More stories

  • in

    Norway’s approval of sea-bed mining undermines efforts to protect the ocean

    Protesters demonstrate against the decision of Norway’s parliament, the Storting, to allow sea-bed mining.Credit: Javad Parsa/NTB/AFP/Getty

    When Norway and Palau announced in 2018 that they were co-chairing the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (now called the Ocean Panel), many researchers were hopeful. Fourteen governments, collectively responsible for 40% of the world’s coastlines, pledged to sustainably manage 100% of their exclusive economic zones (national waters) by 2025. They explicitly looked to scientists to guide them in how to achieve their goals. In 2020, the panel’s leaders backed five priorities proposed by its science advisers that included ways to decarbonize the shipping industry and to manage seafood production sustainably. “Rarely has scientific research been so keenly sought by political leaders, or so readily accepted as the basis for policy,” said Norway’s then-prime minister Erna Solberg.To support the initiative, the Nature Portfolio journals collaborated with the Ocean Panel and published a collection of articles in December 2020. Nature recommended that independent measures should be included to hold the members of the panel, which now includes 18 nations, accountable for their pledges. Such indicators were needed because “governments change”, we noted in an editorial (see Nature 588, 7–8; 2020). “The panel’s members know that, one day, they will need to pass on their responsibilities. In some cases, their successors will want to continue their policies, but in others, they won’t — as we know all too well.”
    First approval for controversial sea-bed mining worries scientists
    An independent system of accountability never materialized. In 2021, Norway elected a new government. And last week, its parliament voted to allow the controversial practice of sea-bed mining. This decision goes against the advice of the Norwegian Environment Agency, the Ocean Panel’s scientific advisers and other researchers. The scientists all say that too little is known about the deep-sea ecosystem — such as its biodiversity and its interactions with other ecosystems — to safely mine the sea floor. Researchers also question Norway’s suggestion that sea-bed mining will strengthen the country’s economy and that terrestrial supplies of metals such as manganese and cobalt, which are used in batteries and other electronics, are insufficient to support the transition to a low-carbon economy. Researchers are both baffled and deflated by the decision. Norway’s about-face isn’t just a setback for the country’s sustainability efforts; it undermines the progress and the credibility of the Ocean Panel.The vote allows companies to explore whether critical minerals, such as sulfide and manganese, on the sea floor could be extracted profitably. Commercial-scale mining will require another parliamentary vote — a compromise the government agreed on to gain support from other political parties. Astrid Bergmål, the secretary of state for the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, told Nature that the vote “does not mean extraction starts” immediately. Bergmål added that Norway will ensure that its sea-bed activity is in line with its international obligations, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity.Researchers are not naive. They don’t expect politicians to take all their advice on board. But the political energy and enthusiasm for the panel gave scientists a real sense that this time, things would be different. In hindsight, signs to the contrary were already there by 2021. In January that year, the Norwegian government first announced its intention to mine minerals on the sea floor. And it continues to issue permits for offshore oil and gas drilling.
    Hypocrisy is threatening the future of the world’s oceans
    This vote has made some of the panel’s current and former scientific advisers wonder whether other nations might be better placed to take over Norway’s leadership position. The initiative does not, however, have a publicly accessible system for choosing its chairs. The panel’s secretariat did not respond to Nature’s questions about its governance arrangements, nor did it clarify whether other members could sanction Norway and, if this was the case, whether they planned to do so.All members have made progress in some areas, according to the Ocean Panel’s 2022 report. For example, Chile has assigned some protection to 43% of its waters and, last year, it began a more ambitious programme to sustainably manage all its marine resources. Kenya has set up what the panel says is the world’s first community-led project to protect and restore mangrove forests, an effort that will be supported by the sale of carbon credits.Overall, the panel’s secretariat reports that its member countries made 652 commitments towards their shared goal of sustainably managing the ocean resources in their national waters by 2025. Of the 345 analysed in the report, 54% have been accomplished and 40% are showing progress. Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre jointly wrote in the progress report: “The Ocean Panel was established to lead the way, and we need to live up to this ambition.” That is why Norway’s parliament must reverse its decision. If it is unable to do so, the government should acknowledge that the country has lost any claim to be an ocean-protection leader. More

