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What's eating you? Solving the seagrass mystery

13 May 2015, Science Network Western Australia (Australia)

Seagrasses in-situ in the Kimberley. Photo: Mat Vanderklift

THE waters of the Bardi Jawi Indigenous Protection Area (IPA), 160km north of Broome, are paradise for seagrass: warm water, lots of light and a pristine, protected environment means these seagrasses grow fast, so why are they so short?

The answer, according to CSIRO marine ecologist Dr Mat Vanderklift, could change the way we think about healthy seagrass systems.

“The dictum in seagrass ecology is that seagrass is mostly not eaten, but that’s perhaps just a modern phenomenon,” he says.

“Most of what we know about seagrass comes from places that have been heavily fished and hunted for centuries, but if we look at places with pretty intact food webs, places like the Kimberley, it seems that seagrass is eaten a lot.”

Working with the Bardi Jawi Rangers, Dr Vanderklift is part of an ongoing collaborative project to learn more about ecological processes in the Kimberley.

“We’re currently focused on understanding how much seagrass is being eaten, and what’s eating it,” he says.

The team’s 2014 work indicates part of the answer lies with the rabbitfish (Siganus lineatus) or barrbal, a food source important to local communities.

The initial clues, he says, came from the mouth morphology and gut contents of a single fish.

Subsequent analysis of 30 barrbal caught in three places around islands in the Bardi Jawi IPA indicated “half to three-quarters of what’s in their stomach is seagrass,” Dr Vanderklift says.

Recently the team have turned their attention to green turtles (Chelonia mydas) or goorlil, tagging the herbivores to study how often and when they use seagrass beds.

“When we’re out there on the boat, we can see as the tide’s rising, these turtles are moving out across the seagrass beds,” he says.

“A logical inference is that they’re coming in to eat the seagrasses.”

Dr Vanderklift says he is excited by what the team has already achieved and will continue to learn.

“The rangers have a wealth of experience and knowledge about the system, and combining that knowledge with some of the approaches we are taking in as scientists is really profitable,” he says.

Established in 2006, the Bardi Jawi Rangers are facilitated by the Kimberley Land Council and manage more than 250km of coastline and 340,700 hectares of land, 95,000ha of it is Bardi Jawi IPA.

“I get to spend time and interact with these guys and learn from them,” Dr Vanderklift says.

“They teach me a lot, they know a lot.”

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Report card to show Great Barrier Reef on mend

12 May 2015, Courier Mail (Australia)

THE health of the Great Barrier Reef is gradually returning, with water quality improving and coral and sea grass blooming.

A yet-to-be-released report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science will show the Reef slowly regaining its health as repairs start to take effect.

“The 2012-13 report card showed a little upswing, and the 2013-14 report card will show a little bit more recovery,’’ said Dr Britta Schaffelke, the scientist leading the team compiling the Reef report card.

“Corals and sea grass are showing an up-kick because we’ve had a few dry years,’’ she said.

The report’s results are at the heart of an investigation by the World Heritage Committee on Australia’s care for the planet’s greatest reef.

If Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt cannot convince UNESCO that Australia is doing enough to turn reef degradation around, the World Heritage area will be listed in danger next month, potentially affecting $5.8 billion in tourist visits annually.

Dr Schaffelke said it could be tricky to distinguish how much the weather influenced water-quality improvements and how much was due to better land management.

“Bearing in mind that degradation has happened over the last 100 years, we cannot expect this to suddenly turn around, especially given that we’ve had extreme weather,’’ she said.

Mr Hunt said no firm date had been set for the report’s release but Australia had addressed every concern raised by the World Heritage Committee and last week set up the Reef Trust specifically to tackle water-quality issues.

Meanwhile, Queensland Resources Council boss Michael Roche has lashed out at Virgin billionaire Richard Branson’s call on Twitter for the reef to be listed in danger by UNESCO.

