Another one of my occasional sharings of the Fix the Planet newsletter from New Scientist. This one written by Madeleine Cuff.
Hello from chilly Montreal, Canada, where I’m reporting on the long-awaited COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference. The streets of the downtown district are full of delegates in hastily bought winter coats and bright green name badges, and in restaurants across town, the usual chatter about Christmas plans has been replaced by small talk about financing mechanisms and regulatory frameworks. Welcome to COP.
One of the headline goals under discussion at these talks is a global target to put 30 per cent of the world’s land and 30 per cent of its oceans under environmental protection by the end of the decade.
The so-called 30x30 goal has become something of a flagship issue for conservationists around the world. Currently, only 16 per cent of land and 8 per cent of oceans are under environmental protection. Boosting this figure, and therefore making more space for wildlife to thrive, is crucial for the wider goal of biodiversity recovery, say non-governmental organisations such as The Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace.
But if we plan to expand the number of sites protected for nature, it begs the question: which areas should be protected? And are the protected areas we have at the moment even in the right place?
After all, many existing protected sites were designated decades ago, well before climate impacts began forcing flora and fauna to adapt and migrate to survive. We know, for example, that butterflies in the UK are moving northwards as summers become warmer, while in the Bering Sea, Alaska pollocks, snow crabs and Pacific halibuts have shifted northwards by an average of 30 kilometres since the 1980s in their hunt for cooler ocean waters. The world’s wildlife is on the move, and if we don’t track its journeys, there’s a danger we will end up protecting the wrong places.
That’s where a new project from UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceaographic Commission (IOC) & the World Heritage Centre. It aims to build a map of all the fish species living in biodiversity hotspots, to make sure that as the wildlife moves, so do the protections.
The key to this scheme is in environmental DNA (eDNA). Using just 1 litre of water, eDNA analysis can identify which species are present in that area of water at any given time by tracking and sequencing genetic material left in the water column. The technology is already commonly used around the world, but the information gathered is held by different – usually private – entities and studies are conducted using different protocols, so comparison is difficult. UNESCO wants to use eDNA technology to build an open-source database, a living map of biodiversity around the world. Since September, it has been sending teams of researchers out with volunteers to take samples from 25 UNESCO marine heritage sites around the world. These range from the Wadden Sea in Europe, where the last remaining population of houting fish is thought to live, to Shark Bay in Western Australia – known for its dugong population. “These are ocean places which are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List because they have what we call outstanding universal value,” says Fanny Douvere at UNESCO. “They are ecosystems, they are biodiversity, they are places and things that you don’t find anywhere else on Earth.” This is, at its heart, a “citizen science” project, says Douvere, with local schoolchildren in different areas around the world taking part. The sampling protocol has been deliberately kept simple so even children as young as 4 can get involved. In November, Clara Buck, marine biologist at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in Brazil, took a group of children out to take samples from the waters around Fernando de Noronha, a Brazilian island group in the Atlantic Ocean where sea turtles, rays, dolphins and reef sharks live in the crystal blue waters. “The little ones, those who were 4 or 5 years old, were the most excited,” she says. “Children are really capable. They are like sponges, they absorb all the knowledge really fast.” In total, around 5000 water samples will be taken across all the sites by April 2023, and together they will be analysed to provide a snapshot of the marine life in the water at that time.
Hunting for fish
The focus of the analysis will be to detect fish and megafauna, such as sharks, rays and dolphins. Each sample can provide information on hundreds of different species present in the water. What the PCR primers look for in each sample depends on the specific site it was taken from. Researchers will be looking for whale sharks near Ningaloo Coast, Australia; for hammerhead sharks around Costa Rica’s Cocos Island in the Pacific Ocean; for dusky groupers off Corsica, France; and for olive ridley sea turtles and manta rays near Socotra, in the Indian Ocean. The analysis method is a shortcut for uncovering new or elusive species in specific waters, say researchers at the IOC. It’s a cheap and non-invasive approach that helps to build a clearer picture of life underwater. But there’s a limit to how much the water samples can tell researchers. They can’t yet reliably provide information on abundance – the crucial bit of data that tells you whether there is one lone tuna swimming in those waters or a large school. Without information on abundance, it is harder for researchers to keep track of whether a population is struggling or thriving.
What’s more, one year of samples can only offer a limited view, revealing only what was in the waters at the time those samples were collected. But for Douvere, it’s the first step in building reliable baselines so that, with repeat sampling over the coming years, researchers can build up a picture of whether a population is shifting away from protected areas. “It has revolutionary potential for how we collect biodiversity data for decision-making,” she says. The results could be used to inform the location of new protected areas, or “changing [the] boundaries” of existing ones, she adds. “Yes, ambitious targets are important, critical really, but we also need to look into protecting the right places.”