The North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW) are among the rarest of all marine mammal species in the Atlantic Ocean. They average approximately 15 m (50 ft) in length. They have stocky, black bodies with no dorsal fin, and bumpy, coarse patches of skin on their heads called callosities. The NARW is one of the world’s most endangered whales. Once common along the eastern U.S. seaboard, the whale was hunted to near-extinction by the 1750s. The species gets its names from early whalers, who considered them to be the “right” whales to hunt. By the early 1900s the population off Europe had been virtually extirpated while a small population of perhaps a hundred or fewer survived in the western North Atlantic off the United States and Canada. After 1935, when an international agreement went into effect banning the hunting of all right whales, their numbers began to increase slowly. In recent decades, this slow recovery has been impeded by mortality and serious injury from ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, underwater noise and separation from calving areas because of shipping traffic. NARW now occur almost exclusively along the east coasts of the United States and Canada, where they rely on a calanoid copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, as their primary food source. Beyond eating a lot, whales also produce lots of plumes (a gassy form of underwater poop). These plumes fertilize the ocean and help feed small organisms called phytoplankton. These organisms, in turn, produce 50% of the world’s oxygen – every other breath humans take. Over their lifetimes, NARW also accumulate tons of carbon in their bodies – helping to mitigate climate change. The importance of whales for the ecosystem cannot be overstated.
An 8-year analysis of NARW sightings within Southern New England (SNE) show that the NARW distribution has been shifting (Quintana- Rizzo et al. 2021). A study area of SNE (shores of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to and covering all the offshore wind lease sites of Massachusetts and Rhode Island) recorded sightings of NARW in almost all months of the year. A population trend analysis conducted on the abundance estimates from 1990 to 2011 suggest an increase at about 2.8% per year from an initial abundance estimate of 270 individuals in 1998 (Hayes et al. 2020). However, modeling conducted by Pace et al. (2017) showed a decline in annual abundance after 2011, which has likely continued as evidenced by the decrease in the abundance estimate from 451 in 2018 (Hayes et al. 2019) to 412 in 2020 (Hayes et al. 2020). This decrease correlates to when the Block Island wind turbines were constructed. The only offshore wind Turbines in the Americas.
With an estimated population of fewer than 350 individuals, scientists have been raising the alarm about the dwindling number of reproductive females needed to sustain the population. For a new paper published in the journal Frontiers, lead author Joshua Reed, a PhD candidate from the School of Natural Sciences at Macquarie University, used individual female whales’ reproductive history, rather than age, when modeling population trends to provide a better insight into their numbers. “Our research found that of the estimated 142 female right whales alive in the population at the beginning of 2018, only 72 were actually capable of reproducing. This has certainly influenced the species’ decline in recent years,” said Reed. The researchers also found that in recent years, young females are less likely to start calving when they reach 10 years of age. Ten was the age at which right whales used to have their first calf in the years up to the turn of the century. Right Whales can and should live for up to 75 years. But that number is quickly declining. Scientists identify individual right whales through photographs and compare these images throughout time to learn about their lifespan. And, according to recent estimates, female right whales are barely making it to middle age. But many right whales don’t even make it that far.
In its 2020 update of its “Red List of Threatened Species,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared NARW “critically endangered,” the most serious category of risk, with such a small, slow-growing population, any threatening factor may have a significant impact.
Offshore Wind or North Atlantic Right Whale?
“North Atlantic right whale” by FWC Research is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) plans, by 2025, to hold up to five additional, to the Revolution Wind, Offshore Wind (OSW) lease sales and complete the review of at least 16 plans to construct and operate commercial OSW facilities, which would represent more than 22 gigawatts of “clean” energy for the nation. That means thousands of wind turbines along the Eastern Seaboard.
BOEM and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries initiated development of a shared Draft North Atlantic Right Whale and Offshore Wind Strategy (hereinafter called “Strategy”) to focus and integrate past, present, and future efforts related to NARW and OSW development. In response to Executive Order 14008, both agencies share a common vision to protect and promote the recovery of NARW while responsibly developing offshore wind energy. The announcement initiated a 45-day public review and comment period on the draft strategy. Comments on the guidance can be submitted via regulations.gov from October 21 to December 4, 2022 under Docket Number BOEM-2022-0066. For more information about the draft strategy and how to submit comments, visit BOEM’s website.
The following is my comment. Please use this opportunity to express your concerns in this regard.
The NARW species provides important ecosystem services, and its potential extinction could be a leading indicator for other ecosystem disruptions (Pershing et al. 2021). The extinction of the Right Whale will be the precursor of the extinction of our own species. Both will be caused by the disturbances to functioning ecosystems by human expansion. And it does not need to be this way. OSW development will result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. Only a “jeopardy” or “adverse modification” conclusion can be reached. Whales and turbines do not mix. Please do not allow this “development” to proceed while the NARW survival is in the balance. There is still time, but the time is now because there is so little left.
Climate change does in-fact pose a significant global threat that will cause planet-wide physical, chemical, and biological changes that substantially affect the world’s oceans, lands, and atmosphere. But climate change is a symptom of industrial civilization and driven by the disease of a consumer culture. A new study finds a 69% average drop in animal populations since 1970. Over those five decades most of the decline can be traced to habitat destruction. The human desire for ever more growth played out over the years, city by city, road by road, acre by acre, across the globe. “Biological diversity is the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity seen today is the result of 4.5 billion years of evolution and, increasingly, of human influence as well. It forms the web of life, of which humans are integral and upon which people and the planet so fully depend. The planet is currently in biodiversity breakdown. Species are now disappearing hundreds, or even thousands, of times faster than the natural background rate of extinction. The scientific community has repeatedly sounded the alarm on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Over half the world’s total GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature, which also provides medicine and social benefits.” We are in a biodiversity emergency. With scores of species dying each day, we are in a mass extinction event. Although many of those species may not be as impressive as the megafauna they are just as important to protect the complex balance of nature which all of life is dependent upon.
Without significant reductions in anthropocentric consumption of the natural world, greenhouse gas emissions, extinctions and transformative impacts on all ecosystems cannot be avoided. Our options in what reductions will then be impose by such limits will create harsher impacts on the economic, recreational, and subsistence activities they support.
