Climate Change effects on sea turtles

By Molly Rickles, SRC intern

Climate change has become an increasing threat to species across the planet. With hotter average temperatures and less predictable weather patterns, humans have undeniably influenced the global climate. The effects of a changing climate are translated to the ocean, where warmer sea surface temperature and rising sea level can alter the marine ecosystem on many levels. These changes can decrease biodiversity and alter the balance of marine ecosystems (Fuentes et al. 2010). These far-reaching effects have extreme consequences for marine life, but some species are impacted more than others. Sea turtles are heavily affected by climate change because of their wide range of habitats (Butt et al. 2016). Since sea turtles lay eggs on beaches but spend their lives in the ocean, they are affected by climate change on both fronts. In addition, climate change may affect survival of juvenile sea turtles, decreasing adult population numbers. Since sea turtles can be widely affected by the far-reaching effects of climate change, it is necessary to implement measures of protection for them. There are ongoing research projects to determine how climate change directly impacts sea turtles and what the best policy options are to combat these effects. This is important because there is little information on how to protect these species from the effects of climate change.

In A, the mean air temperature is shown (black points) against the mean sand temperature (white points) to show how the temperature fluctuates throughout the year. In B, the proportion of nesting by loggerhead turtles for 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009. (Source: Perez, E. A., Marco, A., Martins, S., & Hawkes, L. (2016). Is this what a climate change-resilient population of marine turtles looks like? Biological Conservation, 193, 124-132. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.023)

Over the past forty years, sea level has risen at an average of 2mm each year (Butt et al. 2010). This is an alarming statistic especially for low-lying and coastal areas. This is also bad news for sea turtles, which lay their eggs on beaches, which have already been affected by rising sea levels. Beaches are at a high risk for flooding from sea level rise, and when this does occur, the sea turtle eggs are washed away or swamped (Perez et al. 2016). This is especially devastating for endangered species of turtles such as the Hawksbill Turtle or the Australian Loggerhead Turtle, whose numbers are already low and cannot afford a sharp decrease in reproductive output (Butt et al. 2016).

Another major threat to sea turtles is rising sea surface temperature. One of the major effects of climate change is an increase in air temperature, which correlates to an increase in sea surface temperature. This excess thermal stress has especially hard consequences for reptiles, who are exothermic animals that rely on outside temperature to regulate their internal temperature (Perez et al. 2016). An increased sea surface temperature creates a more stressful environment for the sea turtles, but the increased sand temperature has proven to be even more harmful. Since sea turtles lay eggs on beaches, the hotter sand leads to less ideal conditions for laying eggs, which leads to decreased reproductive output. In addition, the sex of the embryos is partially determined by the outside temperature. In this case, a warmer environment leads to a higher percentage of females. It has been estimated that a 2°C increase will lead to a 99.86% female hatching rate (Butt et al. 2016). This, of course, will lead to a very lopsided sex ratio within sea turtle populations, further decreasing the reproductive output and population size.

The image shows all of the nesting sites identified in Australia. This shows that sea turtles have a wide range of habitats. This is beneficial because it allows policy makers to protect certain beaches where sea turtles are known to use for nesting. (Source: Butt, N., Whiting, S., & Dethmers, K. (2016). Identifying future sea turtle conservation areas under climate change. Biological Conservation, 204, 189-196. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2016.10.012)

All of these threats to sea turtles could have devastating effects on their populations. Decreases in sea turtle populations have already been observed, and most sea turtle species are already on the endangered species list. Due to the fact that sea turtles are dealing with a multitude of threats, it becomes increasingly difficult to find management techniques to combat these issues (Fuentes et al. 2010). Some of the more straightforward strategies deal with the sea turtle’s habitat on land, since it is easier to manage beaches than the open ocean. Since sea turtles rely on certain beaches for nesting, it is possible to protect these areas to preserve the nesting habitat (Fuentes et al. 2010). This has already been implemented in many coastal areas, where nesting sites are blocked off from public use. In addition, many coastal areas have regulations to control nighttime lighting near nesting beaches so the sea turtle hatchlings have a better chance of making it to the ocean. By protecting these important nesting areas, sea turtles will continue to be able to lay eggs safely, and more hatchlings will survive to adulthood. This will lead to an increase in sea turtle population, thus preventing their numbers from decreasing even more rapidly.