Mr Roche said Sir Richard had “a barefaced hide” and had simply joined celebrities who had been duped into promoting an irresponsible and inaccurate campaign.

But climate change action group spokesman Josh Creaser yesterday urged Sir Richard to stand strong on his Reef views against coal lobby pressure.

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Guan Eng: Middle Bank approved by BN

12 May 2015, Free Malaysia Today (Malaysia)

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng clarified on Monday that the Middle Bank sea site in Penang Channel was earmarked for reclamation under the Penang Structural Plan 2007.

“It was approved during the previous state government. Why raise the issue now?” he asked at a media conference on the sidelines of the state assembly session.

The proposed reclamation project is part of the state government’s proposed RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan (TMP).

The structural plan, as distinct from the Penang Island Local Plan, governs town and country planning. The structural plan is scheduled for review every five years, the last in 2012.

Tanjong Bunga assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu raised the Middle Bank issue in the House and called on the state government to drop the proposed reclamation project.

He wants the Penang Government to degazette the Middle Bank as a potential reclamation site in the structural plan and regazette it as a marine park. He stressed that the state government does not need to wait for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report on the reclamation.

“Middle Bank should be preserved and conserved as a marine park. It can easily be done by amending the structural plan … no need EIA,” he told the media.

Middle Bank in Penang Channel is located near Sungai Pinang river mouth between the ferry terminal and the Penang Bridge.

The 607ha Middle Bank houses the only seagrass bed in Penang waters and among a handful of its kind in the Straits of Malacca. Seagrass bed covers a third of Middle Bank, which is the second largest in the country after the Sungai Pulai estuary near Tanjung Kupang in the Straits of Johor.

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Time ticking in race to save Barrier Reef

08 May 2015, Sky News Australia (Australia)

It's a great race against time to prevent Australia having its crown jewel - The Great Barrier Reef - put on UNESCO'S World Heritage 'danger' list.

The Queensland and federal governments have taken significant steps this year to retain the reef's status - and it will soon become clear whether the country has done enough to protect the natural wonder.

Many consider an 'in danger' listing an embarrassment given Australia's relative national wealth.

Other sites on the list include the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, Uganda, the Simien National Park in Ethiopia and Timbuktu in Mali.

However, the Everglades National Park in the US and the Maritime Mercantile City of Liverpool in the UK also feature.

The World Heritage Committee decides in June whether to add the reef to its 'in danger' list.

The fight to stop the potential downgrading of the reef's health status by UNESCO is going right down to the wire.

It was only on Thursday that the Queensland and federal governments announced major initiatives to boost protection of the reef.

The state government revealed the make-up of a new 23-strong Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce, part of a long-term reef management plan announced in March, to tackle one of its biggest threats: the quality of water running into the reef and its catchments.

The federal government announced the rollout of a second phase of Reef Trust projects worth $15 million, with almost half to be spent on controlling the outbreak of coral eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

It's not the first time Australia has faced the prospect of the reef being given an endangered listing.

Four years ago, the first whispers of the reef being put on the list of shame came as UNESCO's World Heritage Committee got wind of a plan to build gas plants on the doorstep of the reef.

The Queensland government announced it was in favour of the Curtis Island project, which green groups claimed put the reef at risk.

Soon after UNESCO sent a team to Australia to investigate.

Their findings included broader concerns about the health of the reef, the number of developments along the Queensland coast and the lack of a long-term protection plan.

The following year, in 2012, the committee issued its first warning to Australia: do more to protect one of the great wonders of the world or risk having it listed as a site in danger.

A decision over an 'in danger' listing has since twice been delayed by the committee.

But it's now only three weeks before the World Heritage Committee makes a draft decision on the reef's status, on May 29.

Since 2012, the Commonwealth and Queensland governments have been working to tick off recommendations made by UNESCO.

The federal government commissioned a major assessment of reef management practices which has influenced the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan.

It's hoped this plan - which includes the new taskforce - and other efforts, such as increased funding towards the health of the reef, will be enough for the reef to retain its status.

