Forests of marine animals: the political courage needed to protect them
Forests are also “of the sea”. They are even older than the great jungles and forests we know. But unlike the green that stands out on maps and satellite photos, these forests are invisible under the great blue mantle that covers 70% of our planet. Their magic captures you forever the moment you enter this underwater world and their colors and shapes become visible!
Marine Animal Forests (MAFs) are found at all depths and latitudes. They look more like science fiction structures created for the second version of James Cameron’s AVATAR than colonies of animals capable of creating a heterogeneity of three-dimensional forms, the origin of unique spaces of diversity.
Today, “World Oceans Day”, we want to highlight these biomes.
Briefly reviewing the latest published documents, such as the “Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 Report” of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), they show that coral reefs and other benthic ecosystems are suffering the fastest increasing risk of extinction of all the groups under study. Achieving the goal of reducing their vulnerability by restoring and reducing the pressures and threats to which they are subjected on a global scale was not possible in 2015 and will not be achieved by 2020. This is bad news for everyone… but there is hope!
With the recent launch of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), we now have the opportunity to leverage these global goals through awareness and action, in order to:
- guide and build a knowledge base for research;
- foster networking and action;
- and, most important of all, to put pressure on policymakers to make decisions and move forward with real budgets that make change possible.
Now is the time when the oceans have to play a leading role and, with them, the forests of marine animals, represented by organisms that form underwater canopies comparable to tree-like structures within a forest, especially at certain depths and latitudes. This bio-architecture is formed by biological assemblages composed mainly of organisms such as sponges, gorgonians, corals, annelids, bryozoans, mollusks, tunicates, etc., which feed on suspended particles, creating unique spaces of millimetric dimensions, in areas ranging from one square meter to kilometers in size, such as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
In addition to the direct and indirect impact of tourism affecting MAFs, other major pressures on these communities include trawling, climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and overexploitation of coastal resources. Research shows that, after suffering major disturbances and depending on their state of vulnerability, depth and latitude, these ecosystems sometimes never recover.
From the Arctic to Antarctica and from the Red Sea to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, MAFs provide essential ecosystem services:
- shallow and deep community seafood for human consumption;
- ecosystem stability through the maintenance of biodiversity;
- coastal protection (shallow coral reefs or oyster beds);
- healthy and attractive environments for tourists;
- support for local tourism-based economies;
- since anthropogenic carbon is permanently deposited in MAFs through biological processes, their role as a carbon sink is also notable. This latter ecosystem service is increasingly recognized, although there is still a lack of available large-scale data sets to determine its contribution more accurately.
What can be done at the policy level?
As we said before, to fight against the loss of these ecosystems, their fragmentation and deterioration, policies that reinforce the management of protected areas and enforce the established laws are undoubtedly necessary. Currently, there are many regulations, but their lack of knowledge and the lack of rigor in their application, which prevents their enforcement, are causing irreversible damage to these ecosystems that generate great wealth, food, health and well-being.
What is needed now is for countries, regional and local governments to make an effective, urgent and unwavering commitment to allocate resources for the protection of these ecosystems. The scientific community can no longer provide any more arguments… they are practically all there. Now, more than ever, we need courageous politicians who prioritize effective measures linked to budgets for the conservation of these marine ecosystems, the basis of great points of the diversity of our planet.
By protecting them, we are also ensuring our future, time is running out and the clock will soon reach the point of no return.