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Link between fossil fuels and Great Barrier Reef bleaching 'clear' and 'incontrovertible', say scientists

30 March 2016, The Guardian (Australia)



Researchers from the XL Catlin Seaview Survey filming a reef affected by bleaching off Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef in March 2016. Photo Credit: HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

Where only a few weeks ago there were swathes of vivid purples, blues and pretty much any other colour you fancy, now there is just grey and white.

Corals in the northern section of Australia’s vast Great Barrier Reef – a length of more than 1000 kilometres or so – have become the latest and most famous victims of the third global “mass bleaching” of corals since 1998.

“It’s pretty confronting,” says Professor Terry Hughes, a leading coral scientist who has been spending recent days in a helicopter surveying the reef.

Of the 520 reefs he flew over, only four have managed to retain their colour. He’s back in the skies to look further south in the coming days.

“The Great Barrier Reef is today a diminished place from what it was a month ago,” Hughes, of James Cook University, told me.

“We can’t climate proof this reef. We have seen the most pristine part of the reef take a direct hit.”

As Hughes travelled further north to parts of the reef outside the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, he saw corals “blitzed” in the Torres Strait.

Corals get their striking colours thanks to the zooxanthellae algae that they live with.

But when the corals and the algae are stressed, they separate, leaving a bare white skeleton behind.

In mass bleaching events, the stress comes when corals bathe for too long in unusually warm ocean waters. This is the point at which the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s fossil fuel industry come into direct conflict.

So far, the reef is losing.

Record ocean temperatures

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the sea surface temperatures (SST) in the Coral Sea region have been the highest on record for this most recent summer wet season.

The BoM’s ocean temperature record goes back to the year 1900. As this chart shows, SSTs overlapping the northern parts of the reef have been the highest of any summer (December to February) on record.



Chart showing record sea surface temperatures across northern and Coral Sea areas of Australia in summer 2015/16 Photo Credit: Bureau of Meteorology

Hughes said that in 1998, 2002 and this current GBR bleaching event, the areas of the reef that bleached matched “perfectly” the areas with unusually high SST.

The record warm oceans that have been stressing the corals in recent weeks are part of a long-term trend of warming ocean temperatures around the globe, including the waters off Australia.



Chart showing the rise of sea surface temperatures in Australia’s Coral Sea region from 1900 to 2015 Photo Credit: Bureau of Meteorology


The cause of that warming trend is the extra heat being retained by the earth’s climate system thanks to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and the oceans.

Not surprisingly, the coal industry has tried to muddy the scientific waters on this key point.

As I’ve written here before, the fact that Australia’s expansion of its coal export industry takes ships on a route straight through the reef could seen as something of a sick joke.

When I asked Hughes about the cause of the bleaching, he replied simply: “Global warming – the link is incontrovertible.”

What’s also important to understand is that the corals in the north that have been bleached, are probably the least impacted by human activity across the GBR.

Current and previous governments at state and federal levels, of both stripes, have increased investments to cut the amount of nutrient-rich waters and pollution running into the reef from farms and development along the coast.

But scientists, including the government’s own, have been warning for years now that the most important threat to the reef is from climate change.

Hughes says that while it is true that some coral species are more resilient to bleaching than others, this gives him little comfort when he had witnessed even the most resilient species bleached in recent days.

“If half the corals bleach you will sea a pattern of winners and losers. But if all the corals are bleaching, then there are no winners. And they are all bleaching,” he said.

Hughes says it’s also misleading to pin the blame for the current bleaching event on the El Niño climate pattern.

Evidence from long term coral records did not show the signatures of coral bleaching, even though those corals would have been through many El Niño events. Hughes explains:

“It’s only since 1998 that the extra spikes (from El Niño) cause problems. We had El Niños for centuries but they don’t show bleaching.
Because it’s pristine (in the reef’s north), it’s not got the issues with run-off (from agriculture and coastal development) and it should better be able to bounce back.
But if it takes 10 years, what’s the chance of getting another El Nino before 2026? It’s high. We will be in trouble if the return time is less than the recovery time”.

In another bitter slice of irony, Hughes says that the central and southern sections of the reef probably “dodged a bullet” but this was only thanks to the cooling influence of the tail-end of the same weather system that caused the devastating cyclone in Fiji.

Coral lobbying

When in November 2014 US President Barack Obama told a crowd at the University of Queensland that the “incredible natural glory of the GBR is threatened”, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop ignored the advice of her government scientists to lead a chorus of correction.

“Of course the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come and we do not believe that it is in danger,” she said.

