The Most Neglected Habitat

Silvertip Shark near Kimbe Bay (Franco Banfi - www.banfi.ch)Few conservation products are as globally recognized as the Red List of Threatened Species, produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The contents of the “Red List” are routinely used to help guide the conservation work of governments, NGOs and scientific institutions.

So it was with mixed enthusiasm that I read the IUCN’s recently completed Red List Assessment for sharks and rays of the pelagic ocean.

On one side it painted a bleak picture – over 30% of all pelagic (or open) ocean sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, principally as a result of over fishing.

On the other hand, perhaps having such a large proportion of its megafauna red listed will trigger some conservation action for the most neglected of all Earth’s habitats the pelagic ocean.

Yes, the Red List is about species, not habitats. However, the number of pelagic species on the Red List (think turtles, whales and sea birds in addition to sharks) is symptomatic, and one of the few indicators we have, of widespread degradation of pelagic habitat. After all, these are not localized endemics, but cosmopolitan species with huge distributions.

Based on currently available statistics, less than 0.1% of pelagic habitat is currently protected. Compare this to the least protected terrestrial habitat (temperate grasslands), which has 4.6% of its total Earth area under protection.

It is no accident that the pelagic ocean remains so unprotected – there are enormous challenges to working in such a dynamic and international ecosystem:

  • Many pelagic species are highly mobile, often covering thousands of kilometers annually.
  • Pelagic habitats are driven by physical processes that are dynamic in space and time (e.g., ocean currents, thermal fronts and upwelling) – imagine a rainforest that continually changes its shape, size and location!
  • Much of the pelagic ocean occurs in the ‘high seas’, outside the jurisdiction of any country.
  • Observing exploitation of the pelagic ocean is difficult and expensive, making regulations challenging to enforce.

However, the sorts of numbers mentioned above are what is so exciting about The Nature Conservancy supporting the Indonesian government to design, zone and implement two marine protected areas in the Savu Sea, a region of almost unique importance for myriad pelagic organisms.

I’m greatly looking forward to helping TNC’s Indonesian team tackle the planning challenges of this last frontier for conservation.

(Image: Silvertip Shark near Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.  Source: Franco Banfi – www.banfi.ch)

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