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Ellen Pikitch

Ellen Pikitch. Photo by Tyler Mooney

By Daniel Dunaief

Five decades after graduating from John Dewey High School in Coney Island, Ellen Pikitch recently received an award from a group founded by one of her high school teachers.

Lou Siegel, one of the founders and Nassau County Director of the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA), helped present the Hugo and Anita Freudenthal Award for contributions to furthering scientists’ understanding of the marine environment to his former student by zoom on April 20th.

“It’s wonderful when you have students that follow the same interests that you’ve had,” said Siegel. “Not only has she done excellent work in the field, but she worked to popularize it and to get it out to the general public.”

Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Science in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, Pikitch, who grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a short train ride from the New York Aquarium, and who said she knew she wanted to be a marine biologist “from the time I was born,” has tackled marine conservation issues from several perspectives.

Anita Freudenthal and the late Hugo Freudenthal, who died in 2021. Photo courtesy of NYSMEA

Pikitch, Distinguished Professor Christopher Gobler and Associate Professor Bradley Peterson worked to restore Shinnecock Bay by planting filter feeders such as hard clams and oysters and reseeding seagrass beds, which have cleaned the waters and prevented the appearance of brown tides. For at least five years, Shinnecock Bay hasn’t had any brown tides, breaking a decades-long cycle.

Indeed, Mission Blue named Shinnecock Bay, which is home to a range of biodiversity including dolphins, a wide variety of fish and birds and, occasionally, sharks, as the first Hope Spot in the state of New York. Other Hope Spots include global attractions such as The Galapagos Islands, the Sargasso Sea and the Ross Sea in Antarctica.

At the same time, Pikitch has been involved in numerous efforts on a global scale to conserve ocean regions through Marine Protected Areas. Working with a group of 42 scientists, she helped develop a framework to understand, plan, establish, evaluate and monitor marine protected areas.

Pikitch is following in the footsteps of the Freudenthals for whom the award and recognition is named, as the married couple were involved in a range of local, national and global projects.

Hugo Freudenthal was “the first person to recognize the symbiotic relationship between algae and corals,” said Pikitch. He was also involved in the creation of the first space toilet, designed in the 1970’s for the Skylab, which was America’s first space station and the first crewed research lab in space.

In an amusing presentation called “Turds in Space” at the Experimental Aircraft Association three years ago that is available online at Turds In Space by Hugo D Freudenthal, PhD, Freudenthal explained how he helped design a toilet that would work in zero gravity, which, he said, “was one of the few things on Skylab that worked perfectly.”

The toilet had a soft seat, which was like a saddle, that was lined with holes on the outside and had vectored air coming in from the sides, which brought the feces down into a collection device, the late Hugo Freudenthal described in the video.

Anita Freudenthal, meanwhile, was the first female marine biologist in Nassau County. She also taught and did research at C.W. Post.

“Both of them were accomplished,” said Pikitch. “I’m excited and honored to have received [the award].”

Humble origins

The granddaughter of immigrants who didn’t speak English, Pikitch came from humble origins, as her parents had high school educations.

Pikitch volunteered at the New York Aquarium during high school, where her job was to stand in front of the shark tank and talk about sand tiger sharks.

Living near the aquarium, which is on the beach in Coney Island, strengthened her interest in marine biology. During summer in her childhood, Pikitch and her family took day trips near and in the water, which cultivated her love of the ocean.

Despite her passion for marine biology, Pikitch came from limited means. She credits her high school teachers, including Siegel and math teacher David Hankin for directing her to pursue degrees in higher education.

Ongoing work

For five years, Pikitch has been using eDNA to study biodiversity in various aquatic habitats.

With eDNA, scientists take environmental DNA from water samples that contain the genetic material shed from scales, fins, tissues, secretions and oils of the organisms living in the water. The genetic material generally lasts about 12 to 24 hours in shallow, warm water.

Environmental DNA has numerous benefits, including that it doesn’t disrupt the ecosystem by removing or harming individuals and it collects DNA from fish and other aquatic organisms that might otherwise be too small, too large or too quick for a trawling net to capture them.

