Calm and almost unnaturally blue, the Sargasso Sea owes its name to the unique seaweeds that drift in golden swathes over its surface. But today, its waters are just as likely to offer up some floating plastic trash as they are a frond of sargassum. Plagued by pollution and a host of other threats, the sea and its biodiversity are at serious risk. Thankfully, governments are beginning to take notice. For the very first time, an international alliance has been formed to protect this unique haven of marine life.  

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The Sargasso Sea is home to a surprising variety of marine life - all thanks to the vast rafts of sargassum on its surface. The seaweed gets its name from the Portuguese word for 'grapes'. Image: JCVD100, Flickr

The governments of Bermuda, the Azores, Monaco, United Kingdom and the United States signed a declaration earlier this week committing to the conservation of the Sargasso Sea, the IUCN reports. Once thought to be a biological desert devoid of life in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Sargasso has since surprised scientists with its richness. Dozens of marine species have adapted to living within its sargassum rafts, from turtles, shrimp and crabs, to endemic species like the sargassum anglerfish. Whale migratory routes pass through here, endangered eels spawn and turtle hatchlings find safety. Even birds use it as a convenient feeding stop.  

The new agreement, known as the Hamilton Declaration, seeks to protect this distinctive Sargasso ecosystem. Bound by currents on all sides, the sea easily accumulates plastic waste; in 2010, a team of scientists reported spotting 10 to 20 pieces of mostly plastic garbage every five minutes while sailing in the region. But aside from the threat posed by plastic pollution, the Sargasso is also at risk from wastewater discharge from ships, overfishing, harvesting of Sargassum algae for fertiliser and biofuel production, seabed mining, climate change and ocean acidification.

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Species such as the strange-looking sargassum anglerfish are unique to the area. Image: Daniel Dietrich, Flickr

Given all of these threats, the Hamilton Declaration is being described as a key step towards protecting the region before it is too late. The agreement is part of the Sargasso Sea Alliance – an initiative led by the Government of Bermuda and hosted by IUCN, which is one of its founding partners. "This is a truly historic occasion," says the Sargasso Sea Alliance's executive director David Freestone. "It is the first time an international alliance has been formed to protect an iconic high seas ecosystem, using existing legal international frameworks."

Unlike the Mediterranean, the Northeast Atlantic or Southern Ocean, the Sargasso Sea lacks a regional organisation responsible for its conservation. The Hamilton Declaration will provide a platform for the creation of a Sargasso Sea Commission, whose aim will be to minimize the adverse effects of shipping and fishing in the area, keeping its health, productivity and resilience under review, says the IUCN news release.  

The agreement seeks protection for the Sargasso Sea using international bodies that regulate areas beyond national jurisdiction, such as the International Maritime Organization, regional fisheries authorities and the Convention on Migratory Species.

"The Hamilton Declaration represents a rare oasis of joint voluntary action to protect this high seas gem,” says Kristina Gjerde, IUCN Senior High Seas Policy Advisor. "Strong leadership in protecting and managing the Sargasso Sea should send an important message to the international community that now is the time to come together to protect wildlife throughout our global ocean commons."

Story: IUCN

Top header image: Sean Nash, Flickr