Deep-sea lithium mining, overfishing of deep-sea species, and the unexpected impact of wildfires on land in the ocean are among fifteen issues that experts say we need to address now.
An international panel of experts has compiled a list of 15 issues that they believe could have a significant impact on marine and coastal biodiversity over the next five to ten years.
Their “horizon scanning” technique focuses on identifying issues that are not currently receiving widespread attention but are likely to become important in the next decade. The aim is to raise awareness and encourage investment to fully assess these issues now and possibly stimulate policy change before the issues have a serious impact on biodiversity.
Issues include the impact of wildfires on coastal ecosystems, the impact of new biodegradable materials on the marine environment, and the “empty” zone at the equator as species move away from this warming region of the ocean.
“Marine and coastal ecosystems face a wide range of emerging challenges that are poorly recognized or understood, each of which has the potential to affect biodiversity,” said Dr James Herbert-Reid of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, one of the first authors of the paper.
He added: “By highlighting future challenges, we point to where changes need to be made today – in both monitoring and policy – to protect our marine and coastal environment.”
Horizon Scan involved 30 experts in the field of marine and coastal systems from 11 countries in the Global North and South, from a variety of professions, including academics and policy makers. The results are published today in the journal Ecology of nature and evolution.
Some of the identified problems are related to the exploitation of ocean resources. For example, deep-sea “brine pools” are unique marine environments that are home to a variety of life and have high concentrations of lithium-bearing salts. The authors warn that growing demand for lithium for electric vehicle batteries could put these environments at risk. They are calling for regulations to ensure that biodiversity is assessed before deep-sea brine pools begin to operate.
While overfishing is an immediate problem, the horizon scan looked further to see what might happen next. The authors suggest that there may soon be a shift to fishing in deeper mesopelagic waters (200 to 1,000 m depth), where fish are not edible but can be sold as food to fish farms.
“There are areas where we think immediate changes could prevent huge problems over the next decade, such as overfishing in the mesopelagic zone of the ocean,” said Dr Ann Thornton of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, one of the first authors of the paper.
She added: “Stopping this would not only stop the overexploitation of these fish stocks, but also reduce disruption to the ocean’s carbon cycle – because these species are the ocean’s pump that removes carbon from our atmosphere.”
The report also highlights the potential impact of new biodegradable materials on the ocean. Some of these materials are more toxic to marine species than traditional plastics.
Herbert-Reid said: “Governments are pushing for the use of biodegradable materials, but we don’t know what impact these materials might have on ocean life.”
The authors also warn that the nutrient content of fish is decreasing as a result of climate change. Essential fatty acids are typically produced by cold-water fish species, so as climate change increases ocean temperatures, the production of these nutrient molecules decreases. Such changes can affect both marine life and human health.
Not all predicted consequences are negative. The authors believe that the development of new technologies, such as soft robotics and better underwater tracking systems, will allow scientists to learn more about marine species and their distribution. This, in turn, will drive the development of more effective marine protected areas. But they also caution that the impacts of these technologies on biodiversity must be assessed before they are deployed at scale.
“Our early detection of these problems and their potential impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity will help scientists, conservationists, resource managers, policymakers and the wider community to address the challenges facing marine ecosystems,” said Herbert-Reid.
While there are many well-known challenges facing ocean biodiversity, including climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution, this study focused on lesser-known emerging challenges that could soon have significant impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems.
This horizon scanning process was previously used by researchers in the Zoology Department to identify problems that later became known. For example, a scan in 2009 provided an early warning that microplastics could become a serious problem in the marine environment.
The United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the “UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.” In addition, the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity will conclude negotiations on the Global Framework for Biodiversity at the end of 2022. The aim is to slow and reverse the loss of biodiversity and set targets for positive outcomes. until 2050.
Among the problems identified in the report:
Impact on the ecosystem
- Impact of wildfires on coastal and marine ecosystems
- Coastal blackout
- Increased toxicity of metal pollution due to ocean acidification
- Equatorial marine communities become impoverished (lacking diversity) due to climate migration
- Change in fish nutrition due to climate change
Exploitation of resources
- The untapped potential of marine collagens and their impact on marine ecosystems
- Effects of expanding trade in fish swim bladders on target and non-target species
- Effects of fishing for mesopelagic (mid-depth) species on the biological oceanic pump
- Mining of lithium from deep-sea brine pools
- Co-location of maritime activities
- Floating sea cities
- Trace element pollution is compounded by the global shift to green technologies
- New underwater tracking systems to study non-surfacing marine animals
- Soft robotics for marine research
- Impact of new biodegradable materials in the marine environment