Protecting the Sargasso Sea

Written by on March 24, 2014 in Policy & Ocean Law
Floating Sargassum.

Floating Sargassum. Photo credit: NOAA.

Two hundred miles from the coast of the nearest country begin international waters, the vast regions of ocean beyond all domestic boundaries, where a significant portion of life on Earth exists. The high seas aren’t lawless, but protecting them from environmental threats often proves complicated, since no single country can enforce regulations. Every now and then, nations may submit to an agreement regarding use of shared ocean space, and establish a means of cooperation. The latest such agreement, known as the Hamilton Declaration, represents a big step in protecting the Sargasso Sea and its vital marine habitats from human interference.

The currents that form the North Atlantic Gyre make up the border of the Sargasso Sea, whose name owes to its plentiful Sargassum seaweed. Unlike similar species, those of the genus Sargassum can spend their whole life cycle floating free, rather than binding to rocks or reefs. Drifts of these seaweeds often extend for miles across the water’s surface, hosting valuable ecosystems. Certain animals can’t survive in absence of these masses and the environments they provide, but cross-continental shipping remains a major source of disturbance.

A body known as the Sargasso Sea Alliance proposed the Hamilton Declaration with the goal of creating an international collaboration. Government representatives from 11 countries, including the US, the UK, Monaco, Bermuda and the Azores, have signed in acknowledgement of their voluntary participation in steps outlined by the initiative. Signatories are to cooperate in future efforts to reduce human impact on the Sargasso, but aren’t bound to any specific terms. This non-limiting agreement is among the first of its kind, and may serve as a leading example of how conservation measures regarding the high seas can be made possible.

Smaller fish living among brown Sargassum.

Smaller fish living among brown Sargassum. Photo credit: NOAA.

Strategies in reducing harm to sea life include phasing out destructive fishing methods, such as longlining, which has a high rate of hooking sharks, sea turtles, and other unintended catches. Overfishing in general remains a major area of concern in the Sargasso, as it does in the rest of the world.

In many other cases, protection may have no implications for economic interests at all. Simply being able to identify the migration routes of tuna and whales allows shipping vessels to avoid disturbing them. Reducing the total amount of traffic across the Sargasso wouldn’t be easy, but directing ships towards better routes only requires further research, and goes a long way towards keeping ecosystems intact.

Solutions of this sort are what the Hamilton Declaration seeks to promote, with the aid of the Government of Bermuda. Representatives of various countries will be enlisted to form a new “Sargasso Sea Commission,” which could ultimately lead to concrete policies, implemented by individual governments.

For the time being, however, an official statement of shared environmental awareness and interest will have to point the way. Though teeming with life, habitats of the Sargasso are hidden beneath the surface, meaning, for us, that the risk of overlooking our impact on them is higher than, say, in the case of a rainforest.

To learn more, read the full text of the Hamilton Declaration.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

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  1. Struan Smith says:

    Dear Henry,
    Thanks for posting the story about the Hamilton Declaration! It is a landmark event for Bermuda. I need to correct a statement you made about American eels. The young eels are not associated with the Sargassum weed. While it is true that American and European eels migrate to the Sargasso Sea to spawn the leptocephali (their larval form) are freely planktonic for over a year until they metamorphose into glass eels in coastal habitats, getting ready for the migration in estuaries.

    Dr .Robbie Smith
    Curator, Bermuda Natural History Museum

  2. Emily says:

    Dr. Smith – I’m happy to hear you appreciated the Hamilton Declaration article. Thanks for the correction! We’ll make the changes ASAP.