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Abundance of Chesapeake Bay's underwater grasses increases

22 April 2014, William and Mary News

Monitoring of underwater bay grasses is now being reported by salinity zone, a more ecological relevant scheme that one based on geography.

An annual survey led by researchers at William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science shows that the abundance of underwater grasses in Chesapeake Bay increased 24 percent between 2012 and 2013, reversing the downward trend of the previous three years. The increase reflects an upsurge from 48,195 acres to 59,927 acres.

VIMS tracks the abundance of underwater grasses as an indicator of Bay health for the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal-state partnership established in 1983 to monitor and restore the Bay ecosystem.

VIMS researchers estimate the annual acreage of underwater Bay grasses through aerial surveys flown from late spring to early fall. This year, the VIMS team for the first time categorized abundance using four different salinity zones, which are home to underwater grass communities that respond differently to storms, drought, and other adverse growing conditions. Reporting grass abundance by salinity zone makes it easier for scientists to connect changes in grass communities with changes in growing conditions through time.

Scientists attribute this year’s boost in bay-grass abundance to the rapid expansion of widgeongrass in the saltier waters of the mid-Bay, from the Pocomoke Sound to the Honga River south of Cambridge, Maryland. The VIMS team also observed an increase in the acreage of the Susquehanna Flats, and a modest recovery of eelgrass in shallow salty waters, where the hot summers of 2005 and 2010 had led to dramatic diebacks. A lack of sunlight due to algal growth and suspended sediment remains a challenge for eelgrass growth in deeper waters.

Professor Robert “JJ” Orth, head of the Seagrass Monitoring and Restoration Program at VIMS, says “The expansion of widgeongrass in the mid-Bay’s saltier waters was one of the driving factors behind the overall rise in bay-grass abundance. While widgeongrass is a boom-and-bust species—notorious for being incredibly abundant one year and entirely absent the next—its growth is nevertheless great to see.”

The VIMS team began tracking the abundance of underwater bay grasses in 1978, and initially segmented their data by geographic zone due to constraints imposed by then-existing computer technologies.

“We’ve known for many years that reporting by salinity zone would be more ecologically relevant,” says Orth, “but we also knew it would be a massive project to update all our past data into the new scheme.” The decision to do so was made in consultation with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Workgroup, with serious discussion of the planned change beginning around 2010.

David Wilcox, a GIS programmer/analyst in the Seagrass program at VIMS, says the switchover from geographic to salinity zones “has been quite a journey.” “This is something that we’ve been working on for four years now,” says Wilcox. “We got the go-ahead to make the change about two years ago, and this year we made the push to get it done.” That push required every available moment, with Wilcox implementing final edits in the last few days before the Chesapeake Bay Program’s release of the 2013 Seagrass Report, fittingly scheduled for Earth Day on April 22.

Lee Karrh, program chief for Living Resource Assessment at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s SAV Workgroup, says “Since 1984, Chesapeake Bay Program partners have reported abundance of underwater grasses by geographic zone. These artificial boundaries worked for some time, but the switch to mapping grasses by salinity zones makes more ecological sense. Reworking our historic data was hard work, but doing so makes it easier to understand patterns in grass growth.”

Underwater Bay grasses are critical to the Bay ecosystem. They provide habitat and nursery grounds for fish and blue crabs, serve as food for animals such as turtles and waterfowl, clear the water by reducing wave action, absorb excess nutrients, and reduce shoreline erosion. They are also an excellent measure of the Bay's overall condition because their health is closely linked to water quality.

2013 findings in perspective

  • Across the entire Chesapeake, bay-grass abundance has fluctuated between 38,958 acres (1984) and 89,659 acres (2002), averaging 65,468 acres. This is 32% of the 185,000-acre Bay restoration goal.
  • Bay grass abundance in the Tidal Fresh Salinity Zone (no salt) has ranged from a low of 6,900 acres (1995) to a high of 25,481 acres (2008) averaging 12,399 acres. In 2013, bay grass abundance in this zone measured 13,990, achieving 68 percent of the zone goal, an increase of 1,841 acres over 2012 coverage.
  • Bay grass abundance in the Oligohaline Salinity Zone (slightly salty) has ranged from a low of 653 acres (1984) to a high of 13,918 (2005) acres, averaging 6,680 acres. In 2013, bay grass abundance in this zone measured 5,590 acres, achieving 54 percent of the zone goal, an increase of 78 acres over 2012 coverage.
  • Bay grass abundance in the Mesohaline Salinity Zone (moderately salty) has ranged from a low of 15,636 acres (1984) to a high of 48,443 (2005), averaging 27,851 acres. In 2013, bay grass abundance in this zone measured 25,579 acres, achieving 21 percent of the zone goal, an increase of 5,958 acres over 2012 coverage.
  • Bay grass abundance in the Polyhaline Salinity Zone (very salty) has ranged from a low of 9,959 acres (2006) to a high of 24,015 (1993), averaging 17,887 acres. In 2013, bay grass abundance in this zone measured 14,768 acres, achieving 44 percent of the zone goal, an increase of 3,859 acres over 2012 coverage.

