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How Tagbanua tribesmen protect the 'mermaids' of Palawan

20 January 2019, (Philippines)

SWIMS WITH THE DUGONG The author with a 3-meter-long bull dugong in Northern Palawan

Wearing fins from recycled plastic containers, tough Tagbanua tribesmen have become the protectors of the dugong, those gentle marine mammals that have become prey to poachers in Northern Palawan.

The dugong (scientific name: Dugong dugon) is legally protected by Republic Act No. 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, because aside from being occasionally hunted, the mammals often drown after becoming entangled in fishing nets.

“We’re here to safeguard about 30 dugong,” said Deave, a Tagbanua tribesman enlisted as both spotter and guard against poachers and illegal fishers in the Calamianes Islands in Northern Palawan.

“Our livelihood depends on wildlife so it makes sense to protect them. Protecting [the] dugong safeguards our own future,” he added.

The dugong, or sea cow, which is related to elephants, can grow up to 3 meters in length and weigh up to 400 kilograms. It is the fourth member of the order Sirenia, alongside three manatee species. The dugong has a forked tail while a manatee has a round, paddle-like tail.

Wiped out

A fifth species, the gigantic 8-meter-long Steller’s sea cow, was completely wiped out by 1768, just 30 years after being discovered by scientists.

Dugong comes from the Malay word duyung, meaning “lady of the sea,” which might explain so-called mermaid sightings by sailors in olden times.

Sizable herds of dugong once plied the Philippine archipelago until hunting and habitat loss reduced their number.

Today, the dugong is globally classified as vulnerable, though it is considered critically endangered in the Philippines because of its rarity. Small populations still hold out in Isabela, Mindanao, Guimaras and Palawan, but encounters are extremely rare.

The Calamianes Islands in Northern Palawan remain one of the last areas in the country where the giant marine herbivores can be seen regularly.

Guided by expert divers and Tagbanua tribesmen, Best Alternatives Campaign, a movement to promote good environmental and sustainability practices, recently got a chance to interact with the dugong.

To successfully conserve the dugong, local government units and communities must stamp out poaching, minimize the threat of accidental entanglement in fishing nets, and most importantly, preserve the integrity of seagrass meadows.

Often overshadowed by more colorful and popular marine habitats like coral reefs and mangroves, seagrass meadows are highly productive and provide food for many marine creatures—from rabbitfish (samaral) to sea turtles and the dugong. Unfortunately, many seagrass habitats are being destroyed by reclamation and pollution.

Best caretakers

“We can learn a lot about sustainable use and responsible stewardship from the dugong. The mammal consumes a lot of seagrass yet it leaves the seagrass bed even healthier than before,” said dugong conservationist Dr. Teri Aquino.

“When feeding, [the] dugong helps release micronutrients from the seabed, making nutrients more accessible for small fish. And this is why we always see fish swimming with [the] dugong. This marine mammal living the simplest of lives is one of the best caretakers of our seagrass habitats and the animals that live in them,” Aquino explained.

Through the dedicated efforts of local wardens like Palawan’s Tagbanua tribesmen and by protecting the country’s remaining seagrass meadows, tomorrow’s Pinoys might yet get a chance to swim with real mermaids.

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Chilika Lake possesses 20% of India's seagrass

19 January 2019, The Hindu (India)

Chilika has 20% of India’s seagrass

Chilika Lake is claimed to have 20% of India’s seagrass distribution, which plays a vital role in oxygen production and absorption of carbon dioxide and acts as a purifier in aquatic ecology.

According to the Chilika Development Authority, the apex body for the Lake’s management, seagrass species such as Holodule uninervis, Holodule pinifolia, Halophila ovalis, Halophila ovata and Halophila beccarii were recorded during annual monitoring of the Chilika Lake held on Thursday.

“Seagrass distribution has been estimated over an area of 152 sq. km, an increase from 135 sq km in the last year. Increase in seagrass has been reported against its declining trend throughout the world and now Chilika has 20% of India’s seagrass,” said CDA Chief Executive Susanta Nanda.

“Seagrass plays a vital role in oxygen production and absorption of carbon dioxide. It acts as a purifier in aquatic ecology. The seagrass area increases only when the water is clean. Seagrass will rejuvenate fishing ground by providing nursery habitat to important fish species,” Mr. Nanda said.

Another heartening outcome of the annual monitoring was reappearance of sponges. “Due to disturbance in habitat, the sponges were not observed in the lake after 1985. But after the recent eviction of large area of prawn gherry in the southern sector of the lake, the sponges are observed abundantly in Patanasi and Kumarpur area,” he said.