Hugo & Anita Freudenthal Research Award. Photo courtesy of NYSMEA

Through an eDNA sample, Pikitch was surprised to find DNA from a basking shark, which is the second largest living shark after the whale shark.

She and other scientists saw a picture in a local newspaper of a basking shark soon after the eDNA sample revealed its presence.

To be sure, an eDNA sample, could, theoretically, include DNA from species outside the range of a sampled environment. Pikitch uses multiple survey methods besides eDNA.

Indeed, she plans to submit a few manuscripts that are in the works later this year that will compare the range of biodiversity from eDNA samples with the species collected from trawling.

This fall, she’s planning to use high tech equipment that has never been used together before, deploying an uncrewed surface vehicle (or USV) to collect and analyze samples.

Powered by solar energy, the USV doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases and is self-righting, which means that a hurricane could knock it over and, like a Weebles Wobble, it would adjust back to a vertical position in the water.

Pikitch hopes to collect samples off the waters of the Shinnecock Nation. She is involved in consultations with the Shinnecock Nation and is optimistic about a fall collaboration.

Pikitch hopes the eDNA sensor expedition will provide a proof of concept that will encourage other scientists to bring this technology out to remote areas of the ocean, which could help address questions of where to create and monitor the biodiversity of other marine protected areas.

As for the award, Siegel, who helped found the NYSMEA in the same year Pikitch graduated from high school 50 years ago, understands the excitement of the student-teacher connection from the student side as well. Anita and Hugo Freudenthal were his professors at C.W. Post when he earned a master’s in Marine Science.

“It’s like a family tree,” Siegel explained.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

The weather outside has been frightful and local researchers suggest the trend has been anything but delightful.

Over the last year, the country has confronted numerous violent and intense storms, causing property damage and leading to evacuations and rescues. Just last week, Fort Lauderdale, Florida received a month’s worth of rain in an hour amid a storm that dumped over two feet of rain on the city. Such a torrential storm isn’t unique to Florida, as areas including Dallas experienced significant rains last August that crippled the city.

Malcolm Bowman

“The extremes are increasing,” said Malcolm Bowman, Professor Emeritus at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “It’s part of the prediction of climate science.”

Indeed, as the atmosphere becomes warmer, the increase in water vapor raises the amount of rain in a particular storm, added Edmund Chang, Professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. Chang and other local scientists discussed their concerns and potential cause for optimism amid the approach of the 54th anniversary of Earth Day.

Climate Change report

This March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that suggested that climate change was worsening and that the Earth will likely increase by more than the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial revolution averages that would lead to numerous environmental damage.

“Since the last IPCC report, there has been a lot more research looking at these weather extremes,” Chang said.

Edmund Chang

In warmer temperatures, which have increased on average for the Earth by 1.1 degrees, storms carry significantly more precipitation.

While it is outside the realm of his own research, Chang said that other researchers have demonstrated that storms in the Northeastern United States have had an increase in higher precipitation events, which is also linked to the fact that these storms are moving more slowly, drenching areas with rain before slowly leaving.

Chang is particularly concerned about sea level rise. “I have lived in coastal areas all my life,” he said. “We know that the sea level is rising. The rate of rise is accelerated.” Counteracting the effects of melting ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic are among the more difficult processes to mitigate, he added.

In his own research, Chang is assessing the bias in models that predict whether a season will likely be stormier than average. He is looking at how model biases may impact the accuracy of longer range forecasts.

Different models have different biases, he explained. Weather channel fans, and those who watch storm models for approaching hurricanes and other events, may recognize that meteorologists often overlay American and European weather models, particularly when describing approaching hurricanes.

In Chang’s research, he has found that combining different models improves the forecast. “A better way of improving models is to understand where the model biases or error comes from” rather than averaging errors that cancel each other out, he said.

Reasons for optimism

Chang believes there are reasons for optimism about efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The current administration is “starting to impose more stringent emissions controls from vehicles,” he said. “It’s getting a bit more encouraging.”