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Africa's Submerged Savannas

21 April 2014, NatGeo News Watch, Posted by Paul Rose in Explorers Journal (blog)


A sea pen pops up in an eelgrass meadow at Matamba estuary. Sea pens are not plants, but colonies of polyps where one individual grows large and serves as a stalk from which others reach out to capture food in their tentacles. (Source: Kike Ballesteros)
The small Halophila grass in Mozambique. (Source: Kike Ballesteros)

There are many iconic images of Africa, from camels in the Sahara desert to gorillas in the mountain rainforest of Virunga or surfing hippos in Loango beaches, but the African wilderness is probably most identified by the savanna—the open grassland where elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, and lions roam.

Although some scattered trees thrive in the savanna, most of is covered by grass, the major element that feeds wildebeest, zebras, and other herbivores, which are in turn prey of the big cats. Grasses are a kind of plant that prosper better in semiarid climates with short seasonal periods of good environmental conditions, when they grow quickly and abundantly. However their growth is usually limited by the scarcity of water.

Strange as it seems, grasses also develop where water is plentiful: in the ocean. Oceanic grasses or seagrasses have terrestrial ancestors: they have adapted secondarily to water. This is a striking difference with seaweeds, whose evolution has been largely underwater their entire history. Moreover, seagrasses produce flowers, and fruits are their major method of dispersal—a feature that is only explained by their aerial origin.

Estuaries are for sure the habitat of seagrasses’ first ancestors and they still are their preferred place. These last three days, because of the high seas, our expedition has been confined to the estuary of the Matamba river, close to the city of Inhambane. We have dived extensively in the waters of the estuary and several times we dropped onto seagrass. The diversity of grass here is great. I have found up to six species in a seagrass patch of hardly 100 square meters. More species than in the entire Mediterranean Sea! In fact, the Indian Ocean is the world’s hotspot for seagrass biodiversity.

Who Does What

These seagrass meadows are the marine counterpart of the terrestrial savannas. They hold large populations of animals that graze on them, from sea hares and small crustaceans to sea urchins and herbivorous fish. Seagrass meadows are also critical to maintain the dugongs’ populations as they almost exclusively feed on them. Green turtles also depend on seagrass to feed.

These two animals are the biggest herbivores in the seagrass meadows, with a role similar to antelopes and zebras or elephants in the savanna. Most crabs and some snails play the role of scavengers—the function played by hyenas and vultures in the savanna. The carnivores here can be cautious, like sea stars and sea horses, or eager, like jacks and barracudas. The top predators—the lions of seagrass meadows—are sharks.

Dugongs and green turtles are in danger all over the Indian Ocean, threatened by habitat destruction and hunting. So are the bullsharks which were the major estuarine predators until humans began to fish them. Seagrass itself is apparently doing well in the bottoms of Matamba estuary, but big herbivorous fish and dugongs are becoming scarce.

Our First Dugong Sighting

Yesterday afternoon Janneman and Andrea, our partners of the Megafauna Foundation, spotted a dugong and her calf close to Linga Linga, in the mouth of the estuary. They called us by radio and we quickly launched a small team to join them and obtain some images.

We tried to get close but dugongs are extremely suspicious animals. Scott Ressler, one of our terrestrial filmmakers, got some two-second shots of dugongs’ backs from above. Manu San Félix tried to shoot them underwater. I followed him. The sun was low in the skyline, the water was murky and visibility was only seven feet. We made two unsuccessful attempts to approach them. We free dived again and again. We found sickle-leaved seagrass, a favourite food for dugongs, everywhere. It is clear that seagrass abundance is not limiting dugong populations. Humans are.

These have been the first sights of dugongs in our expedition. For the days to ahead we will face the waters of Bazaruto National Park, which hold the largest population of dugongs in Africa. Thus, we will surely have better opportunities to record them on film. But few dugongs still graze seagrass in the Matamba estuary, where they are extremely vulnerable. They are the elephants of the underwater savannah and as such they need protection. Our expedition is here to provide a promising future for the calf we saw yesterday. And we will do our best to succeed.

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Read All Pristine Seas: Mozambique Blog Posts



UF/IFAS research findings shed light on seagrass needs

17 April 2014, University of Florida (USA)

Seagrass beds represent critical and threatened coastal habitats around the world, and a new University of Florida study shows how much sunlight seagrass needs to stay healthy.

Loss of seagrass means fish, crabs and other animals lose their homes and manatees and sea turtles lose a source of food. Nutrients, such as phosphorous, may prevent seagrass from getting the sunlight it needs to thrive. Nutrients may come from many sources, among them fertilizers used in agriculture, golf courses and suburban lawns, pet waste and septic tank waste.

Scientists often use seagrass to judge coastal ecosystems’ vitality, said Chuck Jacoby, a courtesy associate professor in the Department of Soil and Water Science and co-author of a new UF study that examines light and seagrass health.

“By protecting seagrass, we protect organisms that use seagrass and other photosynthetic organisms that need less light,” said Jacoby, a faculty member in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

When nutrient levels are too high, microorganisms in the water, called phytoplankton, use these nutrients and light to grow and reproduce until they become so abundant that they block sunlight seagrass needs to survive, said Zanethia Choice, a former UF graduate student who led the investigation.

“Seagrass can cope with short-term light reductions, but if those conditions last too long or occur too frequently, seagrass will deteriorate and ultimately die,” Choice said. “Good water clarity is vital for healthy coastal systems.”