  • in

    Largest genetic database of marine microbes could aid drug discovery

    The most comprehensive analysis to date of genes from marine microbes — including bacteria, viruses and fungi — could serve as a foundation for researchers to discover antibiotics, track the effects of climate change and protect endangered species.In 2021, researchers constructed a catalogue containing around 300 million groups of genes from microbes living across the land and sea1.Now, Carlos Duarte, a marine ecologist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, and his colleagues have compiled a database containing about 315 million groups of genes from microbes living in the Arctic, Indian, Southern, Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean sea2.The database “represents a large increase in the number of genes represented, as well as a larger breadth of geographic and depth coverage”, says Luis Pedro Coelho, a computational biologist at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.“In our catalogue, we include genomic data from the deep sea and sea floor,” says Duarte, who led expeditions to recover some of the deeper samples. “Previous catalogues were really focused on the upper ocean, with most of their data from the top 200 metres.”Filling genetic gapsThe researchers analysed the genetic data with a supercomputer, using algorithms to predict the complete sequences of billions of genes for which only partial sections were known. They compared these filled-in sequences with microbial genes with known functions, enabling them to determine the likely roles of the incomplete genes.The team found that fungi represent more than half of the gene groups identified in the ‘twilight zone’, a region between 200 and 1,000 metres beneath the ocean surface. This suggests that fungi play a greater part in processing organic matter in the ocean than previously thought, says Duarte. The analysis also revealed that some marine viruses contain many more novel genetic sequences than previously recognized.A more in-depth understanding of marine microbes could have wide-ranging benefits. “Genes and proteins derived from marine microbes have endless potential applications,” says Duarte. “We can probe for new antibiotics, we can find new enzymes for food production,” he says. “If they know what they’re searching for, researchers can use our platform to find the needle in the haystack that can address a specific problem.”The database can also act as a baseline measurement for marine microbial diversity, so that scientists can track the effects of activities such as burning fossil fuels or deep-sea mining, he adds.Although the catalogue has many potential applications, it currently provides insights into only groups of bacteria that are broader than the species level, says Andreas Teske, a marine microbiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Increasing the resolution of the database would make it more useful, he says. More

  • in

    Can foreign coral save a dying reef? Radical idea sparks debate

    Table coral is among the species that could be transplanted to the Caribbean to revive reefs damaged by climate change and other threats.Credit: imageBROKER.com GmbH & Co. KG/Alamy