Some of the indicators that emerged during the monitoring established the lake’s resilient ecosystem. The annual survey of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins conducted on Thursday finds population of aquatic mammals in the range of 130-150.

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NATURE NOTES: The underwater forests that hold our coastline together

11 January 2019, Northumberland Gazette (UK)

Along the coastline of Lindisfarne lie hidden meadows of long grasses, their leaves deep green and ribbon-like.

They sway gently, though there is no wind. In summer, pale flowers bloom and pollinators busy themselves.

Yet these are not the buzzing bees or kaleidoscopic butterflies of the world above. Instead, small crustaceans, ‘the bees of the sea’, carry pollen from one plant to another. For we are underwater now, at high tide, and these are seagrass meadows – little known, but vitally important. Lindisfarne boasts the largest seagrass, or eelgrass, meadows in north-east England, with a large intertidal area providing a valuable site for the narrow-leaved (zostera angustifolia) and dwarf eelgrasses (zostera noltii).

Once terrestrial plants, they moved back to the sea many millions of years ago. Low tide exposes their slim leaves, slick against mud and sand. As the tide recedes, I pause a moment on the causeway and see flying north low skeins of light-bellied Brent geese, dark against the heavy winter sun.

They settle on the shining mudflats and form bowing silhouettes at the water’s edge. These geese – half of the entire world population – have come a long way for this seagrass. So far as one can tell, it seems to satisfy. Beyond the Brent appear a supporting armada of wigeon with copper heads and a relieved, whistling call ‘phew, phew’. Seagrasses provide essential nutrients for these migratory waterfowl, whose presence each autumn transforms the Reserve.

Wading birds, with their slender beaks and long legs, are not shy to make the most of the smorgasbord of invertebrates. Seagrass meadows also provide valuable nursery grounds for many tiny fish, who take shelter in these underwater forests. Where Nemo sheltered among bright corals, here – in more temperate climes – codling flit through the grasses, dark shapes turning to bronze in the sunlight. As juveniles, these are low on the food chain but survivors will become sleek muscular predators, scouring the seas for smaller fish, crustaceans, worms and molluscs.

And cod, in turn, may find themselves prey to the coast’s booming grey seal population or fished commercially, by the area’s many local fisheries. So much begins with seagrasses – and yet even this is a mere beginning. It is no exaggeration to say that they hold the coastline together; their thick vegetation limits sediment flow and helps to prevent coastal erosion. More importantly still, seagrass meadows capture and store carbon more effectively even than rainforests, reducing the impact of climate change. They are known as ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems. According to the environmental charity and research platform Project Seagrass, one hectare of seagrass can produce 100,000 litres of oxygen per day. Over a year, one hectare can store the equivalent carbon emissions of an average small UK car. One hectare can support 80,000 fish and 100million invertebrates.

We are losing one hectare of seagrass per hour worldwide. Seagrass is disappearing – its decline driven by a combination of natural causes like storms and disease, and human activity such as climate change, coastal development, pollution, decreased water clarity and physical disturbance. These hidden meadows, teeming with life, are slow to recover from damage. The Brent call to one another, their distinctive rolling cry.

A curlew passes – so dignified in repose, yet comical in its hurried stride. A little egret stabs its black beak into the water. I breathe in the air, the scene. So much might be lost. And yet, so much might be saved. Seagrasses have incredible power and potential. Though vulnerable to climate change they could also play a powerful role in combatting it. We might just be able to save one another.

Download the free SeagrassSpotter app to help Project Seagrass to map and monitor seagrass worldwide or visit their website to find out more.

More information: Click Here



Legal Battle Begins in Appeal Challenging US Base's Threat to Rare Okinawa Dugongs

08 January 2018, Center for Biological Diversity (press release)

American conservation groups and residents of Okinawa have filed the opening brief in an appeal of a court ruling allowing construction of a U.S. Marine Corps air base in the Japanese island’s coastal waters.

The brief, filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, highlights the base’s threat to the Okinawa dugong, a critically endangered marine mammal related to manatees.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including Queen guitarist Brian May, have signed a petition against the project on the White House’s “We the People” website. Building the base will involve filling in and paving over hundreds of acres of rich coral and seagrass habitat crucial to the last surviving Okinawa dugongs.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Japanese co-plaintiffs are represented in the case by Earthjustice, which filed the appeal. The 9th Circuit ruled in 2017 that Okinawa residents deserved a full hearing on their concerns.

“This base will be an extinction-level event for the Okinawa dugong, but the U.S. military has ruthlessly disregarded the threat to these gentle creatures,” said Peter Galvin, cofounder of the Center. “The law clearly requires the Trump administration to fully consider how much damage this project will do to the dugong and Okinawa’s indigenous culture.”

