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Jaw DNA and oxygen sensors may divulge clues to help sharks out of hot water

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Sharks have been around for 450 million years, outliving the dinosaurs and soldiering on through several mass extinctions. Yet their numbers in the open oceans have plummeted by an alarming 70% over the past 50 years and many are endangered.

More than a third of shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction, driven by overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and climate change. This means that with environmental pressure increasing, time is running out to save the world’s sharks. As apex predators, sharks are crucial for maintaining the stability and health of marine ecosystems.

Yet unsurprisingly for species that roam extensively below the surface in the world’s oceans, there is much that remains unknown about the impacts that environmental changes are having.

Hard data about shark populations is required to inform conservation strategies and manage catch limits on the high seas, especially when these ocean areas often lie beyond national jurisdictions.

Researchers are therefore employing new methods to improve knowledge of sharks, including the use of genomic techniques that can help uncover their genetic history. Knowing more about how shark populations have changed over time can provide information about environmental pressures, how closely individuals are related and how much genetic diversity is being maintained, explained Professor Einar Eg Nielsen, a population geneticist at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) in Lyngby.

‘You may see that in general a species is doing well. But it may mask that it’s doing good in some areas and badly in others,’ he said.

‘You need information on the populations in order to manage them in a proper way. But if you don’t have genomic markers with sufficient resolution, then you’re unable to disentangle the population structure.’

Jaw samples

That’s why the DiMaS project he co-led conducted genetic research on sharks. The initiative was aimed at expanding information on sharks’ recent history to help assess how they may react to future climate-change and fishing-related pressures. 

The team focused on the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), which is fished commercially but also unintentionally caught as by-catch in seas globally. The species is classified as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, generally considered the definitive inventory of conservation status for the world’s species.

Researchers amassed almost 1,000 samples of jaws and vertebrae spanning three centuries from museums, national fishery institutes and personal collections, including modern samples from fishery institutes. After separating out the lower-quality ones, they then selected half for genomic analysis.

‘The problem with these beasts is that they are all over the place, so it’s difficult to get really good samples,’ said Prof. Nielsen. ‘But by joining forces with other institutions, we were able to get more samples so we could look at temporal patterns.’

Despite their severe decline in numbers, the resulting analysis has revealed some potential cause for cautious optimism about the makos’ long-term prospects for survival because the team found that their genetic diversity had not reduced significantly in recent years.

High levels of connectivity between different shortfin mako populations may have helped this, said Dr Romina Henriques, formerly at DTU, co-leader of DiMaS, and now a population geneticist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

‘The fact that there is this strong connectivity suggests a greater resilience,’ she said. 

Connectivity wobbles

Yet things are not quite so straightforward. It seems that the level of connectivity has changed over time and that some historical populations may have been more isolated and therefore potentially more vulnerable, said Dr Henriques.

‘What I found very interesting is that this connectivity wobbles through time, so you have some populations of shortfin mako that appear more differentiated than others,’ she said. ‘What we think is that you probably do have some isolated populations, but there’s quite a bit of movement.’

Another caveat is that with their potential lifespan of 30 years or more, shortfin makos are relatively long-lived. Given that pressures from fishing only ramped up in the second half of last century, it may simply be that not enough time has elapsed for any recent population declines to have filtered through to a decrease in genetic diversity.

But regardless of what further research finds, the widespread movement of shortfin mako sharks and links between populations highlight the need for fishing and conservation to be managed regionally rather than just in individual areas, said Dr Henriques.

‘It means that conservation has to not just be national-based, but it has to be regional-based,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter if two or three countries decide “no more mako fishing”, because they will naturally move away from the protected areas.’

Depleted oxygen

Another important area of research is how climate change may be affecting the ocean habitat of sharks through its effect on oxygen levels, leaving the animals more vulnerable to overfishing.

Because warmer waters dissolve less oxygen, studies suggest that climate change is depleting levels in the oceans and leading to the expansion of so-called oxygen minimum zones (OMZs). It is thought that this could, in turn, be squeezing the areas of the ocean where many sharks, fish and other marine animals can exist into a smaller space.

‘One hypothesis is that sharks are vertically compressed into that top layer, into a smaller and smaller volume of water, and this lends itself to higher catches made by fishers,’ explained Professor David Sims, a marine ecologist at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth and the University of Southampton, UK.

