The targets: loggerhead turtles, silky sharks and sailfish. The mission: figure out how many of them are left.
The United Kingdom announced Saturday it would launch a worldwide effort to monitor wildlife in the open oceans, hoping to fill a blue hole of scientific knowledge and get a clearer sense of which aquatic populations are under threat.
The project, akin to an underwater spy network, will fund a fleet of small action cameras, complete with bait, to be deployed about 30 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Researchers will place a camera in the water where they hope to gather data, and it will record anything that swims near within a given window of time. The plan is for the project to span the globe, covering four oceans and the Caribbean in waters near 10 of the U.K.’s overseas territories.
Jessica Meeuwig, a professor at the University of Western Australia and a leader of the project, said that international focus on ocean health usually centers on iconic landmarks like the Great Barrier Reef. But many of the world’s international waters, hundreds of miles offshore, are still not well understood.
“Most people assume it’s fine because it’s out of sight, out of mind,” Meeuwig said, adding that many people rarely look beyond the “blue curtain” of the ocean’s surface. “People don’t actually know what wildlife exists.”
Only 7.65% of the world’s oceans are currently designated as marine protected areas, or MPAs, and just over 1% of that area lies within the “high seas,” the oceanic regions far from land that don’t fall under any one country’s jurisdiction.
The intelligence network has already been tested, producing footage of shimmering mahi-mahi, undulating marlin and powerful yellowfin tuna. Researchers also hope to capture footage of the Gould’s squid, sea snakes and bottlenose wedgefish. Over time, researchers plan to measure populations again and again to see if they’re stable, or if the one-two punch of overfishing and climate change is causing them to decline.
The project bolsters an international effort known as 30x30, which aims to protect 30% of the planet’s land and water by 2030 ― a critical benchmark that conservationists say must be met to prevent many species from collapsing.
U.S. President Joe Biden has signed on to the 30x30 pledge, directing the Interior Department to craft a plan to meet or exceed that goal. The United States is further ahead than many countries in its protection plans, particularly with former President Barack Obama’s expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii in 2016 and the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, off the coast of New England, later that year.
Meeuwig said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given many U.K. policymakers a renewed appreciation of the importance of science ― and oceanic research is benefiting as a result.
“One thing that COVID has done is put more value on science,” she said. “I think we’re starting to understand that science matters again.”
The study couldn’t come at a more pressing time. A study in January found that populations of oceanic sharks and rays have fallen by more than 70% since 1970, linked primarily to overfishing for their fins and other body parts. Scientists have also warned for a decade that yellowfin and bluefin tuna populations are collapsing, and the threat of overfishing imperils many iconic fish popular on the dinner plate.
But encouraging studies have highlighted the potential of a project like the 30x30 initiative. Research published last month in the journal Nature found that increasing the number and scope of marine protected areas would boost marine biodiversity and significantly expand the amount of fish humans can catch. Doing so would also provide a climate boon as the ocean would be able to sequester carbon emissions, researchers found.
“It’s clear that humanity and the economy will benefit from a healthier ocean,” Enric Sala, a lead author of the study, told National Geographic in March. “And we can realize those benefits quickly if countries work together to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.”
The world’s oceans are in dire straits, and Meeuwig said she didn’t want to suggest otherwise. But the ability to gather more information can only be a good thing.
“I don’t want to pretend that there’s not bad news for the oceans,” Meeuwig said. “But by providing this data where you can assist decision makers ... that’s how we halt the bad trends.”
“There’s more openness among politicians these days to accept that science matters,” she added. “I haven’t seen more enthusiasm any time in the past 10 years.”