June 8, 2021
OUR WORLD OCEAN: THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY
To celebrate World Ocean Day, we have a very special guest with us: whale expert, researcher and writer Erich Hoyt of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation association, who will tell us about the current state of the ocean and the importance of protecting it and caring for the creatures that live in it.
ERICH HOYT- Research Fellow, Whale and Dolphin Conservation
On this @WorldOceansDay 2021, it’s time to take stock of where we are in terms of keeping our #worldocean healthy. Notice I say “ocean” singular, not plural. The United Nations started World Ocean(s) Day, preferring to say “oceans” but there’s only one world ocean.
On an expedition I joined some years ago to uncover the formation of deep water in the Greenland Sea with a ship full of physical oceanographers, they resolutely referred to the “world ocean”. It made sense: all the water on our planet flows through one connected system. This was illustrated by some of the expedition’s studies on board measuring tritium, the byproduct from atmospheric nuclear testing in Russia which ended in 1963. The fallout from the tests had rained down into the rivers of Siberia, flowed into and across the Arctic Ocean and, when we tested the water at depth off Greenland, we found that this tritium-tagged water had been converted to the deep ocean and was moving slowly down into the North Atlantic. This water was not in itself an environmental hazard by the time it reached us due to the half-life of tritium being 12 years, but it was an extraordinary illustration of the global coupling of ocean and atmosphere. As the oceanographers explained, this particular massive deep water current would continue crawling down the Atlantic before curling around South America and flowing into the Pacific. From there, it would move north, rising to the surface again years later in the North Pacific where it might be pulled up into the clouds and once again become rain.
HEALTHY BIODIVERSE OCEAN
That’s a simplified illustration of one aspect of the complex world ocean system. We know about the surface currents like the Gulf Stream which helps make the UK and western European winters warmer than they would be otherwise but these water mass transports are also happening at various depths in the sea. They have an impact on climate—we know that—but we hear less about the impact on biodiversity. If the currents slow down or stagnate, as climatologists fear may happen if global warming becomes too severe, many more species are going to suffer declines leading to extinctions.
Thus, along with the race to understand the climate emergency and fight global warming, we need to maintain a healthy biodiverse ocean. As I investigated in my book Creatures of the Deep, we are still at the beginning of a steep learning curve about life in the ocean. About 250,000 marine species have been identified and named; there may be 1 million species still to discover, or even more. From 2000-2010, the Census on Marine Life focused the efforts by 540 expeditions and funding of USD $650 million to identify 20,000 species, at a rate of about 2,000 a year. Research has continued since then and recently has become focused in the new UN Decade for Ocean Science which began this year but still has yet to acquire substantial funding.
Picture of Lina Grube
IT'S A BIG OCEAN OUT THERE
Some of the deep sea studies at the hydrothermal vents have found hard-luck species called extremophiles including a new branch of life formerly considered part of bacteria, the archaea. These and other bizarre life forms which I loved learning about as I wrote the book, may provide cancer cures, tools for inventions, and insights into the complex world of viruses. In some ways it’s not surprising to find new microscopic species in the depths of the ocean; the fact is we’ve even identified five new species of whales in the last few decades. It’s a big ocean out there.
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ADDRESS THREATS AND CHANGE GOVERNMENT POLICIES
Most of my time these days is spent working with whales, dolphins and other marine mammals and trying to define their needs for healthy space in the ocean. Today we’re looking at whale populations that are a fraction of what they once were. At least 3 million whales were hunted down and removed from the sea following the invention of the explosive harpoon in the late 1800s. That includes the blue whale, the largest ever animal that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands and now has maybe 15 or 20 thousand total. Other whales like the North Atlantic right whale are down to the last 400; they get killed by shipping traffic and suffocate in fishing gear to the extent that their birth rate is wiped out most years. Some whale species are increasing in number in some areas of the ocean, such as humpback whales — one of the main species watched around the world on whale watching tours, famed for their curiosity and frequent breaching behavior as well as their singing. Yet humpbacks, too, are getting accidentally caught in nets, particularly the populations living close to shore. Dolphins and porpoises are also frequently killed as “bycatch” in nets.