Choice studied seagrass beds in a 700,000-acre swath off the coast of Florida’s Big Bend.

Choice, now a natural resource specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Mississippi, conducted the study as part of her master’s thesis, under the supervision of Jacoby and Tom Frazer, a professor of aquatic ecology and director of the UF School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Choice combined 13 years of light and water quality data and two years of seagrass samples from habitats near the mouths of eight rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

Seagrass off the Steinhatchee, Suwannee, Waccasassa, Withlacoochee, Crystal, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka and Weeki Wachee rivers constitutes part of the second largest seagrass bed in Florida. The largest bed is in Florida Bay, between the Everglades and the Florida Keys, Jacoby said.

Choice wanted to see how much light was needed to keep the seagrass in this region healthy. She found different seagrass species needed varying amounts of light, ranging from 8 to 27 percent of the sunlight at the water’s surface.

The UF/IFAS study will give water resource managers, such as the state Department of Environmental Protection, water-clarity targets they can use to set proper nutrient levels for water bodies, Jacoby said.

Reducing nutrient levels can promote the health of seagrass and coastal waters. For example, concerted efforts to reduce nutrients flowing into Tampa Bay over the past 20-plus years resulted in a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen, a 50 percent increase in water clarity and a return of lost seagrass, according to a study conducted by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Unlike Tampa Bay, there is no evidence that elevated nutrient levels in Choice’s study area have led to loss of seagrass. UF researchers are trying to make sure nutrients do not pollute the seagrass beds off the coast of the Big Bend, and they hope their results will guide managers as they strive to prevent any damage.

The study of seagrass light requirements is published in this month’s issue of the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

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Declining catch rates in Caribbean green turtle fishery may be result of overfishing

16 April 2014, Science Codex (Nicaragua)


A green turtle is being unloaded by fishers in Río Grande Bar community. A 20-year assessment of Nicaragua's legal, artisanal green sea turtle fishery by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Florida has uncovered a stark reality: greatly reduced overall catch rates of turtles in what may have become an unsustainable take.(Source: Cathi L. Campbell.)
Green turtles are being transported to slaughter in Bluefields, Nicaragua.(Source: Cynthia J Lagueux.)

A 20-year assessment of Nicaragua's legal, artisanal green sea turtle fishery has uncovered a stark reality: greatly reduced overall catch rates of turtles in what may have become an unsustainable take, according to conservation scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and University of Florida.

During the research period, conservation scientists estimated that more than 170,000 green turtles were killed between 1991 and 2011, with catch rates peaking in 1997 and 2002 and declining steeply after 2008, likely resulting from over-fishing. The trend in catch rates, the authors of the assessment results maintain, indicates the need for take limits on this legal fishery.

The study now appears in the online journal PLOS ONE. The authors are: Cynthia J. Lagueux and Cathi L. Campbell of the University of Florida (formerly of the Wildlife Conservation Society), and Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"The significant decrease in the catch rates of green turtles represents a concern for both conservationists and local, coastal communities who depend on this resource," said Dr. Lagueux, lead author of the study. "We hope this study serves as a foundation for implementing scientifically based limits on future green turtle take."

Caribbean coastal waters of Nicaragua contain extensive areas of sea grass, principal food source for green turtles, the only herbivorous sea turtle species. Green turtles in turn support a number of indigenous Miskitu and Afro-descendent communities that rely on the marine reptiles for income (by selling the meat) and as a source of protein.

The catch data used by the researchers to estimate trends was gathered by community members at 14 different sites located in two geographically political regions of the Nicaraguan coast. The research team analyzed the long-term data set to examine catch rates for the entire fishery, each region, and for individual turtle fishing communities using temporal trend models.

Over the duration of the assessment, the scientists recorded that at least 155,762 green turtles were caught; the overall estimated catch (factoring in estimated take during periods when data were not recorded) was 171,556 turtles. The average catch rate per fishing trip (assuming average fishing effort in terms of nets used and trip length) revealed an overall decline from 6.5 turtles to 2.8 turtles caught, representing a 56 percent decline over two decades.

In individual communities, catch rate declines ranged between 21 percent and 90 percent in green turtles caught over the 20-year period.

"These declining catch rates align with our survival rate estimates of green turtles exposed to the Nicaragua turtle fishery and population modelling, which suggested the fishery was not sustainable at high take levels reported in the 1990s," said Dr. Cathi Campbell.

The steep declines in green turtle catch rates, the researchers maintain, indicate a potential decline of green turtle populations that use Nicaragua's foraging grounds, particularly smaller rookeries in the Caribbean. The scientists note that the study results highlight the need for not only close monitoring of rookeries in the region, but also in-water aggregations of green turtles. Further, future research efforts should include the use of molecular technology to better refine Caribbean green turtle genetic stocks, specifically to identify populations most at risk from turtle fisheries.

"Given the importance of green turtles to Nicaragua's past, present and future, we encourage the communities, governmental agencies, and conservation groups to take measures that conserve and sustain these globally threatened populations, and to work together to ensure that the communities have alternative sources of protein and income into the future," said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Director of WCS's Marine Program.

