Top 15 Conservation Issues of 2021 Include Big Threats—and Potential Bright Spots

Wildfire control policies, suffocating corals, and rise in satellites among matters that warrant study, panel says

Top 15 Conservation Issues of 2021 Include Big Threats—and Potential Bright Spots
fishing boat
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As 2021 dawns, people, ecosystems, and wildlife worldwide are facing a panoply of environmental issues. In an effort to help experts and policymakers determine where they might focus research, a panel of 25 scientists and practitioners—including me—from around the globe held discussions in the fall to identify emerging issues that deserve increased attention.

The panel, coordinated by the U.K.-based Cambridge Conservation Initiative, conducted a horizon scan—an effort to spot early signs of significant phenomena—of global biological conservation issues. For the resulting study, which was funded by the U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the panel winnowed down an initial list of 97 topics, settling on the following 15 because of their novelty or their potential to move the conservation needle in either a positive or negative direction over the coming decade.

Seabirds could help spot illegal fishing

Seabirds often follow fishing vessels to score easy meals. Now, scientists are hoping to exploit this behavior to help spot illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, which accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood every year, or 1 in 5 fish sold. Researchers have had some success attaching transmitters to seabirds to locate fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean, but more study is needed to validate the use of this tactic.

Marine vessels and GPS spoofing

Vessels plying the ocean navigate and transmit their locations and identities mainly through the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and automatic identification system (AIS). The panel points out that a recent rise in GNSS spoofing and AIS cloning incidents could facilitate the trade of illegal goods and hamper authorities’ efforts to identify vessels engaged in illicit resource extraction activities such as fishing and dredging.

More corals may suffer from lack of oxygen

Several factors—including climate-driven marine heat waves and nutrient runoff from land—can lower oxygen levels in the ocean. Corals in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans have died from this hypoxia, and, although those events weren’t widespread, some scientists fear that the threat may grow significantly as climate change further warms the ocean. Research is needed to better understand the extent and impact of low oxygen conditions on coral reefs.

Understanding the impacts of increased dissolved iron on coastal polar ecosystems

Coastal zones in polar latitudes are among Earth’s most productive—that is, they create and support large numbers of organisms ranging from tiny marine plants to animals such as polar bears and seals—a characteristic driven by the availability of dissolved iron from glaciers and ice. Increased melting in the polar regions will result in higher iron concentrations, which in turn will probably fuel more intense phytoplankton blooms and enable organisms on the seafloor to capture more carbon and other nutrients. Such changes could have wide-ranging effects— including impacts on the structure of the region’s marine ecosystems and on carbon sequestration—and warrants investigation.

What to do with a growing number of decommissioned offshore energy platforms

It is estimated that 3,000 offshore oil and gas platforms will be decommissioned in the coming decades and that the number of offshore wind farms will continue to grow. Currently, decommissioning practices vary by country and include full removal, conversion of platforms to artificial reefs, and abandonment. As new offshore energy infrastructure is built and old platforms are phased out, nations will need to evaluate the immediate and long-term impacts of their decommissioning strategies on the marine environment.

A drug problem in the water

When some chemicals used in pharmaceuticals and in garden and farm products are introduced into waterways—usually through runoff or via sewage systems directly or in human waste— they can cause changes in fish and other organisms, including altering the number of female to males in a population, lower fertility, and deformities. There is emerging evidence that the effects of exposure can be multigenerational, affecting organisms that were never directly exposed.

Changes in low cloud cover

Low clouds shade sizable portions of the planet in subtropical regions. It is predicted that these clouds will become increasingly unstable if atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to rise at current rates. The resulting changes could have negative effects on wildlife and human communities.

Tree planting as a simple carbon sequestration solution

Pledges to plant large areas of trees to help tackle climate change are often perceived as a win for conservation. However, tree planting must be planned and implemented with a clear understanding of regional ecosystems to avoid negative effects on biological diversity.

Logging to reduce fire risk

As nations around the world contend with more extreme wildfires, some policymakers suggest that tree removal may be part of the solution. However, the effectiveness of such policies is uncertain, and any short-term gains from removing trees are often offset by the growth of non-native grasses and flowering plants, which may themselves be highly flammable.

Large-scale adoption of sustainable farming techniques across India

Driven by government policies and local innovations, sustainable farming practices are becoming more prevalent in India. The state government of Sikkim has adopted organic farming as policy, and the state of Andhra Pradesh, with 6 million farmers, plans to adopt natural farming practices by 2025. Other states across the country plan to follow suit. Early evaluations indicate that these large-scale transitions boost crop yields and incomes, improve the health of farmers, and increase women's access to microfinance. With such results, there is the potential for similar large-scale shifts in other parts of the world.

Low earth-orbiting satellites may mislead animals responding to celestial cues

More than 2,600 artificial satellites currently orbit the Earth, a number that is rapidly increasing. Many species of mammals, insects, and birds use celestial cues to migrate long distances and to orient themselves in local habitats and could be affected by the proliferation of satellites.

Bitcoin mining with stranded energy

An emerging use for stranded energy sources, such as low-value methane byproducts vented from oil wells and excess energy produced by wind turbines and solar panels, is to power computers used for Bitcoin mining—the process of creating new Bitcoin by solving complex algorithms. Monetizing stranded energy in this way is a mixed bag that decision-makers will probably have to evaluate. The practice could increase carbon emissions from marginal fossil fuel sources but also could incentivize the deployment of renewable energy by guaranteeing a minimum selling price.

Open-source investigations of environmental threats

Scientists demonstrated some success with using online videos, social media posts, and other open-source data to document the effects of the locust swarms in East Africa in 2020. As faster internet connections and access to smartphones continue to grow globally, the use of open-source data may become an effective tool for researchers.

Self-healing building materials

The potential to engineer building materials made of chemicals, polymers, and bacteria that can fix themselves when damaged could reduce the need for repairs and shrink the environmental footprints of construction projects. Recently, scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder used a type of cyanobacteria found in the ocean, along with other materials, to engineer a living building material that can regenerate when fractured.

A waterway to connect the Baltic and Black seas

A planned 1,200-mile inland navigable waterway connecting the Baltic and Black seas would alter the flow of cargo and trade in the region. However, the waterway, which would pass through Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, could alter habitat in 70 wildlife areas and numerous international conservation areas, introduce non-native species, and change the region’s rivers and wetlands. Additionally, dredging in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could disrupt radioactive sediment.

Jim Palardy is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science program. He served on this year’s horizon scan panel and is a co-author on the resulting study.