    Seattle, WashingtonCorals in the Caribbean have been dying off for decades — and a devastating heatwave there last summer made matters worse. Researchers are now considering something that was once unthinkable: is it time to give up on native species, and transplant hardier corals from other oceans to struggling Caribbean reefs?It is a radical proposal that could leave the region forever changed. But it is important to explore the possibility now because the region’s reefs are running out of time, said coral geneticist Mikhail Matz in a presentation at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, on 4 January.Coral transplantation would take decades to study and implement, and with each passing year, the Caribbean’s bleached reefs will be at greater risk of erosion and collapse, destroying the rocky infrastructure on which the transplanted corals could take hold. “It’s an 11th-hour solution,” said Matz, who works at the University of Texas at Austin. “And it is now 11.45.”Ecosystem in perilCoral reefs enhance protection against coastal erosion and provide crucial shelter for young fish. But reefs in the Caribbean have been devastated by climate change, disease and pollution. By some estimates, corals in particular regions have declined by more than 80% in the past two decades. A prolonged and record-breaking heatwave last summer further raised the sense of urgency.
    ‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline
    “It wasn’t just that the records were broken,” says Margaret Miller, research director at Secore International, a non-profit organization focused on coral-reef restoration and based in Hilliard, Ohio. “They were blown out of the water.” There are predictions that next summer could be just as bad — or worse.In the oceans of the Indo-Pacific region, many corals are continuing to thrive. Several coral species there are considered ‘super-recruiters’ because of how readily their larvae attach to and colonize reefs. Dominant coral species in the Caribbean, by contrast, are poor recruiters, hindering their ability to recovery from calamity1.As a result, Matz suggests that it might be time to investigate whether transplanting these Indo-Pacific species to the Caribbean could be a way to reseed the reefs. Resilient species such as table coral (Acropora hyacinthus) could be better able to prosper in a challenging environment.That’s an unpopular and painful proposition, says Miller — but one that she expects to be taken more seriously in the wake of last summer’s severe heatwave. “We’re all kind of shell shocked,” she says. “There will be more conversations about more radical interventions.”Failed solutionFor years, conservation groups have focused on restoring barren reefs by planting thousands of young, native corals in the hope that they would flourish. For the most part, they have not, says Carlos Prada, a coral evolutionary biologist at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. Coral populations have continued to decline, he says: “We either do something else, or we lose the corals.”But to bring in exotic species could spell the end of the native reef, says Miller. Reefs composed of non-native species can provide some of the ecological services of native reefs, but they will not be Caribbean reefs anymore, Miller says. She adds that it is unclear whether even the Indo-Pacific coral species could survive the pollution, heat extremes and diseases of the Caribbean. Furthermore, transplanted species could bring fresh diseases with them and could disturb the local ecology in unpredicted ways.Matz argues that steps could be taken to reduce disease risk, such as growing the transplants in the laboratory before introducing them to the open water. As for unpredictable consequences, he proposes that initial field studies take place in areas where the introduced coral are unlikely to spread to other regions.
    The ocean is hotter than ever: what happens next?
    Nevertheless, such pilot studies would be anathema to current conservation approaches, and unlikely to be funded or permitted today, says Prada. The main thing to do now, he says, is to start the conversation.Other radical ideas that might be considered in the coming year or two include CRISPR genome editing of native species to make them more heat resistant, or treatment with microorganisms that might foster disease resistance, says Miller. It will be a difficult choice: each of these ideas comes with risks to the natural ecosystem.“How far do you go? When do we just give up?” she says. “I don’t know.” More

  • in

    Climate policy must integrate blue energy with food security

    To rescue the marine environment and ensure sustainability of its resources, more effective mitigation of conflicts is urgently needed across all sectors of the oceans. This includes those related to food production, local people’s livelihoods and blue energy —the renewable energy harvested from seas and oceans.
    Competing Interests
    The authors declare no competing interests. More

  • in

    How I fuse Western science with Traditional Knowledge

    Before I began a PhD in Indigenous knowledge and the biology of invasive species at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 2015, I had an existential crisis. I worked for an agency that managed invasive plant species — but despite our efforts, some invasive species would inevitably come back, or a new invader would take over. For me, it was a moment to question the point of eradicating such species without a holistic land-management plan in place.Since then, my scientific journey has been about connecting my Western science to the Indigenous world view I’ve inherited as a Nlaka’pamux woman of mixed ancestry. Now, when I go out into the field as a researcher, I involve archaeologists, elders, soil scientists, plant scientists and historical ecologists so that we can use their knowledge — to understand how this land was managed in the past and how it should be managed in the future. Instead of saying, “How do we get rid of this invasive plant?”, we ask, “What do culturally important local plant species need to flourish?”.
    How I use science to protect my people’s birthright
    In this image, taken last August, I’m standing on land that’s being restored by the Cowichan Estuary Restoration Project, the largest of its type ever to occur on Vancouver Island. Two kilometres of dikes have been removed from the estuary to reconnect it to wetlands. In 2022, camas, a bright purple flower and an important fibre source for coastal Indigenous peoples, bloomed throughout the estuary. The Cowichan Tribes’ land staff and I then realized that this estuary had been an important food source for the local Indigenous peoples. We had to rethink the restoration project.Now, community-based researchers, elders and knowledge keepers are informing what we do next. Instead of adhering to a post-colonial baseline of restoration, we combine remote-sensing technologies with oral histories to purposefully shape lands, guided by community values and needs. More

  • in

    Tasmanian devil die-off is shifting another predator’s genetics

    Spotted-tailed quolls (left) and Tasmanian devils (right) have similar diets and are both active at night.Credit: Bruce Thomson/NPL; Arterra Picture Library/Alamy