Growing up to 400 pounds in weight, the green turtle is the second largest sea turtle species next to the leatherback turtle. The reptile inhabits the tropical and subtropical waters of the world. The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN's Red List and on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) as an Appendix I species, a designation which prohibits all international commercial trade by member countries. In addition to the threat from overfishing (intentional take), the green turtle is at risk from bycatch in various fisheries (unintended take), poaching of eggs at nesting beaches, habitat deterioration and loss due to coastal development and climate change effects, and pollution.

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Dugong carcass found off resort

14 April 2014, The Star Online (Malaysia)

KOTA KINABALU: The recent discovery of a decomposing carcass has raised questions about the fate of a rare marine mammal believed to be found only at an island off Sabah’s northern Kota Belud district.

The body of an adult 1.5m-long dugong was found by staff and guests of a resort at Pulau Mantanani at about 3pm last Friday.

Bembaran Beach Resort owner Zamzani Pandikar Amin said the dugong could be one of the 12 to 15 mammals that were found grazing on sea grass at the shallow reefs around the island.

“Sighting these animals is becoming rare compared to 10 years ago. This is a big loss of these unique creatures,” he said, adding that, as far as he knew, Mantanani was the only known grazing ground for dugongs in Malaysia.

“It’s sad that the island is the only sanctuary for these special animals.”

He said the dead dugong was rotting when it was found, indicating that it had died several days ago.

Zamzani said as there were no obvious external injuries on the carcass, it could have died from internal wounds.

He said among the possible causes was fish bombing which was still prevalent around the island.

“It could have been that someone had tossed in an explosive into the water and this creature happened to be nearby,” Zamzani added.

He said this was the first sighting of a whole dugong carcass at sea, adding that dismembered parts of such an animal had been found washed ashore several years ago.

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Research links turtle deaths to dredging in harbour

07 March 2014, The Reporter (Australia)

A MAJOR dredging project in Gladstone harbour may have been linked to a spate of turtle deaths in the area, new research by James Cook University has claimed.

The research looked at links between turtle health and marine water quality across the Great Barrier Reef, and contradicts previous State Government reports that largely blamed a flood for the problems.

Led by JCU water quality expert Dr Jon Brodie, the report said a dredging project underway in the harbour in 2011-12 may have exacerbated turtle health problems.

The report found that turtle strandings and deaths across the reef in recent years were suspected to be the result of a "herpes virus" in association with a secondary factor, "the isolation of which remains elusive".

While the 2010 flood was a possible link in the Gladstone harbour strandings and deaths, having reduced seagrass cover, it was also "likely that the elevated metals found in stranded turtles resulted from metals mobilised through dredging".

The report also said the "leakage" of dredging sediment from a bund wall built to hold the spoil may have further added to stress the turtles were under.

The failure of that bund wall is currently being investigated by a review ordered by the Federal Government, tasked with finding out if there were any unacceptable failures in the bund wall structure.

Dr Brodie's research cited a previous study into metals in the blood of 56 turtles that were stranded or died at the time, finding it was likely "that the large scale dredging in Gladstone Harbour may be associated with these elevated metals".

While the Gladstone Ports Corporation, which undertook the dredging, has consistently claimed the turtle strandings and deaths were not associated with the dredging, the JCU study joins a growing number of counter-claims.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has previously noted all the specific causes of a fish disease outbreak in the harbour may remain "unknown".

However, reports last week confirmed at least one noted chemical in the harbour was overlooked during state and federal government investigations into the 2011 outbreak

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Cape York groups to share in $2m of Reef Rescue funds

04 April 2014, ABC News (Australia)

A new project to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef off Cape York in far north Queensland has secured $2 million in federal funding over three years.

Cape York Natural Resource Management (NRM) and Cape York Sustainable Futures put forward a joint project to the Reef Rescue program.

The NRM's Bob Frazer says a large part of the project involves working with landholders in hotspots for sediment and nutrient run-off between Laura and Princess Charlotte Bay.

"So Sustainable Futures will be planning with landholders and graziers in those hotspots and would deliver them grant money, around the dollar for dollar, to actually bring about land management practice changes and put in infrastructure that'll reduce the impact," he said.

"The other component is working with the farmers, current and intending farmers in the Lakeland area, to implement best management practice to help them to plan their enterprises and soil test and look at water use efficiency and things like that.

"That will reduce the impact into the Laura Basin which runs into the Normanby."

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Seagrass conservation in Indonesia protects fisheries

03 April 2014, World Fishing (UK)

Research by Swansea University and partners shows that protecting seagrass meadows throughout Indonesia is critical for national food security and important fisheries exports.

The research by scientists at the Seagrass Ecosystems Research Group at Swansea and Cardiff Universities, and in collaboration with an Indonesian NGO (FORKANI) and the Wildlife Conservation Society, has examined how seagrass meadows that are a globally threatened ecosystem are important for marine fisheries throughout Indonesia.

The recent surveys conducted in the Wakatobi National Park in SE Sulawesi build on previous case studies by the authors in Indonesia and throughout the Indo-Pacific that clearly show how seagrass is both locally threatened as well as being a source of hugely important local food.

The recent studies that included in water fish surveys, fisheries landing surveys and household interviews found that at least 407 species of fish are present in Indonesian seagrass meadows and that in the Wakatobi 68% of fishing activity is in seagrass. Fisheries surveys also revealed that 62% of fish caught use seagrass meadows. Of significance was the favoured status of seagrass fish species such as the White-spotted spinefoot (Siganuscanaliculatus) known locally as ‘Kola’. 60% of people favoured fish species that use seagrass meadows as habitat.