In its last report, the World Heritage Committee commended efforts to improve water quality and an intention to restrict future port development.

But it also raised concerns about a plan to dump millions of tonnes of dredged spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as part of a project to expand Abbot Point coal port.

That decision has since been reversed and the spoil will be dumped onshore.

In a sign Queensland authorities are concerned, the new Labor government sought urgent amendments to the Reef 2050 plan, within weeks of forming a minority government.

The government successfully fought for the implementation of a ban on sea dumping of dredge spill within the reef World Heritage area and the creation of the taskforce, which will determine how to achieve an 80 per cent cut in nitrogen run-off, and a 50 per cent cut in sediment run-off onto the reef by 2025.

WWF and the Australian Marine Conservation Society told UNESCO early this year that Australia wasn't doing enough to protect the reef.

They want the Commonwealth to commit an extra $500 million over five years to stop pollution harming the reef and ban all industrial scale dumping of dredge spoil in the World Heritage area.

They also want extra resources and powers given to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

However, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has said UNESCO's decision to delay the endangered listing was a sign they recognised the significant work Australia had done to protect the reef.

He also pointed out the state and federal governments are pumping $200 million each year into reef projects.

But whether all this is enough to avoid an in danger listing is ultimately up to the World Heritage Committee.

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limate 'milestone' reached as global carbon dioxide levels surpass 400ppm

07 May 2015, Blue & Green Tomorrow

Global carbon dioxide concentrations have surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first month since measurements began, the latest results from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show. Scientists have said the record is a significant climate milestone.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the concentration of all greenhouse gases, including methane and other gasses that are not included in NOAA’s measurement, must not exceed 450ppm this century in order to limit global warming.

Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, said, “It was only a matter of time that we would average 400ppm globally. We first reported 400ppm when all of our Arctic sites reached that value in the spring of 2012. In 2013 the record at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory first crossed the 400ppm threshold. Reaching 400ppm as a global average is a significant milestone.”

He added, “This marks the fact that humans burning fossil fuels have caused global carbon dioxide concentrations to rise more than 120ppm since pre-industrial times. Half of that rise has occurred since 1980.”

The figures highlight that stabilising the rate of emissions is not enough to avert climate change. NOAA data shows that the average growth rate of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere from 2012 to 2014 was 2.25ppm per year, the highest ever recorded over three consecutive years. This is despite figures from the International Energy Agency indicating that global emissions stalled in 2014.

James Butler, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division, explained, “Elimination of about 80% of fossil fuel emissions would essentially stop the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but concentrations of carbon dioxide would not start decreasing until even further reductions are made and then it would only do so slowly.”

The organisation expects global average levels of carbon dioxide to remain above the 400ppm threshold through May as concentrations peak due to natural cycles on top of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year in April carbon in the atmosphere exceeded 400ppm for the entire month for the first time in at least 800,000 years. Following the record levels, the UN World Meteorological Organisation warned that time was running out to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

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Land project funds hoped to keep reef from 'in danger' list

07 May 2015, Northern Star (Australia)

PROJECTS to control erosion and sediment run-off into the Great Barrier Reef and battle the crown-of-thorns starfish will be funded this year.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said another $15 million of the $140 million Reef Trust has been allocated to projects around Queensland.

Among them were fencing and remediating riparian zones, a tender to reduce fertiliser run-off from sugar cane farms, and $7 million to cull the coral-eating starfish.

The funds come as the government tries to stave off a World Heritage Committee decision that could see the reef listed as "in danger".

While Mr Hunt said the government "knows the reef retains the values for which it was listed as a World Heritage site in 1981", the latest reef Outlook report showed more than half of those values in decline.

Land managers and scientists have urged the government to increase funds by at least $1 billion to prevent the further decline of the reef, in hopes of improving the outlook for the reef.

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New Barrier Reef taskforce announced

07 May 2015, Sky News Australia (Australia)

The Queensland government has announced the make-up of a new Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce promised at the state election.