OSW is abundant and renewable but extracting that energy with turbines will be neither efficient or clean or an alternative domestic energy resource. Wind turbines are not renewable. Heavy industries use a lot of energy to create the components for wind turbines. Coal and other fossil fuels are utilized to power the machinery and furnaces in these factories. According to estimates, the energy utilized by the present United States’ heavy industries is equivalent to the energy necessary to power the country’s entire electrical grid.
The need for energy in the heavy industries grows in tandem with the demand for wind turbines, producing a feedback mechanism in which the more wind power we use, the more reliant we are on the heavy industry, and thus the more fossil fuels we need. Production of wind turbines to extract wind energy will require the release of more emissions that can pollute the air or water without exceptions, and using turbines to extract wind energy has greater effects on the environment than many other energy sources. Wind turbines will not reduce the amount of electricity generation from fossil fuels, and will result in greater total air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Transitioning to their use will precipitate a far higher biodiversity loss in their manufacturing process. Already the wind power boom is driving deforestation in the Amazon with its demand for balsa wood.
The major coastal cities, where more than half of the U.S. population resides and energy needs are high, must reduce their energy consumption, as all cities must do. Compared to onshore wind, offshore wind challenges that also need to be considered are higher cost due to specialized installation, equipment, and more expensive support structures; (2) more difficult working conditions; (3) higher wind speeds; (4) decreased availability due to limited accessibility for maintenance; and (5) necessity for special corrosion prevention measures. Hence the lower life cycle of 15 years for offshore wind. Then at the end of their lifecycle they end up in a landfill because they are economically infeasible to recycle. Not to mention that these particular turbines will be built in the home of the NARW.
Without the Departments of the Interior, Energy, and Commerce announced national goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of OSW by 2032 and accompanying subsidies, there wouldn’t be increasing interest in developing OSW. This goal is stated to be achieved while protecting biodiversity and promoting ocean co-use. It can be appreciated that in an attempt to resolve these conflicting goals the BOEM and NOAA Fisheries North Atlantic Right Whale and Offshore Wind Strategy has been put forth.
The Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Lands Act directs BOEM to study and consider coastal, marine, and human environmental impacts, and BOEM must also comply with many other statutes, regulations, executive orders, and policies in making decisions—including the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA requires BOEM to ensure that any action it takes to implement the OCS Renewable Energy Program is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat determined for any listed species, including the NARW (ESA section 7(a)(2)). Additionally, section 7(a)(1) of the ESA requires BOEM (and all other Federal agencies) to “utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act by carrying out programs for the conservation of endangered species.”
NOAA Fisheries strives to take an ecosystem-based approach to managing living marine resources, recognizing the interconnectedness of ecosystem components and the value of resilient and productive ecosystems to living marine resources. This connectedness should also be applicable to places where the metals and material are mined to make wind turbines, for example deep sea mining. A declaration of oceanic rights from the United Nations could recognize the ocean as a living entity that has its own inherent entitlements, such as those to life and health, along with the right to continue its vital natural cycle.
NOAA Fisheries and NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries share NOAA’s mission to 1) understand and predict changes in climate, weather, ocean and coasts; 2) share that knowledge and information with others; and 3) conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. So coastal and marine ecosystems then are not resources to conserve and manage for the continuation of extractive industries. They function best when left alone.
As noted above, section 7(a)(2) of the ESA requires BOEM, in consultation with NOAA Fisheries, to ensure that any action the agencies authorize, fund, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat; this coordination is accomplished through ESA section 7 consultations. The Strategy does not state that when a Federal agency’s action “may affect” a protected species, that agency is required to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This requirement needs to go upstream to the threatened species caused by mining for the materials of the construction of the wind turbines.
In response to a request for consultation, NOAA Fisheries prepares a Biological Opinion detailing how an agency (i.e., BOEM) action affects a threatened or endangered species and/or its critical habitat and a conclusion as to whether the proposed action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species. It considers whether the action will result in reductions in reproduction, numbers, or distribution of the species and then considering whether these reductions would reduce appreciably the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of the species, as those terms are defined for purposes of the ESA. The Biological Opinion also includes a determination as to whether the proposed action is likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. If a “jeopardy” or “adverse modification” conclusion is reached, the Biological Opinion would include one or more Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives to the proposed action that would avoid the likelihood of jeopardizing the continued existence of the listed species or the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat.
If a “no jeopardy” conclusion is reached, either based on the proposed action and its mitigation or after adopting a Reasonable and Prudent Alternative, NOAA Fisheries may issue an Incidental Take Statement that exempts a certain amount and type of take from the ESA section 9 prohibitions on take. The Strategy should include the following definition: The ESA broadly defines “take” to include “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.” In the case of the NARW this should not be allowed.
According to the Petition for Incidental Take Regulations for the Construction and Operation of the Revolution Wind Offshore Wind Farm :
NARW feed mostly on zooplankton and copepods belonging to the Calanus and Pseudocalanus genera (Hayes et al. 2020). NARWs are slow-moving grazers that feed on dense concentrations of prey at or below the water’s surface, as well as at depth (NMFS 2021l). Research suggests that NARWs must locate and exploit extremely dense patches of zooplankton to feed efficiently (Mayo and Marx 1990).
2.3.2 • Likely changes in copepod distribution between pre- and post-OSW construction. This must be tested to verify. CRITICAL what effect do the present in-place turbines have on prey food?
Currently there are no quantitative data on how large whale species (i.e., mysticetes) may be impacted by offshore wind farms (Kraus et al. 2019). Navigation through or foraging within the Revolution Wind Farm by large whales could be impeded by the presence of the wind turbine generatorsand offshore substations foundations, which range in diameter from 12 to 15 m with approximately 1.15 mi (1.8 km) spacing between foundations (Section 1). Additionally, wakes in water currents created by the presence of the foundations could alter the distribution of zooplankton within the water column, which would impact prey availability for some marine mammal species (Kraus et al. 2019).
What is the effect the extraction of wind energy from the surface of the ocean in regards to water temperature and currents?
WIND ENERGY EXTRACTION
“Horns rev offshore wind farm” by Vattenfall is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Climatic Impacts of Wind Power
• Wind turbines raise local temperatures by making the air flow more turbulent and so increasing the mixing of the boundary layers.
• However, because wind turbines have a low output density, the number of them required has a warming impact on a continental scale. During the day, the surface temperature rises by 0.24 degrees Celsius, while at night, it may reach 1.5 degrees Celsius. This impact happens immediately.
