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Saving the high seas, Nature, May 2018.

As the United Nations prepares a historic treaty to protect the oceans, scientists highlight what’s needed for success.

In the early fifteenth century, Portuguese sailors reached a becalmed part of the Atlantic Ocean, coated with mats of gold-brown seaweed. Under windless skies, their ships drifted idly with the currents. The sailors named the seaweed Sargassum — after its resemblance to a Portuguese plant — and the region eventually became known as the Sargasso Sea.

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Initially thought to be an oceanic desert, this part of the Atlantic is now recognized as a watery rainforest. It is one of Earth’s most rare and valuable marine ecosystems, so rich in nutrients that eels travel thousands of kilometres from rivers in Europe and the Americas to breed there.

But the Sargasso Sea is also one of the dirtiest and most damaged parts of the open ocean. The gyre of currents that bounds this shoreless sea entraps vast amounts of plastic waste, and fish stocks are declining in the now-busy shipping route.

Scientists want to conserve the Sargasso ecosystem, and ten governments have signed a non-binding pact to protect it. But their efforts are limited owing to a major gap in international policy. Like half of the planet, the Sargasso Sea doesn’t fall under the control of any single nation.

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Olive Heffernan

Olive Heffernan is a London-based freelance environment writer. Olive mostly writes about climate change and its impacts, but also writes more broadly on sustainable resource use. Here you can find an archive of her recent articles, link to her Twitter feed and her blog.

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