Great Barrier Reef Minister Steven Miles said the 23-person taskforce, lead by the state's chief scientist Dr Geoff Garrett, includes experts drawn from the science, business, agriculture and community sectors.

'The taskforce has been given the job of grappling head on with one of the most significant threats to the long-term health and sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef: the quality of water running into reef catchments,' Dr Miles said.

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Labor Government moves to protect Great Barrier Reef with dedicated office

07 May 2015, Courier Mail (Australia)

A NEW office will be created within the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to exclusively deal with Great Barrier Reef issues.

State Environment Minister Steven Miles today told Parliament the new office would allow a “higher degree of accountability”.

“I can also announce that an Office of the Great Barrier Reef will be established within the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection,” he said.

“Establishing a single office to oversee and coordinate implementation of our reef commitments across Government will significantly bolster our overall capacity and especially provide a higher degree of accountability and transparency on our progress towards achieving our targets.”

Dr Miles also said Queensland’s chief scientist, Dr Geoff Garrett, had been appointed to head up the taskforce, announced during the election campaign, that will advise the State on how to spend the $100 million over five years it set aside to tackle its “ambitious” water quality targets.

“The taskforce will harness the wealth of expertise, experience and knowledge across reef and water quality issues, land management practice and the different industries that operate within the reef catchment,” Dr Miles said.

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Survey of sea grass aims to educate

26 April 2015, Sarasota Herald-Tribune (USA)

Lee Hassellbring uses an aqua scope to view a sea grass bed in Sarasota Bay off Ken Thompson Park during the 2015 Seagrass Survey early Saturday.

Close to 100 people volunteered Saturday morning to watch grass grow.

That may sound dull on the surface, but the work had deeper meaning. For about four hours, a collection of boaters, kayakers, snorkelers and waders documented the size of underwater sea grass populations across 13 square miles of Sarasota Bay and Roberts Bay.

‘They’re searching around these areas, and they’re identifying sea grass species, three really common ones,” said Ashley Melton, an environmentalist specialist with the county. “They’re also looking at algae coverage, how much of that is growing on the sea grass blade and how much is drift algae flowing over it.”

The area’s population of sea grass, which provides food, shelter and more to aquatic life, has been on the rise in recent years, Melton said. The data collected Saturday by volunteers at the 2015 Sarasota County Seagrass Survey will help scientists ensure the trend stays positive.

In prior years the surveys have been conducted over a period of weeks, Melton said. This year the county hosted the effort on a single day to get more people involved.

“This is more about having fun and about awareness and education than getting really accurate data,” Melton said.

Before this year’s survey began, volunteers were taught how stormwater runoff and pollution can affect sea grass. Melton said excess nitrogen from fertilizers can lead to the formation of algae that blocks sunlight sea grass needs to grow.

“We’re hoping that people will take away seeing that there’s this trickle-down effect from their lawns and what they do around their houses all the way down into the bay,” she said. “We just want people to connect the dots.”

Chris Oliver spent the morning snorkeling in Sarasota Bay, identifying species of sea grass and then relaying his findings to another volunteer seated in a blue kayak. Oliver, 41, said the hands-on experience gave the vegetation value.

“Once people actually go out and do things themselves they have ownership and are invested,” he said.

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Oxygen and temperature levels examined in Kimberley reef study

22 April 2015, Science Network Western (Australia)

MARINE scientists are using results from a recent reef study at Tallon Island, north of Broome, to develop predictive models for use on other reef systems in the Kimberley.

Speaking at the 2015 WAMSI Research Conference, University of Western Australia Associate Professor Ryan Lowe said the interactions occurring in these ‘tidally-forced’ reefs still remain unknown in relation to the widespread literature of wave-dominated reefs worldwide.

“There’s little known about the function and productivity of these reef systems so the goal is to really understand the nutrient dynamics in these types of environments,” he said.