• Considering simply this, the consequences of switching to wind power now would be comparable to those of continuing to use fossil fuels till the end of the century.
In general, BOEM will consider recommendations from NOAA Fisheries and attempt to avoid issuing new leases in areas that may impact potential high-value habitat and/or high-density/use areas for important life history functions such as NARW foraging, migrating, mating, or calving. BOEM and NOAA Fisheries will include potential lessees in these conversations as early as possible to raise awareness of concerns over impacts to NARW.
If issuing new leases in these areas is not avoidable they still must avoid the likelihood of jeopardizing the continued existence of the listed species or the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. Under what condition would they be unavoidable?
Developers should avoid proposing development in areas that may impact high-value habitat and/or high-density/use areas used for important life history functions such as NARW foraging, migrating, mating, or calving. If avoidance is not possible, include measures to avoid and minimize impacts to NARW and their habitat. In this situation the developer should have alternative proposals in different areas.
BOEM will work with NOAA Fisheries to ensure environmental review under applicable statutes evaluate measures to avoid (primary goal) or minimize (secondary goal) impacts to NARW and high-value habitat and/or high-density/use areas for important life history functions such as NARW foraging, migrating, mating, or calving. The results of these environmental reviews will ultimately inform Construction and Operation Plan (COP) conditions of approval.
THIS IS GOOD: If new information becomes available indicating that activities previously authorized by BOEM through a plan approval (e.g., COP, Site Assessment Plan, General Activities Plan) are now resulting in an imminent threat of serious or irreparable harm or damage to NARW, BOEM has the authority to suspend operations.
Protected Species Observers (PSOs): Use trained, third-party PSOs with no duties other than to effectively implement mitigation and monitoring measures during construction and operations. Adopt standards for protected species monitoring (e.g., minimum visibility, PSO protocols, etc.). Use only independent, third-party PSOs (i.e., not construction personnel) that are approved by NOAA Fisheries. Locate PSOs safely at the best vantage point(s) to ensure coverage of the entire visual Clearance and Shutdown Zones, and as much of the behavioral harassment zones as possible. Ensure PSOs do not exceed 4 consecutive watch hours on duty at any time, have a two- hour (minimum) break between watches, and do not exceed a combined watch schedule of more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period. These PSO should not be contractors of the developer. They must be payed through a government agency which can be covered through developer fees.
For the success of “DRAFT BOEM and NOAA Fisheries North Atlantic Right Whale and Offshore Wind Strategy” what exactly is that? To promote the recovery of NARW while responsibly developing OSW. What happens if these two are mutually exclusive? Would it be a success if Right Whales continue to survive but wind turbines do not? Must NOAA Fisheries meet the shared vision to protect and promote the recovery of NARW while responsibly developing offshore wind energy? So long as the NARW numbers are declining there should be no disturbance of their habitat.
There are no time tables in this Strategy so is it understood then that no action shall be taken until such time as the appropriate data is collected? Although it is long on data collection there is no mention of inspection. All of these actions will require funding but these extra expenses can not be covered in the normal operating budgets of the agencies. Where will it come from and where will it go?
I commend BOEM and NOAA Fisheries for producing a strategy in regard to the NARW. I also acknowledge that in order to maintain functioning ecosystems, this type of Strategy should be implemented for all of the new mining operations, logistics, transportation and infrastructure that will be required to build all of the proposed turbines needed to transition to an energy capturing economy.
Carl van Warmerdam has lived his life on the West Coast of Turtle Island. He has always aligned with the counter culture ideals there. Now he currently lives on the coast of New England, the ancestral home of the Right Whale. If you would like to help save the whales email Lafongcarl@protonmail.com. We stopped offshore wind before, we can do it again.
Editor’s Note: Deep sea mining is being pursued on the pretext of a transition towards a “cleaner” source of energy. This transition is being hailed as “the solution” to all environmental problems by the majority of the environmental movement. The irony of “the solution” to environmental problems being destruction of natural communities seems to be lost on a lot of people.
The International Seabed Authority has been criticized for a lack of transparency and corporate capture by the companies it is supposed to regulate. Given that the organization is expected to be funded from mining royalties, it may not come as a surprise that it has prioritized the interests of corporations above the preservation of the deep sea. Despite numerous concerns raised about Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI)’s environmental impact statement, the ISA gave permission to NORI to begin exploratory mining. NORI’s vessel, The Hidden Gem, is currently extracting polymetallic nodules from the seafloor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. This exploratory mining will cause tremendous harm itself, but it is also a big step towards opening the gates to large-scale commercial exploitation of the deep sea. To help stop this, get organized, become a Deep Sea Defender.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the intergovernmental body responsible for overseeing deep sea mining operations and for protecting the ocean, recently granted approval for a mining trial to commence in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean.
The company undertaking this trial is Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian-owned The Metals Company (TMC), which is aiming to start annually extracting 1.3 million metric tons of polymetallic nodules from the CCZ as early as 2024.
The approval for this mining test, the first of its kind since the 1970s, was first announced by TMC earlier this week.
Mining opponents said the ruling took them by surprise and they feared it would pave the way for exploitation to begin in the near future, despite growing concerns about the safety and necessity of deep sea mining.
On Sept. 14, the Hidden Gem — an industrial drill ship operated by a subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian deep sea mining corporation — left its port in Manzanillo, Mexico. From there, it headed toward the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a vast abyssal plain in international waters of the Pacific Ocean that stretches over 4.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles) across the deep sea, roughly equivalent in size to half of Canada.
The goal of TMC’s expedition is to test its mining equipment that will vacuum up polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped rocks formed over millions of years. The nodules contain commercially coveted minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. TMC, a publicly traded company listed on the Nasdaq exchange, announced that it aims to collect 3,600 metric tons of these nodules during this test period.
This operation came as a surprise to opponents of deep-sea mining, mainly because of the stealth with which they said the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — the UN-affiliated intergovernmental body dually responsible for overseeing mining in international waters and for protecting the deep sea — authorized TMC to commence the trial.
It is the first such trial the ISA has authorized after years of debate over whether it should permit deep-sea mining to commence in international waters, and if so, under what conditions. News of the authorization did not come initially from the ISA, but from TMC itself in a press release dated September 7. The ISA eventually posted its own statement on Sept. 15, more than a week after TMC’s announcement. It is not clear when the ISA granted the authorization.
“We’ve been caught off guard by this,” Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, an organization campaigning to prevent deep sea mining operations, told Mongabay in an interview. “There’s been little time for us to react.”