In other areas, world leaders have also taken encouraging steps towards protecting the oceans and biodiversity. Last month, the United Nations announced the legal framework for a High Seas treaty, which protects biodiversity, reduces pollutions and shares ocean resources. After 20 years of work, 193 countries verbally agreed to a treaty to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

Ellen Pikitch

The treaty is “of monumental importance,” said Ellen Pikitch, endowed professor of Ocean Conservation Science and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “The treaty will enable marine protected areas (MPAs) to be created in areas outside national jurisdictions and allow fisheries management of species in international waters not currently covered by regional agreements.”

Citing recent reports, Bowman said global emissions of carbon dioxide have declined 2 percent over the last 12 months. “There are moves, even in China, to bring in solar and wind” power, he added.

Local concerns

As storms hit areas like Florida and Texas, Long Islanders frequently wonder about the readiness of the region for future storms. Indeed, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the Middle Atlantic states in 2012.

“If we had another Sandy, it could be just as bad or worse,” said Bowman, who has been a part of a storm surge working group in New York.

In the fall, the Army Corps of Engineers published a tentatively selected plan for the area after the administration of President Biden (D) reinstated the Harbor and Tributary Study, which was temporarily halted in 2019. The plan doesn’t involve enough protection along the harbor with concrete and steel, Bowman said. 

“They say [concrete] is terrible,” Bowman said. “We say it’s necessary.”

Any plan for flooding in and around the New York area would not only have to address how to handle a storm surge that brought water in from the ocean. It would also have to provide a way for any heavy rains to get out.

The reality of global warming is “scary,” said Bowman. And yet, “how many people are changing their living habits?”

As for his native New Zealand, Bowman said a tornado touched down in recent weeks, which is “unheard of.” While the tornado was not on the scale of such twisters in Kansas, he said it ripped through several homes.

New Zealand, with a population of five million people, is moving toward using electric cars, while the country is also considering a genetic modification in cattle that reduces the production of methane from when they burp or pass gas.

“There’s a big push in New Zealand to do its bit,” Bowman said.

The U.N.’s High Seas Treaty aims to reduce pollution, protect biodiversity and share ocean resources. Stock photo

Determined, passionate and committed representatives to the United Nations, including the United States, spent over 20 years trying to hammer out an agreement to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

This past Saturday, after extending a deadline, representatives of 193 countries in New York verbally agreed to terms of a High Seas Treaty designed to reduce pollution, protect biodiversity and share ocean resources.

While individual countries still have to ratify the treaty, scientists like Ellen Pikitch, endowed professor of Ocean Conservation Science and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, praised the agreement.

“It’s fantastic,” Pikitch said. “It’s been needed for so long.”

Lisa Speer, a marine scientist and the director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been working to educate and encourage government leaders to understand what’s at stake and how to protect the oceans.

“This is a big step forward for biodiversity conservation on a global level,” said Speer. “This provides me with a lot of encouragement.”

In addition to the educational and advocacy work she did over the years, Speer spent much of the last 36 hours at the U.N. surrounded by others who had slept on the floor or in various rooms and hallways amid the effort to get this treaty across the finish line.

“Everybody was really emotional,” she said, with spontaneous applause and cheers continuing for a long period of time. “A lot of us have been here since the beginning. There were celebratory hugs and thanks and tears of joy for the efforts of so many people” including some who were not in the room but had worked for decades on this treaty.

The view of the importance of biodiversity in the oceans has changed considerably over the last few decades.

“For most of human history, the high seas have been viewed as an empty wasteland,” Speer said. Now, however, people recognize that it’s “probably the largest reserve of biodiversity left on the planet.”

This treaty, Pikitch and Speer added, can and should help ensure that humans can explore and discover some of that biodiversity before it might otherwise disappear.

Speer is hopeful that United States senators, who will have a chance to vote on the treaty, recognize that the country has “a very strong interest in making sure it has a voice in decisions affecting half the planet. It’s in our interest to be full participants in that process.”