In 2015, the Australian Government spent $100,000 flying around the world to convince members of the World Heritage Committee not to place the reef on the “in danger” list.

The lobbying effort was a “success” but the victory must surely now be ringing hollow.

Hughes and other coral scientists are angry that years of warnings about the reef’s future have gone unheeded.

Hughes said there was a “disconnect” between the science and Australia’s policies of developing coalmines.

Another world-leading coral scientist is Professor John Pandolfi, of the University of Queensland, who told me he had “several reactions all at once” to the bleaching playing out on the reef.

Sadness for the reef. Anger at the government for the lack of consistent policy to minimise emissions locally, and inability to lead globally. Embarrassment that this is happening to such a national and international icon, in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth – if we can’t stop it here, who can?

However, even though my immediate reaction is oriented toward policy, my measured scientific reaction is that this is a consequence of thermal stress, and we must use this event to further understand the thermal and other constraints under which corals survive.

Pandolfi says the link between carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and the bleaching of the reef is clear.

These hotter SSTs have caused a global mass bleaching event on the scale of which we have only witnessed two other times – 1998, 2010 – and the 2014-2016 event is now the longest on record. The Great Barrier Reef itself has suffered mass bleaching in 1998 and 2002.

Regardless, the link between high SSTs and global bleaching is very clear, and the link between climate change and SSTs is very clear. Finally the link between global emissions and the rise of CO2 and SSTs is very clear.

This all adds up to the human-caused element for this bleaching episode. It seems clear that if the ocean’s SST were not rising so fast we would not be experiencing these several bleaching events on a global scale.

So what needs to happen? Both Hughes and Pandolfi, and do doubt a great many other coral scientists, are in pretty strong agreement. You can’t keep the reef healthy while emissions from fossil fuels continue to grow. Pandolfi has another suggestion. I’ll leave you with it.

I think it’s important for people to understand what they can do to help the situation. I grew up in a time when everyone thought it was impossible to ‘free South Africa’ but we all did what we could: we wrote to politicians, we personally divested from SA corporations and demanded our social institutions (e.g Universities) to do the same.
Ultimately the strategy worked. We can do the same thing here – personal and social divestment of non-sustainable energy companies and sources, switching ourselves to such energy sources where and how we can.

Emissions must come down sharply – the COP21 meeting has given the go ahead for this to become a reality. The coral bleaching on the GBR and elsewhere provides the prima facie evidence for pursuing this line of action.

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Parts of Great Barrier Reef 'fried' by coral bleaching: Terry Hughes

29 March 2016, The Australian (Australia)



Professor Terry Hughes, says the World Heritage site is in the grip of the worst coral bleaching event on record.


Many of the most pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef have been “fried”, according to a reef expert.

Professor Terry Hughes, the convener of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, says the World Heritage site is in the grip of the worst coral bleaching event on record.


He’s just returned from aerial surveys showing the damage pales in comparison to the previous worst event, in 2002.

Of 520 reefs surveyed between Cairns and Papua New Guinea in recent days, just four appeared to be untouched by bleaching. And 95 per cent of the reefs have been ranked in the two severest categories of bleaching, well above the 18 per cent that were in that category when the same sites were inspected during the 2002 event.

“The north has fried,” he told AAP on Tuesday, after what he called the saddest research trip of his life. “This is an ongoing, slow-motion train wreck.” Prof Hughes fears major bleaching events, driven by climate change, are now beginning to occur more frequently than the decade it takes the reef to recover.

He said the federal government was failing to link its decisions - including scrapping a price on carbon and support for coal mining - to the health of the reef.

“I hope these scientific findings will convince the Commonwealth government to link its greenhouse gas policies to the vulnerability of the reef to climate change,” he said.

UNESCO recently decided not to list the world heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”, despite concerns over mining-related port developments and water quality.

But Australia remains on probation and is due to report back by the end of this year about its management of the reef.

Prof Hughes said Australia had previously pointed to the health of the northern reefs - the very ones now hit by unprecedented bleaching - as part of its argument against an in danger listing. “It’s concerning that the best parts of the reef, the parts that don’t have issues with run-off because they’re so remote, are now severely damaged.” Scientists were yet to identify a southern boundary for the worst of the bleaching, but more surveys between Cairns and Townsville this week could determine that.

Prof Hughes said the central part of the reef had not been as badly affected, while the southern stretches had dodged a bullet thanks to a rain depression resulting from Cyclone Winston, which kept water temperatures there cooler.