Mounting concerns, sudden actions
Several weeks ago, in July and August, delegates to the ISA met in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss how, when and if deep sea mining could begin. In July 2021, discussions acquired a sense of urgency when the Pacific island state of Nauru triggered an arcane rule embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that could obligate the ISA to kick-start exploitation in about two years with whatever rules are in place at the time. Nauru is the sponsor of Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of TMC that is undertaking the tests. TMC told Mongabay that it expects to apply for its exploitation license in 2023, and if approved by the ISA, to begin mining towards the end of 2024.
The ISA subsequently scheduled a series of meetings to accelerate the development of mining regulations, but has yet to adopt a final set of rules.
The delay is due, in part, to the increasing number of states and observers from civil society raising concerns about the safety and necessity of deep sea mining. Some member states, including Palau, Fiji and Samoa, have even called for a moratorium on deep sea mining until more is understood about the marine environment that companies want to exploit. Other concerns hinge upon an environmental impact statement (EIS) that NORI had to submit in order for mining to begin.
NORI submitted an initial draft of its EIS in July 2021, as per ISA requirements, and an updated version in March 2022.
Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a group of environmental NGOs calling for NORI’s testing approval to be rescinded, said that the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) — the organ responsible for issuing mining licenses — previously cited “serious concerns” about NORI’s EIS, including the fact that it lacked baseline environmental data. The LTC had also raised concerns about the comprehensiveness of the group’s Environmental Management and Monitoring Plan (EMMP), he said.
But then, “all of a sudden,” the LTC granted approval for the mining test without first consulting ISA council members, said Gianni, who acts as an observer at ISA meetings.
The fact that TMC announced the decision before the ISA did “reinforces the impression that it’s the contractor and the LTC and the [ISA] secretariat that are driving the agenda, and states are following along,” Gianni said.
Harald Brekke, chair of the LTC, sent Mongabay a statement similarly worded to the recent announcement made by the ISA. He said that the LTC had reviewed NORI’s EIS and EMMP for “completeness, accuracy and statistical reliability,” and that an internal working group had worked closely with NORI to address concerns. In response, the mining group adequately dealt with the issues, which allowed the LTC to approve the proposed testing activities, he said.
“This is a normal contract procedure between the [ISA] Secretary-General and the Contractor, on the advice and recommendations by the [Legal and Technical] Commission,” Brekke said in the emailed statement. “It is not a decision to be made by the [ISA] Council. According to the normal procedure of ISA, the details of this process will be [communicated] by the Chair of the Commission to the Council at its session in November.”
“I also would like to point out that this procedure has followed the regulations and guidelines of ISA,” Brekke added, “which are implemented to take care of the possible environmental impacts of this kind of exploration activity.”
Yet Gianni said he did not believe the LTC had satisfactorily reviewed the EIS for its full potential of environmental impact, nor had it considered the “serious harmful effects on vulnerable marine ecosystems” as required under the ISA’s own exploration regulations for polymetallic nodules.
Questions about transparency
Sandor Mulsow, who worked as the director of environment and minerals at the ISA between 2013 and 2019, said that the ISA “is not fit to carry out an analysis of environmental impact assessment” and that the grounds on which the ISA authorized NORI to begin testing were questionable.
“Unfortunately, the [International] Seabed Authority is pro-mining,” Mulsow, who now works as a professor at Universidad Austral de Chile, said in an interview with Mongabay. “They’re not complying with the role of protecting the common heritage of humankind.”
A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the ISA gave TMC critical information over a 15-year period that allowed the company to access some of the most valuable seabed areas marked for mining, giving it an unfair advantage over other contractors.
The ISA has also frequently been criticized for its lack of transparency, including the fact that the LTC meets behind closed doors and provides few details about why it approves mining proposals. The ISA has previously granted dozens of exploratory mining licenses to contractors, although none have yet received an exploitation license. While NORI is not technically undertaking exploratory mining in this instance, their testing of mining equipment falls under exploration regulations.
Mongabay reported that transparency issues were even prominent during the ISA meetings that took place in July and August this year, including restrictions on participation and limited access to key information for civil society members.
The ISA did not respond to questions posed by Mongabay, instead deferring to the statement from Brekke, the LTC chair.
‘Full-blown mining in test form’
During the mining trial set to take place in the CCZ — which could begin as early as next week — NORI will be testing out its nodule collector vehicles and riser systems that will draw the nodules about 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) from the seabed to the surface. If NORI does begin exploitation in 2024, Gianni said the risers will be pumping about 10,000 metric tons of nodules up to a ship per day.
“That’s a hell of a lot,” Gianni said. “This is heavy duty machinery. This is piping that has to withstand considerable pressure.”
NORI intends to extract 1.3 million metric tons of wet nodules each year in the exploitation stage of its operation, TMC reported.
The Metals Company argues that this mining will provide minerals necessary to power a global shift toward clean energy. Indeed, demand for such minerals is growing as nations urge consumers to take up electric vehicles in an effort to combat climate change.
Mining opponents, however, have argued that renewable technologies like electric cars don’t actually need the minerals procured from mining.
Moreover, a growing cadre of scientists have been warning against the dangers of deep sea mining, arguing that we don’t know enough about deep sea environments to destroy them. What we do know about the deep sea suggests that mining could have far-reaching consequences, such as disturbing phytoplankton blooms at the sea’s surface, introducing toxic metals into marine food webs, and dispersing mining waste over long distances across the ocean — far enough to affect distant fisheries and delicate ecosystems like coral reefs and seamounts.
“Every time somebody goes and collects some sample in that area of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, there’s a new species coming up,” Mulsow said. “We don’t know how to name them, and we want to destroy them.”
TMC has stated that the testing activities will be monitored by “independent scientists from a dozen leading research institutions around the world.”
However, Hemphill of Greenpeace, who also has ISA observer status, questions whether the monitoring process will be unbiased.
“We’re thinking there’s a high chance that these risers might not work,” he said. “But if there’s not a third party observer out there, then we just have to rely on The Metals Company’s own recording.”
“It’s going to be basically a full-blown mining operation in test form, where they’re not only using the [collector] equipment, but they’re using the risers to bring the nodules to the surface,” Hemphill added.
Nodule collection trials like the one NORI is undertaking haven’t been conducted in the CCZ since the 1970s, TMC noted in its press release.