Pikitch, who is an expert in the field of Marine Protected Areas, suggested that the process of coming up with a framework to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by the end of the decade involved considerable back and forth with various interest groups within each country.

“It’s not that easy to determine how this area would be managed,” Pikitch said. Various groups have “concerns that differ among different parts of the global community.”

Pikitch pointed out that a Convention on Biological Diversity late last year agreed that the world would protect 30% of the lands and waters by 2030.

Pikitch said such a goal was unattainable without this High Seas Treaty, which addressed the parts of the ocean that had previously been off limits to such protections.

The treaty and the establishment of marine protected areas will be “huge for biodiversity,” Pikitch said.

Piktich suggested that the commitment over two decades and the increasing public awareness of the importance of ocean resources offers her hope that this treaty, for which numerous details are still in the works, will offer effective protection.

“There’s a huge amount of passion and commitment by countries of the world to work this out,” she said. “They did not give up.”

A view of Shinnecock Bay. Photo by Christopher Paparo/Fish Guy Photos

By Daniel Dunaief

The Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef, Little Cayman and … Shinnecock Bay? Yes, that’s correct, the 40 square kilometer bay located on the southern end of Long Island recently joined a distinguished list of celebrated marine locations identified by Mission Blue, a non-profit international organization led by famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

Mission Blue named Shinnecock Bay a Hope Spot, one of 132 such locations in the world that it considers critical to the health of the ocean.

Shinnecock Bay has the distinction of being the only Hope Spot in New York State, the only one near a major city and one of three on the Eastern Seaboard.

“The idea that you could have a Hope Spot so close to a major metropolitan area is pretty significant,” said Ellen Pikitch, Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

The designation by Mission Blue not only puts Shinnecock Bay in elite environmental company, but it also completes a comeback story driven by scientists, their students, numerous volunteers, and other supportive groups.

“The point of Mission Blue designating this place a Hope Spot isn’t only to bring more people and attention to Shinnecock Bay,” said Pikitch, but is also to “send the message of hope that we can turn things around.”

Pikitch, Christopher Gobler, Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and Bradley Peterson, Associate Professor at Somas, led the efforts at the bay.

The scientists created clam sanctuaries in the Western Shinnecock Bay with strict no take rules for people, which helped jump start the restoration. The clams helped meet natural filtration goals.

The researchers also helped restore eelgrass, also called seagrass, which is a more effective natural way to sequester carbon per square inch than the rainforest.

Between 1930 and the start of the project in 2012, New York State had lost about 90 percent of its eelgrass. A task force projected that eelgrass would be extinct in the Empire State by 2030. The bay now has about 100 more acres of eelgrass than it had in 2012.

These efforts have created a “huge leap in the number of forage fish” including bay anchovies and menhaden, said Pikitch, who studies forage fish. “The bay is in a much healthier place now that it was when we started,” she added.

Tough beginnings

Indeed, in 2012, parts or all of the bay had to close because of brown or red tides. The tides sometimes “looked like coffee spilled across the entire bay,” Pikitch said.

The steps the researchers took to improve water quality took some time. “Harmful algal blooms didn’t disappear right away,” Pikitch said. “As the study progressed, the amount of time brown tides occurred got shorter and shorter. Ultimately we stopped seeing brown tides several years ago.”

Red tides, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning that could be fatal to people, had also been a problem in Shinnecock Bay. Nearly half the bay was closed to shellfishing in 2011, 2014, and 2015. In 2017 and 2028, about 1/4 of the bay was closed due to red tides. Since 2019, however, red tides haven’t threatened the bay.

On the water

Throughout the restoration process, scientists in training and volunteers contributed to various efforts. Konstantine Rountos, Associate Professor of Biology at St. Joseph’s University in New York, earned his Master’s and PhD and conducted his post doctoral research at Stony Brook University. He also served as the lead research scientist for the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program trawl survey from 2012 to 2016. 

Rountos called the designation “remarkable and extremely exciting.” When he started working on the bay in 2005 as a Master’s candidate, he saw stressors such as eelgrass declines.

