3 science stories you should know about

© Shawn Heinrichs

New research is shedding light on why you won’t see a shark in most coral reefs — and how a simple agreement with local communities can help keep tropical forests standing.

Conservation International scientists explore three specific ways to keep our oceans and forests healthy.

  1. Sharks are disappearing from human-heavy parts of the ocean

Scientists found little evidence of sharks in coral reefs where humans are fishing — even in protected areas.

Sharks and other reef predators were found in 28 percent of the scientists’ observations and were hardly seen at reefs where human pressure, through fishing or pollution, is high.

An international team of 37 scientists explored 1,800 tropical coral reefs around the world and collected evidence on the most effective ways to protect fish populations.

“Coral reefs are in a trade war, and the conservationists’ solution of choice is marine protected areas,” said Jack Kittinger, senior director of Conservation International’s Global Fisheries and Aquaculture program and a co-author of the study. “This research tells us that the closer a reef is to a major market, the more we have to temper our expectations about conservation gains and the more important remote protected areas become for populations of top predators.”

There is some good news for sharks: The study showed that the number of sharks and other predators in large remote marine reserves with very low human pressures are much higher — more than quadruple the numbers found in remote lightly fished unprotected areas.

Read the paper here.

  1. Conservation agreements prevent deforestation in Cambodia

Cambodia has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. A recent study answers the question: Could conservation agreements help?

The research studied the effectiveness of conservation agreements in reducing deforestation in the Cardamom Mountains. In exchange for making specific conservation agreements to protect their lands — such as keeping forests standing by not logging them — communities receive benefits from the funder.

“This type of analysis is rarely carried out because it requires a large amount of data from both participating communities and neighboring communities not involved in the agreements,” said Sebastien Costedoat, a postdoctoral fellow at Conservation International and one of the authors of the study.

The scientists found that conservation agreements work: About 850 hectares (2,100 acres) of forest per year were additionally protected in the villages and surrounding areas that were studied.

In the long term, conservation agreements cannot be a generic fix to stop the drivers of deforestation, according to Colas Chervier, the study’s co-author. It will take time to build the local skills to enforce forest conservation.

Environmental organizations need to ensure that community members understand the benefits of forest conservation and feel motivated by what they’re doing. Conservation agreements are just the first step of a long transformation process of trying to change how forests are managed, Chervier said.

Read the paper here.

  1. Hawaiʻi uses new tool to measure ocean health

Doctors use stethoscopes and other tools to understand their patient’s overall well-being — but how can scientists measure the health of the ocean?

Enter the Ocean Health Index (OHI), an assessment that uses 10 different criteria such as biodiversity and coastal protection, to get a full picture of how the ocean is doing.

Conservation International launched this tool in Hawaiʻi on June 8 to obtain complete set of data on ocean health.

OHI collects data about the effects that development, pollution and climate change have on the oceans. Hawai‘i needs this information to figure out what actions it should take to survive in the wake of climate change. For example, in Hawaiʻi, 70 percent of the beaches are eroding, and sea-level rise is predicted to cause US$ 19 billion in economic loss in the near future. The OHI can point to what Hawai‘i should do to prevent this loss.

“We came up with a new goal for the Ocean Health Index in general: sustainable tourism,” said Eva Schemmel, science adviser for Conservation International Hawaiʻi. “The goal measures the balance of economic growth, the preservation of Hawaiian cultural values and the protection of the environment.”

Schemmel explained that Hawaiʻi is a unique place for ocean conservation because of the population’s connection to the ocean.

“The connection to the ocean is rooted in a sense of responsibility to take care of and preserve Hawaiʻi and the ocean because it is us — it is our health,” Schemmel said. “It is our emotional, spiritual and physical health. The way people think about conservation in Hawaiʻi is not so much protecting the ocean or the land just to protect it, but because they need it to thrive.”

Read more about OHI here.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Further reading