2020's wildlife wins and ocean achievements!
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
For many reasons this year has been a thunderstorm of bad news, but breaking through those dark clouds are rays of sunshine shining brightly. Here's a collection of those sun beams of ocean good news that have provided bursts of joy, hope and inspiration throughout the year.
One of the very first things scientists did back in January was create cyborg jellyfish... and if that doesn't set the tone for a crazy year we don't know what does. This project does actually have some useful applications. It is said that these jellyfish could potentially carry sensors into the ocean to gather data such as temperature, salinity and CO2 levels from otherwise inaccessible locations.
This IUCN reassessment report for 2020 was released in December. Of all species that were reassessed this year, 26 are in recovery and 3 of these are shark species! 128 shark species were reassessed in total (not incl. rays/skates). A whopping 96 species of shark have moved from DD into other categories. Of these previously DD species, 61 have moved into LC. What a relief! 3 have moved into NT, 16 moved to VU, 9 moved to EN and 7 moved to CR. For those species that have been categorised as NT+ legislative efforts to protect them can now be supported by science and are more likely to be enforced. We're moving forward in getting them the protection they deserve. The 3 sharks that have recovered are the Warren's Sixgill Sawshark, the Pyjama Shark and the Spotted Gully Shark, all moving from NT to LC. This, alongside the 23 other species in recovery, demonstrates the power of conservation.
[Data analysed by Shark Guardian]
In February, school sharks (aka tope), smooth hammerheads and oceanic whitetips were granted protection during their migration after being added to the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) appendices which prohibits catch of the species throughout their entire range. Additional plans were put in place to provide extra protection for two already listed species of sawfish as well as entire families of guitarfish, giant guitarfish, and wedgefish.
In March, thanks to the endless amounts of effort put in by Shark Allies, it is now illegal to import, trade or export fins in Florida. The US's biggest shark fin trading hub passed The Kristin Jacobs Ocean Conservation Act ending the trade of fins throughout the state and becomes the 14th US state to implement such a ban. It all started a decade ago when Shark Allies campaigned to ban the trade in Hawaii with a bill passed in 2010. This momentum shows no signs of stopping with similar campaigns including Stop Finning EU and the Finspire Change UK all aiming to end the trade of fins for good.
On that note! Our Finspire Change UK campaign gathered 115,380 signatures on a UK petition to ban the import of shark fins to the UK. Now that the UK has left the EU (regardless of how you feel about it), it gives us leverage to implement legislation allowing better protection our oceans marine life and beyond. Due to this petition and the work put in behind the scenes by several other organisations and individuals, the UK is now racing towards implementing legislation that protects sharks. The debate for the Finspire petition is specifically to close the loophole allowing 20kg of fins to be taken through customs in any member of the publics suitcase. A call for evidence has been released and there have been many encouraging statements from MPs and government officials. We are positive that 2021 will be the year the UK makes a stand for sharks and against finning.
On 30th September, there was a huge win for Australian sharks with the implementation of fishing reforms banning live finning of sharks in the majority of Queensland's waters, including the Great Barrier Reef. A fins naturally attached (FNA) policy is now in place which protects species such as the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead from being finned alive and traded illegally.
Efforts in Colombia have increased. In 2017, a ban was implemented for direct shark fishing in their EEZ however Colombia has gone one step further and has now banned the fishing of sharks by involuntary (bycatch) and artisanal capture too. 550 families who traditionally fish sharks for local consumption are to be compensated by a process of payment for "environmental services" ensuring they do not lose their livelihoods. Colombia has 76 species of sharks in its waters and is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and whilst this isn't officially sanctioned by the President yet, it is looking hopeful and should cause a ripple effect encouraging neighbouring countries to follow suit.
GIFTS FROM THE OCEAN IN 2020
Somehow we are still discovering new things each year. This may surprise some but consider only 5% of the ocean has been mapped in high resolution. We have explored more of the moon than we have the ocean. On that cosmic note, four times as many people have been to the moon than have been to the deepest parts of the ocean. We have so much more to discover, these are just a few snippets of what was found this year despite restrictions.
