Despite missing deadlines for major marine conservation objectives in 2020, support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is rising.

Coral Reefs On The Brink

Large colonies of corals in the seas of Palau, an island country in the western Pacific, explode in an almost flawlessly coordinated mass-spawning event once a year for around just 30 minutes. These hermaphroditic species must take advantage of rare opportunities to seed new life by releasing buoyant bundles of sperm and egg cells into the water to be fertilized by neighboring colonies.

Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences are replicating the seasonal and lunar changes that cause such an event in one of the world’s few indoor coral-culturing facilities. The goal is to develop a variety of spawning systems that can be investigated in a controlled environment. Corals have a reputation for being difficult to keep in captivity. Because most animals only reproduce sexually once a year, you’ll have to replicate all of these environmental cues to get them to do so.

Strategies for growing and transplanting healthy corals into areas on the presipice of collapsing, are critical for bolstering populations against climate change’s suckerpunch. Coral bleaching and mortality are caused by rising temperatures, while ocean acidification caused by increased carbon dioxide levels renders corals less robust and inhibits regeneration. Even if we can keep warming to 1.5 °C, we will lose 90% of reefs by 2050. Even scarier, if we get to 2 °C, we risk losing 97 – 99% of our global reefs.

Sustainable Development Goals 

According to the 2021 UNESCO Science Report, ‘life below water’ and other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to environmental sustainability (e.g. ‘responsible consumption and production,’ ‘climate action,’ and ‘life on land’) had the weakest donor funding and outcomes of the 17 SDGs, attracting less than US$25 billion between them in 2000–13. In comparison, SDGs that are more directly connected to economic growth, such as “industry, innovation, and infrastructure” and “sustainable cities and communities,” got $130 billion and $147 billion, respectively, over the same time period.

SDG14, which aims to “conserve and sustainably utilise the oceans, seas, and marine resources,” had four of its ten objectives due in 2020. None of them were reached. Controlling the global harm caused by illegal and unregulated fishing, which is mainly uncontrolled, and applying scientifically sound techniques for recovering impacted fish supplies are two of them.

However, there are hints of progress. According to Leape, the quantity of ocean conserved and managed inside marine protected areas (MPAs) has risen from 0.9% to 7.7% since 2000. MPAs are areas where fishing, mining, and other activities are prohibited. Globally, efforts are being made to increase the number of MPAs.

Coastal Collaborations

China has increased its efforts to establish additional MPAs as the world’s top fishing nation, accounting for 15% of the reported worldwide wild fish harvest. Since 1980, China has declared about 270 marine protected areas (MPAs), accounting for roughly 5% of its national seas. However, it is a far way from the efforts of nations like the United States, which has over 1,000 MPAs covering roughly 26% of its waterways, and the United Kingdom, which has 371 MPAs covering 38% of its seas. Effective monitoring and strong enforcement will also be necessary for China’s attempts to succeed.

Beijing had the most journal output linked to SDG14 in the 82 natural-sciences journals covered by the Nature Index in 2015–20. It was followed by the coastal city of Townsville in northern Queensland, Australia, and the Boston metropolitan region. 

The fast collapse of coral reefs, which constitute one of the world’s most varied ecosystems, poses a significant danger to many smaller island nations. According to the University of Toliara’s Fisheries and Marine Science Institute, the proportion of living coral cover encircling Madagascar has decreased from more than 80% in the 1980s to less than 10% on average today. This has put the livelihoods of fishing villages on the island’s western shore in jeopardy.

The Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, has begun collaborating with the Institue by deploying a series of small tiered platforms into healthy coral communities along the Madagascar coast. The platforms are designed to mimic the cracks and crevices of the reef. Once these structures are colonized, they are then transferred to deteriorated reefs in an attempt to repopulate them. If they can establish a healthier reef, they can then restore some of the fish populations, which will lead to better fish-catch and more availability to seafood as a source of both vital protein and macronutrients.

The team are excited about the prospect of seeding new reefs in desolate coastal reefs, but education and outreach to fishing communities will be critical to the success of those efforts. But community leaders’ buy-in is also critical to the success of SDG-related collaborations between academics in leading scientific cities and peers in low- and middle-income maritime nations. 

In 2016, Palau’s government asked the Stanford team to come up with a plan to transform 80% of the island’s exclusive economic zone, a 370-kilometer radius around the island, into a protected region where fishing is forbidden. In January 2020, the initiative entered into action. The team were able to utilize satellite monitoring to figure out how large pelagic species use the refuge, and DNA analysis to track biodiversity in the sanctuary. Palau’s program has inspired other island nations in the area to increase their marine protection and conservation efforts as part of the Micronesia Challenge, a goal to conserve 50% of marine resources and 30% of terrestrial resources by 2030.

Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions is also utilizing new technology to advise sustainable fishing techniques that assist small-scale fishermen, whose livelihood SDG14 seeks to protect. Small-scale fishing accounts for around two-thirds of the seafood we eat, as well as 90% of the fisheries jobs. The center is collaborating with ABALOBI, a South African organization created by the University of Cape Town. ABALOBI has created a toolkit of smartphone apps to assist fishermen in tracking specific fish populations, coordinating boats and personnel, and bringing catches to market. Early pilot testing in Africa and the Indian Ocean, could pave the way for widespread deployment in the near future.

Parallel to this, ways to combat illicit fishing are also being developed. Illegal fishing is believed to account for about 20% of world fisheries catch. State of the art satellite technologies are being used to monitor fisheries to put a stop to illegal fishing. Iniatives like Global Fishing Watch, a website maintained by Google in collaboration with conservation non-profit groups Oceana and SkyTruth, are such examples. However, technology is only a part of the puzzle. Strong government enforcement and enlisting big companies to participate in greater monitoring of fishing methods are critical.