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Category: Oceans

What Comes Next for the Law of the Sea Treaty?

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More than 40 years since its signing, the United States still has not ratified an international agreement known as the “constitution of the oceans.” In a webinar held April 2, two of the world’s leading ocean diplomacy scholars met to discuss its history, challenges, and the U.S.’s potential role in the future.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was truly revolutionary for its time. Unraveling against the backdrop of decades of conflict pertaining to maritime affairs, the significance of this conference and its attempts at negotiating a comprehensive legal framework cannot be understated. Key figures in this development include the members of the United Nations, coastal and landlocked states, the scientific community, environmental community, and developing nations. Yet, with the conclusion of this unifying conference, a singular question remained: What comes next? 

This question is what David Balton, the executive director of the U.S. Artic Steering Committee, and David Freestone, a Professor at George Washington University and the Executive Secretary of the Sargasso Sea Commission, aimed to address in a webinar titled, “The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea at 40.” In this discussion a range of topics were discussed but the primary focus was providing viewers with a comprehensive understanding of the events of this convention and the way this history plays out in modern times. 

Picture of Ambassador David Balton (Obtained from the Wilson Center)

The 1982 convention was one of multiple attempts at setting parameters and guidelines for maritime control. In 1958, the council met for the first time to discuss growing concerns regarding the need for a comprehensive legal framework regarding ocean governance. In this they brought multiple representatives worldwide to discuss the breadth of territorial waters, the rights of coastal states, freedom of navigation, and the exploitation of marine resources. This conversation laid the groundwork for future discussions. However, it was largely ineffective at generating a treaty as they were unable to reach a consensus on the breadth of territorial waters. This first conference is referred to as UNCLOS I. 

Following 1958, in 1960 the members of the council and associated parties convened once again to discuss the issues brought forth by UNCLOS I. The purpose of this conference was to further discuss issues pertaining to the Law of the Sea and build a framework to begin ratification of a binding treaty to ensure that conflict regarding the sea diminishes greatly. This discussion was set in the context of the Cold War. This new setting complicated discussions as talks regarding the implementation of nuclear weapons under the deep seabed further elicited great debate and tensions. While the aim of this meeting was of course to reach a general agreement on these subjects, major differences between states and other parties prohibited UNCLOS II from producing said treaty. 

UNCLOS III served as the breadwinner of this development, yet this is not to say that results were immediate. Negotiations for UNCLOS III were the longest of the three as they spanned from 1973 to 1982. UNCLOS II was particularly special due to its ability to produce revolutionary concepts such as archipelagic status and the establishment of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), granting coastal states exclusive rights over fishing and economic resources within 200 miles of their shores. In addition, this led to the development of the International Seabed Authority and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Despite the limitations and unfinished agenda that preceded this, the treaty was officially ratified in 1994 at Montego Bay. The convention initially received 157 signatories and currently holds participation from 169 parties. Absent from this group are the United States, Turkey, and Venezuela. The convention was designed to work as a package deal and required nations to fully commit to the agreement or abstain entirely. For this reason, the United States retains a nonparty, observer status despite to their adherence to the rules and guidelines of the treaty. 

After this explanation, Balton and Freestone addressed the big question: What comes next? As of right now, the United States is still not a signatory of this treaty. However, this is not to say that they are in violation of this treaty either. The United States participates in discussions and negotiations related to UNCLOS issues, both within the United Nations and through bilateral and multilateral engagements. In addition, the Navy still upholds international law in dealings concerning navigational rights. The one factor many claims prohibits the United States from signing is the possibility of their sovereignty being challenged by certain provisions within the treaty. In spite of this, many continue to push to change this reality, advocating for the United States to ratify this agreement. 

Picture of Professor David Freestone (Obtained from Flavia at World Maritime University)

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea remains a pivotal moment in the history of international maritime governance. This Convention led to many insightful and necessary developments which will continue to set precedent for generations to come. While imperfect, the efforts put forth by many nations and third parties to ensure that it remains consistent with modern day times is very telling of the hopeful development of this treaty. Furthermore, while the future of U.S. involvement in the treaty is uncertain, the frameworks established by the three UNCLOS’ provide a solid foundation for addressing contemporary challenges and furthering international cooperation. 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Blue is The New Color of Sustainable Investing

The green bond market’s remarkable success, currently valued at over US $500 billion[i], shows how bond finance is an effective way to raise substantial capital for climate-related investments. Following on this success, blue bonds are emerging as the newest trend in sustainability investing and they’re poised to make waves.