My colleagues and I at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) spend a lot of time trying to address these threats and to change government policies that allow them to continue. We focus our efforts, among other things, on bycatch, capture and captivity, plastics in the sea, whaling and protecting habitat.
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IDENTIFYING MARINE MAMMAL HABITATS
As part of our work at the WDC Healthy Seas programme, I also co-chair the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force. Our goal is to identify “important marine mammal areas”, or IMMAs, for the 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises as well as the 40 species of seals, sea lions, walrus, manatees, dugongs, sea otters and the polar bear. To date, in a large international project since late 2016, we have organised intensive week-long workshops with more than 200 scientists in 7 regions of the world, comprising more than 1/3 of the ocean, to identify 159 IMMAs. Once identified, these areas can be monitored (we have a monitoring programme at WDC just starting up), and we can provide the information in a convenient layer or package that can be used when countries are doing marine spatial planning in their waters or designing marine protected areas (MPAs). In the next 5-6 years, we’re planning to complete our identification of marine mammal habitats over the rest of the ocean while at the same time pushing for much greater protection in marine reserves and protected areas.
Marine mammals are not the only reason why we want to protect the ocean but they are charismatic species capable of inspiring people and politicians to action. They are also critical indicator species. Because they must come to the surface to breathe air, they are among the few ocean species that we can see and study conveniently. Their presence feeding in large numbers in an area tells us a lot about biodiversity not just on the surface but in the depths of the sea below. And if marine mammals are dying with high contaminant loads, plastic bags in their stomachs, net marks on their bodies or if they are abandoning an area, this can tell us that we need to investigate the overall health of the ocean and determine what needs to be done.
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THE GOAL: 30 BY 30
As of this month, June 2021, approximately 8 percent of the world ocean is partly protected, while only 2 percent is in highly protected areas (with no fishing or exploitation). In 2010 at the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings, the countries of the world signed up to 10% protection of the ocean by 2020. Since then, we at WDC have helped in the creation of new MPAs for whales and dolphins and for other species and ecosystems, but the global response to the initiative has fallen short. We all have to do much better than 10%. A new initiative put forward by WDC, IUCN and other NGOs since 2014, is now gaining traction: “30 by 30” calls for 30% protection in effective marine protected areas of a country’s waters by 2030. The UK has been at the forefront of pushing this initiative along with various NGOs and more than 60 countries have now signed up to the idea. Of course, making it a reality, and making that protection real protection, remains our challenge.
I live in Dorset, so my piece of the ocean is an arm of the North Atlantic, the English Channel. I love to run down along the rivers to the beach and the open ocean. As an “area of natural beauty” with the jewel of the Jurassic Coast, we have some level of protection but I worry about what’s in the rivers that flow into the sea. It’s hard to miss the discarded plastic waste and face masks from the past COVID year. And every once in a while, right on the beach, a dead dolphin is washed up with net marks. Looking out to sea, I am always thinking about what’s going on out there. We all need to care about that and do our part, and to agitate so that others do their part.
It’s one ocean, the world ocean, and we’re all in this together.
Picture of Lina Grube
ABOUT ERICH HOYT
Erich Hoyt has spent 4 decades working with whales to understand their daily lives and to protect their habitat in the oceans. As Research Fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) since 2004, Erich leads its Healthy Seas programme. As part of his work for WDC, he co-chairs the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force which is rolling out a global scientific tool to map the habitats for 130 marine mammal species. Erich has authored 25 books including Orca: The Whale Called Killer and Encyclopedia of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. He has written for National Geographic, Sunday Times, BBC Wildlife and has had published more than 40 peer-reviewed papers.
Follow Erich Hoyt on Twitter.
ABOUT WHALE AND DOLPHIN CONSERVATION
WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins. They defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, lobbying, advising governments, conservation projects, field research and rescue. Their vision is a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.