On the basis that much about these effects is currently unknown, the Ocean Deoxyfish project that Prof. Sims leads is exploring the phenomenon in sharks, as well as tunas. ‘Ultimately, what we want to do is to be able to predict the distribution of sharks in an ocean-deoxygenated world’, he said.

Such exploration has been aided by the developments made in tagging devices that can be attached to sharks’ fins. ‘Over the last 20 years, there have been real advances in marine telemetry – marine biologging, as it’s called – using miniature electronic devices to track sharks to inform about their movements, behaviour and ecology, and also their interaction with the environment,’ said Prof. Sims.

In the early stages of Ocean Deoxyfish, the results have broadly borne out the researchers’ hypothesis. In a study in the OMZ in the tropical eastern Atlantic off Africa, the team found that the habitat of blue sharks was vertically compressed. Their maximum dive depth seemed to be around 40% less compared with other areas, potentially heightening their vulnerability to fishing.

Cycle of doom

However, the picture is complicated because sharks may also benefit from increased opportunities for foraging in these compressed zones as the prey themselves seek to avoid hypoxic waters with low levels of oxygen.

‘There’s a self-perpetuating cycle of doom going on,’ said Prof. Sims. ‘The sharks are seeing opportunities for feeding, but the fishers are also taking advantage of an opportunity of being able to catch more sharks per unit time.’

The Ocean Deoxyfish researchers are developing increasingly sophisticated tracking tags that will record oxygen levels in addition to sharks’ movements and typical measurements such as temperature, pressure and depth. The data will be uploaded straight to satellites, avoiding the need to retrieve the tags.

The new tags will also capture video footage of what Prof. Sims describes as a ‘shark’s-eye view’ of the animals’ behaviour, enabling the researchers to see what they’re doing when they dive. He added that blue sharks do seem to have the capacity to at least undertake some dives into low-oxygen water, which he thinks may be associated with them feeding on squid that can tolerate these waters.

‘It’ll be amazing to capture that and find out what they’re doing down there,’ he said. ‘What we’re hoping is that we’ll have these tags catching the pursuit of these deep-water cephalopods [such as squid] in the oxygen-minimum zone.’

Ultimately, he hopes that projects like his will contribute to the long-term management of sharks and other species that live in the ocean.

‘Overfishing is reducing these populations to levels that they’ve never been at before,’ he said. ‘There has to be interaction between climate change research and fisheries management to a greater degree than there has been.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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China will aim to plant and conserve 70 billion trees by 2030

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Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change announced the country’s active response to the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org initiative, the platform supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The World Economic Forum and China Green Foundation will actively echo and support the contribution to be implemented in China. This initiative will encourage society-wide stakeholders, including enterprises, individuals, and local governments at all levels to commit with actions to plant, conserve, restore and manage 70 billion trees in China by 2030.

1t.org was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting two years ago to support the growing momentum around nature-based solutions by mobilizing the private sector, facilitating regional multi-stakeholder partnerships, and supporting innovation and ecopreneurship on the ground.

During his speech at the Forum’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Davos, Xie Zhenhua said: ‘China’s forest cover and forest stock volume have been growing in the last 30 years, and China accounts for more than 25% of the world’s new green areas. China responds actively to contribute to the 1t.org initiative from the World Economic Forum, and I am announcing here that China aims to plant and conserve 70 billion trees within 10 years to green our planet, combat climate change, and increase forest carbon sinks.’

In support of this bold contribution, Chairman Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum said:

‘We appreciate China’s effort in supporting the 1t.org initiative of the World Economic Forum and relevant UN initiatives, we highly appreciate China’s practices upholding relative international commitment such as the Paris Agreement and Biodiversity target through Nature-Based Solutions.’

China’s Bold Action

In the past decade, China has regrown more than 70 million hectares of forest cover. The country has benefited greatly from solutions in biodiversity conservation, sustainable usage and climate governance, resulting in wetland and forest restoration that also combats desertification.

China’s 14th “Five Year Plan” has a stated target of increasing forest coverage to 24.1% by 2025, and forest stock volume up to 19 billion cubic meters. Science-based greening efforts and inter-ministerial cooperation have provided the key vehicle for forest ecosystem restoration.

