Archive for August, 2015

Mapping the Bottom of the Seas

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

We are a map loving species – from our local streets and highways to the whole universe. Now we have a new map of the bottom of the world’s oceans, and it is wonderful.

It is digitized, built from 14,400 data points pulled from data gathered by research cruises over the past half century and now converted to a continuous map by Big Data experts at the University of Sydney. Thirteen types of bottom sediments are color coded, and the whole globe is there on your screen to rotate in any direction and explore.

Take it for a spin: it is irresistible.

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Published in the current issue of Geology, this is really the first new view of the ocean floor in 40 years, and not surprisingly, it is full of surprises.

First, it is a much more complex patchwork of the microfossil remains of diatoms, radiolarians, sponge spicules, shell and coral fragments, along with sand, silt, clay, mud and vulcaniclastics than all previous maps had led us to expect.

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

And then, also unexpected, surface productivity of phytoplankton diatoms (a major carbon source) is not reflected by the abundance of seafloor abundance of diatom ooze (a carbon sink) – we understand less than we thought we did.

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the  surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

In fact, at stake is our much broader understanding of the deep ocean’s response to climate change. We need to understand the global geochemical cycles, the behavior of deep-water currents, and the transport of ocean sediments, and this map provides a framework for asking – and answering – more detailed questions.

What we see now is a more complicated, less predictable picture of the global seafloor. If we understand why sediments on the seafloor are where they are, we have another window into reconstructing the past environments of our planet, a valuable key to understanding what is now occurring.

Perhaps most of all, we are reminded once again by a new and global map like this new one that in our local piece of our galaxy our planet is a small, isolated biological and physical oasis where change in any one component may radically influence all the others in ways we can increasingly monitor and struggle to understand, with a history we can increasingly explore.

And of course with a near-future that is so uncertain yet we must still plan for.

This map can only help.

Hope for the High Seas?

Friday, August 7th, 2015

We get a clear view of our dark side in IUU fishing – fishing that is illegal, unreported, and unregulated. It occurs everywhere people can get away with it, but much of it occurs on the High Seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of national EEZs.

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The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth's oceans - where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth’s oceans – where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

With IUU fishing, quota limits and bycatch restrictions are ignored, 40 mile long drift nets are set despite international agreements banning them, and ocean ecosystems are damaged. IUU fishing accounts for somewhere around 20% of the global fisheries catch, worth somewhere between 10 and 23 billion dollars annually. And this doesn’t include the waste and ecological impact of the bycatch. Conservation is non-existent.

The human costs can also be dreadful, some of them documented over the past few weeks in the remarkable series of articles by Ian Urbina in the New York Times on the lawlessness of high seas IUU fishing: slavery, appalling working conditions, even unpunished and unreported murder. They make for very grim reading. Altogether, us at our worst.

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

Yet the situation very slowly improves, with help from a variety of initiatives.

For instance: Vessels involved in IUU fishing try to escape notice by changing their names and flags of convenience of a few countries that have particularly lax and unenforced regulations – Panama, Liberia, Mongolia (Mongolia!) and Belize come to mind. Still, the vessels become known, and major regional international fisheries organizations identify them and share the information. The result is a published list of IUU vessels – about 220 at present. Identified vessels cannot land their fish except in ports where regulations are ignored or don’t exist.

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

The US is a major market for the world’s fisheries, for 90% of what is sold in the US is imported. Countries identified as supporting IUU fishing vessels usually attempt to eliminate the violations, for otherwise they risk a US ban on imports of all their fisheries products. Turns out to be a powerful incentive.

And now the UN has formally agreed to take action as well. For the past few years an “Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group” has met “to study issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction” with participants from 110 countries, observers from intergovernmental organizations (like the EU and the Pacific Islands Forum) and international conservation organizations. Even the Holy See has sent observers.

The UN does not move quickly, but it does move. The report of the Ad Hoc Working Group presented its recommendations in January 2015. In June 2015 the General Assembly agreed to the next step, the creation of a Preparatory Committee, under the Convention of the Law of the Sea. About 4 years from now we should see a new UN sponsored proposed law on the conservation of high seas fishing ready for ratification. Slow, but critical.

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Enforcement is obviously the biggest issue, for vessels can turn off their transponders, and no one has the resources to patrol the High Seas.

Port control of IUU fishing is an increasingly effective alternative. Even now it is almost impossible for an IUU vessel to land its catch in North America, Australia, the EU and a lot of other places. Naming, shaming and threatening import bans on countries where ports exist that permit entry to IUU vessels, or have laws that are not enforced, gradually reduces the options for IUU vessels.

Dealing with the human rights abuses is a separate problem, but progress there occurs as well. Indonesia and Thailand have agreed to cooperate to reduce IUU fishing and associated human trafficking – though they plea for time and understanding since the process will be slow. The negative publicity from the NYT articles and others like them also cannot be underestimated.

And then there is the Pope’s recent Encyclical letter, ‘Laudato Si’, written to all of humanity, where he calls for radical solutions to reduce environmental stress and human poverty, including on the high seas, enforced again through global international agreements. The parallels with the other emerging efforts are striking.

The Pope's encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

The Pope’s encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

Slow though these processes are, they all recognize that the violations and abuses on the High Seas can only be contained by the rule of law, through international agreements and enforcement. It is the route, the only route, through these catastrophic times.