When Mongabay reached out to TMC for further information about its operation, a spokesperson for the company said that they “believe that polymetallic nodules are a compelling solution to the critical mineral supply challenges facing society in our transition away from fossil fuels.”
“While concern is justified as to the potential impacts of any source of metals — whether from land or sea — significant attention has been paid to mitigate these, including by setting aside more area for protection than is under license in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean,” the TMC spokesperson said.
‘No way back’
Mulsow said he was sure that this trial would pave the way for exploitation to start next year, not only giving TMC’s NORI access to the deep sea’s resources, but opening the gates for other contractors to begin similar operations.
“[In June] 2023, we will have … the application for the first mining license for the deep sea,” he said, “and then there will be no way back.”
Hemphill said he also feared the move would set a process into motion for mining to start next year — but added that Greenpeace would continue its fight to stop mining.
“We’re not giving up just because the two-year rule comes to pass,” he said. “And then if things get started, we’re in this for the long haul.”
Gianni said he was hopeful that the dynamic could also change at the next ISA meeting scheduled for November, in which delegates will get the chance to discuss whether they’re obligated to approve the start of mining the following year.
“The fact that the LTC has done this … may finally get council members to start saying, ‘Wait a minute, we need to bring this renegade fiefdom [at] the heart of the ISA structure under control,” Gianni said, “because they’re going off and deciding things in spite of all the reservations that are being expressed by the countries that are members of the ISA.”
Featured image and all other images, unless mentioned otherwise, were provided by Julia Barnes.
Editor’s note: By biomass, krill are the most abundant species in the world and the main food source for all baleen whales — including blue whales, the largest animals on the planet and the largest ever known to have existed.
Regardless of how abundant it is — see Passenger Pigeons, Buffalo, or Great Auks — any species that becomes economically valuable in a growth economy will likely experience decline and collapse. That is the nature of endless growth.
Krill are no different. Between overfishing that has more than quadrupled in 15 years and global climate destabilization that has already warmed the Antarctic by 2.5° C since the 1940s, Krill, like all life on Earth, are in trouble — yet another sign that industrial civilization is driving an ongoing ecological collapse and accelerating us deeper into the 6th mass extinction (an extermination, in this case) of life on Earth.
Antarctic krill are one of the most abundant species in the world in terms of biomass, but scientists and conservationists are concerned about the future of the species due to overfishing, climate change impacts and other human activities.
Krill fishing has increased year over year as demand rises for the tiny crustaceans, which are used as feed additives for global aquaculture and processed for krill oil.
Experts have called on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the group responsible for protecting krill, to update its rules to better protect krill; others are calling for a moratorium on krill fishing.
Antarctic krill play a critical role in maintaining the health of our planet by storing carbon and providing food for numerous species.
Antarctic krill — tiny, filter-feeding crustaceans that live in the Southern Ocean — have long existed in mind-boggling numbers. A 2009 study estimated that the species has a biomass of between 300 million and 500 million metric tons, which is more than any other multicellular wild animal in the world. Not only are these teensy animals great in number, but they’re known to lock away large quantities of carbon through their feeding and excrement cycles. One study estimates that krill remove 23 million metric tons of carbon each year — about the amount of carbon produced by 35 million combustion-engine cars — while another suggests that krill take away 39 million metric tons each year. Krill are also a main food source for many animals for which Antarctica is famous: whales, seals, fish, penguins, and a range of other seabirds.
But Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) are not “limitless,” as they were once described in the 1960s; they’re a finite resource under an increasing amount of pressure due to overfishing, pollution, and climate change impacts like the loss of sea ice and ocean acidification. While krill are nowhere close to being threatened with extinction, the 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that there’s a high likelihood that climate-induced stressors would present considerable risks for the global supply of krill.
“Warming that is occurring along the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea has caused the krill stocks in those areas to shrink and the center of that population has moved southwards,” Kim Bernard, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, wrote to Mongabay via email while stationed in the Antarctic Peninsula. “This tells us already that krill numbers aren’t endless.”
Concerns are amassing around one place in particular: a krill hotspot and nursery at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula known as “Area 48,” which harbors about 60 million metric tons of krill. Not only has this area become a key foraging ground for many species that rely on krill, but it also attracts about a dozen industrial fishing vessels each year. The amount of krill they catch has been steadily increasing over the years. In 2007, vessels caught 104,728 metric tons in Area 48; in 2020, they caught 450,781 metric tons.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the group responsible for protecting krill, has imposed rules to try and regulate krill fishing in the Southern Ocean, but many conservationists and scientists say the rules need to be updated to reflect the changing dynamics of the marine environment. That said, many experts argue that the Antarctic krill fishery can be sustainable if managed correctly.
Antarctic krill are under pressure due to overfishing, pollution, and climate change impacts like the loss of sea ice and ocean acidification. Image courtesy of Dan Costa.
Approaching krill ‘trigger level’
Fishing nations started casting their nets for Antarctic krill in the 1970s, believing these small crustaceans could provide a valuable source of animal protein that would alleviate world hunger. But in the 1980s, interest in krill fishing waned, partly because no one was sure how to remove the high levels of fluoride in their exoskeletons. It was also generally difficult to process krill into food fit for human consumption and to successfully sell these foods to consumers.
But krill fishing never really stopped. In fact, it’s been gaining momentum ever since krill was identified as a suitable animal feed. Now krill is mainly used as a feed additive in the global aquaculture industry, as well as to produce krill oil that goes into omega-3 dietary supplements.
In 1982, the CCAMLR was established to address concerns that the Antarctic krill fishery could have a substantial impact on the marine ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. In 2010, the CCAMLR established a rule limiting catches to 5.61 million metric tons across four subsections of Area 48 where krill fishing was concentrated. The rule also dictated that krill fishing in these areas must stop if the total combined catch reached a “trigger level” of 620,000 metric tons.
So far, total catches have not exceeded this boundary. But krill fishing nations, which currently include Norway, China, South Korea, Ukraine and Chile, are inching closer to it as they expand their operations.
“As long as catches were significantly below the trigger level, I think people felt like, ‘Oh, we don’t need to be too worried,’” Claire Christian, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), told Mongabay. “They’re still not there yet, but as they’ve been getting closer, there’s been more pressure on CCAMLR scientists and policymakers to look at the fishery and develop a more comprehensive management system.”