In addition to managing habitat on land, it is also important to protect sea turtles in the ocean. One way to do this is to implement marine protected areas in important habitats for the turtles, such as areas where their young mature. However, the main issue affecting sea turtles is climate change, and this must be dealt with at a larger scale. To reduce the overall impact of climate change not only on sea turtles, but every other species, it is necessary to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and create a more sustainable way of life. There have already been steps made towards this goal, including the Paris Climate Accord, along with numerous clean air emission standards, but it is not enough. Stricter environmental regulations and environmental conservation education will help reach a more sustainable life, as well as protect sea turtles along with a multitude of other species

References

Fuentes, M., & Cinner, J. (2010). Using expert opinion to prioritize impacts of climate change on sea turtles’ nesting grounds. Journal of Environmental Management, 91(12), 2511-2518. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2010.07.013

Butt, N., Whiting, S., & Dethmers, K. (2016). Identifying future sea turtle conservation areas under climate change. Biological Conservation, 204, 189-196. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2016.10.012

Perez, E. A., Marco, A., Martins, S., & Hawkes, L. (2016). Is this what a climate change-resilient population of marine turtles looks like? Biological Conservation, 193, 124-132. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.023

Coral Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef

By Delaney Reynolds, SRC intern

Coral reefs are some of planet earth’s most spectacular, diverse and important ecosystems. Our planet’s coral reefs provide important shelter, habitats, and a source of food for many different species of marine organisms. They also act as a critical food source to humans, as well a natural barrier to help protect our coastlines from hurricanes and associated storm surges. Sadly, coral reefs face growing risks including the possibility of extinction from a variety of stresses that leads to coral bleaching.

Figure 1: Coral from which the zooxanthellae has been expelled, causing it to turn white (Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Keppelbleaching.jpg)

Coral bleaching is the process in which zooxanthellae, algae living symbiotically within the coral, are expelled from coral colonies due to a number of factors including an increase in temperature, decrease in pH, exposure to UV radiation, reduced salinity, and bacterial infections. Zooxanthellae provide the coral 30% of its nitrogen and 91% of its carbon needs to the coral host in exchange for a shelter, as well as waste produced by the coral from nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide that is required for the algae’s growth (Baird, 2002).

When corals bleach, it effects entire marine communities due to their immense diversity. Fish populations that reside around coral reefs “are the most species dense vertebrate communities on earth, contributing critical ecosystem functions and providing crucial ecosystem services to human societies in tropical countries” (Graham, 2008). Researchers have found that when an ecosystem endures physical coral loss, fish species richness is extremely likely to decline due to their heavy reliance on the coral colony itself (Graham, 2008).

Perhaps the most famous current example of coral bleaching is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Scientists have determined that the main cause of Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching is induced thermal stress and that about 90% of the reef has been bleached since 1998 (Baird, 2002). As the corals bleach and temperatures increase, researchers have determined that shark and ray species that live in the area may be vulnerable to these climactic changes.

Figure 2: Exposure of Ecological Groups of GBR Sharks and Rays to Climate Change Factors. This figure displays the vulnerability different elasmobranch species face due to climate change, as well as the specific effects of climate change that they are vulnerable to, in the specific zones of the Great Barrier Reef. (Image Source: Chin et al. 2010)

Most of the Great Barrier Reef is located on the mid-shelf of the ocean floor, the approximate mid-point between the shallower coast of Australia and the continental shelf where the ocean bottom significantly drops in depth. Researchers found that the mid-shelf is the area where most of the shark species studied reside, while most rays dwell in coastal waters or closer to the continental shelf. It was also found that both areas are the susceptible to rising temperature, increased storm frequency and intensity, increasing acidity, current alterations, and freshwater runoff, all being caused by climate change (Chin, 2010). Based on these findings, researchers have concluded that the areas these elasmobranchs live in should be protected and preserved. Species in these highly vulnerable areas should also be monitored and considered for future conservation actions, as many of the shark species are already experiencing the effects of climate change from some of the aforementioned factors.

Typically, sharks are considered some of the strongest animals on earth, and while they have lived on earth for at least 420 million years, they are slow to adapt. This slowness has impeded their ability to survive in our rapidly changing climate. In the near future it will be common to see some species of marine organisms demonstrate plasticity, the ability to adapt to their changing environment, but other species, such as elasmobranchs, are expected to simply distribute to other habitats in search of cooler waters. Even though sharks are a highly vulnerable species to climate change, they sit at the top of the trophic level in many different niches and, thus, wherever they migrate to, it will be easier for them to find food than it would be for other species such as fish or rays. However, this is most likely only the case for adult sharks as embryos and juvenile sharks may be more vulnerable to increased temperatures. For instance, researchers found that the survival of bamboo shark embryos decreased from 100% at current temperatures to 80% under future ocean temperature scenarios and that the embryonic period was also shortened, not allowing the embryo enough time to develop fully (Rosa, 2014).