Explaining the significance of the research, Dr Richard Unsworth said: “This case study in the Wakatobi highlights the role of seagrasses in supplying every day food needs to local people. Unfortunately these important seagrass meadows in the Wakatobi and throughout Indonesia are being degraded at an alarming rate from a range of diverse factors including poor water quality, coastal development and destructive fishing practices. Seagrass meadows need to be placed high on the Indonesian conservation agenda, not just to protect biodiversity but to protect national food security and economically important fisheries exports”.

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What's an Acre of Seagrass Worth? $80000 in Fish Alone

31 March 2014, National Geographic (USA)

For decades, dire tales of collapsing fish stocks were told, only to fall on deaf ears.

Then, in a 2008 report, “Sunken Billions,” the World Bank and the FAO began to couch the problem in entirely new terms – financial terms. They estimated that $50 billion was lost each year due to poor fisheries management. That staggering figure caught the eye of finance ministers, development agencies, and economists around the globe.

At last, the conservation community discovered how to get attention, but it raised a new question: what to do about it? To truly turn the tide, they knew, meant not only taking fewer fish, but also producing more. That’s where seagrass, mangroves, and other habitat come in. These habitats are nurseries to new generations of commercially valuable fish and it is time we recognize the value of those important ocean services on Earth’s balance sheet.

Juvenile fish have it hard from day one. They are at the mercy of the elements and voracious predators. The odds of a microscopic fish larva making it to adulthood are one-in-a-million. Seagrasses represent the rare safe haven, providing much needed food and shelter. And yet, like the fish, seagrass beds have also been disappearing. Some say the world loses a soccer field worth of seagrass every half-hour, further contributing to the decline in fish.

New fisheries management has to consider the whole life cycle of the fish—where they are born, where they spend their lives, as well as how they die.

In places where habitat loss harms fish, protection and restoration are a very real opportunity. A new study, supported by The Nature Conservancy, tells us just how real. The report tells us that each square meter of seagrass habitat we save in southern Australia could add nearly one kilogram of fish each year. Said in a different way, every acre of seagrass could add US$80,000 of commercially important fish to the oceans every year.

No one is blind to the fact that seagrass restoration is both technically challenging and financially expensive, but these figures show that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Some restoration efforts could pay for themselves in just five years. In these terms, seagrass restoration is a no brainer.

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Proposed projects 'will destroy Krabi'

07 March 2014, The Nation (Thailand)

Coal seaport, power plant will ruin largest seagrass area, fossilised shells

Fossilised shells at a beach dating back 75 million years and over 10,000 rai of the country's second-largest seagrass area in Krabi would be destroyed if the coal seaport and coal-fired power-plant project go ahead, an environmental watch agency warned yesterday.

Adding to the concerns over the project, the local tourism association in Koh Lanta is worried that the project would jeopardise the area's tourism, with the industry generating between Bt1.4 billion and Bt1.5 billion annually for the local economy.

In response to the backlash, a consultancy company hired by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), which would construct the plant, will on Sunday listen to public concerns about the project in Krabi.

"We fear that the public scoping for the Ban Klong Ruo Coal Seaport project will not be different to the one organised earlier for the coal plant," said Chariya Senpong, a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia's Climate Change and Energy division.

"Both assessments only identify the impacts that they are able to mitigate, and play down the environmental, societal and economic harm the project will cause."

The 700MW power plant would be fuelled by bituminous and sub-bituminous coal, which would likely be imported from Indonesia, Australia and Africa.

Construction of the Bt30-billion facility is scheduled to be completed in 2019. Egat is conducting an environmental and health-impact assessment of the project, which is expected to be completed soon.

"The report will just be procedural compliance for Egat to carry on with the project," Chariya said.

A Greenpeace report states that the marine life surrounding the proposed project and the sea route to transport coal to the port includes the seagrass area, which covers 17,725 rai, dugongs, nursing grounds for aquatic species, a mangrove forest and over 21 species of wild birds.

The mouth of Krabi River is also recognised under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

Koh Lanta Tourism Association chairman Therapot Kasirawat said he was worried that hundreds of thousands of tourists, especially from Sweden, would shun the area if the project went ahead. Therapot said about 150,000 Swedish tourists annually visited Koh Lanta, staying on average 19 days, while about 95,000 visited Koh Phi Phi.

"We learnt that they [tourists] will go to other places once they see the first coal ship pass the island," he said.

More information: Click Here



Getting firm on fertilizer

06 March 2014, Florida Today (USA)



Fertilizing yards during summer months may soon be illegal in unincorporated Brevard County, in an effort to sow greener pastures for the Indian River Lagoon. If commissioners approve the rainy-season fertilizer ban tonight, Brevard would join more than 50 local governments statewide — including several within the county — that already have done so.

The ban would effect only unincorporated parts of the county and would run from June 1 to Sept. 30. Other new rules under consideration include prohibiting use of phosphate fertilizer without a soil test first to prove it’s needed, requiring at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen fertilizer, and no longer allowing people who use deflector shields on spreaders to fertilize within 3 feet of waters.

County commissioners declined to implement a ban and other strong measures in 2012, but are revisiting the matter as the lagoon’s woes have become more apparent.

