New marine creatures, new partnerships and new protections made our round-up of ocean stories this year.
- First United Nations Conference on Ocean Health
In June, the UN organized the first ocean conference of its kind with 200 countries mobilizing on ocean conservation and making more than 1,400 voluntary commitments to face the threats of ocean warming, acidification, and declining biodiversity.
- A New Partner in Saving the World’s Rarest Marine Mammal
The future is looking grim for the vaquita, a “critically endangered” small porpoise found in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. There are about 30 individuals left in the wild after illegal fishing for a rare fish bladder, highly prized in China, reduced the population drastically. In December, China joined the fight to save the vaquita – and it could be a decisive partner in cracking down on the illegal fish bladder trade.
- Newly Identified Aquatic Dinosaur Once Roamed the Ocean
Although the fossil was discovered in 2002 on Russia’s Volga River, it took another 15 years to identify the rocky remains as a new species of dinosaur. The aquatic reptile, called a pliosaur, was the size of a bus and its head measured 1.5 metre long. It had four large flippers and a beak-like snout similar to some river dolphins.
- Expedition to Earth’s Sunken Seventh Continent
In 2017, a sunken land mass about the size of India was named Earth’s seventh continent. Zealandia is submerged under a kilometre of South Pacific water, but a team of international scientists reached it this past summer on a nine-week voyage. They brought back a treasure trove of information on how the continent shaped Earth’s history.
5. Pink Floyd, Harry Potter Immortalized in Taxonomy
Not every newly described species gets a cool scientific name, but 2017 delivered a bumper crop. A pistol shrimp with a pink claw that roams the waters off the Pacific coast of Panama was named after the English rock band (Synalpheus pinkfloydi), while a Pacific tiny crab was inducted into the wizarding world with its new name, Harryplax severus. Meanwhile, Xenoturbella churro, a 10-cm long worm found in the Gulf of California, was named after the fried pastry, usually dusted with cinnamon and sugar (the food, not the worm).
6. Canada’s Glass Sponge Reefs Designated Marine Protected Area
Four glass-sponge reefs located between Haida Gwaii and the mainland of British Columbia are over 9,000 years old and date back to the Jurassic Period. The glass sponge can live up to 200 years, but they’re highly fragile in nature, taking hundreds of years to recover from damage.With new marine protection granted in 2017, the reefs might make it another 9,000 years.
- Newly Described Algae Strengthens Corals
Researchers from Penn State University identified a new species of stress-tolerant algae that occurs mutualistically with corals, helping the health and growth of reef ecosystems. Named Symbiodinium glynnii, the genus is common among corals that are widely spread through the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
- Mapping the Ocean Floor
In 2017, an international team of oceanographers set out on a daunting project that will span the world and take over a decade: mapping the sea floor. They’re recruiting around 100 ships to crisscross the ocean for 13 years — all part of the Seabed 2030 project.
- Small Island, Huge Marine Sanctuary
In October, the 260-square-kilometre island nation of Niue announced the creation of a huge marine sanctuary to stop overfishing and conserve the environment. Niue’s remote location, about 2,400 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, means that its marine sanctuary will protect a large swath of Pacific Ocean. The government set aside 40% of its exclusive economic zone — which is about the size of Greece — for the sanctuary.
10. Landmark Protections for the Arctic
In November, all five Arctic coastal states —Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States —negotiated a new and legally binding commercial fishing ban on the international zone of the Arctic Ocean. The agreement also includes South Korea, China, Japan, the European Union and Iceland and lasts for 16 years, automatically renewing every five years. With stringent protections in place to protect Arctic marine life, the future is looking brighter for northern animals and the Indigenous peoples who rely on them for social, cultural, economic and nutritional sustenance.