To decrease the effects of climate change on coral bleaching, corrective and mitigation measures can be taken. By utilizing green energy sources such as implementing solar power or wind power, walking or biking, and driving electric cars, we can reduce our use of fossil fuels and carbon footprint, thus decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide polluting and warming our atmosphere and oceans. While underwater and not always visible, coral reefs are truly a vital part of our ecosystem and need to be cherished and protected for generations to come.

References

Baird, A. H., & Marshall, P. A. (2002, July 18). Mortality, growth and reproduction in scleractinian corals following bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Retrieved from https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/1521/1/Baird_and_Marshall_2002.pdf

Chin, A., Kyne, P. M., Walker, T. I. and McAuley, R. B. (2010), An integrated risk assessment for climate change: analyzing the vulnerability of sharks and rays on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Global Change Biology, 16: 1936–1953. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.02128.x

Graham, N. A., McClanahan, T. R., MacNeil, M. A., Wilson, S. K., Polunin, N. V., Jennings, S., . . . Sheppard, C. R. (2008, August 27). Climate Warming, Marine Protected Areas and the Ocean-Scale Integrity of Coral Reef Ecosystems. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0003039

Rosa, R., Baptista, M., Lopes, V. M., Pegado, M. R., Paula, J. R., Trubenbach, K., . . . Repolho, T. (2014, August 13). Early-life exposure to climate change impairs tropical shark survival. Retrieved November 2, 2017, from http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royprsb/281/1793/20141738.full.pdf

Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation

By Abby Tinari, SRC intern

Monk seals are warm water species historically residing in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Hawaii. Now only Mediterranean and Hawaiian populations remain, both of which are critically endangered according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (ICUN). Hawaiian monk seals have an estimated 1300 wild individuals living around the Hawaiian archipelago.

Figure 1: A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal at French Frigate Shoals. (MarkSullivan, Wikimedia)

In the early 1800s thousands of these seals were hunted for their meat, skin and oil. At the end of the 19th century and early into the 20th, the species was thought to be close to extinction. In 1958, the first beach count of the species was conducted, and surveyors concluded that the Hawaiian monk seal had made a partial recovery (Schultz, Baker et al. 2011). This was short lived. The population has since declined and is declining 4% per year on some Hawaiian Islands. These declines are due to a low juvenile survival rate because of starvation, shark predation, marine debris entanglement, by catch, sea-level rise and intra-specific male seal aggression (Schultz, Baker et al. (2011) & Norris, Littnan et al. (2017)). These seals have been consistently monitored since the 1980s when they were placed on the endangered species list. Scientists started going to pupping grounds to tag, sample and identify individuals (Baker and Thompson 2007). The Baker and Thompson (2007) study observed that the Hawaiian monk seal population is senescing, or growing older and less reproductive. Females give birth to a single pup after a 10-11 month gestation period. She then nurses the pup for 5-6 weeks. So, reproduction rates are relatively low to begin with, plus a low survival rate in the first 2 years of life is hurting the populations long term growth rate (Baker and Thompson 2007). Norris, Littnan et al. (2017) indicated that one of the main threats to young seals, less than 2 years old, is the lack of available prey.

Figure 2: The Hawaiian Archipelago, with demarcations showing the extent of the Northwestern and main Hawaiian Islands. Place names of most islands and atolls where Hawaiian monk seals (Neomonachus schauinslandi) occur are noted. (Baker, Harting et al. 2017)