Stuart Corney, an Antarctic krill expert at the University of Tasmania, said a primary concern is that most krill fishing is concentrated at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where krill are known to spawn, creating “localized depletion.”
“If we overexploit the krill in that region, it can have significant implications for the population in a greater area of Antarctica … so it needs to be carefully managed efficiently,” Corney told Mongabay.
Another issue with the current catch limits is that they don’t consider the impacts of climate change, according to Bernard.
“This is particularly important at the Antarctic Peninsula where the fishing effort is greatest because the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet,” Bernard said. “There is also evidence that areas along the Antarctic Peninsula such as the Gerlache Strait are important overwintering grounds for Antarctic krill, particularly for the juveniles and larvae that shelter in the bays and fjords along the Peninsula at that time of year. There is no seasonal closure on the krill fishery and because of delayed sea ice formation in the region around the Gerlache Strait the fishery can extend into winter. When that happens, the fishery could remove massive numbers from the next reproductive cohort of the population.”
Krill are known to lock away large amounts of carbon through their feeding and excrement cycles. Image courtesy of Aker.
Not only will global heating deplete the sea ice that krill depend upon, but research has suggested that warming waters will impact krill growth, possibly leading to a 40% decline in the mass of individual krill by the end of the century. Other research has argued that ocean acidification, another impact of climate change, will reduce krill development and hatchling rate and lead to an eventual collapse in 2300.
Progress and setbacks
In 2019, CCAMLR members agreed on a scientific work plan with the view of adopting new conservation measures based on it in 2021. This process was delayed due to COVID-19, but CCAMLR members are expected to reinvigorate these discussions at the next meeting in October, said Nicole Bransome, a marine ecologist at Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy.
“Hopefully, the scientists will have been able to put all of the science together … and come up with a new measure that spreads the catch out in space to reduce the impacts on predators,” Bransome told Mongabay. However, she said she’s concerned about a possible move to increase krill catch limits, which was discussed at last year’s meeting.
“Preliminary analysis suggests that the overall catch level could go up, but as of last year’s meeting, there were still a lot of uncertainties with that model and the parameters used in that model,” she said. “We would rather see that if the catch limits change, they’re based on a robust model and good science.”
While many experts say krill fishing can be sustainable if managed correctly, others call for stronger measures to protect krill.
Over the past decade, conservationists and scientists have been proposing the establishment of three new marine protected areas (MPAs) in East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea, ranging over 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) of the Southern Ocean, which would help protect krill with no-take zones.
“There is now strong scientific evidence that we need strict protection of at least 30% of the global ocean to effectively protect it,” said Christian of ASOC.
Sophie Nodzenski, a senior campaigner at the Changing Markets Foundation, an NGO that works to expose irresponsible corporate practices and to foster sustainability, said the CCAMLR’s continued rejection of the MPAs had led her organization to call for a moratorium on krill fishing. (The Bob Brown Foundation, an Australian NGO that works to protect the natural world, has previously called for a similar ban on krill fishing to be put in place.)
“We are aware it’s a strong stand,” Nodzenski told Mongabay. “But there is a climate emergency, and there is a worry about how krill fishing is exacerbating the threats from climate change. So why don’t we just put a moratorium in place?”
In a report released Aug. 11 — for the first World Krill Day — the Changing Market Foundation details concerns for the planned expansion of the krill industry, which could push catch limits past the current trigger points. It also reveals how Norwegian company Aker Biomarine dominates the industry, supplying krill feed for farmed salmon operations around the world.
Consumers could alleviate pressure on krill “by pushing for a change in the way we are harvesting krill,” Nodzenski said. “If there’s less demand for products, eventually you could see a knock-on effect on the krill harvesting.”
Krill is fished so it can be used as a feed additive in the global aquaculture industry, as well as to produce krill oil that goes into omega-3 dietary supplements. Image courtesy of Pete Harmsen.
Is change coming?
The report also casts doubt on the CCAMLR’s ability to make timely decisions to protect krill.
“This is because CCAMLR’s decision-making process is based on consensus; as long as some members oppose changes to the status quo (in this regard, China and Russia), decisions cannot go ahead,” the authors write. “This means that, for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to envisage how management measures regarding krill can evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing climate.”
Yet other experts say the CCAMLR has the capacity to authorize effective changes.
“CCAMLR has a range of mechanisms it can use to further ecosystem protection,” Bransome of Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy said. “Lots of progress has been made … and we are looking to CCAMLR to achieve additional protections at the upcoming CCAMLR meeting.”
Corney from the University of Tasmania said he believes it’s important for fishing nations to continue working together through the CCAMLR to protect the Southern Ocean.
“If some nations started pulling out of CCAMLR … they’re not bound by the rules [and] they can do their thing,” Corney said. “We want all nations to remain in CCAMLR. We want them to sign up for the agreements that are reached. That means we have to accept the structure that is there.”
While opinions differ about how to manage the krill fishery, experts tend to agree on one thing: krill are too valuable to lose in this moment of climate crisis.
Antarctic krill are also a main food source for many animals, including whales, seals, fish, penguins, and a range of other seabirds. Image by Brett Wilks /Australian Antarctic Division.
“Even though Antarctic krill are seemingly far removed from our lives, some of that excess carbon dioxide we’ve pumped into the air is exported to the sea floor by krill, where it will remain for thousands of years,” Bernard said. “Without Antarctic krill, Earth would be even hotter than it already is.”
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Belcher, A., Henson, S. A., Manno, C., Hill, S. L., Atkinson, A., Thorpe, S. E., … Tarling, G. A. (2019). Krill faecal pellets drive hidden pulses of particulate organic carbon in the marginal ice zone. Nature Communications, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-019-08847-1
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Klein, E. S., Hill, S. L., Hinke, J. T., Phillips, T., & Watters, G. M. (2018). Impacts of rising sea temperature on krill increase risks for predators in the Scotia Sea. PLOS ONE, 13(1), e0191011. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0191011
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Editor’s note: Deep-sea mining is a sign of addiction. Only a culture driven by a death urge masquerading as a profit-production-motive could contemplate destroying some of the largest and most intact remaining habitats on Earth and call it “green.” One of the first companies that may begin deep sea mining is The Metals Company, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada. TMC plans to extract nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese from “polymetallic nodules” dredged from the deep seafloor in an area of international waters called the Clarion Clipperton Zone southwest of San Diego. The company claims that mining the oceans is less harmful to the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a biocentric organization, Deep Green Resistance is opposed to deep-sea mining — and indeed, all industrial mining. Mining is the one of the most destructive industries on the planet in terms of habitat destruction, pollution, and social injustice. Modern industrial civilization is fully dependent on mining, and as an organization dedicated to dismantling industrial civilization, we oppose and will fight all industrial mining activities. We put the planet first.