China’s contribution will encourage the 1t.org initiative to collaborate more closely in the local context to fulfill this contribution and will stimulate collective community actions at large scales and empower Chinese organizations and individuals to make contributions. China’s active response to 1t.org displays the nation’s capacity and strong commitment to safeguard the Paris Agreement and post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

How Trees Can Play Their Part

China’s land restoration and afforestation projects provide fundamental support to the country’s poverty reduction targets of elevating 20 million people out of poverty, with the lives of 3 million people already improved through increased household income. Healthy and resilient forests are also part of people’s expectations for better living qualities according to China’s strategy. During the period of China’s13th Five year plan, the Chinese forest tourism industry grew substantially with an annual average of 1.5 billion tourists visiting national forests.

Mobilize Society-wide Action, Plant Future Trees of Hopes

China’s active response to the 1t.org initiative encourages all stakeholders to promote solutions and activities to meet climate and nature targets. These include emission reduction policies for committed companies and individuals; guiding local governments to promote climate adaptation activities such as afforestation and ecological restoration, engaging scientific organizations, think-tanks, and civil societies to promote accountable and credible tools and evaluation frameworks; creating digital environments and crowd funding opportunities for innovation solutions; and adding afforestation and carbon storage incentives.

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More Industrial Hubs to Accelerate Their Net-Zero Transition

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Four leading industrial clusters in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US today announced that they are working together with the World Economic Forum to reduce their carbon emissions faster through the Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net Zero initiative.

Launched at COP26 in November 2021, the initiative aims to accelerate the decarbonization of hard-to-abate industrial sectors, while maximizing job creation and economic competitiveness. The approach focuses on building cross-industry and cross-cluster partnerships to better implement low-carbon technologies – as in the case of the regionally developed Basque Hydrogen Corridor – and on accessing public funding and blended-finance options for clusters’ decarbonization projects.

Under this initiative, the World Economic Forum, working closely with Accenture and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as knowledge partners, connects private and public stakeholders to assess how to meet individual and collective decarbonization goals, fosters new enabling policies and provides guidance and support for local community engagement.

Industrial clusters are geographic regions where industrial companies are concentrated, making them an attractive target for impactful emissions reduction strategies. Since industrial assets are located in close proximity of each other, sharing of infrastructure (such as CO2 and hydrogen pipelines or renewable energy assets), financial and operational risks, and natural and human resources becomes possible. This also provides opportunities to deploy and scale new green technologies, such as hydrogen and the capture, utilization and storage of carbon for industrial applications, enabling a systemic approach to emissions reduction.

The clusters joining the initiative are:

· Brightlands Circular Space, together with Brightlands Chemelot Campus, Chemelot, and the Chemelot Circular Hub in Geleen, Netherlands. It will help accelerate the energy transition and circular economy.

· H2Houston Hub, formed through the Center for Houston’s Future and encompassing more than 100 organizations and companies. It will leverage the Houston area’s position as the US’s largest hydrogen producer and consumer, and use innovation and scale to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen and emissions.

· Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance, with approximately 100 corporate, governmental and community organization members. It will lead the region’s campaign to establish a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, US.

· Port of Antwerp-Bruges, Europe’s second-largest port. It will drive the circular economy and energy transition.

These four large industrial emissions centres, involving oil and gas extraction and processing, shipping, heavy-duty transportation, chemicals and other sectors, currently account for CO2 emissions of 296 million metric tonnes per year – greater than the annual emissions of Poland. They employ more than 470,000 people and represent an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $135 billion.

“Supporting industrial clusters and corporate partners in the development and implementation of their net-zero strategies is at the heart of what we do,” said Roberto Bocca, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Platform, World Economic Forum. “We are proud to leverage our collaborative platform and expertise in partnership building to grow the clusters initiative as well as other decarbonization efforts we support, such as the First Movers Coalition, Mission Possible Partnership and Clean Hydrogen Initiative.”

The four new clusters join four others in the UK (Zero Carbon Humber and Hynet North West), Australia (Kwinana Industries Council) and Spain (Basque Net-Zero Industrial Supercluster), which were part of the initial launch of the initiative. Based on metrics provided by each cluster, all eight clusters could potentially save more than 334 million tonnes of CO2 – more than the equivalent annual emissions output of France. They could also create and protect 1.1 million jobs and contribute $182 billion to regional GDP.

“The Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance seeks to locate a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, leading to the eventual decarbonization of much of the transportation, electricity, industrial and heating sectors,” said Kirt Conrad, Co-Founder, Ohio Clean Hydrogen Alliance and Chief Executive Officer, Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. “Investment into a clean hydrogen hub in Ohio will help create massive economic, environmental and health benefits for the state and its citizens.”

