71 things we don’t know about the oceans, but probably should

What we don’t know about the oceans would fill an… ocean.

Our understanding of terrestrial ecosystems far, far outstrips what we know about life beneath the waves. The reason why, of course, is not complicated: It’s hard to see what’s going on down there. Or, a bit more comprehensively: “Marine research is expensive and logistically difficult due to the size of oceans and the limitations on human ability to access aquatic environments,” according to a new paper. Expensive technology is often required to explore and understand oceans, and marine conservation research receives far less funding than land-based conservation. And meanwhile:

Human-induced overexploitation, ocean acidification and warming, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasions by exotic species all threaten the integrity of marine ecosystems. The effects from these activities are ubiquitous, extensive, and observable across the entire seascape.

Such is the background for a research group’s effort to actually lay out what specifically we don’t know about marine ecosystems. Through a series of workshops, experts set out 71 questions grouped into eight categories; the results were published in the journal Conservation Biology. It seems an overwhelming list, but the idea was to set out a road map of sorts to help design scientific programs, policy directives, legislation, or even just citizen outreach. And the big knowledge gaps these questions represent aren’t purely academic: the authors point out that more than 16 percent of all animal protein that humans eat comes from seafood, and of course the oceans provide innumerable other services from tourism to carbon sequestration.

So what don’t we know? Take the fisheries category: In what circumstances do no-take zones produce benefits to surrounding fisheries? How can fishing gear and techniques be improved to minimize habitat damage? Under what circumstances can aquaculture produce a net benefit for marine conservation?

Just within those few questions (there are eight other fisheries questions) one sees the echo of familiar stories: shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and the damage they’re known to cause, or no-take zones around reefs in the Pacific and their potential relationship to, say, Pacific bluefin tuna’s declining stocks.

In the climate change category, questions range from the scientific specifics (How will global climate change and ocean acidification affect ocean productivity and, ultimately, biodiversity?) to, interestingly, how human reactions to a changing climate will further affect an already perturbed ocean (How will human pressures on the seascape shift and change as climate change impacts affect additional areas of the ocean?). Again, these aren’t individual questions meant to have one answer, but broad, wide-ranging knowledge gaps which entire programs will need to address.

Other question categories include other anthropogenic effects (beyond climate change, that is), ecosystems, policy, societal and cultural considerations, and details of “scientific enterprise”. But tucked in the middle of this collection of unknowns is the “marine citizenship” category, which may be the most crucial if sustainability and conservation are the overarching goals. The section begins with: “What are the best methods to encourage context-specific behavioral changes to increase conservation of the marine environment and what behaviors are most important to change?” In other words, we as a species persist in destroying the oceans; how can we convince everyone to stop? Though the 71 specific points addressed in this paper are obviously important, some of those gaps might decrease in urgency if we answer the question of how to get people to care. - Dave Levitan | May 6, 2014

Source: Parsons ECM, Favaro B, Aguirre AA, et al (2014). Seventy-One important questions for the conservation of marine biodiversity, Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12303

Image: Shutterstock.com, Ethan Daniels

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