Dugongs have long been revered by native Okinawans. The brief argues that a lower court’s ruling last year overlooked key procedural and public-participation requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The brief notes that the U.S. Department of Defense avoided consulting with any community members or cultural practitioners regarding the airbase’s threats to the dugong. Military officials also disregarded evidence that the base will hurt dugongs.

The dugong is listed as an object of national cultural significance under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. Under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act and international law, the United States must avoid or mitigate harm to places or things of cultural significance to another country.

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Seagrass Safeguards Human History

08 January 2018, Hakai Magazine

From storing carbon to guarding against ocean acidification, seagrass is fundamental to keeping ocean ecosystems in balance. But new research shows that seagrass meadows play another crucial, if overlooked, role: protecting shipwrecks and other underwater historical heritage.

Ancient weapons, prehistoric fishing tools, and textiles are just some of the items scientists have discovered buried beneath the protective cover of seagrass, says Oscar Serrano, a marine ecologist at Edith Cowan University in Australia. Until now, Serrano says, no one has investigated the cultural value of seagrass meadows, which “play an important role in revealing clues about the human past.”

But archaeological techniques can negatively impact seagrass meadows since excavation, sometimes with explosives, is used to access study sites.

To highlight the link between seagrass and archaeological preservation, Serrano and his colleagues compiled evidence from the literature and from consultations with archaeologists in Denmark, Australia, the United States, and around the Mediterranean. The team’s investigation revealed a clear pattern: some of the world’s best-preserved underwater archaeological sites are sealed beneath blankets of seagrass.

The scientists determined that seagrass captures floating sediment particles on its long leaves, causing a thick sediment layer to build up on the seafloor. Over time, artifacts that settle below seagrass become buried. Similar to a time capsule, this thick sediment creates a seal, leading to oxygen-free conditions that slow decomposition and keep objects intact beneath the churning ocean.

In the turquoise waters along the coast of Western Australia, seagrass meadows have played a pivotal role in the preservation of the James Matthews—a 180-year-old, 24-meter ship that is one of the best-preserved ships of its time. The James Matthews, a slave ship, traveled between Europe, Africa, Australia, and North America before sinking during a storm in 1841. When maritime archaeologists discovered the ship in 1973, a thick layer of seagrass covered its watery grave. The excavations that followed the discovery unearthed several well-preserved artifacts, including a leather shoe, a lace parasol, and an ivory chess set.

Once excavations at the site were complete, the ship was reburied to help maintain the conditions in which it was found, but the seagrass was never completely restored. When archaeologists returned to examine the shipwreck three decades later, it showed signs of decomposition. Alarmed, archaeologists covered the site with faux plastic seagrass, sandbags, and shade-cloth mats to slow its degradation. But the efforts didn’t work.

“In areas where there is little seagrass cover, organic materials such as ceramics and timber can decompose,” says Serrano. “As a result, the ship’s condition is not what it was when it was first discovered.”

Given the new appreciation of seagrass’s protective qualities, Serrano says archaeologists should adopt less invasive techniques, such as acoustic and seismic measurements, which would help maintain seagrass beds. “If archaeologists continue to use shortcuts to study these sites, such as explosives, they will be severely damaged,” says Serrano.

Some archaeologists are already using noninvasive techniques to explore underwater heritage less destructively. To learn more about the James Matthews’s past, Madeline McAllister, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, used photographs of the site to develop an accurate 3D model of the ship. This allows for study without further excavation.

McAllister, who was not involved in the new research, says Serrano’s review highlights the importance of seagrass in preserving fragile relics. “Achieving anaerobic and low-light conditions is central to preserving cultural heritage,” she says, “but the challenge is restoring [these conditions] after excavations have taken place.”

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DoE receives objections about Barkers plan

06 January 2019,Cayman Compass (Cayman)

Source: Department of Environment

An application to remove some 180,000 square feet of sea grass to create a swimming beach for cruise ship tourists off Barkers peninsula received more than 100 written objections from members of the public, according to the Department of Environment.

A total of 117 people wrote to object to the coastal works application brought by Adventures in Taste, the company of Handel Whittaker, who owns the Calico Jack’s beach bar and who hopes to move the venue to create a Rum Point-style attraction in Barkers.

The proposal is linked to a 21-acre parcel of beachfront land owned by the Dart group, which is supporting his application.

The application process involves a public consultation phase, which has now been completed.

According to Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, the department has been notified of 117 written objections from members of the public to the plans. He said a hand-signed petition with 365 names and an online petition with 2,678 names were also submitted.

The Department of Environment is required to factor in those objections in its report to the Ministry on the application.

Under delegated authority from the National Conservation Council, the DoE’s technical review team is tasked with producing a report on the environmental considerations and technical feasibility of any coastal works application.

