Latin America and the Caribbean is sometimes called a ‘biodiversity superpower’ with some of the most beautiful and important endowments of natural capital in the world. But the region is experiencing many anthropogenic and climate-related impacts such as ecosystem degradation, coastal pollution and ocean change. To develop strategies involving tailored nuclear and isotopic techniques to address these challenges, representatives from the region gathered at the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco in early March.
The coastal population is increasing in the region and many who live there depend on the ocean for their income and nutrition, but changes in water temperature and increased ocean acidification and deoxygenation could have a significant impact on local communities. Recent research suggests that current increases in seawater acidity in the region is already impacting the ability of certain marine organisms, such as shellfish and corals, to effectively build their shells and skeletons. This could impact regional fisheries and the livelihoods of those living in the affected coastal zones.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 calls for conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
At this first regional coordination meeting of the IAEA Technical Cooperation Project Strengthening Capacities in Marine and Coastal Environments Using Nuclear and Isotopic Techniques, 24 experts from national authorities of 18 countries agreed on the major environmental threats that need to be addressed and set out a strategic framework for action. Ocean acidification, harmful algal blooms (HABs) and pollution derived mainly from ubiquitous marine plastics were identified as the most pressing environmental concerns that would require coordinated action; sharing key data and enhancing analytical capacities on measuring ocean acidification, eutrophication and marine pollution were also highlighted.
“Existing international policies and treaties calling for responsible use of ocean resources are not enough,” said Ana Carolina Ruiz Fernandez, a Researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico. “We need to increase our capacities to generate qualified information and to establish a solid communication channel to exchange information to ensure our countries effectively contribute to the sustainability of the ocean.”
“In the context of climate change, Peru is a very important hot-spot for marine research,” said Michelle Ivette Graco, Doctor in Oceanography, Insituto del Mar del Peru (IMARPE). “It serves as a natural laboratory to explore major climate change stressors such as ocean acidification and deoxygenation because of the presence of naturally low acidic Ph levels and oxygen minimum zones in one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.”
In this regard, the oxygen minimum zones, in which oxygen saturation in seawater is at its lowest, are a useful key to understanding the oceans’ role on atmospheric greenhouse control.
Emily Smail, Executive Director at GEO Blue Planet, noted that this kick-off meeting of the regional technical cooperation project provided valuable insights into the challenges faced by countries in monitoring and achieving targets of SDG 14. GEO Blue Planet is a partnership of more than 100 national governments and over 100 Participating Organizations bridging the gap between data and services to deliver usable information that supports informed decision-making toward reaching sustainable development.
“Partnerships developed at the meeting will allow the GEO Blue Planet initiative to improve our efforts to bridge the gap between the scientific community and decision makers in Latin America and in other regions.”
How nuclear techniques can help tackle marine environmental challenges
Nuclear technologies are essential tools to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of sustained climate and ocean change. Nuclear tracers and isotopic techniques can be used to monitor the impacts of ocean acidification and other ocean stressors, and help identify the sources of pollution in the water. Findings can facilitate the scientific community and policy makers to make informed decisions to protect vulnerable ecosystems.
One example discussed was harmful algal blooms, a natural marine process that causes harm to human health and negatively affects ecosystems, and is a threat to coastal zones. Scientists are concerned that climate warming and other anthropogenic activities may exacerbate the intensity and impacts of HABs. For many years, the IAEA Environment Laboratories have promoted the use of a nuclear-based technique known as the Receptor Binding Assay (RBA), a highly sensitive and precise method that allows scientists early detection and monitoring of biotoxins caused by HABs. Several successful applications have been reported and documented in Chile, El Salvador, Colombia and Cuba.
“Early detection of biotoxins is vital in preventing the negative impacts of HABs,” said Carlos Alonso Hernandez, Research Scientist at IAEA Radioecology Laboratory. “Nuclear techniques can be used to promptly identify biotoxins in seafood or in the environment, thus help to pinpoint outbreaks with more accuracy. This protects the food chain and can help to limit the amount of time that fishing grounds must be closed.”
HABs are just one aspect of this wide-reaching 18-nation project. “The IAEA is dedicated to working with the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean through this technical cooperation project to find practical solutions for their most important marine environmental challenges”, said Peter Swarzenski, Acting Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories.
The project includes experts from Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela.