Success Stories in Ocean Conservation
It is easy to feel hopeless when reading the news coverage of ocean conservation. Between climate change, acidification, pollution and overfishing, it often feels like the ocean and its biodiversity, which we rely on, will soon be lost.
But there is hope. There are successes in ocean conservation, and they often occur when small groups of people take action to fix problems in their own communities. Whether it's a beach cleanup, hanging lights on fishing nets to prevent turtle entanglement, or working with local governments to prevent coral reef loss, there are real solutions that can make a difference in protecting the ocean.
See some examples in this slideshow, read our Smithsonian Magazine article about why it's important to tell success stories, and submit your own successes in the comments.
Technology and Sea Turtles
Sea turtles may have survived the planetary changes that killed the dinosaurs, but now they are threatened by fisheries. It's estimated that some 4,600 sea turtles are killed by fishing nets and hooks every year in U.S. waters.
But off the coast of Mexico, one community is trying something different: hanging lights on their nets so turtles can avoid them. They've found a 50% reduction in turtle catch at night, while the fish catch has actually gone up! Learn more about the project in this video and this New York Times blog post.
Cleaning Bonaire's Beaches
Bonaire, a small Caribbean island just north of Venezuela, is routinely ranked as a top diving destination in the world. But there's something getting in the way of beautiful dives: plastic trash. While the western coastline of Bonaire is mostly pristine, lots of plastic debris from other Caribbean islands and South America washes up on the eastern shore after being carried by currents. This creates a trash heap that needs constant work to clean up.
That's where Debris Free Bonaire comes in. Volunteers with Debris Free Bonaire, a local organization started by divers, have removed more than 5,650 cubic feet of marine plastic as of May 2014 using dive tourism and volunteer beach cleanups. Volunteers collect trash and place it in a large shared container to keep track of the amount removed—and every time the container is filled, volunteers are entered into a prize raffle. The project really shows how every individual can make a difference. Find out more at their website.
The Return of the Puffins
Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) used to be quite common along the Maine coast until the late 19th century, when hunters killed them to collect their feathers and eat their eggs and meat. With the puffins gone from Maine, their habitat was taken over by large, bossy gulls, scaring away any puffins that dared to venture too near.
But in 1973, a biologist named Stephen Kress began a bold experiment. He and a group of scientists brought puffin chicks from a large colony in Canada back to one of the Maine colonies. They raised them as their own, feeding the chicks fish twice a day, until they left their nests to go to sea. They hoped that the puffins would remember their birth colony and return to raise their own chicks there someday.
The scientists waited for nine years, not knowing if their experiment worked. In 1981, Kress saw a pair of puffins and their chick nesting on the old abandoned colony—and they kept coming. Today 100 chicks pairs there, and they have spread to other colonies in the area for around 600 puffins nests along the Maine coast.
Surgeonfish: Indicators of a Healthy Reef
To maintain a healthy coral reef, you need one essential but often-forgotten ingredient: herbivores. Fish and other animals that eat plants and algae keep that greenery from growing over corals, blocking sunlight, and killing them. But herbivorous fish are tasty and often fished by people, sometimes until there are none left.
At the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area (KHFMA) in West Maui, fishing for herbivorous fishes and urchins has been banned—and now they are making a comeback to protect the reef from becoming smothered by algae. Read more about helpful herbivores at the Ocean Portal blog.
Plastic Bag Bans Work
There is a huge amount of plastic trash floating in the ocean, which endangers wildlife that eats or gets tangled in it. Reducing the amount of plastic trash in the ocean doesn't seem that hard; people just need to use less plastic, such as packaging, drinking straws and plastic bags. But it can be very hard to break people's habits.
In 2002, Ireland made a simple change: they started charging a 15 cent tax on plastic bags at stores, which used to be given away free of charge. They hoped having to pay for bags would make shoppers bring their own reusable bags from home, so that there would be less plastic litter along the coasts and in the countryside.
And it worked! After the tax was put in place, plastic bag use went down 90 percent, and the number of areas that were mostly litter-free went up 50 percent. Remarkably, it was also hugely popular with shoppers. "We are not aware of another tax that induces such an enthusiasm and affection from those who are liable to pay it," wrote the researchers.
Loggerhead Escapes from Fishing Net
One of the biggest threats to sea turtles, such as the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) pictured here, is being accidentally caught and killed in fishing nets. Trapped in a net, the turtles are dragged through the water with no access to the surface to breathe, causing them to drown.
To address this problem, NOAA Fisheries worked with the shrimp trawling industry to install escape hatches into their nets called Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs. A crosshatch of bars in the middle of the net create a grid large enough for small shrimp to pass through, but not turtles and other large animals. When they hit the grid, they can then swim out through a hole in the net and escape.
Before TEDs were installed, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of turtle strandings on beaches were caused by shrimp nets. But since they were installed by U.S. shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1980s, strandings caused by shrimp nets are estimated to be down by at least 44 percent.