“Not only was the ecosystem showing signs of collapse (decreased seagrass, decreased hard clams, increased harmful algal blooms), but the Bay was supporting fewer and fewer baymen,” he said. The Long Island “cultural identity of ‘living off the bay’ was in serious danger.”

Rountos believes people often overlook the significant ecological importance of this area, driving past these environmental and ecological treasures without appreciating their importance. 

Amid his many Bay memories, he recalls catching a seven-foot long roughtail stingray. “It was very surprising to pull that up by hand in our trawl net,” he said.

A veteran of the bay since 2016, Maria Grima spent time on Shinnecok as an undergraduate at Stony Brook and more recently for her Master’s training, which she hopes to complete this August.

Grima has been studying the invasive European green crab that shreds eelgrass and consumes shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels. In a preliminary analysis, the population of this crab has declined. Grima noted that it’s difficult to prove cause and effect for the reduction in the number of these crabs.

Rather than pursue a potential career in medicine, which was her initial focus when she arrived at Stony Brook, Grima decided to focus on “fixing the environmental issues that cause human health problems.”

She is “really proud that Shinnecock Bay” achieved the Hope Spot designation. 

One of her favorite Bay memories involves seeing an ocean sunfish, which is a distinctive and large fish that propels itself through water with its dorsal and ventral fins and is the world’s largest bony fish. Seeing the biodiversity on a bay that has had historically poor water quality “gives you hope when you’re on the boat,” Grima said.

When friends and volunteers have joined her on the Bay, she has delighted in watching them interact with seahorses, which “wrap their little tail around your finger.”

Looking toward the future

While Pikitch is pleased with the designation, she said the work of maintaining it continues.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” she said. “Continued construction on Long Island’s East End and the growing threat of climate change may require additional restoration work. We need to keep a close eye on what is happening in Shinnecock Bay and be ready to take action if necessary.”

This map shows of the status of marine protected areas in the United States. Credit: Sullivan-Stack et al., Frontiers in Marine Science 2022

By Daniel Dunaief

Time is not on our side.

That’s one of the messages, among others, from a recent paper in Frontiers in Marine Conservation that explored Marine Protected Areas around the United States.

In a study involving scientists at universities across the country, the researchers concluded that the current uneven distribution of MPAs do not offer sufficient protection for marine environments.

Left, Ellen Pikitch holds gooseneck barnacles in The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, an MPA in Washington State.

 

“The mainland of the United States is not well protected” with no region reaching the 10 percent target for 2020, said Ellen Pikitch, Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Sciences at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and a co-author on the study. “The mid-Atlantic is one of the worst of the worst in that regard. We’re not well positioned and we have no time to waste.”

Indeed, the United States, through the administration of President Joe Biden (D), has committed to protecting 30 percent of the oceans by 2030. At this point, 26 percent of the oceans are in at least one kind of MPA. That, however, doesn’t reflect the uneven distribution of marine protection, Pikitch and the other authors suggested.

As much as 96 percent of the protection is in the Central Pacific Ocean, Pikitch explained. That compares with 1.9 percent of the mainland United States and 0.3 percent of the mid-Atlantic.

“We are denying the benefits of ocean protection to a huge portion of the U.S. population,” Pikitch said. “This needs to change if we want the full spectrum of marine life in U.S. ocean waters and to obtain the many benefits to human well-being that this would provide.”

The researchers in the study used a new science-based framework called “The MPA Guide,” which Pikitch helped create. This study represents the first application of this guide to the quantity and quality of marine protection around the United States.

The Guide, which was published in September in the journal Science, rates areas as fully, highly, lightly or minimally protected and is designed to bridge the gap between scientific research and government policies.

Jenna Sullivan-Stack, a research associate at Oregon State University and lead author on the paper, credits Pikitch with helping to create the guide.

Pikitch made “key contributions to this work, especially putting it in context relative to international work and also thinking about how it can be useful on a regional scale for the mid-Atlantic,” Sullivan-Stack explained in an email.