The Queensland Labor government, which supports the development of Adani’s $16.5 billion Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee basin, has said it’s up to the federal government to manage climate change risks with better emissions policies.

AAP is seeking comment from federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Mr Hunt, who toured bleached parts of the reef earlier this month, says he’s been advised the overall impact of this year’s event won’t be as widespread as in 1998 or 2002.

He agrees the situation in the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is severe, and the worst on record but says the southern three sections have seen only minor or moderate bleaching.

The government has ramped up surveying and research efforts in response to the current bleaching event, and said bleached coral could recover if it didn’t remain stressed for too long.

His office did not answer a question about what climate change policies the government would pursue to protect the reef.

But during a Cairns press conference after his reef visit, he pointed to Australia’s support for the Montreal Protocol to achieve 90 billion tonnes of emissions reductions.

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Florida's mass fish kill is a nightmare to behold

28 March 2016, MNN (USA)


Pollutants carried into the Indian River Lagoon by January rains have led to one of the worst fish kills in decades. (Photo Credit: Karissa Sugar/MyNews13)

Words cannot describe the immense loss of life unfolding along a 50-mile stretch of Florida's Indian River Lagoon.

More than 30 species of fish, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, have started floating to the surface and washing up along shores. In some places, the normally idyllic waterways are being replaced with thousands of rotting fish.

“We’re seeing stingrays, horseshoe crabs, sheepshead, the mullet, the flounder—everything is being impacted by what’s going on here in the lagoon,” Michelle Spahn, a waterway tour operator in the region told WFTV9.

Why the sudden die-off? Thanks to El Nino, parts of Florida received triple the amount of water that's normal for January, leading to massive torrents coursing through urban environments and picking up synthetic fertilizers and other pollutants. This potent mix helped feed a toxic algae bloom, resulting in a "brown tide" that robbed oxygen from the water and effectively suffocated marine life.

"With all these dead fish in the water, so many people are looking at this saying, 'Who's to blame for this?,'" Dr. Robert Weaver, director of the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute, told Derrol Nail at Fox 10. "This is a tough question to answer, because we all have to look in the mirror. This problem started years ago with unfettered development over the past 50 years is what's to blame for this."

While fish kills are not uncommon in Florida, they're generally more prevalent during the warmer months. Both the timing and magnitude of the Indian River Lagoon kill is raising alarms all over the state. The news is particularly troubling to conservationists working to prop up manatee populations. A dramatic drop-off in water oxygen levels doesn't just kill fish, but also vital food sources such as sea grass.

"That's manatee food. Manatee eat sea grass," added Weaver. "So we can expect that it's likely the manatees will start being stressed."

With the lagoon's dire state no longer hidden beneath its surface, residents are now faced with changing their own habits to help restore the waters and give marine life a chance to rebound.

"I'll give up my green lawn," Tony Sasso, director of the nonprofit Keep Brevard Beautiful, told Florida Today. "When I was growing up, nobody fertilized their yards."

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Another crisis for Indian River Lagoon

26 March 2016, Daytona Beach News-Journal (USA)

“They're ba-aack.” It's a famous line from a scary movie that appropriately describes the horror going on in the Indian River Lagoon system — and provides an urgent reminder of the comprehensive efforts required to save a fragile ecosystem.

The same species of algae that plagued the lagoon in 2011 and 2012, causing massive blooms that killed more than 47,000 acres of sea grass and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of dolphins, manatees and pelicans, has returned. The News-Journal's Dinah Voyles Pulver reported that longtime boaters and fishermen say the murky waters in Mosquito Lagoon are the worst they've ever seen.

Subsequently, last weekend thousands of dead fish appeared in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, primarily in the Banana River but also in the southern end of Mosquito Lagoon. The images of dead fish blanketing the surface of the water are chilling; the smell that permeates the air is sickening.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission determined the fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen in the water. Oxygen depletion is a common occurrence during algae blooms.

Such blooms also block sunlight needed by sea grass to thrive, creating a vicious circle. When the grass dies, it deprives many animals of the shelter and food they need, putting their lives at risk. In addition, the dead grass contributes to the thick layer of muck at the bottom of the lagoon, described by scientists as “black mayonnaise.” That muck and silt, usually held in place by the roots of sea grass, becomes stirred up, further decreasing water clarity and doing even more to reduce the amount of sunlight filtering through.

After the environmental crisis of 2011-12, the lagoon system appeared to stabilize and begin recovering. There were no intense algae blooms for three years, and last summer scientists reported the sea grass beds were bouncing back.

And then March happened. Why?

