SEASPIRACY: OUR EXPLORATION THROUGH DATA

Heiko Lang

Seaspiracy, like many Netflix specials through lockdown, made waves around the world. We investigate data relating to this powerful documentary, and see what other stories of our oceans can be told.

With many Netflix specials through lockdown, their entertainment factor was put under a microscope with audiences. For some, that microscope caused global fame and has seen them enter the realm of popular culture fortune – we all saw Tiger King… right?! But what about the specials that not only triggered popular culture, but triggered a change in lifestyle.

For many, watching Seaspiracy was an emotional journey. A documentary that focussed on the wonders of our oceans, those who inhabit it, and the idea of ‘sustainable fishing’. It was a haunting portrayal of our human impacts on global oceans, and one that made viewers truly shocked and moved by the realities of our world.

At Pufferfish, we are believers in data. We are passionate storytellers and want to use our platform to promote understanding and information with integrity. With that in mind, we explored global data that related to the powerful documentary, and translated it for our audience. A borderless view on such potent data really emphasises the tone of Seaspiracy… we as humans can do better, and we must. For the survival of our marine life, and the survival of our biodiverse ecosystems. But what needs to come first, is understanding.

Topic 1: What marine species dominate our oceans, and where?

As seen in Seaspiracy, our oceans hold many beloved creatures. From dolphins and whales, to huge varieties of fish, turtles, seals; and the list goes on.

We decided to look at the data available on ocean species, and see what we could learn from a global perspective.

Fisheries Species Richness

First up, where are the areas around the world that experience the highest amounts of fisheries species richness? According to the experts at NOAA, ‘Species richness is a count of the number of different species in an ecological community, landscape or region. Species richness is one of several measurements used by scientists to help determine how biologically rich and diverse a given area is.’

These visualisations are created from NOAA data that represents the predicted global distribution of 1066 commercially harvested marine fish and invertebrates. The areas of orange/yellow highlight areas of different species (higher species richness), and the areas of cooler colours (purple) signify lower numbers of species (lower species richness). We can see that between Australia and Vietnam, predominantly in South East Asia, there is a huge area of species richness. This area also encompasses the Coral Triangle, which is one of the world’s most important marine hotspots for biodiversity and as a result, one of the most productive fishing areas in the world.

If we then compare that with the Atlantic Ocean, we see far more cooler colours, signifying lower species richness in the centre of deep ocean. Coastal areas along the East Coast of America, the West Coast of the UK and trailing down to Northern Africa however, have more orange signifying more species richness again. The data tells us ‘large marine ecosystems are mostly concentrated along coastal areas and provide important habitats for marine life and fisheries.’ (NOAA)

Species up close: Turtles

So, we know large marine ecosystems are mostly along coastal areas… but what species nest there?

We used UNEP data to explore the habitats of the beloved turtle. And that includes all sea turtle nesting sites – from the Green turtle to the Hawksbill, Flatback and more.

Now, based on what we know about the Coral Triangle, let’s explore that biodiverse area first! As this visualisation shows us, it is home to many species of sea turtle. With the different colours representing different breeds; green = Green turtle, red = Hawkbill, orange = Leatherback, yellow= Loggerhead, purple = Olive Ridley, blue = Kemp’s Ridley, and black = Flatback. We can immediately see the green turtle has the most nesting sites in the Coral Triangle, with the remaining breeds of sea turtle scattered from Northern Australia all the way North to Japan’s East Coast.

We can then see in the Americas, that along the East Coast of Mexico, the Leatherback turtle (orange) and the Olive Ridley (purple) have made their mark. Then, as these breeds spread right up to Texas and the Southern States of America; they meet the Kemp’s Ridley’s nesting sites. With a glowing green spot over the Galapagos Islands, we can also see the green turtle clearly dominates most of the Pacific Ocean’s warm water sites.

Species up close: Seals & Seabirds

Not only can we use global data to track nesting sites and fishing species richness, we can also use data to explore behavioural patterns of pacific predators – otherwise known as TOPP (tagging of the pacific predators). This initiative began in 2000, and thanks to NOAA data, we can analyse data on the Northern Elephant Seal and Sooty Shearwater seabirds. Specifically, data on position, ocean temperatures, pressure, salinity and more.

