How much of the ocean is really protected?
When the International Astronomical Union changed its definition of what constitutes a planet in our solar system in 2006, demoting hapless Pluto to a dwarf planet, the decision sparked fierce scientific debate and an outcry from the public. But after all was said and done, we earthlings now have a better understanding of our celestial neighborhood, with eight perfectly nice authentic planets, and a greater appreciation of what it takes to be in that exclusive club.
Now, the ocean science community may be facing its own “Pluto Moment.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—keeper of the Red List, the most comprehensive source on the conservation status of life on Earth—also sets the global standard for marine protected areas (MPAs). The IUCN has numerous subcategories of MPAs, from fully protected areas to those that allow some fishing or other activity, but in the group’s eyes all MPAs must be created with the primary goal of conserving biodiversity.
A few weeks ago, H.R. 5248, The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, was introduced into Congress. The purpose of this bill is to “encourage a science-based approach to significantly reduce the overfishing and unsustainable trade of sharks, rays and skates around the world and prevent shark finning,” according to a press release from Mote Marine Lab.
Though the devil is always in the details, and I’ll get into those below, here is a general overview of how this would work. The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act would direct NOAA Fisheries to evaluate the fisheries management practices of other shark and ray fishing nations. This is similar in principle to other things NOAA is already doing, and a similar role for NOAA was included in the 2010 Shark Conservation Act (but has yet to be implemented).
Nations that have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours (or certain fisheries associated with those nations, even if other fisheries are less well managed) will get a formal certification of their sustainable management practices, and nothing will change for them. Nations (or fisheries) that are found to not have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours will not be allowed to have those products imported into the US and sold in our markets until their management practices improve. In the meantime, they’ll have access to NOAA’s existing capacity building resources and expertise to improve their own practices.
I support much of what this bill is trying to do, but I have some significant concerns about some of the current phrasing and plan for implementation.
Did you know that some shark populations have declined due to overfishing? Did you know that some once-declined shark populations have recovered? If you’re like my twitter followers, it’s likely that you’ve heard the bad news, but have not heard the good news.
Why does this matter?
It’s important to share bad news so that people know there’s a problem, and that we need to act to solve that problem. However, it’s also important to share good news so that people know that a problem is solvable! This idea was behind the birth of the #OceanOptimism online outreach campaign.
A train screams down the tracks. Dead ahead, a pile of of giant pandas frolic, inexplicably, through a bamboo stand growing through the rails. But wait! There’s a switch. Pulling it will divert the train onto another track, where a tank containing one of the last 30 vaquita will surely be crushed. Do you pull the lever, dooming the vaquita, or hold the line, flattening the frolicking pandas? Do you stammer indecisively, wondering how you ended up in this situation as you careen, inexorably, into into an increasingly unavoidable outcome?
What if, rather than the conductor’s seat, you’re at the helm of a conservation organization? What if the train wasn’t a hundred tons of steel and steam, but the relentless press of public will, funding, and focus upon which it is your duty to shape and direct into action?
What if conservation has a Trolley Problem?
Ah the Trolley Problem, the thought experiment turned pop-philosophy darling whose use and misuse is, at best, an annoyance to every ethicist I know. Regrettably, I do them no favors here.
US President Donald Trump said “I believe in clean air. I believe in crystal clear beautiful water.”
However, in last night’s State of the Union Address he declared his support for promoting coal-based energy* and he gave public notice of his intentions to curtail the environmental impact assessment process and environmental regulation for construction and road-building. This would be the latest in a series of executive actions that are removing or hindering environmental protection including, amongst others:
I’d like to take a moment rant about a particular pet peeve of mine, which involves the seemingly-dull subject of species common names. As you may have learned in biology class, all identified and described species are assigned a Latin scientific name, which is intended to be a universal identifier of that species regardless of where it’s coming up in conversation. However, scientific names are not typically very familiar to non-scientists, so common names remain the most, well, common way to refer to a species.
One of the most common questions I get during my “ask me anything” sessions on twitter is “which species of sharks are the most endangered?” Whenever I can’t completely answer a question in a single tweet, I like to link to more information from a reliable source.
However, I’ve struggled to easily answer this question with a link, because much of the information out there about this particular question is incomplete, misleading, or just wrong. Several online lists of the most endangered species of sharks* don’t actually include the most endangered species of sharks. Many of these lists could be re-titled as “the conservation status of some species of sharks I’ve heard of and could easily find pictures of” or “some random information I heard out of context about shark conservation.” Since there isn’t an easily accessible source of accurate information about this important shark science and conservation topic, I’ll make one myself. ( I should note here that I am referring only to true sharks, not to other chondrichthyans, even though other chondrichthyans in many cases face similar or worse threats. )
Carlotta Leon Guerrero is a former Member of the 23rd, 24th, and 25th Guam Senate. She was also a two-term president of the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures and previously worked as a radio and television journalist in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In April 2017, President Donald Trump ordered Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to examine 27 protected areas established by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama using the 1906 Antiquities Act. Included in the list were four marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in the Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in American Samoa, and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (sometimes referred to as Pacific Remote Island Areas or PRIA), which is made up several isolated islands and atolls under American control. This should have all of us on Guam and in the Pacific concerned, because we are the people who will have to live with the outcome.
In the UK, there is a famous and long-running radio show called Desert Island Discs. On this show celebrities are asked to imagine that they are marooned on a desert island, but they have rescued 10 discs (mp3s I suppose these days…) of songs that they have rescued from their sinking ship to keep them company on the desert island.
clipart credit: istock.com
My chum – marine mammal scientist and general ocean hero – Asha De Vos recently asked for a list of key papers in marine conservation that she could pass onto students working on marine conservation issues in Sri Lanka. So I decided to write up my top ten “desert island” marine conservation papers that I think have been influential, and that all marine conservation students should read.
So after much pondering, this is my list:
The Hogwarts Sorting Hat divides students into their respective houses in their first year at the school of witchcraft and wizardry. Each house is known for having its own “personality.” In addition to potential wizards/witches, one can also sort those involved in conservation into the four Hogwarts houses.
- Hufflepuff – This house stands for dedication and hard work, but also patience, tolerance, fair play and kindness. Most conservationists working in NGOs, especially those related to protection of megafauna species, are Hufflepuffs. One famous Hufflepuff was Newton Scamander, a socially awkward wizard who took it upon himself to try to save endangered magical creatures, when others just saw them as pests. Most of the herbology teachers at Hogwarts were Hufflepuffs (Neville Longbottom being a notable exception).