Ocean Optimism: 2020

2020 has been a tough year for everyone around the globe. A year that started out with devastating bushfires across Australia, has only got progressively worse with the Covid-19 pandemic, let alone Brexit and the dramas of the US Presidential Election. But, this year hasn’t been complete doom and gloom, so to end it on a high note, I thought I’d share some of the positives from 2020 affecting the environment with a focus on our marine world.

2020 has gained traction in the progression of protected areas and sustainability initiatives across the worlds oceans. While we hope these won’t be “paper parks”, some momentum may aid the education needed to protect these vital areas. One notable move comes from leaders of 14 countries, covering 40% of the worlds coastlines who have pledged to end overfishing, restore fish populations and prevent marine plastic pollution over the next 10 years. They aim to do this through better fisheries management and enforcement, and ending subsidies that contribute to overfishing, and shifting to a circular economy to prevent plastic pollution. In September, the Scottish government designated a deep sea marine reserve, and added 16 sites to the Scottish Marine Protected Area (MPA) network, which include 4 new inshore MPAs and 12 Special Protection Areas (SPAs).

Tristan da Cunha, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world with just 244 citizens, is a British Overseas Territory.  In November, it was announced that Tristan da Cunha was to become an MPA, with 90% of the waters to become a No-Take Zone (NTZ). This move makes it the fourth largest in the world, covering an area of 265,000 square miles!. The new protected zone will benefit animals such as yellow-nosed Albatross, Shepherds beaked whales, Sub-Antarctic fur seals and fin whales. The island is home to 85% of the worlds Northern Rockhopper Penguin population, is a breeding ground for Near Threatened Blue sharks and economically important rock lobster. You can find in depth articles from the Pew Charity Trust here, and National Geographic here, and learn more about Tristan da Cunha here.

The creation of the first Marine Protected area in the Ivory Coast was also announced this year. The new MPA, which will cover 2,600km2 comes from work between the Ivorian government, Abidjan convention, Swedish Government, and local NGO Conservation des Espèces Marines who are supported by the University of Exeter and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The MPA will cover important reef ecosystems and foraging grounds used by Leatherback, Green and Olive Ridley turtles. It will protect over 20 species of sharks and rays, and also aims to enhance the livelihoods of local people through sustainable fishing practices and ecotourism. For more information, you can find the press release from the University of Exeter here.

Off the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania, scientists have discovered a coral refuge. The area teaming with life, is noted as a refuge as it is where reefs have the best chance to survive the climate crisis. Researchers discovered that the cool water from deep channels created during the formation of Kilimanjaro and the Usambara mountains, protect an area of ~400 square kilometres from El Nino. Home to Spinner dolphins, “living fossils” Coelacanths and dugongs, the area could become an important sanctuary for marine species seeking refuse from climate change. You can find an article on the paper here, and the publication here.

Australian scientists discovered a coral reef at over 500 meters tall- that’s bigger than the empire state. Found 130km off Cape York, on Australia’s North-Eastern tip, it is the first large detached reef to be found in the area in over 120 years. With a base of 1.5km and being found 40 meters under the surface, the reef is home to sponges, sea fans and soft corals, indicating the areas is rich in nutrients from currents and upwellings, the biodiverse area is also home to an abundance of reef fish and reef sharks. It was discovered by scientists on bord the Research Vessel, Falkor, owned by the Schmidt Ocean Institutes who were conducting a 12 month research expedition of the ocean around Australia. The expedition had also previously discovered a 45 meter long siphonophore, the longest ever recording of a sea creature, and has discovered 30 potentially new species.

A study focusing on the deep Atlantic has discovered 12 new species, and new records of 35 species in areas that they were previously unknown. The survey, known as the Atlas project seeks to improve the understanding of deep-sea ecosystems and the species that live there. On the other side of the planet, four new species of “walking sharks” were discovered in tropical waters off Northern Australia and New Guinea. The study, which took place over a 12 year period takes the known number of walking shark species to 9. The sharks, which are on average less than a meter long, use their fins to walk at low tide, are top predators on reefs. You can find the published paper here.

Visually, 2020 has been a year for some impressive footage. The deepest sighting ever of an octopus was recorded 7,000m down in the Java Trench on the Indian Ocean floor. The species was a dumbo octopus, recorded 2km deeper than previous records, on the Five Deeps Expedition. Impressive footage continued with Australian researcher Jacinta Shackleton, capturing footage of a rare and endangered ornate eagle ray. The footage taken near Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef, is one of around 50 sightings recorded worldwide of the elusive creature.

This year was a year for marine creatures breaking new records, with Reef Manta rays observed diving to depths previously unrecorded. The research focused on Mantas based around New Caledonia in the South Pacific, an area which had never been studied before. The record observed a Manta diving to 672 meters below the surface, beating a previous record of 432 meters in the Red Sea. They found that Mantas here dive deeper and more frequently than expected. You can find the paper here.

While Covid-19 hasn’t brought positives for humans, it has for some marine creatures. Although the affects of Covid-19 on the marine world haven’t been overly kind, with an increase in PPE pollution being found along our coastlines, one major benefit of the pandemic on the marine world has been a reduction in tourism. 

In Thailand, the decline in tourism due to lockdown has enabled leatherback sea turtles to nest undisturbed. Across the country, 11 turtle nest authorities had found that since last November, nesting numbers for leatherback turtles had been their highest in 20 years, a positive win for the vulnerable species. On the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, Hawskills and green turtles. Have also been benefiting from tourist free beaches. Between February and August, over 838 turtles had hatched in an area that had not been used for nesting in decades. Local people and businesses rallied together to protect the 19 nests from predators.

Thailand isn’t the only place to have seen benefits to turtles, in Florida, 76 leatherback sea turtle nests were found on a nine and a half mile stretch alone, a significant increase from numbers at the same time the year before. Lebanon also saw an increase in record numbers of Green sea turtles and Loggerhead turtles, with the highest number of nests in over two decades.

In colder waters, whales are making a comeback to South Georgia. After 30 years of protection large numbers of whales are returning to the area, which is a key summer feeding ground, a century after many species were almost exploited to extinction due to the whaling industry. During the 23 day survey by lead by the British Antarctic Survey, over 790 Humpback whales were spotted, the area is assumed to host over 20,000 during the summer months when they seasonally feed in the southern waters. Blue whales were sighted 36 times, with 55 animals seen, an astonishing figure for scientists as there have previously been very few sightings over the last few decades. Scientists onboard were able retrieve skin and breath samples to record animal health. They were also able to tag 2 southern right whales, which they hope will enable them to locate important feeding grounds during the summer and autumn months, you can track their tagged whales here.

This article is in no way an exhaustive list of the positive ocean news to have come out of 2020, otherwise this post would be pages and pages long and no one would have time to read that far. It is however a small snippet into some of the discovery’s and positives to come out of what has been a tough year for the vast majority of us. Although 2021 won’t be the instant Covid-19 relief we were all hoping for, with the development and implementation of the various vaccines created it will hopefully be the year we are able to return to slight normality. Happy new year! Here’s hope to a 2021 full of positive environmental news and sustainable steps for a healthier planet!

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