With now almost 40 years on the ICUN’s endangered and critically endangered list there have been attempts at conservation. Two of these methods include translocation and vaccination. Translocation was used in the past with mixed results, some seals survived while others unfortunately did not. Schultz, Baker et al 2011 write about using genetics among other factors to see if a population is more likely to have long term success with translocation. If subpopulations have a wide genetic diversity and many genetic differences between them, then translocation may not be the best solution and could potentially produce unfit individuals. On the other hand, less genetically diverse subpopulations would have a higher success rate with fit individuals through translocation. Hawaiian monk seals were thought to have had separate subpopulations throughout the archipelago, due to the spatial distance between the islands. After genetic analysis of over 1800 individuals over 13 years Schultz, Baker et al 2011 found that the subpopulations are genetically not statistically different, they in fact, comprise of a single population. This is good news for translocation, it could be an effective means of conservation if the new location is suitable. Norris, Littnan et al. (2017) supports Schultz’s findings. Weanling seals just learning how to hunt on their own were translocated to a new island that had an abundant amount of food and few seals. The habitat was also ideal, providing adequate depth, and bottom type for both young and adult seals to hunt successfully. There was a small difference between the resident and translocated seal survival into adulthood. This survival rate is an essential marker for a translocation program. Translocation is a great way to increase numbers and repopulate suitable locations, but other conservation methods may be equally, if not more, important to a population’s survival.

Figure 3: Stacie Robinson, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu, vaccinates a Hawaiian monk seal basking on the island of Oahu. (Malakoff 2016)

For the first time ever, a wild population of marine mammals is receiving a vaccine to prevent disease (Malakoff 2016). This has previously occurred in the terrestrial environment mainly to prevent the spreading of rabies in racoons and fox, but never in free-living marine mammals. The lack of genetic diversity, low population, and isolation the Hawaiian monk seal experiences makes it extremely susceptible to infection. But, these factors also make the seals a prime candidate for this vaccine. Scientists are wary of the spread of viruses in the Morbillivirus family. This genus of viruses has killed tens of thousands of seals and porpoises in the Atlantic Ocean. These viruses are easily spread and are possibly carried to the Hawaiian Islands by whales, stray seals and dogs. An outbreak among the monk seals could prove deadly and cause devastating decreases in an already struggling population. The vaccine is targeting the phocine distemper virus (PDV), which needs two shots, a first dose and then a booster 4-6 weeks later. The seals habits of “hauling out”, lying on the beach and rocks, their numbered tags, small population size and unique markings help with the recapture needed to complete the vaccine. Before the vaccines were implemented, model simulations of different scenarios were run to see if preventative vaccination would be worthwhile. Baker, Harting et al. (2017) along with Malakoff (2016) determined that preventative vaccination is the most effective way of protecting these seals from an Morbillivirus outbreak. In 2016, scientists started to vaccinate individuals at the Oahu “haul out”, as this is a midpoint between the subpopulations. 60% of the overall population would need to be vaccinated in order to prevent a local outbreak of PDV. Malakoff (2016) and Baker, Harting et al. (2017) provide some limitations to the vaccines. For future seals to be immune the vaccine will need to be continued and new pups will need to be vaccinated. These vaccines are not always available and are limited in quantity. To get to the seals, scientists must walk through tide pools and over lava rock which can be dangerous especially when dealing with wild animals. The vaccine takes over a month to provide protection which leaves the seals vulnerable. Also, the vaccines currently being used are for a different strain of PDV so this effort could be futile. Either way, this is a milestone for conservation and could be the protection the Hawaiian monk seals need to build a successful future.

Works Cited

Baker, J. D., A. L. Harting, M. M. Barbieri, S. J. Robinson, F. M. D. Gulland and C. L. Littnan (2017). “Modeling a Morbillivirus Outbreak in Hawaiian Monk Seals (Neomonachus Schauinslandi) to Aid in the Design of Mitigation Programs.” J Wildl Dis 53(4): 736-748.
Baker, J. D. and P. M. Thompson (2007). “Temporal and spatial variation in age-specific survival rates of a long-lived mammal, the Hawaiian monk seal.” Proc Biol Sci 274(1608): 407-415.
Malakoff, D. (2016). “CONSERVATION BIOLOGY. A race to vaccinate rare seals.” Science 352(6291): 1265.
Norris, T. A., C. L. Littnan, F. M. D. Gulland, J. D. Baker and J. T. Harvey (2017). “An integrated approach for assessing translocation as an effective conservation tool for Hawaiian monk seals.” Endangered Species Research 32: 103-115.
Schultz, J. K., J. D. Baker, R. J. Toonen, A. L. Harting and B. W. Bowen (2011). “Range-wide genetic connectivity of the Hawaiian monk seal and implications for translocation.” Conserv Biol 25(1): 124-132.