The blooms are attributed to several factors, such as the increased rainfall and higher temperatures the lagoon system experienced this winter. But scientists also point the finger at man-made causes, such as pollutants from septic tanks and fertilizers that contaminate groundwater and which rain washes into estuaries.

It's a problem that occurs in Volusia County's own back yard as well as downstate, where runoff from Lake Okeechobee taints the southern end of the Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon spans 156 miles across two climate zones between Ponce Inlet and Jupiter Inlet, and contains more than 4,300 species of marine life and plants in its waters.

The economic case for preserving the lagoon is just as compelling as the environmental one. A 2007 study found the lagoon is responsible for one-seventh of the region's economy, with an annual value of $3.7 billion.

It's not someone else's problem to solve — it's everyone's. The Indian River Lagoon comprises several watershed areas, each with its own water flow and each susceptible to toxic algae blooms, and loss of sea grass and wildlife. It requires a regional solution with the cooperation of the state and local governments.

The St. Johns River Water Management District, which includes Volusia, Brevard and Indian River counties, has in the past year completed several projects aimed at reducing nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the lagoon. The 2016-17 budget recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott appropriates more than $26 million to Brevard County lagoon projects, including $21.5 million related to dredging muck. Sweeping legislation passed early in this year's legislative session mandates more coordination among government agencies in Central Florida on water management.

Those are productive steps in the right direction. But more needs to be done (such as increasing funding for removing septic tanks) to ensure the long-term health of the lagoon system.

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Big seagrass die-off in Florida Bay, officials and others beg for speedier Everglades cleanup

26 March 2016, KeysNet (USA)

Florida Bay will die and may take the Florida Keys with it unless state and federal agencies hasten Everglades restoration, frustrated residents and environmental groups fumed Wednesday.

"The grim state of Florida Bay is a reality," Peter Frezza, an Audubon of Florida biologist and professional flats guide, told Monroe County commissioners.

"Wildlife diversity and the abundance of shallow-water damage is at the lowest point I've ever experienced," Frezza said.

Commissioners meeting in Key Largo were considering approval of a resolution urging a faster pace on Everglades projects. After calls to demand stronger and more extensive measures -- primarily creation of a large freshwater-storage area south in the agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee -- commissioners agreed to a rewrite.

If a water storage area were created there, such water could be released south during dry periods to keep the bay's salinity down -- needed for a healthy bay.

There are no active plans for that Okeechobee storage area, speakers said, and consideration of several critical projects has been pushed back to 2022.

"My heart is broken," Islamorada Village Councilman Mike Forster said of his reaction to a recent meeting with South Florida Water Management District commissioners and staff.

"I wanted to know what positive things are happening that are different from the last four years of no change," Forster said. "I was told the best thing is to pray for no more rain" in the dry season.

Thomas Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation, said, "The Water Management District still does not have a plan for [water storage] south of Lake Okeechobee. You cannot fix Florida Bay without additional storage."

Plans to acquire a large tract of land near Okeechobee for water storage have stalled, reportedly after objections from sugar-producing corporations that have political sway.

Water Management District Executive Director Peter Antonacci told commissioners that progress on Everglades restoration has been significant, especially considering huge costs, uncertain technologies and the need to consider effects on South Florida residents and businesses.

"It's a very long timeline to get good things to happen," said Antonacci, referencing "a 25-year horizon."

Florida Bay now is experiencing a major seagrass die-off south of the mainland, described as the worst since a devastating 1987-90 seagrass kill that triggered a massive algal bloom and a worrisome drop in fish numbers.

Current conditions -- a dry 2015 summer that increased bay salinity, followed by the wettest South Florida winter on record -- make another major algal bloom highly likely, speakers said.

"The system is starving for fresh water," Caroline McLaughlin of the National Parks and Conservation Association said.

High Florida Bay salinity and seagrass die-offs could signal "essentially the collapse of the entire ecosystem," McLaughlin said. "We know the solution and it's Everglades restoration."

"We all have to remember that we need to protect this incredible global system," said Everglades Trust founder Mary Barley of Islamorada. "Nobody comes to Florida to look at sugar."

Commissioners and speakers pointed to a healthy Florida Bay as a critical element of the Keys economy. A sick bay could destroy recreational and commercial fishing, and pose a threat to survival of the coral reef, speakers said.

"It's sad and sickening and makes you want to cry," Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said. "This beautiful body of water, we have totally wrecked. We need to do whatever it takes."