In recent years, unprecedented algae blooms have choked off tens of thousands of acres of seagrass in the lagoon. Seagrass is important source of food and shelter for marine life in the lagoon.

The seagrass die-off was followed by the mysterious deaths of large numbers of manatees, dolphins and pelicans.

Excessive nitrogen and phosphorous — the active ingredients in most fertilizer — in the lagoon is widely suspected of feeding the algae blooms.

While fertilizer isn’t the sole source of nutrients in the lagoon, it is a major one. Leaking septic tanks, pet waste, power plants, tailpipes and groundwater also contribute nitrogen and phosphorus to the lagoon, with each pound capable of growing more than 500 pounds of algae.

With so much sandy soil, it doesn’t take long for those two main fertilizer ingredients to reach the lagoon, where they trigger toxic algae that smothers seagrass, fish and the rest of the lagoon’s web of life.

“We do know we have a groundwater pollution problem,” said Virginia Barker, the county’s watershed program manager.

“For most of Brevard County, it only takes a few months — weeks to months — for the groundwater to flow to the lagoon.”

Advocates for stricter rules point to studies that show lawns survive just fine without fertilizing during rainy months. Opponents — most who have connections to companies that make fertilizer or treat lawns with fertilizer — say depriving grass of nutrients when it’s most able to absorb them, during peak growing season, can result in more nitrogen and phosphorus running off the weaker grass when applied at other times of the year.

Today’s hearing will harken back to recommendations made more than a year ago by the county’s Local Planning Agency. It had recommended the ban as well as:

• Extending fertilizer free zones from the current 10 feet from waterways to 15 feet.

• Eliminating the waiver to the 15-foot zone for those using a deflector or liquid application, which currently allows it to be reduced down to 3 feet.

• Only allowing no-phosphate fertilizer, rather than low phosphates, without a test to first determine whether the soil is deficient in the chemical. Florida soil is typically rich in phosphates already.

Reading University of Florida’s research swayed Judy McCluney, a retired psychologist on Merritt Island, in favor of a rainy-season ban and the other stricter rules. Based on UF’s studies, she’s now convinced that applying the recommended fertilizer rates during rainy season can result in significant amounts of nitrogen leaching beneath the roots and into groundwater, which flows to the lagoon.

But using slow-release fertilizer leaches much less nitrogen into the ground, according to the UF research she’s looked at.

McCluney has lived near the lagoon for four decades, and says she rarely uses fertilizer in her vegetable garden.

“We’ve caused an imbalance by putting this stuff in,” she said of synthetic fertilizers.

As evidence that fertilizer ordinances work, advocates point to the large seagrass gains in Southwest Florida estuaries such as Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay after fertilizer ordinances were enacted.

But some in the lawn-care industry doubt that the ban alone had much effect and see many other factors at play in the seagrass recoveries, such as stormwater fixes and septic tank removals.

In December 2012, Brevard commissioners adopted an ordinance similar to the state-suggested rules, balking at a rainy season ban and the other stricter rules the Local Planning Agency recommended. But increasing public awareness of the lagoon’s ecological distress prompted them to revisit the issue.

Rainy-season bans on fertilizer use are the most hotly debated aspects of state-required local ordinances to improve water quality of the lagoon and other waters.

The state’s model ordinance stops short of a rainy-season ban on fertilizer use, instead prohibiting fertilizer use during storm watches or warnings or when heavy rain is expected.

But local governments can opt for bans and other stricter fertilizer rules.

The state rules are based on research by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Florida forces municipalities to adopt ordinances at least as strict as state-suggested fertilizer rules if they are located near waters the state determines to be taking in too much nitrogen and phosphorus.

In 2008, the state estimated some 3.28 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 471,460 pounds of phosphorus flow into the lagoon and the Banana River annually. That’s from runoff and other “non-point” sources.

Brevard County must within 15 years sharply reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into its share of the lagoon, according to state environmental officials.

To pay for further reductions from stormwater system improvements, county officials plan in early April to consider increasing to $64 the current $36 fee that single-family homeowners pay each year for stormwater management. That first-ever increase would bring the fee on pace with inflation. The fee hasn’t been increased since it was enacted in 1991.

A year ago, as hundreds of manatees and pelicans happened to be dying in the lagoon, Rockledge — Brevard’s oldest city — became the county’s first city to ban use of fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus from June 1 to Sept. 30.

Several Brevard cities have since joined in banning fertilizer during rainy season, including Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Satellite Beach.

Conservationists worry that state legislators will once again try, as they have in past years, to pass a law to prevent local governments from adopting rules stricter than the state’s recommendations.

The fertilizer industry counters that keeping lawn-care businesses and residents from applying fertilizer for a third of the year threatens livelihoods and property rights.

They point to a 2009 state law that says municipalities can only go stricter than the state-suggested ordinance if they prove — via a science-based, economically and technically feasible program — the tougher rules are needed and that they’ve considered all relevant scientific information.

Otherwise, they may be opening themselves up to lawsuits from industry to undo the stricter ordinances, warns Jason Steele, of the law firm Smith & Associates, which represents Florida Partnership for Sustainable Greenspace, a conglomerate of fertilizer, real estate and other associated industries.

“We think all of the cities have violated the statute,” Steele said. “They need to stop this.”