Introduced in 2008, green bonds commit to using the funds they raise exclusively for environmentally friendly projects, assets, or business activities[ii]. Since then, the green bond market has seen explosive growth and helped to shape investor attitudes toward sustainable investing.

The blue bond market — blue as in oceans — is where green bonds were 15 years ago[iii]. Blue bonds are a relatively new type of sustainability designed to finance the conservation and sustainable management of ocean and coastal resources[iv].

The Republic of Seychelles issued the first blue bond in 2018, with funds dedicated to expanding Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and improving fisheries governance[v]. To date, only 25 other blue bonds have been issued[vi]. Although in its infancy in comparison to green bonds, the blue bond market is poised to follow a similar trajectory as governments, companies, and investors begin to realize the importance of the blue economy and the relationship between climate change and our oceans[vii].

The Ocean’s Big Role

The ocean covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, comprises 97% of all water on earth, and contains 99% of all living space on the planet[viii]. It plays a vital role in absorbing carbon dioxide and producing the oxygen we breathe, it is a significant component of the global economy, and a key element in fighting climate change. However, governments and organizations around the world continue to abuse the ocean rather than protect it. But with over three billion people reliant on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods, and more than 350 million ocean-related jobs, continued exploitation of our oceans will have catastrophic consequences[ix].

Commitments without Capital

The past few years have seen numerous commitments to restoring and protecting the long-term health our oceans. The United Nations declared 2021-2030 as “The Ocean Decade” and the 30×30 campaign pledges to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030[x]. Despite these commitments, the ocean remains chronically underfunded. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 “Life Under Water” receives the least amount of long-term funding of any of the SDGs. Recent reports suggest that $175 billion per year is needed to achieve SDG 14 by 2030; and yet, between 2015 and 2019, just below USD $10 billion was invested.[xi]

Source: https://icg.citi.com/icghome/what-we-think/citigps/insights/sustainable-ocean-economy

Not only does this gap prevent any meaningful progress, the cost of inaction is devastating. Failing to invest in our oceans could result in a total bill of USD $200 billion to $1 trillion a year by 2100 in loss of land, people relocation, and coastal protection[xii]. To put it simply, we cannot afford to underinvest in our oceans.

Mobilizing Capital Through Blue Bonds

Current ocean funding comes primarily through public and philanthropic sources, which are essential, however incredibly insufficient. Enabling the increased use of private finance is critical to achieving ocean conservation goals, and the use of blue bonds can play an essential role.

Bonds are a debt instrument that facilitates an interaction between a borrower and an investor. The investor provides capital to the borrower, and the borrower is required to pay back that capital within a certain period. In the case of blue bonds, the borrower is also required to use the capital to create positive impact on the marine environment. Such an arrangement enables the borrower to access significant amounts of capital upfront and provides the investor with a predictable income stream. This relationship is of particular use within the climate landscape. Green and blue bonds effectively unlock additional sources of capital for climate-related investments and enable private investors to participate in markets that would otherwise be considered too risky.

Source: https://enviroaccounting.com/green-bonds-and-pay-for-performance/

Successful Green Bonds as a Blueprint

To enable the rapid and responsible scaling of the blue bond market, we can leverage existing frameworks from green bonds as models. The green bond market has seen numerous innovative bond structures that support investment in traditionally underserved markets and align financial incentives with sustainability-focused outcomes. Three of these innovative bond issuances are outlined below and offer unique opportunities to apply similar structures to the blue bond market.

Blue is the New Green: A deep dive into three green bond structures and how they can turn blue

The Wildlife Conservation Bond

In 2022, The World Bank and Global Environment Facility issued a first-of-its-kind Wildlife Conservation Bond (WCB) which channels investment into conservation outcomes. This five-year $150 million bond contributes to protecting and increasing black rhino populations in two protected areas in South Africa[xiii]. The WCB is a great example of an innovative green bond that unlocked new financing streams for biodiversity protection and conservation initiatives.

