Most people won't miss 2022. It was a year defined by the effects of a lingering pandemic, rampant global inflation, unstable economic growth, international war, and climate extremes in many parts of Asia, Europe and North America. Whichever newspaper you opened, it was hard to escape the sense that things were falling apart.
That wasn't all that happened though. Many stories didn't make it to the headlines or the evening news, and for the rivers and seas of the world, it's not all just bad news.
Rivers and seas in 2022
2022 was quite the year for river and seas restoration. Israel and Jordan agreed to team up to save the Jordan, a sacred waterway close to running dry. The agreement, struck at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where world leaders discussed how to mitigate the escalating impact from a changing climate, marked an important, albeit initial, step in cooperation.
In Bangladesh studies released in 2022 show the Halda is bouncing back after just four years of conservation efforts – after fish eggs all but disappeared from the river several years ago. Historical records say around 4,000 kilograms (8,818 pounds) of fish eggs could be found in the river in 1941, but that number nearly hit zero in 2016 due to overexploitation and industrial pollution. In 2020, about 424 kgs (935 lbs) of fish eggs were found in the river.
2022 also showed that birds, fish and flowers are returning to the Mapacho in Santiago, after a ten-year effort that has transformed it from a dead river into an urban refuge for nature and wildlife. It has been a decade since a local water supply company diverted wastewater to treatment plants that once was destined for the river which is why species such as Andean catfish and freshwater crabs are returning to the river.
Europe committed to removing a record-breaking 239 dams and getting 25,000 kilometres of rivers back to free flowing by 2030, encouraging recolonization by migratory fish and leading to a slew of other ecological benefits for rivers and seas. The Netherlands began the continent’s largest ever river restoration project on the Meuse, – tens of thousands of kilometres of fences have been removed, beaver, otter and sturgeon have been reintroduced and rewilded land now runs alongside the river, where people are free to walk, cycle and sunbathe.
In Canada, indigenous communities began ‘reopening the lungs’ of the Squamish after a company built a spit which blocked salmon from accessing crucial habitat — then left. Decades later, the Squamish Nation, local environmentalists and the federal government have worked together to finally break open the spit and reconnect the fractured estuary. In 2022, the group took on its biggest task yet: removing a fifth of the spit that has blocked juvenile salmon exiting the river from accessing the estuary.
The largest dam removal project in the world was approved for the Klamath in California. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams in 2022 was the last major regulatory hurdle and the biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for decades. The project should return the lower half of California’s second-largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in more than a century. Native tribes which rely on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life were the driving force behind bringing the dams down in a wild and remote area that spans the California and Oregon border.
There was some good news for the world’s oceans too. Colombia became the first country in the western hemisphere to protect 30% of its ocean in 2022, following the UN initiative in which 100 countries agreed to protect 30% of their oceans by 3030 – “30 by 30”. 30 by 30 remains an ambitious goal, with less than 8% of the world’s oceans currently protected, but Colombia’s 2022 announcement includes the creation of four new protected marine areas. Almost a third of its oceans will now have preservation measures, and extractive activities will be forbidden in many areas.
The Pacific island state of Niue created a marine park protecting 100% of its waters, spanning 317,500 km², an area the size of Vietnam, from illegal fishing. The water that surrounds one of the world’s largest raised coral atolls is the only place where the katuali is found – a sea snake that lives in the island’s honeycomb of underwater caves. Humpback whales migrate to Niue from Antarctica to give birth, spinner dolphins swim near the coast and Niue boasts the world’s highest density of grey reef sharks.
Australia created a 744,000 km² marine park, meaning that a staggering 45% of its territorial waters are now protected. Two new marine parks will be established off Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. The two areas — which are more than 2,000 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia — are home to many species found nowhere else on Earth. The region, which is often described as Australia’s Galapagos Islands, supports unique underwater reefs and rare aquatic species, and are critical areas for the spawning of bluefin tuna, which have been a target of illegal international fishermen.