    Declining numbers of the endangered Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) are affecting the evolutionary genetics of a small predator, the spotted-tailed quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), according to a study published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution1.The findings fit with what scientists would expect — typically, when a top predator’s population dwindles, smaller predators increase in number because there are more resources available and less competition.But little is known about what the effect of a top predator’s decline is on the evolutionary genetics of other species in the food web, says study co-author Andrew Storfer, an evolutionary geneticist at Washington State University in Pullman. “This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that.”Ripple effectsFor the past three decades, Tasmanian devils — carnivorous marsupials native to the island of Tasmania in Australia — have been affected by an infectious type of lethal cancer known as devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). The devil population has declined by nearly 70%, from 53,000 in 1996 to 16,900 in 2020, mainly because of DFTD, which is passed on through biting2.Storfer and his PhD student Marc Beer wanted to study how this decline in devil numbers is affecting another marsupial, the spotted-tailed quoll. Devils and quolls have similar diets and are both active at night, scavenging for food. But devils are larger and more aggressive, so quolls tend to avoid them.The researchers analysed 3,431 genetic variants in the genomes of 345 quolls across 15 generations. They searched for evidence of changes in the variation and selection of genes in quolls that could be associated with the prevalence of DFTD in devils and with the devils’ population density.Evolutionary consequencesThey found that quolls in regions with similar spreading rates of DFTD were genetically more similar to each other compared with those in areas that had different DFTD prevalence and devil population densities. They also found evidence of genetic selection in response to changes in devil numbers, and identified 12 gene variants in quolls that are linked to devil population density and 10 associated with the number of years DFTD has been prevalent for in devils. Among these genes are ones important for movement and muscle development, as well as some linked to feeding behaviour.The study showed that the distribution of genetic variation in quolls is increasing, but that genetic exchange — the movement of genes into or out of populations — is decreasing. This might be because, when few devils are present, quolls do not need to move around as much as they do in areas with a high devil density, thus reducing the chance of animals from different populations encountering each other. “Less genetic exchange among populations will eventually lead to lower genetic diversity within populations. And there are evolutionary consequences of that,” says Storfer. “We really don’t know what they are.” More

  • in

    The Nature Podcast highlights of 2023

    Download the Nature Podcast 27 December 2023In this episode:00:54 Franklin’s real roleWhen it comes to the structure of DNA, everyone thinks they know Rosalind Franklin’s role in its discovery. The story goes that her crucial data was taken by James Watson without her knowledge, helping him and Francis Crick solve the structure. However, new evidence has revealed that this wasn’t really the case. Rosalind Franklin was not a ‘wronged heroine’, she was an equal contributor to the discovery.Nature Podcast: 25 April 2023Comment: What Rosalind Franklin truly contributed to the discovery of DNA’s structure14:37 An automated way to monitor wildlife recoveryTo prevent the loss of wildlife, forest restoration is key, but monitoring how well biodiversity actually recovers is incredibly difficult. Now though, a team has collected recordings of animal sounds to determine the extent of the recovery. However, while using these sounds to identify species is an effective way to monitor, it’s also labour intensive. To overcome this, they trained an AI to listen to the sounds, and found that although it was less able to identify species, its findings still correlated well with wildlife recovery, suggesting that it could be a cost-effective and automated way to monitor biodiversity.Nature Podcast: 25 October 2023Research article: Müller et al.27:11 Research HighlightsThe first brain recording from a freely swimming octopus, and how a Seinfeld episode helped scientists to distinguish the brain regions involved in understanding and appreciating humour.Research Highlight: How to measure the brain of an octopusResearch Highlight: One brain area helps you to enjoy a joke — but another helps you to get it30:24 Why multisensory experiences can make stronger memoriesIt’s recognized that multisensory experiences can create strong memories and that later-on, a single sensory experience can trigger memories of the whole event, like a specific smell conjuring a visual memory. But the neural mechanisms behind this are not well understood. Now, a team has shown that rich sensory experiences can create direct neural circuit between the memory regions involved with different senses. This circuit increases memory strength in the flies, and helps explain how sense and memories are interlinked.Nature Podcast: 25 April 2023Research article: Okray et al.38:58 Briefing ChatHow elephant seals catch some shut-eye while diving.New York Times: Elephant Seals Take Power Naps During Deep Ocean DivesSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Never miss an episode. Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. An RSS feed for the Nature Podcast is available too. More