We can see in this visualisation that the movement patterns for the elephant seal (pink) versus the Sooty Shearwater (green) really differ – as we would imagine from a bird that can fly up to 74,000km in a year. Elephant seals on the other hand spend 10months a year at sea, and return to the same beach a couple of times a year.

Oh, to be a seal!

Topic 2: What is our human impact on marine life?

It will be no surprise to you that we humans have a drastic impact on our planet. We all wrestle with the realities of climate change on a daily basis; but what about our impact on marine life? Seaspiracy showed some… dramatic and bone chilling examples of this, so we decided to look at what the data can show us.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs tell a potent story of our human impacts on marine life and biodiverse ecosystems the world over. While tourism has celebrated coral reefs, they also offer huge benefits to our ocean communities. They support more than 275 million people worldwide, they protect coastlines in more than 100 countries – helping defend against storms and erosion, they account for 15% of gross domestic product in more than 20 countries, and they even hold the potential to fight disease – including treatments for cancer, HIV, malaria, and others. Yet today, they face serious threats.

This visualisation explores NOAA data on the realities of approximately 75% of our world’s coral reefs currently being threatened by local and global pressures. Local threats include overfishing and destructive fishing (hello, Seaspiracy!), and global threats include global warming’s alterations of ocean chemistry (ie, ocean acidification) and more. These threat categories are coloured in this visualisation: blue = low threat, yellow = medium threat, orange = high threat, crimson = very high threat, and black = critical levels.

Again, we look in this visualisation to the Coral Triangle, and with much of Indonesia along to the pacific islands in dark red and crimson… It’s a sobering example of how powerful our human impact is!

Our coral reefs are dying, and this is a direct result of our human impact.

Topic 3: How do global shipping routes connect with marine life?

Another clear example of our human impact on oceans, is when exploring NOAA data on shipping routes.

This visualisation shows the extreme activity associated with global shipping routes, collected from ships’ weather instruments and GPS devices.

Shockingly, the data in these visualisations only represents 11% of ships in the world greater than 1000 gross tonnage - that's 3,374 commercial and research vessels. So the density of these lines representing shipping routes would increase hugely if ALL ships (small ships, cruise ships, etc) were represented. And with ‘some of the most populated shipping routes cross through the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Malacca, and the Strait of Gibraltar’ (NOAA) also coinciding with species rich marine areas - this human impact is bound to have an effect on our natural ecosystems.

Topic 4: What are the most popular fish to farm?

Seaspiracy noted that the Bluefin Tuna are one of the most fished species in the world, and as a result dolphins are being slaughtered to eradicate the competition.

So, we dug a little deeper to get a stronger understanding of why, and where the numbers sit.

According to WWF, 'if fish were like cars, tuna would be the Ferraris of the ocean'. No wonder then, that ‘these extraordinary marine animals are also integral to the diet of millions of people and are one of the most commercially valuable fish.’ Yet surprisingly, the critically endangered bluefin tuna only making up 1% of the global catch.

We also found that these commercially valuable fish tend to distribute themselves across the Atlantic Ocean, including the Mediterranean and the southern part of the Black Sea (fishbase) - As visualised in this image. Plus, ‘according to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, 65% of tuna stocks are at a healthy level of abundance, but 13% are considered overfished.’ (WWF) So these popular fish have a chance, and considering they can live for up to 40 years and can weigh up to 900kg… they are a majestic fish worth driving, I mean, protecting!

Topic 5: Are any marine species thriving in 2021?

Now all this data can make for a heavy heart, but based on the global slow down caused by Covid-19, some positive data also became apparent in 2020 and into 2021. According to tracking data collected by Global Fishing Watch, ‘approximately 63,000 vessels collectively fished for over 50 million hours in 2020. When compared to 2019, these numbers represent a 9% decrease in the number of active fishing vessels and a 5% decrease in the hours of fishing… Changes in fishing activity during 2020 show that much of the overall decline can be attributed to the Chinese fleet, which saw 18.4 percent fewer active fishing vessels and 10.7 percent fewer fishing hours in 2020 relative to 2018-2019.’

So, while the past year has been trying for the planet, we did prove that we can reduce our human impact; and we can protect and value our oceans more.

We are currently living in the information age. We are the most intelligent generation in human history, and all thanks to the amount of information we have available to us through the internet. We are also emotional and social beings; we thrive on connection and on feeling empathy for one another.

Change is within our grasp, and positive action is still possible. So, one question remains; what will you choose to do about it?

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