The ministry then presents a report to Cabinet, which has ultimate decision-making authority on such applications. It is legally required to consider the conservation council’s advice, but not necessarily to follow it.

Mr. Austin said the DoE had filed its report with the ministry, though he could not reveal details at this stage.

He acknowledged that the number of public responses was unprecedented for a coastal works application, which typically attract no more than a handful of letters or comments.

The application requests approval for the “removal of sea grass to facilitate swim beaches” over an area equivalent in size to around three football pitches and stretching across a 1,300 foot parcel of beach. It also includes plans for a T-shaped pier stretching 300 feet into the ocean, with a 120-foot dock for tour boats and visiting pleasure craft.

Mr. Whittaker told the Compass in November that he believes the venue can be a “great facility for cruise ship passengers, tourists and locals,” that will bring business and opportunity to West Bay.

Dart Real Estate, which owns much of the land on Barkers, had indicated its support for the application. The company said in a statement that “thoughtful public beach amenity projects can co-exist in proximity to the area earmarked for the proposed Barkers National Park.”

The development site earmarked for Calico Jack’s is just outside the proposed boundaries of the national park.

The application to remove sea grass, and the wider plan, attracted widespread public criticisms over the past few months. Concerns highlighted have included the removal of marine habitat in a Replenishment Zone, questions over the feasibility of creating a swimming beach on that coastline and general concerns that Barkers should remain untouched by commercial development.

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Related Article



Seagrass saves beaches and money

02 January 2019, Phys.Org

A portable water flume designed at NIOZ was used to measure the ability of seagrass to keep sand in place and prevent erosion. PHOTO CREDITt: Rebecca James

Seagrass beds are so effective in protecting tropical beaches from erosion, that they can reduce the need for regular, expensive beach nourishments that are used now. In a recent article in the journal BioScience, biologists and engineers from The Netherlands and Mexico describe experiments and field observations around the Caribbean Sea. "A foreshore with both healthy seagrass beds as well as calcifying algae, is a resilient and sustainable option in coastal defense", says lead author Rebecca James, Ph.D.-candidate at the University of Groningen and the Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), The Netherlands. "Because of erosion, the economic value of Caribbean beaches literally drains into the sea."

Increasing erosion with climate change

The authors looked at beaches of the Caribbean Sea, where almost a quarter of the Gross Domestic Product is earned in tourism, mainly around the beaches. "With the increase of coastal development, the natural flow of water and sand is disrupted, natural ecosystems are damaged, and many tropical beaches have already disappeared into the sea", co-author Rodolfo Silva, professor of Coastal Engineering at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma of Mexico says. "Until now, expensive coastal engineering efforts, such as repeated beach nourishments and concrete walls to protect the coast, have been made to combat erosion. Rising sea-level and increasing storms will only increase the loss of these important beaches."

Experimental flume

To find out to what extent seagrass beds are able to hold sand and sediment on the beach foreshores, James and her promotor, professor Tjeerd Bouma (NIOZ and Utrecht University), conducted a simple but telling experiment. With a portable and adjustable field flume to regulate water motion in a Caribbean bay, they observed when particles on the sea bed started moving. "We showed that seagrass beds were extremely effective at holding sediment in place", James says. "Especially in combination with calcifying algae that "create their own sand", a foreshore with healthy seagrass appeared a sustainable way of combating erosion."

More seagrass, less erosion

Along the coastline of the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, the team put their theory to the test. "By looking at beaches with and without protection of healthy seagrass beds, we showed that the amount of erosion was strongly linked to the amount of vegetation: more seagrass, meant less erosion", co-author dr. Brigitta van Tussenbroek of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico says. "At beaches where seagrass beds were destroyed, the researchers saw a sudden strong increase in erosion, resulting in an immediate need of expensive beach nourishments.

Promising future prospects

Both NGO's and engineering industry welcome these novel insights. "To date, seagrass beds are too often regarded as a nuisance, rather than a valuable asset for preserving touristically valuable coastlines. This study could change this perspective completely", Bas Roels of World Wildlife Fund Netherlands says. "The study opens opportunities for developing new tropical-beach protection schemes, in which ecology is integrated in engineering solutions", adds Mark van Koningsveld, professor at the Delft University of Technology and working for the international marine contractor Van Oord.

According to co-author Johan Stapel of the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute (CSNI) on St. Eustatius this will require a multilateral approach in conservation and restoration, as seagrass faces increasing pressure from various sources of pollution and invasive species. "Fortunately, NIOZ has a strong tradition in successfully restoring all kinds of coastal vegetation from seagrass to mangroves", Bouma concludes.

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