“These findings highlight an urgent need to improve the quality, quantity and representativeness of MPA protection across U.S. waters to bring benefits to human and marine communities,” Sullivan-Stack said in a statement.

Pikitch said MPAs enhance resilience to climate change, providing buffers along shorelines. Seagrasses, which Long Island has in its estuaries, are one of the “most powerful carbon sequesters” on the planet, she explained.

Pikitch suggested there was abundant evidence of the benefits of MPAs. This includes having fish that live longer, grow to a larger size and reproduce more. Some published, peer-reviewed papers also indicate the benefit for nearby waterways.

“I have seen the spillover effect in several MPAs I have studied,” Pikitch said.

To be sure, these benefits may not accrue in nearby waters. That depends on factors including if the area where fishing is allowed is downstream of the protected area and on the dispersal properties of the fished organism, among other things, Pikitch explained.

Lauren Wenzel, Director of NOAA’s Marine Protected Areas Center, said the government recognizes that the ocean is changing rapidly due to climate change and that MPAs are affected by warmer and more acidic water, intense storms and other impacts.

“We are now working to ensure that existing and new MPAs can help buffer climate impacts by protecting habitats that store carbon and by providing effective protection to areas important for climate resilience,” Wenzel said.

The researchers made several recommendations in the paper. They urged the creation of more, and more effective, MPAs, urging a reevaluation of areas with weak protection and an active management of these regions to generate desired results.

They also suggested establishment of new, networked MPAS with better representation of biodiversity, regions and habitats. The researchers urged policy makers to track areas that provide conservation benefits, such as military closed regions.

The paper calls for the reinstatement and empowerment of the MPA Federal Advisory Committee, which was canceled in 2019.

While the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has no plans to reinstate this committee, is it “considering ways to expand the dialogue and seek advice from outside the government on area-based management,” Wenzel said.

The paper also urges the country to revisit and update the National Ocean Policy and National Ocean Policy Committee, which were repealed in 2018 before plans were implemented.

Wenzel said that the United States recently joined the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a multi-national effort to ensure the country commits to developing a national plan within five years to manage the ocean under national jurisdiction sustainably.

In terms of enforcing MPAs, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries supports enforcement that fosters voluntary compliance through educating sanctuary users and promoting a sense of stewardship toward the living and cultural resources of the sanctuary, Wenzel added.

“The sanctuary system’s goal is to provide a law enforcement presence in order to deter and detect violations,” she said.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior.

In terms of the impact of the paper, Pikitch said she hopes the paper affects policies and ignites change.

“We need to ramp up the amount and quality of protection in U.S. ocean waters, particularly adjacent to the mainland U.S. and the mid-Atlantic region,” she said.

Ellen Pikitch. Photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Preserving the oceans of the world will take more than putting labels on sensitive areas or agreeing on an overall figure for how much area needs protection.

It will require consistent definitions, guidelines and enforcement across regions and a willingness to commit to common goals.

A group of 42 scientists including Ellen Pikitch, Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Sciences at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, recently published a new framework developed over more than 10 years in the journal Science to understand, plan, establish, evaluate and monitor ocean protection in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

“We’ve had MPAs for a long time,” said Pikitch. Some of them are not actively managed, with activities that aren’t allowed, such as fishing or mining, going on in them. “They may not be strongly set up in the first place to protect biodiversity. What this paper does is that it introduces a terminology with a lot of detail on when an MPA qualifies to be at a certain level of establishment and protection.”

These scientists, who work at 38 institutions around the world, created an approach that uses seven factors to derive four designations: fully protected, highly protected, lightly protected, and minimally protected.

If a site includes any mining at all, it is no longer considered a marine protected area.

Fully protected regions have minimal levels of anchoring, infrastructure, aquaculture and non-extractive activities. A minimally protected area, on the other hand, has high levels of anchoring, infrastructure, aquaculture and fishing, with moderate levels of non-extractive activities and dredging and dumping.