Using the Wildlife Conservation Bond as a model, we can replicate this template across new geographies and species and transform how conservation is funded. Investors in the WCB do not receive coupon payments. Instead, the issuer makes conservation investment payments to help fund rhino conservation initiatives. In a similar manner, blue bonds can be created that enable coupon payments to be channeled to protect critical marine species.

Uruguay’s Sustainability-Linked Bond

In 2022, Uruguay issued a USD $1.5 billion sustainability-linked bond which includes a pricing feature designed to reward progress made on emissions-reduction targets. Coupon payments received by investors would decrease if the Uruguay government met pre-determined emissions targets, but if targets were missed there was a required increase in payment[xiv]. This arrangement aligned financial and environmental incentives and offered a signal to borrowers that more affordable finance is available in return for performing – or exceeding – sustainability strategies[xv].

Similar financing structures could be applied across a range of sustainability goals within the ocean landscape. Rather than reward progress on emissions reductions, blue bonds could be structured to offer favorable financing for biodiversity, establishing marine protected areas (MPA ) reducing plastic pollution, or fisheries management.

The Forests Bond

The Forests Bond was issued by the International Finance Corporation in 2016 to help unlock private finance for reducing deforestation. Investors in the USD $152 million Forests Bond could choose to receive coupons in the form of verified carbon credits, rather than cash payments[xvi]. This arrangement helped to boost demand for carbon credits and demonstrated investor interest in sustainability-focused investments.

The Forests Bond model can be repeated to support conservation of blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses. Blue carbon ecosystems sequester two to four times the amount of carbon of terrestrial forests, however, it is estimated that these ecosystems are being destroyed at four times the rate of tropical forests[xvii]. Designing a bond to act as a catalyst for the blue carbon market could offer the critical incentives needed to protect these essential environments.

Building the Blue Bond Wave

In all three of the above cases, investor demand for the green bond far exceeded initial expectations or the planned bond offering. This indicates that there is high investor interest for innovative bond models that provide both positive financial and climate returns. The main challenge is then providing investors with enough attractive opportunities to participate. With just 25 blue bonds issued to date, the blue bond market is nascent. Establishing a robust blue bond market requires transparency, standardization, and accountability. Clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) must be developed to demonstrate the tangible benefits of blue bond investments in terms of ocean conservation and sustainable resource management. Additionally, collaboration between governments, financial institutions, and environmental organizations is essential to create a supportive ecosystem that encourages blue bond issuance. Ultimately, the future of the blue bond market hinges on aligning financial incentives with environmental objectives, fostering innovation, and building a robust infrastructure that inspires trust and commitment from a diverse set of stakeholders[xviii].

Guest Post by Mackenzie Audino, 2024 Masters candidate in business administration and environmental management. This project was completed as part of the ClimateCap Fellowship, a program of the ClimateCap Initiative led by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and supported by the Hearst Foundations.


[i] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X22002664#bib26

[ii] https://www.oecd.org/environment/cc/Green%20bonds%20PP%20%5Bf3%5D%20%5Blr%5D.pdf

[iii] https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/ocean/communication/blue-bonds-accelerating-sustainable-ocean-business

[iv] https://www.undp.org/indonesia/blog/indonesia-launches-worlds-first-publicly-offered-sovereign-blue-bond-undps-support

[v] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/10/29/seychelles-launches-worlds-first-sovereign-blue-bond

[vi] https://www.mdpi.com/1911-8074/16/3/184

[vii] https://www.wellington.com/en-gb/intermediary/insights/blue-bonds-marine-ecosystem

[viii] https://oceanliteracy.unesco.org/our-blue-planet/

[ix] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/risk/ocean-financing.pdf

[x] https://marine-conservation.org/30×30/

[xi] https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/sdg14-financing-landscape-scan-tracking-funds-to-realize-sustainable-outcomes-for-the-ocean/

[xii] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23168-y

[xiii] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/03/23/wildlife-conservation-bond-boosts-south-africa-s-efforts-to-protect-black-rhinos-and-support-local-communities

[xiv] https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/bank-floats-10-bln-brazilian-bond-plan-halt-amazon-deforestation-2022-12-19/

[xv] https://www.ifre.com/story/3661444/latin-america-bond-uruguays-us15bn-sustainability-linked-bond-wh65f7xrlp

