By Dr Matthew Gollock, Senior Programme Manager in the Conservation and Policy team
As someone who has worked on the biology, conservation and policy of the European eel for over 20 years, visiting the Sargasso Sea, is akin to a pilgrimage.
This area is where, for over 100 years, we have suspected that European eels breed, but to date this has yet to be proven.
The Sargasso Sea is bound by oceanic gyres – circulating currents – within the Atlantic Ocean and takes its name from a floating golden seaweed called sargassum.
Within this area lies Bermuda, a handful of islands scattered into the ocean, and the only land masses within the >4 million km2 Sargasso Sea.
It is here that the Sargasso Sea Commission brought together governments, scientists and policy experts to discuss the present status of this unique ecosystem and what is needed for the future.
Due to the unique nature of the Sargasso Sea, a range of very current and interlinked issues were dealt with.
These included the ‘High Seas’, or Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ); the CBD Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs); monitoring and mitigating human impacts on the ocean; and the importance of the Sargasso for biodiversity – including the European eel. The discussions around the High Seas were particularly pertinent as the UN convenes the second meeting to develop a legal agreement to conserve and manage natural resources in ABNJs next week. The Sargasso Sea was identified as an EBSA in 2012 and the work of the Commission and its partners could provide a template for High Seas conservation under a future UN agreement. Protection of the region would help to manage the unique biodiversity, including sargassum and the endemic species associated with it, as well as migratory species such as whales, turtles and eels.
I was invited to speak on the status of eels globally and used the European eel as a case study for progress in international collaboration, something that is essential for conservation of the Sargasso Sea and other ABNJs to succeed. The European eel’s unique life cycle means it moves through both freshwater and marine systems during its >5000 km migration and makes a fantastic ambassador for aquatic conservation generally. It also helps to remind us that these systems are linked, and that while we are based in a large city, there are areas far from here that are essential for the species we may encounter here.
It was fantastic privilege to be invited to this meeting on behalf of ZSL, and the European eel, and take part in the discussions that will craft the conservation of the Sargasso Sea.
But more than that, it was incredible to finally see the vast expanse of blue that, somewhere within, my elongate brethren and sistren are born.
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