Belize doubled the area of ocean covered by its marine protected areas. Studded with hundreds of offshore atolls and cayes, Belize’s 240-mile coastline is home to more than 500 kinds of fish and three species of threatened sea turtle. Along the shore, mangrove forests, lagoons and estuaries shelter West Indian manatees and American crocodiles. Belize used the same instrument as The Seyschelles to fund its marine conservation efforts, a blue bond. A “blue bond” is a financial instrument that is designed to fund projects that have a positive impact on the health of the oceans and marine environments. Blue bonds are typically issued by governments or international organizations, and the proceeds from the sale of the bonds are used to fund initiatives such as marine conservation efforts, sustainable fishing practices, and the development of renewable energy sources that do not harm marine ecosystems. The goal of blue bonds is to help address the environmental and economic challenges facing the world’s oceans and to support the sustainable use and management of marine resources.
In the Indian Ocean nation of Comoros a community-led effort inspired three new marine protected areas. For 20 years, Comoros had only 1 national park. It’s now creating 5 more. In years past, the inhabitants of Itsamia in Comoros were faced with turtles arriving to nest on its beaches, and anywhere from 10 to 30 green sea turtles were captured every day for their meat. That was in 1991. Today, the village is famous for its annual turtle festival that attracts visitors from near and far. No turtles get eaten. Instead, one of the big draws is thousands of hatchlings scrambling to be redeemed by the sea. A first too – the Republic of Congo established its first ever marine reserves covering 4,000 km² off the West African coast. The reserves will cover 12% of the West African country’s ocean zone and will protect areas used as breeding grounds by leatherback turtles and humpback whales.
Marine conservation news in 2022
In 2022 the 19th meeting of CITES produced new trade regulations for over 600 species, including new protection for shark species. The most significant development was the expansion of fishing regulations to protect 95% of shark species fished for their fins. Requiem sharks, hammerhead sharks and guitarfish are now on CITES Appendix II, which restricts trade by requiring export permits. Shark-fishing gear was also banned across much of Pacific, and earlier in the year, and Hawaii became the first US state to ban shark fishing altogether.
New analysis published in 2022 showed that illegal poaching of turtles has dropped sharply around the world in the last decade, and numbers are recovering. An estimated 1.1 million sea turtles were illegally harvested from 1990 to 2020 — but today poaching poses less of a threat to these endangered reptiles. This study is the first worldwide estimate of the number of adult sea turtles moved on the black market. According to the analysis, more than one million sea turtles were illegally harvested between 1990 and 2020. But the researchers also found that the illegal catch from 2010 to 2020 was nearly 30% lower than that in the previous decade. After several decades of protection and monitoring, turtle recoveries were reported in the Seychelles, Georgia and off the coast of Louisiana.
The pirarucu, the largest fish in the Amazon, is recovering thanks to community conservation efforts. By law, only 30 per cent of the pirarucu in a certain area can be fished the following year. This controlled fishing has led to a surge in its population in regions where the method is employed. In Sao Raimundo region, there were 1,335 pirarucus in the nearby lakes in 2011, when the managed fishing began. Last year, there were 4,092, according to their records.
A 30-year recovery program in the Virgin Islands is working for the red hind, a species of grouper. In a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers at Oregon State and the University of the Virgin Islands found that the fishing restrictions at the location they studied helped lead to a more than 35% increase in average fish size and the recovery of the population to a benchmark considered sustainable for many fish species.
Atlantic cod are showing signs of a comeback thanks to catch limits imposed in New England, and tuna populations are recovering in the world’s largest fully protected ocean reserve, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. It is located in the Pacific Ocean northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands and covers an area of approximately 582,578 square miles (1,508,870 square kilometers). The monument was established in 2006 and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the State of Hawaii, and is home to a diverse array of marine life, including many species that are found nowhere else on earth. The monument is a World Heritage Site and is known for its pristine coral reefs, deep-sea ecosystems, and seabird colonies.
New York’s waterways are the cleanest they’ve been in over a century, and whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, crabs, seahorses and oysters have returned in substantial numbers. This parallels the recovery of the Thames. The Thames was once home to a diverse range of fish species, but many of these populations were severely depleted due to pollution and other human activities. In recent years, efforts have been made to improve the health of the river and restore fish populations. This has included measures such as the introduction of new fish species, the creation of new habitat, and the implementation of stricter pollution controls. As a result, many fish species, including salmon and eel, have made a comeback in the Thames.