This week, the International Seabed Authority, the intergovernmental body tasked with overseeing deep-sea mining in international waters, concluded its recent set of meetings, which ran from July 4 to Aug. 4, 2022.
The purpose of these meetings was to progress with negotiations of mining regulations, with a view that deep-sea mining will start in July 2023 after the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered a rule that could obligate this to happen.
While many countries appear to support the rapid development of these regulations, an increasing number of other countries have expressed concern with this deadline, indicating a possible turn of events.
It starts with tiny deep-sea fragments — shark’s teeth or slivers of shell. Then, in a process thought to span millions of years, they get coated in layers of liquidized metal, eventually becoming solid, lumpy rocks that resemble burnt potatoes. These formations, known as polymetallic nodules, have caught the attention of international mining companies because of what they harbor: rich deposits of commercially sought-after minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese — the very metals that go into the batteries for renewable technologies like electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels.
But while some experts say we must mine the deep sea to combat climate change, others warn against it, saying we know too little about the damage that seabed mining would cause to the ocean’s life-sustaining properties.
Actual extraction has yet to begin, but in June 2021, the small Pacific island country of Nauru pushed the world closer to this possibility by notifying the International Seabed Authority — the intergovernmental body that oversees mining in international waters — that it had triggered a two-year rule in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This rule would theoretically allow it to start mining in June 2023 under whatever mining rules are in place by then. Nauru itself doesn’t have a mining company with this interest, but it sponsors a subsidiary of Canada-based and U.S.-listed The Metals Company.
Since then, the ISA has been working to negotiate a set of regulations that would allow it to follow the two-year rule. But at the latest set of meetings that took place between July 4 and Aug. 4 in Kingston, Jamaica, progress on the mining code appears to have stalled, observers reported.
“Overall, the feeling in the room is that there’s now a majority of states that are recognizing that it’s unrealistic, unachievable, and would be highly irresponsible,” Emma Wilson, a conservation expert who attended the recent ISA meetings as a representative of the NGO OceanCare, told Mongabay.
Representatives from several countries, including Spain, Chile, New Zealand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Trinidad and Tobago, made the case that the mining regulations shouldn’t be rushed to meet the obligations of the two-year rule. Spain’s representative, for instance, said that “as a precaution, the time has come to take a break,” while Costa Rica’s representative said “because we are responsible for the Common Heritage of Humankind, for our peoples and for future generations, we must act with caution.” (The UNCLOS defines the seabed and its resources as “the common heritage of mankind.”)
However, other countries, such Australia, the U.K., Tonga, and Nauru itself, took the position that regulations should be approved without delay. Tonga’s representative said the nation stood “ready to support work of Authority and relevant bodies especially for completion of regulatory frameworks in [a] timely fashion while assuring due diligence where appropriate.” Even France stated that it was committed to adopting “a legal framework with rigorous environmental protections to ensure that harm to ecosystems in the marine environment is minimized.” This position seemed to be in contrast to President Emmanuel Macron’s statement at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon at the end of June that “we have to create the legal framework to stop high seas mining and not to allow new activities that endanger ecosystems.”
On July 25, Chile’s delegation presented a letter to the ISA Secretariat, requesting that a discussion about the two-year rule become an agenda item at the assembly portion of the meetings, which began on Aug. 1. But this request was ignored, OceanCare’s Wilson said. Instead, the ISA Secretariat relegated it to the end of the meeting in the “any other business” category, which “undermined it,” and the ISA Secretariat even closed the meetings a day early, she added.
“One thing that became very, very evident this week is that the ISA Secretariat is doing everything that it can to brush the conversation under the carpet about [whether] there is another possibility of not adopting the regulation,” Wilson said.
Mongabay previously reported on concerns about transparency at the recently concluded ISA meetings, including accusations that the ISA had restricted access to key information and hampered interactions between member states and civil society.
Despite the many setbacks, Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), told Mongabay that he was observing a change happening in the negotiations.
“There’s a broad recognition that unless something really surprising happens, these regulations are not only unlikely to be adopted by July 2023, but they’re probably not likely to be adopted for several years at least,” said Gianni, who attended the meetings as a representative of EarthWorks, an NGO that works to shield communities and the environment from the negative impacts of extractive activities.
Gianni added that the ISA council has also yet to agree upon the financial mechanisms under which mining could operate, which need to be put into place, in addition to the regulations, before the ISA can issue exploitation licenses. However, he said it’s still unclear whether deep-sea mining will officially be stalled.
“It’s a bit like the Titanic,” Gianni said. “We’re starting to see the rivets popping and the thing is slowly starting to turn. But is it going to miss the iceberg and head in the direction of protecting the marine environment? That’s still an open question.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Editor’s note: The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped on planet earth due to global warming. Greenhouse gases are also absorbed into the ocean which has increased the acidity of ocean water significantly. Increased heat and acidity makes reproduction and survival more difficult for calcifying organisms such as corals and other marine life. It should be no surprise to anyone that we see coral reefs dying globally. So are plankton populations, fish populations, and countless other species. What is surprising is that efforts to halt and reverse greenhouse gas emissions have thus far been so tepid and ineffective. We must change that.
In 2003, a marine heat wave devastated coral reef communities in the Mediterranean Sea, including the reefs in the Scandola Marine Reserve, a protected region off the coast of Corsica.
More than 15 years later, the coral reef communities in Scandola still have not recovered.
Researchers determined that persistent marine heat waves, which are now happening every year in the Mediterranean, are preventing Scandola’s slow-growing coral reefs from recuperating.
Human-induced climate change is the culprit; persistent rising temperatures in the ocean have normalized marine heat waves, not only in the Mediterranean, but in the global oceans.
For years, Joaquim Garrabou donned scuba gear and dove into the waters of the Scandola Marine Reserve in Corsica to find a paradise. Twenty meters (66 feet) beneath the surface, there were reef walls draped with soft red coral (Corallium rubrum) and red gorgonian sea-whips (Paramuricea clavata), all swarming with fish and other sea creatures. But in 2003, a marine heat wave hit Scandola, leading to the death of many coral reefs. More than 15 years later, the reefs have still not recovered.