Using their own research and evidence from scientific literature, the researchers involved in this broad-based analysis wanted to ensure that MPAs “have quality protection,” Pikitch explained. “The quality is as important, if not moreso, than the quantity.”

The researchers are pleased with the timing of the release of this paper, which comes out just over a month before the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, which will meet virtually in October. Over 50 countries, including the United States, have already agreed to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.

Pikitch called this a “critical time to get this information in front of decision makers.” The meeting will occur in two parts, with the second one set for an in-person gathering in China in April.

The point of the paper is to “help clarify what is an MPA, how do we distinguish different types and their outcomes,” Pikitch added.

The people who attend the CBD meeting range from high level government officials all the way up to the president of small countries.

About a decade ago, an earlier convention targeted protecting 10 percent of the oceans by 2020. The world fell short of that goal, with the current protection reaching about 7.7 percent, according to Pikitch.

Indeed, amid discussions during the development of this new outcome-based approach to MPAs, some researchers wondered about the logic of creating a target of 30 percent within the next nine years even as the world fell short of the earlier goal.

Some people at the meetings wondered “should we be pushing these things when a lot of them are failing?” Pikitch recalled of a lively debate during a meeting in Borneo. “Part of the answer is in this paper. These [earlier efforts] are failing because they are not doing the things that need to be done to be effective. It definitely helped us inform what we should be thinking about.”

Enabling conditions for marine protected areas go well beyond setting up an area that prevents fishing. The MPA guidelines in the paper have four components, including stages of establishment, levels of protection, enabling conditions and outcomes.

The benefits of ensuring the quality of protecting marine life extends beyond sustaining biodiversity or making sure an area has larger or more plentiful marine life.

“More often than not, it’s the case that MPAs do double duty” by protecting an environment and providing a sustainable resource for people around the area, Pikitch said. Locally, she points to an effort in Shinnecock Bay that provided the same benefits of these ocean protection regions. 

In the western part of the bay, Pikitch said the program planted over 3.5 million hard clams into two areas. In the last decade, those regions have had an increase in the hard clam population of over 1,000 percent, which has provided numerous other benefits.

“It demonstrates the positive impact of having a no-take area,” Pikitch said.

At the same time, the bay hasn’t had any brown tides for four straight years. These brown tides and algal blooms can otherwise pose a danger to human health.

By filtering the water, the clams also make it easier for eel grass to grow, which was struggling to survive in cloudier waters that reduce their access to light. With four times as much eel grass as a decade ago, younger fish have a place to hide, grow and eat, increasing their abundance.

Being aware of the imperiled oceans and the threats humans and others face from a changing planet has sometimes been a struggle for Pikitch.

The marine researcher recalled a time when four hurricanes were churning at the same time in the Atlantic.

“I went to bed and I have to admit, I was really depressed,” Pikitch said.

When she woke up the next morning, she had to teach a class. She regrouped and decided on a strategic message.

“This is reality,” she told her class. “We have to accept this is the world we made. Everything we do that can make a positive difference, we do.”

Pikitch is encouraged by the work done to develop a new MPA framework.

These protected areas “provide a sustainable pathway to ensure a healthy ocean and to provide a home for future biodiversity,” she said.

Ellen Pikitch, left, with Christine Sanora, taken in 2015 while the two scientists were researching Shinnecock Bay. Photo by Peter Thompson

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s one thing to make a commitment to a good idea; it’s another to follow through. Ellen Pikitch, endowed professor of ocean conservation science in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, is making sure countries around the world know where and how they can honor their commitment to protect the ocean.

In 2015, the United Nations had agreed to designate at least 10 percent of the oceans as Marine Protected Areas, which would restrict fishing and foster conservation. The goal of the proposal is to reach that figure by next year. 

Three years ago, with the support of the Italian Ministry of Environment and private donations, Pikitch started the labor-intensive process of finding ocean regions that countries could protect. 

Ellen Pikitch, right, with Natasha Gownaris at the United Nations Ocean Conference in June of 2017. Photo Courtesy of IOCS

She published the results of her analysis in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. Her research could help countries move from the current 7.8 percent of oceans protected to the 10 percent target, and beyond that figure in the ensuing years.

