4 science stories you may have missed: ocean edition

© Photo Rodolphe Holler

Editor’s note: Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent science published by Conservation International experts.

1. Fishers can be allies in conservation 

When conservationists cooperate with fishers, it means more fish, according to a new paper.

Though fishers can be cast as the villains of the high seas, a recently published paper argues that giving them a voice in policy decisions will actually help protect marine life. The paper highlights the conservation benefits to fish populations when sustainable fisheries are recognized as a valuable addition to an ecosystem, rather than a threat.

“There are so many external threats to aquatic ecosystems that will affect both fishers and aquatic biodiversity, such as agriculture and urbanization,” said Michael Cooperman, a freshwater ecology and fisheries scientist for Conservation International’s Moore Center, and one of the study’s co-authors. “It only makes sense that people who are working toward functioning, healthy aquatic ecosystems — fishers and conservationists alike — should work together.”

The same freshwater fisheries that provide food for billions of people support the livelihoods of the planet’s millions of fishers — making them ideal allies in freshwater fish conservation, the paper concludes. 

2. For fishers, communication beats competition 

Communication between fishers is critical to increasing fish populations, a new study finds. 

Competition between fishers can lead to a “race to fish” that depletes resources — ultimately harming the people that make their living fishing. New research proves that simply by communicating with each other, fishers are more likely to work together to produce a better ecological outcome that benefits both them and the fish. 

“This study shows that cooperation is absolutely linked to more resources and biodiversity,” which are critical to maintaining healthy oceans, said Jack Kittinger, senior director of global fisheries and aquaculture at Conservation International and a co-author of the study. 

The study’s authors interviewed 648 fishers in Kenya about their communication habits and compared these with underwater visual data of reef conditions. They discovered that when fishers communicate frequently with their competitors about fishing gear, locations and rules, fish flourished in greater numbers. 

“The hardest thing in conservation is getting a bunch of people to cooperate to ensure the long-term future of a resource that they depend on today,” said Kittinger. “When that happens, lo and behold, you’ve got better ecological success.”

3. Migrating humpback whales give singing lessons

As male humpback whales migrate across the Pacific, different populations converge along their migratory routes and learn new songs, a new study finds.

Each year, humpback whales travel thousands of miles in search of a mate, and their varied routes bring them across whales from a wide variety of geographies. One of these migratory overlap points is in Kermadec Islands, where scientists uncovered a large-scale cultural exchange of a humpback whales’ most important method of communication: song.

“Our research is illustrating that humpback whales from different breeding sites in the Pacific are actually converging for a ‘last hurrah’ at the Kermadec Islands before heading South to their feeding grounds,” explained Olive Andrews, marine program manager at Conservation International and a co-author of the study. “This area represents a very important mixing ground for endangered Oceania humpback whales to culturally learn from each other using song.”

Humpback whales are extremely social creatures who rely on vocalization to communicate underwater during migration, but changing ocean temperatures and decreasing food supply due to climate change are forcing some populations to alter their migratory patterns. These changing migratory routes could threaten humpback whales’ ability to breed, which could reduce populations all over the world. Documenting aggregations of whales during this research project helps ecosystem managers advocate for new marine protected areas and identify locations for increased monitoring of illegal or unregulated fishing. 

4. Island populations are migrating to safer ground

Climate change could be influencing people to migrate from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a coral atoll in between Australia and Hawaii, according to a recent study

Since 2011, more than one-third of the Marshallese have migrated outside of the Marshall Islands, often to the United States. Scientists explored the motivations of this mass exodus, focusing specifically on the underlying impacts of climate change, from droughts to heat waves.

“Changes in climate and weather shocks affect food and water security, infrastructure, public health and safety in the Marshall Islands, all of which are likely contributing to the migration of Marshall Islanders,” said Juno Fitzpatrick, the program manager for Conservation International’s global fisheries and aquaculture program and co-author of the study. Since the factors triggering human migration are complex and often intertwined, Fitzpatrick explained, it is difficult to pinpoint the specific reasons for migration.

Regardless of the motivation, the current migrant networks that Marshallese people are building could be invaluable in the future, says the paper, especially in the context of climate change. 

Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.

Cover image: Fish in Tuamotu, French Polynesia.

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