[xvi] https://www.conservation.org/docs/default-source/peru/forests-bond_factsheet.pdf?Status=Master&sfvrsn=867eadb8_3

[xvii] https://siwi.org/latest/what-are-we-getting-wrong-about-blue-carbon/

[xviii] OpenAI. “The future of the blue bond market and what needs to happen to increase the amount of capital that is invested.” ChatGPT, 2023, [https://chat.openai.com/c/ba58a2d7-1129-465c-9fa5-f4815f08aa91]. Accessed [September 27, 2023]

Highlights from Duke in Australia

Duke in Australia 2023 in front of 1.9-billion-year-old stone in the Northern Territory. Photo by one of our tour guides.

Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.

That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.

Sunrise at Myall Beach on Cape Tribulation, where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.

From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.

Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.

There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.

An eleven-armed seastar in one of the tide pools at Bondi Beach. (Eleven-armed seastars do not always have eleven arms.) Below it, you can see Neptune’s necklace, a type of algae resembling strings of beads.

On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.

Sunshine wattle flowers on our hike at North Head, viewed through a hand lens.

Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.

Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.

A galah, a species of cockatoo, in Katoomba.

Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales.  It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.

We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.

Part of the Jenolan Caves. Gradual geologic processes form decorative structures, or speleothems, in caves.

Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.

A view from one of our hikes in the Blue Mountains.

Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.

A rainbow bee-eater at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens in Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory.

The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.

We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.

Green weaver ants. Note their distinctive green abdomens, which contain ascorbic acid and have an interesting taste.

When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.

Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.

One of the crocodiles on the jumping crocodile tour.

The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.

Me with a stick insect at our campground in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo by Letar Jia, another student in the Duke in Australia program this summer.

One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.

We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.

That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.

A female giant golden orb weaver, with my hand for scale. The tiny, orange spider on her back is the male.

After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.

While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.

We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.

The velvet worm.

Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.

A platypus in a river in Yungaburra.

In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.

A tree kangaroo in Yungaburra.

Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Recovery, Resilience, and Coexistence: Nature-based Solutions on the Coast

When it comes to balancing the needs of humans and the needs of nature, “Historically it was ‘develop or conserve’ or ‘develop or restore,’” says Carter Smith, Ph.D., a Lecturing Fellow in the Division of Marine Science & Conservation who researches coastal restoration.

However, according to Brian Silliman, Ph.D., Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology, “We are having a new paradigm shift where it’s not just… ‘nature over here’ and ‘humans over here.’”

Instead, conservation initiatives are increasingly focusing on coexistence with nature and ecological resilience, according to this panel discussion of marine science experts during Duke Research and Innovation Week 2023.

Nature-based solutions — protecting and restoring natural shoreline habitats — have a proven role in protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Nature-based solutions… address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.”

The panel, moderated by Andrew J. Read, Ph.D., Stephen A. Toth Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology and Professor of Marine Conservation Biology, also included Brian Silliman, Carter Smith, and Stephanie Valdez, a Ph.D. Student in Marine Science & Conservation.

Living shorelines can help protect coastal ecosystems from storms while also offering benefits for climate and conservation. Photos by Carter Smith.

According to Smith, nature-based solutions can “leverage nature and the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people” while also preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. She spoke about living shorelines as an effective and ecologically responsible way to protect coastal ecosystems.

“The traditional paradigm in coastal protection is that you build some kind of hard, fixed structure” like a seawall, Smith said, but conventional seawalls can have negative effects on biodiversity, habitats, nutrient cycling, and the environment at large. “In this case, coastal protection and biodiversity really are at odds.”

After multiple hurricanes, living shorelines had significantly less visible damage or erosion than sites with conventional hardscape protection, like seawalls.

Nicholas Lecturing Fellow Carter Smith

That’s where living shorelines come in. Living shorelines incorporate plants and natural materials like sand and rock to stabilize coastal areas and protect them from storms while also creating more natural habitats and minimizing environmental destruction. But “if these structures are actually going to replace conventional infrastructure,” Smith says, it’s important to show that they’re effective.

Smith and colleagues have studied how living shorelines fared during multiple hurricanes and have found that living shorelines had significantly less “visible damage or erosion” compared to sites with conventional storm protection infrastructure.