The United States has met its target, although most of its marine protected ares are far from human population centers, so the coverage is uneven, Pikitch explained. The rest of the world has some gaps in high priority areas.

“I’m hoping that the study will light a fire under the policymakers so that they do meet their commitment,” said Pikitch. “It’s quite feasible for them to meet the goal. We’ve given [policymakers] advice in this paper about how exactly it could be done.”

The maps in the paper show areas that are within the current jurisdiction that are priority areas and are unprotected.

“There is quite a bit of area that meets this description — more than 9 percent — so there is flexibility in how countries can use the results and reach or exceed” the 10 percent target by next year, Pikitch explained in an email.

To determine where nations can enhance their ocean protection, Pikitch, Assistant Professor Christina Santora at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University and Stony Brook graduate Natasha Gownaris, who is now an assistant professor in environmental studies at Gettysburg College, pulled together information from 10 internationally recognized maps indicating the location of global marine priority areas.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants, capitalizing or leveraging all the hard work that has gone into other maps,” said Gownaris. 

One of the most unexpected findings from the study for Pikitch is that 14 percent of the ocean was considered important by two to seven maps, but over 90 percent of those areas remained unprotected. A relatively small part of this area is on the high seas, while most is within exclusive economic zones, which nations can control.

To preserve this resource that continues to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while serving a critical role in the world’s food chain, conservationists have focused on marine protected areas because they provide the “one thing we felt was going to be the most effective single step,” said Mark Newhouse, the executive vice president for newspapers at Advance Publications and president of the Ocean Sanctuary Alliance. “It could happen overnight. A country could say, ‘This area is off limits to fishing,’ and it is.”

Countries can protect areas within their exclusive economic zones “more quickly than figuring out a way to solve global warming,” Newhouse added.

Santora explained the urgency to take action. “The situation in the ocean is worsening and we can’t wait to have perfect information to act,” Santora wrote in an email. “What we can do is put strong, effectively managed MPAs in the right places, with a high level of protection, that are well managed and enforced.”

Members of the Ocean Sanctuary Alliance, which counts Pikitch as its scientific officer, recognize that the 7.8 percent figure includes areas where countries have announced their intention to protect a region, but that doesn’t necessarily include any enforcement or protection.

“Intentions don’t protect the environment,” Newhouse said.

Ambassadors from several nations have reached out to OSA to discuss the findings. 

These diplomats are “exactly the people we want paying attention” to the research Pikitch and her team put together, Newhouse said.

Pikitch also plans to reach out proactively.

According to Pikitch’s recent analysis, the largest gaps in policy coverage occurred in the Caribbean Sea, Madagascar and the southern tip of Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and the Coral Triangle area, although they found additional widespread opportunities as well.

Pikitch calculated that an additional 9.34 percent of areas within exclusive economic zones would join the global marine protected area network if all the unprotected area identified as important by two or more initiatives joined the MPA network. 

“When effectively managed, when strong protections are put in place, they work,” Pikitch said.

Indeed, one such example is in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, where establishing a marine protected area resulted in an 11-fold increase in the biomass of top predators within a decade. Many MPAs become sites for ecotourism, which can bring in hefty sums as people are eager to see the endemic beauty in their travels.

Pikitch hopes this kind of study spreads the word about the benefit of protecting the ocean and that policymakers and private citizens recognize that protecting sensitive regions also benefits fisheries, refuting the notion that environmentally driven policy conflicts with the goal of economic growth.

The groups involved in this study are already discussing the new goal for the ocean. Several diplomats and scientists would like to see the bar raised to 30 percent by 2030, although the United Nations hasn’t committed to this new target yet.

“Studies show that 10 percent is insufficient — it is a starting point,” Santora wrote. “I do think that targets beyond 2020 will increase.”

Pikitch said the ocean has always been one of her passions. Her goal is to “leave the world in better shape than I found it” for her children and six grandchildren.