A/Prof Lowe’s field program focused on detailed process-studies of the Tallon Island platform reef to understand the role of extreme environmental variability.

“We wanted to understand how the extreme environmental variability influences the benthic productivity of reef communities,” he says.

Using an array of synchronised current meters, tide gauges and thermistors (measurement and control instrument) A/Prof Lowe and his team researched primary production under extreme physical force by focusing on coral, algae and seagrass.

The results from the intensive field study, conducted three times during the dry and wet seasons, were used to measure the temperature variability across the intertidal reef.

Seagrass feels hot under the collar

A/Prof Lowe said extreme temperature variables were affecting the reef, with spatial patterns causing seagrass warming of up to almost 35 and 40 degrees Celsius.

“One of the striking things is the substantial tidal variations on these reefs,” he said.

“It is good in that it keeps these reefs from drying out during the day but it reduces the exchange of water in the ocean so it allows these extremes in temperatures and biogeochemicals to occur.”

At low tide the scientists were able to track the water mass through drifters and measure the changes in oxygen, nutrients and chlorophyll.

“From this information we can calculate influxes. From oxygen we can estimate rates in production and respiration and from the nutrients and chlorophyll we can estimate the uptake and release,” A/Prof Lowe said.

The scientists noticed extreme variations in oxygen, with primary producers such as seagrasses and algae producing a high amount during the daytime but with a noticeable decrease during the evening.

“However, we are getting twice as much post primary production in the seagrass zone as we are in the algal zone,” he says.

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Sirens of the sea: Can ancient myths protect the original mermaid from extinction?

21 April 2015, Deutsche Welle


Dugongs and manatees are under threat. But folk traditions surrounding these strange beasts - which from the Amazon to Australia are linked with legends of aquatic seduction - could help mobilize in their defense.

The manatee’s tail is shaped like an enormous paddle. From a certain angle, a cartoonish smile seems to grace its heavy snout. And despite its streamlined shape, the animal’s bulk gives it an ungainly appearance. Yet once upon a time, sailors starved of female company are believed to have mistaken these curious beasts for marine enchantresses.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing "mermaids" off the coast of Haiti, but noted that they were "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men."

The explorer's diary entry is now thought to have described the manatee, of which there are four species. Together with the dugong, they make up the order sirenia, also known as sea cows. Wherever in the world sea cows are found, so too are myths that imbue them with symbolic and even supernatural powers.

Now, the sea cow has been cast in a role almost as unlikely as that of Columbus' sirens. This time, the animal is taking center stage in a political dispute between the Japanese government and the Okinawa Prefecture over plans to build a US military base on the coast there.

Japan's last dugongs

Campaigners who have been fighting the base for almost 20 years are increasingly focusing on its environmental impact. They say it will not only have a devastating effect on precious coral reefs, but will also wipe out Japan's last remaining dugong population.

"These dugongs are known as the world's northernmost population of the species, and it is estimated that there are as few as a dozen left," Greenpeace Japan's Yuki Sekimoto told Global Ideas.

In February, the environmental group launched a save the dugong campaign to draw attention to the issue. Regardless, Tokyo is pressing on with its building plans. To the detriment of marine life, Sekimoto said.

"The concrete slabs which were being dumped into the bay have destroyed coral reefs even outside the construction zone, and the seabed in the area houses seagrass which is the main food source of the dugongs."

Cultural importance

Hideki Yoshikawa, co-director of the Citizens' Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, says the dugong's historical and cultural significance make it a naturally important symbol of resistance to the planned military facility.

"Historically, they are really important animals for the Okinawan people," Yoshikawa, an anthropologist, said. “In the past, people regarded them as messengers of sea gods. We have lots of legends and folklore regarding dugongs - one story I really like is that dugongs taught human beings how to mate."

Such legends are echoed across the globe.