Sea-ice loss boosts visual search: fish foraging and changing pelagic interactions in polar oceans

By Nicole Suren, SRC Intern

Light availability is one of the most important factors in the success of visual foraging. It can be controlled by many variables such as turbidity or weather, but in polar ecosystems ice cover and seasonality are the primary controls for light availability. Climate change has had and will continue to have a huge effect on polar ecosystems through temperature and weather changes, but one of the most notable side effects examined in this study is how increased light availability caused by receding ice and reduced snow cover will affect the success of polar visual foragers. The study modeled the success of planktivorous, visually foraging fish, with the underlying principle of the model being that increased ambient light will increase visual range, thereby making prey detectable at a larger distance and increasing foraging efficiency. The results showed that declines of polar sea ice would boost the visual search of planktivorous fish, but only seasonally. While light availability related to ice cover can be variable due to climate change, the long dark periods caused by polar seasonality are factors independent of climate, and therefore will still place limits on visual foraging during those seasons.

Figure 1

(a) The blue line shows how sea ice extent has decreased over the past decades, and below is a diagram demonstrating that prey will become more likely to be visually detected as the thickness of sea ice decreases. (b) A variety of factors influence prey detection, including the nature and angle of incoming light. Predator, prey, and visual range are not drawn to scale. (Langbehn & Varpe, 2017)

The models predict that several things will change due to light availability caused by loss of ice cover. First, primary productivity may increase, depending on nutrient availability. Second, seasonal feeding migrations into the poles are expected due to the removal of the limiting factor of lack of light for visual foragers. This prediction has already been verified by real-world data; increased feeding forays by Atlantic Salmon, Atlantic Mackerel, and Atlantic Herring have been recorded, and these coincide with decreasing ice cover over the past 35 years. More generally, mobile, fast-swimming predators are predicted to take advantage of these foraging opportunities the most. However, increased light availability can also increase the likelihood of planktivorous predators being spotted and predated upon by larger visual predators in a higher trophic level. This means that not only will the ideal user of these seasonal foraging grounds be mobile and fast-swimming, but they will either be apex predators or schooling fish, which can use the technique of schooling to forage in relative safety despite being visible.

Figure 2

The extent of sea ice is averaged from 2010-2015 in (a) and (b), and (c) and (d) show how visual range correlates with these averages. Data from the Bering Sea and the Barents Sea are shown. (Langbehn & Varpe, 2017)

No matter how efficiently visual foragers learn to take advantage of increased light availability at the poles during the summer months, the darkness of winter will still be a significant limiting factor in regards to permanent habitat expansion. Polar winters will always be long and dark, even if climate change alters the ice cover in that time. This means that the permanent inhabitants of the poles will likely remain the only permanent inhabitants due to their specialized adaptations for living in darkness, while trophic interactions are likely to change during the summer.

Work Cited

Langbehn, T. J., & Varpe, Ø. (2017). Sea-ice loss boosts visual search: Fish foraging and changing pelagic interactions in polar oceans. Global Change Biology, (November 2016). https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13797

Polar Bears are Vulnerable to Loss of Sea Ice

By Rachael Ragen

Figure 1

Polar Bear, https://sealevel.nasa.gov/ system/news_items/main_images/ 74_polarbear768.jpeg

Polar bears are currently facing a major problem: declining sea ice. As greenhouse gases continue to increase due to anthropogenic factors causing temperatures to rise and ice to melt. Since polar bears rely on sea ice as they search for prey, the decline in sea ice makes hunting much more difficult. The current population of polar bears is estimated to be 26,000 with 19 subpopulations in 4 ecoregions (Figure 2). It is very difficult to properly assess each subpopulation of polar bears as they live in extreme environments. Therefore, no global assessment has been done and the status of some subpopulations is unknown. The study by Regehr et al. aimed to look at the effect of sea ice decline on polar bears by determining the generation length, forming a standardized sea ice metric, and then using statistical models and computer simulations.

Figure 2

Map of Ecoregions, Regehr et al.

In order to determine the generation length, the authors looked at the age of female polar bears with a cub and found the average to be 11.5 to 13.6 years. Live capture data was used to determine these numbers. The upper level is used to account for variations in generation length.

A sea ice metric was determined using satellite data from 1979 to 2014. This data was used to establish the carrying capacity, which is the maximum amount of organisms the habitat can support, for the polar bears. Then the value found for K (carrying capacity) was used in linear models. This analysis generated predicted future values of ice as well, as the effect these values had on subpopulations. The ice decline was shown to affect all subpopulations.