In March, research uncovered that the deep sea dwelling Humboldt squid communicates using bioluminscent patterns on their skin. The researchers said that it could even be "broken down into distinct units that the squid recombine to form different messages, like letters in the alphabet."
November most likely gave us a new species! Whilst genetic sampling is still to be tested, experts are 'highly confident' in their predictions. The Sea Shepherd team discovered three inquisitive whales off the coast of Mexico and reported dental configuration and audio recordings unique from the 23 previously described beaked whale species. This serves as a reminder that the ocean still has so much to offer us.
A patch of coral reef termed a 'jewel of biodiversity' was discovered off the east coast of Africa in December by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists. This patch of coral reef is seemingly unaltered by the climate crisis and thrives despite being surrounded by effected reefs. But why is this patch seemingly immune? The WCS scientists describe it as a "deep coastal basin... formed thousands of years ago during deglaciation by runoff from Mt Kilimanjaro and the Usambara mountains. Those deep water channels now help provide thermal stability to marine ecosystems, shielding them from the worst of global warming in a pocket of cool and unstressful waters.” This 'ocean cool spot' acts as a window into what the ocean could and should be. The proverbial photo of the "perfect" body stuck to a mirror for inspiration. Threatened sharks and ray frequent this area, and 'lost' species of dolphin and other fish thought to be extinct have also been spotted here.
The longest animal ever recorded was found in Australian waters this April, on the same trip 30 new underwater species were documented. The organisation behind these discoveries, the Schmidt Ocean Institute, then completed the first remote at-sea science expedition in Australia's coral sea marine park in June, and found another 10 species previously undocumented.
Turkey extended its MPA's by another 350km and the Ivory Coast announces its first MPA covering 2,600 sq km. It encompasses an area with more than 20 species of sharks and rays, including hammerheads, manta rays, guitarfish as well as endangered turtles. This is the first of five planned MPAs by the Ivorian government. Three new MPAs were designated in Scotland, UK. They're located alongside the Sea of the Hebrides and provide further protection for basking sharks, minke whales, dolphins, sea fans and sea sponges. All credit to the work done by MSC and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
November again gave us another ocean treat. Tristan de Cunha announced that it was to extend it already existing marine reserve to become the fourth largest marine reserve in the world, three times the size of the UK, covering 687,000 sq km of ocean. Threatened species such as the blue shark use these waters as breeding grounds, seals habituate the area and whales use these waters as feeding grounds. 10% of the marine reserve is still open for the 245 residents of Tristan to fish responsibly however the remaining 90% is strictly a no take zone.
IN OTHER GREAT NEWS...
The Great British Beach Clean organised by the MSC saw over 2,000 volunteers collect 3.1 tonnes of litter in just a week. And that was only the officially registered groups, there were many that took place without registration!
During lockdown, five Australian tour companies have been using their empty boats to take scientists to coral nurseries planted in the Great Barrier Reef. So far over 1000 pieces of coral have now been replanted and potential gaps in data have been mitigated. Project coordinator Lorna Howlett states “It is the first time on the Great Barrier Reef that tourism operators have worked alongside researchers and the first time that a coral clip has been used to attach corals to the reef”.
From the seas to the skies. Since Shark Guardian's campaign 'Fly Without Fins' took off in June, a total of 11 airlines have committed to flying fin-free. Next year we aim to persuade another 50 airlines to implement policies which ban the transport of fins in their cargos. A few years ago WildAid alongside several other organisations including Shark Guardian took on this challenge and convinced 40+ airlines to make change and announce a ban.
At the end of last year, research showed that after scientists trawled through 900 hours of footage from an ROV covering 230,000 sq miles of seafloor around western and central Pacific islands, they were able to identify less than 20% of the 347,000 species logged. Whilst we have discovered many species this year, there is still much more to discover.