Caryn Self Sullivan, a marine biologist at Georgia Southern University in the US has worked on manatee conservation projects around the world, and says where there are manatees, there are almost certainly myths. "In West Africa, the name you hear over and over again is Mami Wata," she said.

Lady of the sea

Mami Wata, as the manatee is known in that part of the world, also refers to a female water spirit, often depicted as a woman with the tail of fish. Mami Wata myths range from that of mystical healer and symbol of fertility to malevolent seductress.

Sullivan related one manatee origin story he is particularly fond of: The manatee was a maiden who was bathing at the river's edge when some strangers approached and stole her clothes. She dove into the water, using a palm leaf to hide herself - which she then used as a paddle, and became the manatee.

Indigenous cultures around the world also have their tales to tell. Some depict the manatee as a beautiful young woman, others talk of the Milky Way being spilt across the heavens when a dugong calf was torn from its mother's breast. Even the name "dugong" comes from a Malay word meaning "lady of the sea."

Like Columbus, those who have studied the animals say they boast little in the way of feminine beauty. But they also point out that sirenia are among the few mammals that have a pair of teats positioned under their forelimbs. There have even been reports of manatee mothers cradling their young in their flippers to feed them.

"When you look at the dugongs, when you see the calf swimming with its mother, it reminds you of us somehow," said Yoshikawa.

Good eating

Helene Marsh, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at James Cook University in Australia, has been studying dugongs since the 1970s. She was first drawn to the species due to its cultural significance for indigenous peoples.

"In Australia, they are a huge symbol of indigenous identity," Marsh told DW. "If you go to Torres Strait, you see dugong symbols everywhere - on school uniforms, on buses. And in Thailand, in Palau they are very special animals."

Special in a variety of ways. As Marsh puts its, "they are incredibly good to eat." She says dugong hunting has been going on in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea for 4,000 years, without endangering the species.

She argues that vessel strikes, gill nets and habitat loss - which have put dugongs at risk elsewhere off the Australian coast - pose a much greater threat, and that the tradition of dugong hunting means its protection is closely tied to the preservation of indigenous culture.

But she admits there are few places in the world where dugong hunting can be practiced sustainably. Almost everywhere sirenia are found, they are under threat.

Conservation success story

In Florida, recent surveys suggest manatee numbers are rising. This has prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider changing its status from "endangered" to "threatened." But some fear that could impact funding for their conservation.

"Certainly they have recovered significantly," said Sullivan. "Whether they have recovered enough to reduce protection - I don't think so."

The Florida manatee is the only sea cow species not listed as in danger of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But no population of sirenia is under greater threat than the Okinawa dugong.

Yoshikawa says that while objections to the planned base have to do with resistance to the US military presence in Okinawa, protecting the dugong - which has the status of a "natural monument" under Japan's law for the protection of cultural properties - has become a rallying point for protesters. And it's even reawakened an ancient connection to the natural world.

"The extinction of the dugongs symbolizes losing something very important," Yoshikawa said. "One good aspect of this long struggle against the construction of this base is that the people here - myself included - are learning more about the environment."

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DAP man protests against Penang reclamation

21 April 2015, The Star Online (Malaysia)

Important plants: A visitor holding up a handful of seagrass at Middle Bank.

A giant banner has appeared at Middle Bank protesting against possible reclamation under the Penang Structure Plan 2007.

Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu put up the 10m x 3m banner yesterday with the words “Save Penang. No To Reclamation Project 2015” at the site, which is also known as Pulau Gazumbo, located between the Penang Bridge and the Sungai Pinang river mouth.

“The site is an important breeding and foraging ground for marine organisms and should be gazetted as a protected area,” said the DAP assemblyman.

“The Penang Structure Plan is renewed every five years and I hope that under the 2012 plan, which is still under review, the state will seriously consider protecting the marine ecosystem,” he told reporters after visiting the site with Pulau Tikus assemblyman Yap Soo Huey.

Teh, an environmentalist, added that he had highlighted the matter in the state assembly in 2012 but there was no response from the state.