Now when Garrabou dives at Scandola, he’s greeted by the skeletons of once-thriving corals.
“It’s like seeing someone who is ill, who has a disease that you cannot find the solution for,” Garrabou told Mongabay in a video interview. “You hope that someday there will be a [solution] but you see that there’s not much hope.”
After the 2003 marine heat wave, Garrabou and colleagues began monitoring Scandola’s coral reefs to track their recovery. But after accumulating reef survey data and temperature data over many years, they eventually realized they were actually tracking the reefs’ collapse. The results of their long-term study were recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“We knew something bad was happening to the corals around the world, but we weren’t expecting a collapse in all of the populations that we studied,” study lead author Daniel Gómez-Gras, a marine ecologist at the Institut de Ciències del Mar in Barcelona, told Mongabay in a video interview. “The point of tracking these populations for such a long time was to show recovery in the long term because we expected that the populations — maybe not in five years, but in 15, 20 years — [would be] able to recover. However, we saw a collapse.”
‘We don’t call it bleaching’
The data showed that marine heat waves were happening every year in different parts of the Mediterranean between 2003 and 2018. For 12 of those years, the water temperature at a depth of 20 m reached more than 23° Celsius (73.4° Fahrenheit), which is considered a sublethal threshold for corals. And for four of those years — 2009, 2016, 2017 and 2018 — temperatures at that depth breached the lethal threshold for corals at 25°C (77°F).
The researchers found that the ceaseless heat wasn’t allowing these slow-growing coral reefs to recover.
“Frankly, I never thought that I would be seeing it,” Garrabou said. “And it’s happening really fast.”
Soft coral species in the Mediterranean don’t “bleach” the way that tropical corals do, Gómez-Gras said. That’s because Mediterranean corals don’t have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, the algae that tropical corals expel when they experience heat stress.
“We don’t call it bleaching here in the Mediterranean for these coral species, since they don’t bleach,” he said. “They directly die with a loss of tissue and skeletons being exposed.”
While the results of the study are relevant to many coral communities across the Mediterranean, the researchers chose to focus their study on Scandola because the area had been established as a marine protected area (MPA) in 1975, and had been relatively free from other human pressures such as fishing and pollution. This helped them eliminate other possibilities for the coral reef population collapses and to pinpoint marine heat waves as the reason for their demise.
Researchers used to think that deeper reef communities might shelter coral species from heat stress. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t the case, not only in the Mediterranean, but in other parts of the world, including coral reef sites in the Pacific.
“We are witnessing that if you go deeper, [there is still] impact,” Garrabou said.
Human-induced climate change is responsible for the heating of the oceans — and it’s becoming hotter and hotter in the water. According to another study, the global oceans have broken a heat record for the sixth year in a row. As the oceans warm, heat penetrates downward — and this heating trend will continue even if emissions stop tomorrow, Kevin Trenberth, co-author of this separate study, told Mongabay in January.
A related study also found that marine heat waves have become the new normal for the global oceans as climate change rapidly transforms our world.
The Mediterranean may be feeling the impacts of climate change even more intensely than other parts of the world. A report published last year by WWF found that the Mediterranean was warming 20% faster than the rest of the world’s oceans.
Gómez-Gras said the accelerated warming in the Mediterranean has partly to do with its semi-enclosed shape. While this is unique to the region, he added that the Mediterranean shows what will happen in other parts of the ocean due to climate change.
“Marine heat waves are becoming the new normal in the Mediterranean Sea,” Gómez-Gras said. “So you can guess that in the future, it can become the new normal [elsewhere] in the world.”
Georgios Tsounis, a marine biologist at California State University, whose work was based in the Mediterranean for 11 years, but who was not involved in this research, praised the new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B for its “valuable approach.”
“We need more long-term demographic studies such as this one to better understand where our environment is heading in the future,” Tsounis told Mongabay in an email.
While the study is focused on the soft coral communities of the Mediterranean, Tsounis said the research can help us understand how other coral communities “may or may not recover from repeated stress over a period of 15 years.”
“We are seeing coral mortality in other parts of the world as well,” he said. “The tropical coral reefs make sad headlines every year. But in the tropics we are mainly concerned with reef-building hard corals (as opposed to the soft corals in this Mediterranean study). The temperature range and entire cause-effect mechanism differ between these two examples. What is common to most of these scenarios is that the corals have adapted to a narrow set of environmental conditions, such as temperature, over a long period of time, and are sensitive to changing climate.”
The researchers said they are searching the Mediterranean for “refugia,” places that offer coral reefs protection from thermal stress. One possible place could be the waters off the coast of the Calanques near Marseille, France, which seems to get enough cold water to protect its corals, Garrabou said. That said, the coral reef communities here experienced mass die-offs during marine heat waves in both 1999 and 2003. But since then, the region hasn’t had any major warming, and the corals have been able to slowly recover, he said.
While there are currently many places of refugia for coral communities across the world, a new study found that most of these places will disappear once the world reaches 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels, which is likely to happen within the next decade.
But it’s not just climate change placing pressure on the Mediterranean — fishing and pollution are additional stressors to the region. Because of this, Garrabou said it’s important to establish MPAs with strict protective measures to enhance the resilience of coral reef communities.
Currently, there are more than 1,200 MPAs in the Mediterranean, but only about 0.02% of the area they cover is closed to fishing year-round.
While the future looks grim for coral reefs, Garrabou said he feels hopeful about the momentum that’s building for the establishment of MPAs, especially with global efforts to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.
“When we provide the right conditions and the right tools, nature can be really generous and nature has demonstrated that it can bounce back,” he said.
But he said that MPAs need to be urgently established for the oceans to reap their benefits. “It has to happen,” he said, “and it has to happen fast.”
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Gómez-Gras, D., Linares, C., López-Sanz, A., Amate, R., Ledoux, J. B., Bensoussan, N., … Garrabou, J. (2021). Population collapse of habitat-forming species in the Mediterranean: A long-term study of gorgonian populations affected by recurrent marine heatwaves. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1965). doi:10.1098/rspb.2021.2384
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Banner image: A red gorgonian coral (Paramuricea clavata) partially dead due to a marine heatwave. The lefthand side is still alive, while the righthand side is dead and the skeleton is exposed. Image by Eneko Aspillaga.