Last year, Melbourne agreed, and balked at a stricter ordinance.

County officials assure that they followed the 2009 law.

Either way, Steele says the fertilizer ordinances are unenforceable.

County code-enforcement officers would not proactively seek out offenders, county officials have said, but would respond to complaints that the fertilizer rules were being broken. Those who code-enforcement officers witness violating the rules could face fines up to $500.

Steele sees runoff, septic tanks and leaky sewers as more significant nutrient contributors to the lagoon.

“And yet everybody wants to hang their hat on this fertilizer ordinance,” Steele said.

“If they continue, we’ll end up in lawsuits with all of them,” he added. “Nobody seems to want to address real hard problems.”

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Senate inquiry into failure of environmental offsets

04 March 2014, Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

The use of environmental offsets to compensate for damage done by major mining will come under scrutiny after the Greens secured Labor's backing for a Senate Inquiry.

The inquiry, likely to be voted on in the Senate on Wednesday, will examine whether offsets – such as the purchase of land elsewhere for its preservation – are adequately monitored and effective when used as conditions for federal approvals.

The inquiry will focus in particular on several major projects, including the Bimblebox Nature Refuge, an 8000-hectare area under threat from a coal mine owned by federal MP and billionaire Clive Palmer.

Also to be examined will be the offsets linked to the Abbot Point port expansion in Queensland which will require the disposal of millions of tonnes of dredge spoil into the Great Barrier Reef, and Whitehaven's Maules Creek open-cut coal mine, the largest new coal project under construction in Australia.

“We're seeing offsets being used more and more as an excuse for governments to tick and flick environmentally damaging projects for the big mining companies,” said Greens environment spokeswoman, Senator Larissa Waters.

“The Abbot Point coal port is a classic example, with the Environment Minister (Greg Hunt) telling us all the damage will be offset but (freedom of information) revealing that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found that would be impossible, as the damage was simply too great,” Senator Waters said.

An adviser to Labor's shadow environment spokesman, Mark Butler, confirmed Labor would support the Greens' inquiry. Fairfax Media sought comment from Mr Hunt's office.

Senator Waters said offsets were “often magic pudding calculations to justify irreversible environmental damage”, with little enforcement to ensure they were actually delivered.

“There's often no political will and environment departments are so under-resourced that enforcement and monitoring of offsets fall by the wayside,” she said.

Last month, an ecologist, John Hunter, found land purchased by Whitehaven to replace endangered box gum at its Maules Creek site in NSW's Leard Forest contained mostly other trees, such as silvertop stringybark. Only about one of 53 sites surveyed “was likely to fulfil the criteria of the critically endangered ecological community determination", Dr Hunter said in a report commissioned by environmental groups.

“We've seen Whitehaven get away with clearing endangered box gum for their Maules Creek coal mine by buying a patch of land that's almost completely different vegetation,” Senator Waters said.

“And Clive Palmer's company is being allowed to destroy the Bimblebox Nature Refuge for a massive coal mine, in exchange for purporting to protect other vegetation that hasn't even been identified yet,” she said.

Fairfax Media also sought comment from Mr Palmer.

The inquiry will report by June 16, two weeks before the end of the current Senate's term.

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Great Barrier Reef: government website to justify dredging ‘not accurate’

03 March 2014, The Guardian (Australia)

The site, aimed at correcting ‘false claims’ about Abbot Point decision, is just a political document, scientist says

A Queensland government website aimed at correcting “false and extreme claims” about the Great Barrier Reef is itself highly misleading, according to a leading marine scientist.

The site, called Reef Facts, addresses the contentious decision to allow the dredging and dumping of 5m tonnes of seabed sediment within the Great Barrier Reef marine park in order to expand the Abbot Point port.

Citing research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the site attributes the loss of coral cover on the reef to storms, crown of thorns starfish and bleaching. Pollution from port development and dredging is “minor”, the site states.

The Abbot Point dredging will be done “responsibly within strict environmental limits”, the website claims, with the sediment dumped 40km from the nearest reef. It points out the disposal area covers 0.0005% of the total area of the marine park.

Andrew Powell, Queensland’s environment minister, said the government was putting “facts ahead of opinion and hysteria”.

“The constant focus on Abbot Point and the impacts of dredging is completely out of proportion and not based on the facts,” he said.

“Most significant is the fact that the dredging that will take place is less than 8% of what was proposed by the former Labor government and will be carefully managed.

“Australia is an island and ports are the lifeblood of our economy. We can strike a balance between sensible and safe port development and continued protection of our precious reef.

“We are fully committed to protecting the reef and fulfilling our international obligations under the World Heritage convention. The Great Barrier Reef’s outstanding universal value and integrity remain largely intact.”

The dredging project was approved by federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, in December. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority allowed the dumping in January although documents released under freedom of information on Monday show that the authority felt it posed an “unacceptable social and environmental risk”.

Jon Brodie, a research scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University, told Guardian Australia that the Reef Facts website is “not very accurate”.

“It’s a political document and it’s best to think of it as that,” he said. “It’s a misdirection.

“The website suggests that the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t have dolphins, fish, dugongs and so on. It also implies it doesn’t have inner shore reefs in areas such as Hamilton Island and Hayman Island, with their big resorts. These areas are declining due to sediment delivery from the land, hence the issue with the dredging.”