“I hope the leaders and the state government will be transparent on the issue because this concerns the state’s marine ecology. Seagrass is not only a marine habitat but also a food source for sea horses,” he said.

Teh said there were only four seagrass beds along the Straits of Malacca, from Johor to Phuket.

“The seagrass patch in Middle Bank is the second largest in peninsular Malaysia after Merambong in Gelang Patah, Johor.”

It was reported that the Penang Development Corporation had called for a Request for Proposal to reclaim the area.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng had said the reclamation project would only proceed if the environmental impact assessment permitted it.

Universiti Malaysia Terengganu School of Marine Science and Environment dean Prof Dr Zulfigar Yasin said Middle Bank dissipated the impact of the 2004 tsunami.

On the proposed 3km Penang Sky Cab project linking the mainland to the island, Teh said it would be wiser to build a double-storey tunnel that allowed pedestrians to travel across on one level and another for a Mass Rapid Transit like in many advanced countries.

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Dredging of Queensland inlet for ships dropped on environmental grounds

18 April 2015, The Guardian (Australia)

Labor criticises the former Newman government for committing $40m to the Trinity Inlet project, saying the money would never have made it viable

Plans to dredge a far north Queensland inlet for a potential cruise ship terminal have been abandoned by the state government on environmental and financial grounds.

The state treasurer, Curtis Pitt, has released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposal, which could have involved dumping Cairns Port dredge spoil on waters near the Great Barrier Reef.

He criticised the former Newman government for committing $40m to the Trinity Inlet project in 2012, saying the money never would have made it viable.

“The proposal ... would cost more than $100m and the land-based dumping options around $365m,” he said.

“It was never fully-funded and anyone who looks at the proposal and its environmental and economic impacts can see why the government is not proceeding with it.”

The Palaszczuk government has withdrawn the allocated money.

The project would have involved widening, deepening and lengthening the existing outer shipping channel.

It would have been constructed and operational by 2017, according to the draft EIS.

The statement acknowledged there are sensitive ecological receptors, including seagrass and corals, which could have been adversely affected by at-sea dredge spoil dumping.

“The world heritage values which ensure the Great Barrier Reef remains listed as World Heritage are required to be protected,” it said.

“While none of the proposed placement options are immediately located within or adjacent to key sensitive receptors, seagrass and reef communities do occur in the wider vicinity.”

The government’s announcement has been welcomed by conservation groups who branded the plan ill-conceived and unnecessary.

“Cairns’ natural beauty alongside the Great Barrier Reef makes it a huge tourism drawcard,” Australian Marine Conservation Society spokeswoman Felicity Wishart said.

“This development threatened the very environmental values that people treasure when they come to Cairns.”

Comment has been sought from the state opposition.

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ABS data shows reef coral, seagrass loss

17 April 2015, Gladstone Observer (Australia)

STARTLING statistics have revealed a severe drop in the reef's seagrass, coral and water quality in the Fitzroy region and the Mackay and Whitsunday region.

Figures show the Fitzroy region has recorded a decline of more than 50% in seagrass and coral quality on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Mackay and Whitsunday region has had a 45% drop in water quality.

On Thursday the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the first ecosystem accounts that examined data taken over the past decade of the reef's condition and scored it accordingly.

It showed seagrass condition had dropped by more than half in the Fitzroy area; going from 100 points when data started being collected in 2005-06 to just 38 points in 2012.

There has also been a decline in seagrass condition in the Mackay and Whitsunday region, going from 100 points in 2005 to its lowest level of 21 points in 2011.

It then bounced back to 38.4 points in 2012.

Water quality has been following similar patterns.

The score decreased from 100 points to 59 points between 2005 and 2011 in the Fitzroy area.

It dropped to 54 points in the Mackay and Whitsunday region during the same timeframe.

Coral has also been declining.

The ABS found the condition of coral dropped significantly in the Fitzroy area between 2007 and 2013; going from 100 points to just 37.