“With our focus on becoming the premier circular ecosystem in Europe, it is of upmost importance that we foster competitive collaboration between the companies in our cluster as well as with other global clusters,” said Lia Voermans, Director Brightlands Circular Space, “We believe that this initiative provides a gateway to access the best practices and processes supporting industrial decarbonization.”

The new clusters are already actively advancing their decarbonization journey. For instance, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is starting to convert hydrogen into sustainable raw materials and fuel for the port’s chemicals sector, whereas the Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance has developed hydrogen fuel cell buses which tour around the US, educating transit authorities on the potential and viability of clean transportation. However, to achieve net-zero emissions, these efforts must be scaled up. Often, financial mechanisms, rather than technology, are the main roadblock, and policy frameworks to support valuable future technologies are lacking. As value chains are transformed, the creation of new partnerships will be key.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low carbon world,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. “Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world.”

“The Port of Antwerp-Bruges hosts Europe’s largest chemical cluster and supports the European Green Deal to become climate neutral by 2050,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, Chief Executive Officer, Port of Antwerp. “To reach this goal we will all have to work together with respect for individual company needs, industry characteristics and timing. The Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net-Zero initiative is a means to inspire and incentivize companies to share best practices in our common pursuit of staying well below 2°C.”

In addition to the eight clusters currently involved in the initiative, more than a dozen in the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region are also in the process of joining. The aim is to build a community of 100 global industrial clusters to accelerate industrial decarbonization.

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Global Food Crisis Must Be Solved Alongside Climate Crisis

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Instability in Ukraine is threatening to intensify an already precarious global food security outlook. Increasing prices of fertilizers and inaccessibility of Ukrainian exports have made a delicate situation potentially dire, as 800 million people now go hungry each night. Russian blockades of Ukrainian ports have further intensified world leaders’ focus on worsening food insecurity.

“Failure to open the ports is a declaration of war on global food security,” said David Beasley, Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme. The pandemic had already complicated global efforts to reduce famine and food insecurity, and those challenges have only intensified with the conflict in Ukraine. “We’re taking food from the hungry to give to the starving,” said Beasley of the recent conditions.

Food insecurity is a problem not only for public health but also for geopolitics and security. “Hungry societies break down wherever you are in the world,” said Julia Chatterley, Anchor, CNN.

There is a risk that short-term efforts to combat food shortages could come at the expense of meeting climate and sustainability targets given the interconnection between agriculture and climate change. Global food production contributes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and efforts to ramp up food supply could worsen emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Innovation technologies and regenerative techniques can improve agricultural productivity. “Agriculture has to be part of the solution to climate change and the solution for food security,” said J. Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group. The goal must be growing more food on less land and, to do so, farmers can employ best practices from both organic and conventional farming. He advised that EU food policy reforms that shift away from a focus on organics towards targets on productivity and emission reduction could better address the current crisis. Techniques such as crop rotation and covering land in winter better protect soil and help farmers increase yield with less fertilizer.

Africa can play a major role in improving global food security, but the continent faces multiple challenges to unlocking agricultural productivity. Already, famine has intensified social and political turmoil in several countries. “If we don’t silence the guns, it’s not going to work,” said Philip Isdor Mpango, Vice-President of Tanzania, regarding the goal of increasing agricultural productivity. He pointed to the continent’s young population – with roughly 70% of the population aged 25 or younger – and the need to include youth in improving agricultural productivity. “We must strategize so we have the youthful population involved in agricultural value chains.”

Another challenge relates to post-harvest losses. Approximately one third of the continent’s food production is lost after harvest due to poor infrastructure, storage and other challenges. Investing in irrigation, transport infrastructure and storage facilities can improve Africa’s contribution to global food security.

Viet Nam is experiencing the current food crisis alongside intensified effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion. The nation has a plan to become a “food innovation hub in South-East Asia,” said Le Minh Khai, Deputy Prime Minister of Viet Nam. Doing so requires a holistic approach that balances short-term and long-term strategies and involves multinational organizations, entrepreneurs, investors and farmers.

Both wealthy and developing nations have a key role to play, particularly given that food production must increase more than 60% by 2050 to feed the world. “Solving the global food crisis is everyone’s business,” said Mariam Mohammed Saeed Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, United Arab Emirates.

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