Brodie said the website made little mention of the impact of climate change and downplayed the sheer amount of spoil that would be placed onto the reef by the Abbot Point project and others in the future.

“The average sediment coming from rivers onto the reef is 6m tonnes a year, so 5m from Abbot Point over three years isn’t an insignificant amount by any means,” he said. “The concern is the precedent because there’s a huge amount of dredging to come in Townsville, Cairns and Gladstone.

“The [park authority] itself said there will be damage done to the corals and seagrasses. There are perfectly good other alternatives that would cause less damage, so why did we choose the most damaging? It’s a slap in the face to Unesco.”

Unesco’s World Heritage Committee will decide whether the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger” in June, having previously warned the Australian government about levels of port development alongside the vast ecosystem.

Felicity Wishart, a campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told Guardian Australia that the Reef Facts site made glaring omissions about the state of the reef.

“Dredging spoil can travel up to 80km, so the fact the nearest reef is 40km is largely irrelevant,” she said.

“Clearly the community is up in arms about the threat to the reef. We can only conclude the Queensland government has heard those concerns and has sadly chosen to provide a website to mislead the community.

“The reef is in the worst condition it has ever been in. This is on their watch and they need to take action.”

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Report from Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority warned against waste dumping plan

03 March 2014, Brisbane Times (Australia)

The federal government ignored scientific advice when the dumping of millions of tonnes of dredging waste from a mining project into the Great Barrier Reef was approved.

Documents released under freedom of information laws show the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was warned that approval should not be granted for dumping sediment waste into the reef to make way for a coal project.

''The proposal to dredge and dispose of up to 1.6 million cubic metres of sediment per year … has the potential to cause long-term irreversible harm to areas of the Great Barrier Reef,'' the authority's own report reads.

Under the proposal, the seabed would be dredged to create berths for six coal ships for the Abbot Point coal port expansion. The dredged waste would then be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef.

The report's author warned particularly of the effects on seagrass meadows and coral reefs.

And yet the chairman of the authority, Russell Reichelt, approved the dumpings late last year.

''The approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds,'' he said in January.

Queensland campaigner for Greenpeace Louise Mathieson said though it may be true the immediate disposal area has no seagrass, muddy plumes can spread for up to 80 kilometres. ''I think the chairman was downplaying the impact of dredging and dumping,'' she said. ''What he said does not reflect the expert advice that was coming from staff about the real impacts the project could have, especially the risks to water quality.''

In its dredging permit assessment, the authority states that seagrass in the vicinity of the dredging activity is likely to be affected by the dumping, primarily by reduced light and increased water sediment.

''Coral reefs around Holbourne Island, Nares Rock, Camp Reef, Horseshoe Bay and Cape Upstart also have the potential to be affected by turbid plumes and sedimentation,'' the assessment said.

The original application from North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation sought approval to dredge and dump 3 million cubic metres of spoil in the reef waters as part of coal terminal expansion plans at Abbot Point, north of Bowen.

Former federal environment minister Mark Butler extended the deadline for a decision on the application twice last year before the federal election.

Ms Mathieson said whilst these documents go some way in suggesting why a decision was delayed several times under Labor, they do not explain the approval granted by Greg Hunt, the present minister. But Mr Hunt says the groundwork for backing the dumping plan was made by previous state and federal Labor governments.

''This was Labor's project, announced by Anna Bligh as a massive expansion and then upgraded to a super-terminal with 38 million cubic metres of dredging,'' he said. ''The final approval was one-twelfth of this at 3 million cubic metres … I was advised the proposal put forward for offshore disposal was the best option available.''

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been contacted for comment.

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Rare seagrass under threat

02 March 2014, The Sun Daily  (Malaysia)

A rare seagrass, found only in Middle Bank in Penang and Johor, is under threat here from proposed reclamation project.

Tanjong Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu said the seagrass needed to be preserved and the area gazetted as a marine conservation site.

He said the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) has called for a Request for Proposal (RFP) to reclaim a patch of sea where the seagrass is growing.

He said the other area where seagrass grows is off Gelang Patah in Johor.

Teh, an environmentalist, said the 125-ha site was the second largest intertidal bed after the one in Johor and was visible during low tide.

"The area is home to many types of shellfish, crabs and fish with fishermen sourcing prawns and other seafood there.

Reclaiming Middle Bank threatens the ecological balance as the seagrass bed is an important part of the food chain and an important breeding ground for marine life," he told theSun.

Middle Bank is located near Gazumbo Island, a small patch of sandy land populated with trees, and visible from the first Penang Bridge.

Echoing Teh's view was Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) adviser K. Kanda who said the society was not in favour of such a development.

"We do not want a 'concrete wall' along our coast," he said, urging the state government not to allow the taking over of the area for development.

When contacted, State Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said the administration was aware of concern over the proposed reclamation.

He said the state was studying the hydroflow as well as the geographical and physical outlook for the project.

"Sure it remains," he told theSun via a text message when asked if the seagrass bed was going to be preserved.

Seagrasses form extensive beds or meadows which harbour, among others, species of juvenile and adult fish and molluscs and are an important link in the food chain.

Species that feed on seagrasses include dugong, manatees, fish, geese, swans, sea urchins and crabs.

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