The drop in the Mackay and Whitsunday region was not as significant, going from 100 points to 95 points between 2007 and 2013.

The ABS report - An Experimental Ecosystem Account for the Great Barrier Reef Region went into detail about the seascape, fishing, landscape, biodiversity, agriculture and tourism.

Figures showed the number of fish had also fluctuated but over the long term were steady.

In the Fitzroy area, it bounced from 114 points in 2005 to 95 points in 2011.

It then moved down slightly to 92 points in 2013.

In the Mackay and Whitsunday region, the number of fish has remained steady since 2001.

Statistics also showed the number of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef fluctuated, going from 17.4 million people in 2009-10 to 15.6 million in 2010-11.

It then bounced back up until 2013, when 18 million visitors were recorded.

The amount of money made from the reef's tourism has also fluctuated, going from $8.2 billion in 2009-10 to $8.6 billion in 2012-13.

The report stated climate change, declining water quality from catchment runoff and loss of coastal habitats from fishing and coastal development were the main factors affecting the reef's condition.

"Many of these threats are the result of regional or global actions, beyond the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park," the report said.

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Dugong feeding trails found close to Henoko relocation area

16 April 2015, Ryukyu shimpo (Japan)

Dugong feeding trails in Oura Bay on April 15 (Photograph provided by the Diving Team Rainbow).

Dugong feeding trails were found on April 15 at a depth of 19.7 meters in a part of Oura Bay adjacent to the planned Henoko base. Dugong feeding trails have never been found at such a depth in Japan before. There is a possibility that the seabed-boring survey off Henoko has driven the animals into deeper waters.

The Dugong Network Okinawa, Northern Limit Dugong Research Team Zan, and Diving Team Rainbow of the Helicopter Base Objection Association found the feeding trails outside the temporary restricted area. The divers confirmed 35 feeding trails in an area of the sea-bed, 50 meters in diameter. They say the latest trails were made about a week ago. The length of the trails are relatively short, at between 1.9 and 10.5 meters. The trails seem to have been made by the youngest of the three dugongs that the Okinawa Defense Bureau claim inhabit the waters around the main island of Okinawa.

Morihide Tanahara, a representative of the Dugong Network Okinawa said, “I think the boring survey forced the marine mammals to move to a deeper part of the sea to eat. The dugong pushed itself to be in such deep-water.” Mariko Abe of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan said, “It is rare that dugongs eat at a depth of 19.7 meters under water.” Abe added, “There is a high possibility that the boring survey could have driven the marine mammals out of the shallow waters, where dugong feeding trails have previously been observed.”

There have been concerns that the boring survey could drive dugongs away from their feeding sites. Although the society requested the U.S. military in Japan carry out a survey on dugong feeding habits within the restricted area, the request was rejected. A survey carried out by the defense bureau confirmed the existence of dugongs on September 1 2014. Since then, the bureau has not made any announcements confirming the existence of dugongs.

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In praise of seagrasses and their special place in the Pacific

16 April 2015, Radio Australia (Australia)

An international project that's helping save the threatened dugongs of Solomon Islands and Vanuatu has produced some amazing facts about their seagrass habitats.

Pacific Regional Environment Program's migratory species specialist, Mike Donoghue says they store carbon dioxide 35 times faster than rainforests can and ecology assessments rate them as three times more valuable than coral reefs.

They're clearly an underwater miracle plant and James Cook University researcher Len McKenzie says the value of seagrass is not widely appreciated.

To listen to the radio interview: Click Here

Protecting dugongs - just what is the scale of the threat to the sea cow?

15 April 2015, Radio Australia (Australia)

Dugongs - or sea cows as they can be known because they graze on underwater grasses - are vulnerable to extinction while seagrasses are one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.

The four-year project has just started and the Pacific Regional Environment Program's migratory species specialist, Mike Donoghue, says the four-year project will have a focus on Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.

To listen to the radio interview: Click Here

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