The statistical models and computer simulations looked at the relationship between polar bear populations and sea ice over three generations using three different methods. First they assumed that changes in sea ice are directly proportional to changes in subpopulation abundance. This method was useful for populations with limited data. Second they looked at a linear relationship between ice and subpopulation abundance for subpopulations, although data was only available for seven of the nineteen. There was not shown to be a significant change due to variations in the status subpopulations as well as uncertainty in estimates of abundance. Lastly they again looked at a linear relationship between ice and population but for each of the four ecoregions. Some ecoregions showed a significant change, whereas others did not, showing that dynamics and biological productivity varies between subpopulations.

Figure 3

Table of data found, Regehr et al.

This study looked at the IUCN Red List’s guidelines for risk tolerance. The culmination of these studies showed that the first generation’s mean global population size was to decrease by 30%, the second by 4%, and the third by 43% (Table 1). Since there was shown to be a high risk of the population decreasing by 30% and a low chance of the population decreasing by 50% (Table 1), polar bears are classified as vulnerable.

The need for MPAs in the Antarctic

By Haley Kilgour, SRC Intern

With global climate change in effect the Arctic ice sheet has been losing area and has gone from 7.5 million km^2 in 1979 to 4 million km^2 in 2016 (Figure 1). The loss of ice coverage is detrimental to many species, but on the other hand opens up areas to new fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits, deep sea minerals, and shorter shipping routes that were previously inaccessible. While economically it is beneficial to exploit these now accessible resources, it is also necessary to designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to preserve habitat and biodiversity.

Figure 1

Year round see ice cover for the periods of 1979-1984 and 2012-2016.

Geomorphic features such as seamounts, submarine canyons, hydrothermal vents, submarine plateaus, ridges, and escarpments serve as a proxy for benthic communities and ecological processes as they are often areas of high biodiversity and important to processes such as upwelling. Harris et al looked at the distribution of geomorphic features on the sea floor to assess their current level of protection within MPAs. They also aimed to see if these features were occurring within or outside of MPAs and identify ones that were once inaccessible due to year round sea ice.

To determine their area of study, Harris et al used the average minimum sea ice coverage from 1979-1983. They looked at the years 1979-1983 and 2012-2016 (the earliest and latest time periods) to see how much of the geomorphic features are now exposed. Twenty-nine categories of features were mapped using Shuttle Radar Topography Mapping (Shuttle Radar Topography) and MPA boundaries were taken from the IUCN and UNEP-WCMC database. The program ArcGIS was then used to compute areas.

On average, 31% of all previously year round covered features in the Arctic are now in open water in September. In 1979-1983, only 2.33% of areas below year round sea ice were in MPAs, and these were mostly areas on coastal and shelf habitats (Figure 2). This lack of diversity in features that are protected means there is high potential for them to be exploited now that year round ice no longer prevents access.

Figure 2

MPAs within the Arctic in relation to September sea ice cover in the periods 1979-1983 and 2012-2016.

As it stands, only 2.3% of the areas used in this study are in MPAs. While this seems to pose a problem, Canada, Denmark, Russia, Norway, and the USA have signed a “Declaration concerning the regulation of unregulated high seas fishing in the central Arctic Ocean” and a moratorium. Thereby, the areas beyond national jurisdiction have a degree of protection from fishing pressure at the current time.

Current MPAs mostly cover coastlines and inner shelf regions. Abyssal plains are not covered at all and there negligible protection for slope habitats. While the current MPAs do provide a small effect, they are not representative in the standard MPA design.

There are many geomorphic features that have been left exposed and all are fragile ecosystems. Basins collect sediment and anthropogenic contaminants, making them particularly susceptible to pollution from runoff and chemicals. Submarine canyons are considered biodiversity hot spots and prime fishing grounds, making them vulnerable to degradation. Only .2% of canyons are within existing MPAs and retreating sea ice now exposes 37% of their area. Submarine canyons face particular danger because they are associated with oil and gas deposits. Plateaus are mostly unexplored worldwide and thus need further examination and protection.

These underwater geomorphic regions are high in biodiversity but are finding themselves in peril with retreating sea ice. Many of these areas are likely under rapid ecological transition as the Arctic responds to global climate change. These ecosystems are highly unexplored and sensitive. They could be lucrative economically, but are also most likely highly important for conservation. MPAs will play a major role in protecting these areas.