“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 30×30, 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 30×30 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.”
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