protection since the 1980s have likely also contributed to the conservation of a healthy ecosystem. Enforcement of regulations and the participation of local communities are a key ingredient to successful marine protected areas, otherwise they risk to turn into so-called “paper-parks” that only exist on paper.
5. Rewilding the coast one tree at a time
Mangrove forests shelter our shores, harbour an incredible biodiversity and absorb a significant amount of CO2. In short, the livelihoods of many communities depend on mangroves. However, almost half of the total mangrove forest cover in the world has disappeared since 1980 due to an increase in commercial logging, fuel wood collection, conversion to rice or coconut agriculture, and aquaculture ponds (e.g. shrimp farms). To counter this degradation, many mangrove planting initiatives have mobilised volunteers to replant mangroves in recent years. While the intentions are noble, the IUCN warns that such mass mangrove planting efforts are often not sustainable. For instance a common mistake in mangrove restoration is not choosing the right species for the right site and not getting the ‘right mix’ of species. The good news? With the increasing wealth and availability of knowledge on mangroves and how to restore them, successful restoration projects are possible. The Mangrove Action Project promotes and teaches its best practice ‘Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration’ technique. Their method aims to address the problems that caused mangrove loss in the first place and focuses on understanding the ecology, hydrology (water flows), and needs of the local community to develop a customised restoration plan. Already this technique has been successfully applied to rehabilitate mangroves in Thailand and Indonesia, as part of the post-tsunami recovery. Through training workshops across the world, we are sure to see more successful mangrove restoration initiatives in future.
Text written by Anna Schleimer. Happy World Oceans Day!
Image credit cover photo: Shutterstock/WWF/Simon Pierce/TerreSky MICS photo/Anna Schleimer