After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, for instance, both natural marshes and conventional infrastructure (like seawalls) lost elevation due to the storm. Living shorelines, on the other hand, experienced almost no change in elevation.

Smith is also investigating how living shorelines may support “community and psychosocial resilience” along with their benefits to biodiversity and climate. She envisions future community fishing days or birdwatching trips to bring people together, encourage environmental education, and foster a sense of place.

PhD student Stephanie Valdez then spoke about the importance of coastal ecosystems.

Blue carbon ecosystems,” which include sea grasses, marshes, and mangroves, provide services like stabilizing sediments, reducing the destructive force of powerful waves, and storing carbon, she said. These ecosystems can bury carbon much faster than terrestrial ecosystems, which has important implications when it comes to climate change.

In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming, but plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air during photosynthesis and convert it to carbohydrates, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Therefore, ecosystems rich in fast-growing plants can serve as carbon sinks, reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon, Valdez explained.

Unfortunately, blue carbon ecosystems have suffered significant loss from human activities and development. We’ve replaced these wild areas with farms and buildings, polluted them with toxins and waste, and decimated habitats that so many other creatures rely on. But given the chance, these places can sometimes grow back. Valdez discussed a 2013 study which found that seagrass restoration led to a significantly higher carbon burial rate within just a few years.

Sea grasses, marshes, and mangroves provide services like stabilizing sediments, reducing the destructive force of powerful waves, and storing carbon.

PhD Student Stephanie Valde

Valdez also talked about the importance of recognizing and encouraging natural ecological partnerships within and between species. Humans have taken advantage of such partnerships before, she says. Consider the “Three Sisters:” beans, corn, and squash, which Native Americans planted close proximity so the three crops would benefit each other. Large squash leaves could provide shade to young seedlings, beans added nitrogen to the soil, and cornstalks served as a natural beanpole.

Recognizing that mutualistic relationships exist in natural ecosystems can help us preserve habitats like salt marshes. Valdez points to studies showing that the presence of oysters and clams can positively impact seagrasses and marshes. In restoration, it’s important “that we’re not focusing on one species alone but looking at the ecosystem as a whole”—from top predators to “foundation species.”

“There is hope for successful restoration of these vital ecosystems and their potential to aid in climate change mitigation,” Valdez said.

Finally, Prof. Brian Silliman discussed the role of predators in wider ecosystem restoration projects. Prioritizing the protection, restoration, and sometimes reintroduction of top predators isn’t always popular, but Silliman says predators play important roles in ecosystems around the world.

“One of the best examples we have of top predators facilitating ecosystems and climate change mitigation are tiger sharks in Australia,” he says. When the sharks are around, sea turtles eat fewer aquatic plants. “Not because [the sharks] eat a lot of sea turtles but because they scare them toward the shoreline,” reducing herbivory.

However, Silliman said it’s unclear sometimes whether the existence of a predator is actually responsible for a given benefit. Other times, though, experiments provide evidence that predators really are making a difference. Silliman referenced a study showing that sea otters can help protect plants, like seagrasses, in their habitats.

Restoring or reintroducing top predators in their natural habitats can help stabilize ecosystems impacted by climate change and other stressors.

And crucially, “Predators increase stress resistance.” When physical stressors reach a certain point in a given ecosystem, wildlife can rapidly decline. But wildlife that’s used to coexisting with a top predator may have a higher stress threshold. In our ever-changing world, the ability to adapt is as important as ever.

“I think there is great optimism and opportunity here,” Silliman says. The other speakers agree. “Right now,” Valdez says, “as far as restoration and protection goes, we are at the very beginnings. We’re just at the forefront of figuring out how to restore feasibly and at a level of success that makes it worth our time.”

Restoring or reintroducing top predators in their natural habitats can help stabilize ecosystems impacted by climate change and other stressors.

Brian Silliman

Smith emphasized the important role that nature-based solutions can play. Even in areas where we aren’t achieving the “full benefit of conserving or restoring a habitat,” we can still get “some benefit in areas where if we don’t use nature-based solutions,” conservation and restoration might not take place at all.

According to Valdez, “Previously we would see restoration or… conservation really at odds with academia itself as well as the community as a whole.” But we’re reaching a point where “People know what restoration is. People know what these habitats are. And I feel like twenty or thirty years ago that was not the case.” She sees “a lot of hope in what we are doing, a lot of hope in what is coming.”

