The ocean is a great wilderness that is largely unexplored. Home to some of the largest, most beautiful and eccentric animals, the lack of protection offered to ocean animals is shocking. As we remove animals from the ocean at an increasing rate, pollute the waters and change the chemistry of the ocean, it appears we have forgotten that our fate and the oceans are intertwined. Marine protected areas are the best way to safeguard their home and future, as well as our own. Read on to learn more about four animals that you may not have known really need protections.
Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris)
Sometimes the biggest heroes come in the cutest packages. Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning they impact the framework and configuration of an entire ecosystem. They help to ‘engineer’ habitat by keeping populations of sea urchins at bay, allowing kelp forests to flourish! A healthy kelp forest is home to thousands of different types of marine life and those attract top predators, which leads to a healthy and self-sustaining ecosystem. Sea otters haven’t always been as celebrated for their efforts at habitat management though. At one time, sea otters were heavily hunted for their water-proof and insulated fur, nearly to the point of extinction. Today, they enjoy protections that have allowed for a sizeable rebound in numbers. While there may now be protections to keep them from being hunted for their fur, they are still at risk from other human interactions. Oil spills, like the one that happened on the California Coast earlier this year, ruins the water-proofing and insulating properties of the sea otter’s fur, making them particularly sensitive to water and cold temperatures. They are also at risk for boating collisions, entanglement in fishing gear and environmental toxins. Read more about sea otter conservation here.
Blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus)
The blobfish, whose sagging flesh has earned them the title of mascot for the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, is a low-density and gelatinous fish that prefers deep water habitat. Their low density flesh that allows them to float above the ocean floor comes in handy, as they can’t hunt on their own because of their minimal muscle mass. While the blobfish may not be earning any pageant titles for their good looks or work ethic, they are in danger of being overfished. Bottom trawling, a commercial fishing practice that involves dragging a net along the bottom of the sea floor, ends up scraping up the blobfish’s habitat and brings them up in the catch, despite being inedible themselves. Because of this practice, scientists and conservationists now worry the blobfish could be in danger of extinction. Blobfish serve an important role in the ocean ecosystem; as a bottom feeder, they keep many populations from explosive growth, like crustacean and mollusks, and help keep the ocean floor clean of an abundance of plant matter. Blobfish need protection in order to survive. Read more about how the Ugly Animal Protection Society is helping ‘aesthetically challenged’ animals like the blobfish!
Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)
The ocean is an unfathomable expanse of habitat, which at one point or another, cradled the beginning of every living creature. It should come as no surprise then, that the largest living creature ever known to exist, the blue whale, calls the ocean home. Unfortunately, being the biggest animal on the planet doesn’t make the blue whale exempt from the damage people can inflict. Humans nearly hunted blue whales to extinction prior to their protection under the International Whaling Commission in the 1960’s. Even with 50 years’ worth of protection, their population is only considered to have made a minor recovery. Climate change is affecting populations of krill, the blue whale’s main food source, which can severely impact the growth of the whales. Their enormous size and seawater-hued coloring often makes blue whales victim of boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear as well. However, they are still considered endangered and their habitat and food supply need protection if we expect them to make a full and successful recovery. To find out more about blue whales, click here.
In tropical waters where sloping coral reefs give way to deep, cool waters, you may find what has been termed by some as a living fossil: the nautilus. The nautilus existed before the dinosaurs and they haven’t changed much since. They feed on the molted exoskeleton of crustaceans and eat dying or dead sea animals, helping to keep the sea floor clean. The nautilus is one of the longest living cephalopods as well, taking several years to mature and living more than 15 years. Because they take so long to mature and reproduce, they are a conservation concern. Historically they were important to the commercial shell trade and are threatened by over-fishing and sea floor mining. The nautilus is a relic; a physical reminder of an older ocean, one that sustained itself before us. While it is illegal in some areas to export them, they have no protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Click here to read more about the Nautilus and current efforts to assess their need for protection.
What can you do to help?
Strategically placed and strongly enforced marine protected areas could benefit all of these animals by protecting their habitat, prohibiting fishing and giving the animals a safeguarded area to live and reproduce without interruption. The Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES), an initiative of Marine Conservation Institute, is designed to catalyze strong protection of 20% of the ecosystems in each marine biogeographic region in the ocean by 2030. GLORES will allow animals, like those listed above, to have the space and resources to recover and thrive. You can join and support marine protected areas campaigns by visiting MPAtlas.org and checking out MPA campaigns around the world.
Cover photo: Paige Gill via NOAA Photo Gallery. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.