The challenges facing the ocean may seem insurmountable. Yet a global community of scientists, policymakers, activists and ordinary citizens are devising new strategies and tapping new technologies to tackle overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change and other threats to ocean health.
Policy: In June 2016, the United Nations Economic and Social Council agreed to focus on 17 goals that would move the world toward more sustainable development. Goal 14 is to “conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” Although such goals may seem vague, they can have dramatic impacts on the ocean.
For instance, creating large Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and marine monuments eases the pressures of fishing and noise on marine life and coral reefs. The number of marine sanctuaries, monuments and MPAs has risen rapidly in recent decades. While only 4 percent of the ocean is currently protected, almost none was 50 years ago. Protected areas now include the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in Hawaii, established in 2006 and expanded in 2016 to 582,578 square miles (1,508,870 square km). While MPAs may not prevent coral bleaching and acidification, they reduce other stresses on ocean health, allowing reefs and fish populations to recover.
National and international laws have begun to crack down on illegal fishing, while environmental groups and other nonprofits are working with local fishermen in developing countries to promote sustainable fisheries. Local bans on plastic bags and recycling programs can help reduce ocean plastic pollution. State, national and international commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions, if met, could reduce ocean acidification and other threats to the oceans.
Technology: Only 5 percent of the ocean has been explored and just 0.05 percent of the sea floor has been mapped at high resolution. Far less is known about the deep ocean, the cold, dark depths that comprise more than two-thirds of the ocean and 95 percent of the planet’s habitat. New technologies, however, are giving scientists the ability to explore the ocean by remote control. Fleets of autonomous solar and wave-powered ocean-going robots roam the seas gathering data on climate conditions and marine life, while other unmanned vehicles explore the ocean floor. Soon, researchers may be able to deploy entire swarms of robots that communicate with each other to explore large swaths of the ocean.
Global Fishing Watch uses satellites and algorithms to track fishing fleets around the world to detect illegal activities that are decimating marine life. Other scientists have developed technology to track the migration of endangered blue whales and monitor marine conditions to predict when the world’s largest animals are likely to cross shipping lanes so vessels can be redirected to avoid fatal collisions. Australian scientists, meanwhile, have built an autonomous robot to patrol the Great Barrier Reef and kill a growing population of deadly crown-of-thorns starfish that preys upon coral polyps.
Citizen-Scientists: In the quest to understand and monitor the health of the world’s oceans, scientists are enlisting surfers, sailors, beach-goers and other citizens to help gather data on marine life, acidification and other climate conditions. A high-tech surfboard fin embedded with sensors enables surfers to gather data on the near-shore ocean environment as they ride waves and wirelessly transmit the data to researchers. Another initiative aims to equip recreational sailboats with sensors to collect data on ocean temperatures, pH levels and even tiny organisms. A mobile phone app enables beach-goers to report marine plastic pollution to NOAA. And citizens can take matters into their own hands by reducing their use of plastics and participating in beach cleanups and eating sustainably caught fish.