“There’s so much that we can learn from nature… and these processes and functions that have evolved over millions and millions of years,” Smith adds. “The more we can learn to coexist and to integrate our society with thriving ecosystems, the better it will be for everyone.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Applying the Ways of the Sea to Outer Space: A Conversation Hosted by Duke’s Space Diplomacy Lab

Whether it was Marco Polo traversing the Silk Road (which was more like Silk Routes), Columbus sailing the ocean blue, or even Moana restoring the heart to Te Fiti; oceans have been integral to our way of life as humans for thousands and thousands of years.

The Silk Road, mapped
The (fictional) story of Moana draws from (true) Polynesian history and seafaring lore

But humans have always been bad at sharing – most wars are fought over territory, land especially. And as time has passed, the things we share as humans has evolved – from oceans and land to the Internet and outer space. So how do you keep things diplomatic? Last Friday, Duke’s Space Diplomacy Lab, co-chaired by Dr. Benjamin Schmitt of Harvard University and Duke’s own Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, hosted a webinar on what space diplomacy can learn from ocean diplomacy. Featuring Dr. Clare Fieseler of the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Alex Kahl of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the conversation covered everything from zoning to equity to even the lessons we can learn from Indigenous communities.

Sharing data and sharing fish

There are multiple challenges to sharing the world’s waterways. Fieseler did not start out her career studying ocean diplomacy. Initially stationed in the Persian Gulf, building a marine mammal monitoring network, she noticed that the fraught state of politic affairs in the region made it hard to share data on the animals that were washing up on the shore.

Dr. Fieseler presenting

Meanwhile, Kahl, who works in Hawaii as the National Resources Manager at the National Marine Fisheries Service, runs into problems not in sharing data but primarily in sharing fish. “How do you focus on the shared exploitation of a natural resource?” he asked.

Two key themes arose in linking the sharing of the ocean to the sharing of outer space.

First, Fieseler pointed out that engaging scientists can help in transcending politics, something that ocean diplomacy does well. She pointed to efforts to establish a Marine Peace Park between North Korea and South Korea, and that if two of the worlds most polarized countries could come to an agreement in the name of science and human betterment, then “surely other countries can too.”

Second, Kahl remarked, unlike in the ocean, the primary resource in space is, well, space. You need fish to eat to survive – do you need space to survive?   

Centering equity

On the topic of whether we really need space in space to survive, Kahl pointed to the significance that many celestial bodies have in cultures here on Earth, such as in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Does interfering with these celestial bodies cross a red line for cultures on Earth? It’s worth noting that as Kahl said, with space exploration, “very few people are profiting,” so balancing the interests of people on Earth as well as in space is important.

Dr. Kahl presenting

Fieseler spoke to the need to build equity in space through some sort of formal agreement, similar to the Law of the Sea. But, she says, that might be skipping a few steps. Right now, “many developing countries can’t even afford to go to space.” How can you build equity in a region where not everyone even has a seat at the table? Kahl pointed out that this marginalization impedes discussions on how to share space – something that should be consensus-driven.

Zoning

As Fiesler remarked, zoning of the ocean has been key to a relatively peaceful sharing of this resource for the variety of uses that people have for the sea. A good example of this is the Antarctic Treaty, which zoned different places in Antarctica for scientific use.

Kahl spoke to being a beneficiary of the Antarctic Treaty – “it reduces bureaucratic burdens, and the collective benefits are also increased.” However, he made the point that the slicing and dicing of space, as with anything, could lead to initial tensions.

Science should have a seat at the table

A central theme that ran throughout the conversation was that, as Kahl put it, scientists “rely on each other to level-set the truth” – even in spaces where they might be in the minority, such as in a room of politicians engaging in diplomatic talks.

Fieseler pointed to how in environmental justice work, her Indigenous colleagues were good at taking the initiative – and finding the urgency – to demand a seat at the table. “As scientists, we sit around, thinking that one day the phone will ring and someone will invite me to be a part of the conversation – but that’s not how it works.” Diplomacy will always be a necessity as we aim to navigate sharing the vast resources at our disposal, but many scientists hope that we won’t forget to center the pursuit of the truth as we make decisions.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

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