Ocean explorers studying climate change impact on pristine sites in Pacific region
Exploring the unchartered: Pristine Seas and Pacific partners embark on a marine expedition
By Ron Rocky Coloma
The National Geographic Pristine Seas team launched an ambitious five–year mission in May called "The Global Expedition" whose goal is to traverse the isolated tropical Pacific to help local conservation efforts in safeguarding the world’s most varied ocean ecosystem.
Despite recurring worries about threats to the ocean like global warming, plastic pollution and overfishing, the mission suggests hope and a jump forward in protecting marine biodiversity.
In a recent briefing, Pristine Seas and its partners throughout the Pacific discussed the scientific expedition. Pristine Seas, which was established by National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Enric Sala, has helped launch 26 marine protected areas around the world – a total of 2.51 million square miles.
“Over the past six months since we started The Global Expedition, it's just been an amazing adventure across the Pacific – from the Southern Line Islands, Niue, to remote and pristine places left on the planet,” said Alan Friedlander, the chief scientist for Pristine Seas.
The Global Expedition's emphasis is on the Pacific island nations and using the exploration vessel, the E/V Argo, the team plans to cover 3,977 miles that have not been explored by humans.
The focus is to understand how intact ecosystems and pristine sites are capable of recovering from climate change, accentuating the role of massive predators in sustaining environmental balance.
“What all these places have in common is that they're dominated by large predators like sharks, groupers and jacks that exert a strong top-down control on the entire ecosystem,” Friedlander said. “But these have been removed from most places around the world, so we don't get the opportunity to understand how natural systems function.
“We've also found that these reefs are resilient to climate change. When you have an intact ecosystem, nature has the ability to rebound on its own and give nature a chance.”
The Pristine Seas team is working with governments and communities in the Pacific region to study and identify areas for enhanced protection. By frequent collaborations, they aspire to support the establishment of new marine protected areas, highlighting sustainable management and financing.
The initiative is part of a bigger mission to offset global warming, food insecurity and nature loss by 2030 by striving to safeguard 30 percent of the planet.
Pristine Seas compares its exploration gear to space exploration tools. The DeepSee submersible is likened to a lunar lander, capable of reaching impressive depths, while their “drop cams” and the BoxFish Luna robot serve as deep-sea probes.
“We use classic underwater scuba science, an array of remote camera systems and a three-person submarine to explore and study the entire marine ecosystem from the land down to the depths of thousands of meters and from whales and sharks down to things that we can't even see, like microbes and environmental DNA,” Friedlander said. “Using all these tools has allowed us to better understand how these pristine places function.”
Sala highlighted the expedition’s initial findings, emphasizing that marine protected areas work. He shared examples from Niue and the Marshall Islands, where protected areas have shown remarkable resilience and recovery of marine life after detrimental events like marine heatwaves.
“An example is Niue, where a few years after the creation of their marine reserve, our recent expedition in partnership with them has shown a significant increase in the abundance of fish and sharks in a place that we already thought was pretty healthy,” Sala said. “No matter where it is when a place is protected, marine life bounces back spectacularly.”
He also stressed the importance of marine protected areas as under-leveraged tools for climate resilience, with corals playing a vital role as the first line of defense against climate change.
“Marine protected areas foster climate resilience. We have seen this on the satellite islands… the devastating 2016 El Niño killed half of the corals, but they have recovered spectacularly,” Sala said.
“They have fully recovered. In this expedition on the Marshall Islands, which I was part of, these traditionally protected adults that we have seen also suffered from marine heat waves in 2015 and 2016, but the corals are recovering also spectacularly,” he added.
He also mentioned the essential contributions of fish in supporting coral recovery, building beaches and protecting shorelines.
“What we have learned is that these marine protected areas are under-leveraged tools for climate resilience. These islands, most of these islands in the Pacific were created by corals and by the animals and plants living in them," Sala said.
“So the corals in these areas that are traditionally protected or protected as a marine reserve come back from these marine heat waves because the fish abundance is on the charts,” he added.
Sala emphasized the ability of the ocean, particularly the Pacific, to recover from human impacts and stressed the significance of balance in ensuring the ocean continues providing benefits, from oxygen to food.
“We know that when places are fully protected and effectively managed, the great abundance of marine life or the great abundance of fish within their boundaries produces all these eggs and larvae and spill-over of adult fish that helps to replace the fishing around them,” Sala said. “So that contributes also to food security.
“A healthier ocean sequesters more carbon and helps us to mitigate climate change,” he added. “That's my summary of what we have learned in this first half of the year of our global expedition in partnership with our wonderful partners in Niue, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati.”