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Saving the Worlds Seagrass Meadows Isn't Just a Pipefish Dream

25 March 2016, Newswise (UK)

Saving seagrass isn’t just a pipefish dream. That’s the claim of a new Practitioners perspective article written by researchers from Swansea University and Cardiff University who help run the marine conservation charity Project Seagrass ( together with two of their graduate students.

Seagrass meadows are a global resource providing a myriad of ecosystem services including significant support for global fisheries. The ecological value of seagrass meadows is irrefutable, yet loss continues at an accelerating rate. Their article explains that action is urgently required to minimise damage to seagrass and to confer resilience in the face of rapid and global environmental change. Management strategies are required that address specific threats and that can be delivered across scales.

The researchers explain the options available that can be used to assist environmental managers and practitioners in taking practical actions to help stem the loss of seagrass meadows. Strategies exist that can be used towards a reversal of their decline. Poor water quality is the biggest global concern facing seagrass, and action at a catchment level is a means of dealing with this. They provide information about how changing water quality is not a simple task, but also illustrate how case studies show that improvement can be enhanced through the cumulative result of simple actions across industries, catchments, jurisdictions and communities. Reducing the impact of boats, stopping the spread of invasive species, developing science-industry partnerships, and promoting sustainable exploitation of seagrass associated species are also explained as key ways of enhancing the long-term resilience of seagrass meadows.

Seagrass conservation also requires more long-term investment backed up by improved policy and legislation to support local and regional management of these systems as part of connected seascape. Critically improved education and widespread awareness raising is needed so that the hundreds of millions of people living in close vicinity to seagrass meadows understand their importance and sensitivity. They conclude their article by discussing how overlapping strategies may be required to secure a future for seagrass. Community empowerment, funding injection and the use of evidence based science, can support the protection of seagrass meadows for ecosystem service provision now and in the future.

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Workshop on dugong conservation held

24 March 2016, The Hindu (India)

Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park has sensitised stakeholders to conservation of dugong, the sea grass-eating mammal, in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar.

The Park, which had taken up a study on Species Conservation Action Plan (SCAP) for Dugong, organised a one-day workshop here on Tuesday to educate stakeholders in the region on conservation of the marine mammal.

The workshop was organised under Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Conservation and Greening Project, Deepak S. Bilgi, Wildlife Warden, Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, said. “It is a training-cum-awareness workshop on dugong conservation,” he noted. The Park would develop a module to create awareness among the stakeholders, especially the fisherfolk, of the need to conserve the species and its habitats, he said, adding “we will also develop strategies to improve the protection system.”

Officials from the departments of Fisheries, Forest, Coastal Security Group (CSG), Indian Coast Guard (ICG), Naval detachments and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau attended the workshop, he said.

Representatives of Thoothukudi-based Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute (SDMR), which had conducted Species Conservation Action Plan for Dugong for the Marine National Park, also attended it.

Nihar Ranjan, Conservator of Forests, Virudhunagar Circle, Ganesan, Conservator of Forests, Chennai Circle, and T.S. Dangae, Director of Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, spoke.

As part of the conservation project, the Park had completed sea grass mapping from Rameswaram to Adhiramapattinam near Point Calimere in the Palk Bay. A boat survey had also been done to assess dugong population in the region.

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County wants bay projects fast-tracked

23 March 2016, (USA)

Florida Bay has once again become an area of critical local concern for environmentalists, anglers and Florida Keys officials after drought-like conditions last summer and a lack of fresh water flowing south through the Everglades combined to decimate thousands of acres of seagrass throughout the northern bay.

Because of that, and other Everglades-related concerns, the Monroe County Commission will look to pass a resolution at its Wednesday, March 23, meeting in Key Largo that asks for certain Everglades restoration projects being handled by the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to be fast-tracked.

The five projects the county is focused on, according to the agenda, include the Modified Water Deliveries project, three sections of the C-111 canal project and the Central Everglades Planning Project, all of which will help to bring more fresh water to the Everglades and Florida Bay. The dates for completion currently range between 2018 and 2030. Some of the projects are more recent undertakings, while others have been in the works in various incarnations since 1992 or 2000.

“They should have been completed already,” Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent told the Free Press.

While Neugent pointed out that Gov. Rick Scott isn’t solely to blame for the recent environmental disasters that have occurred as the fresh water those projects would direct into the Everglades and Florida Bay is instead flushed by water managers into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries in massive, destructive pulses, the commissioner said it has happened on the governor’s watch.

Lisa Tennyson, director of legislative affairs for Monroe County, said the five specific projects identified in the resolution were singled out because they directly affect Florida Bay, which is an important part of the Keys economy as the waters are used heavily both recreationally and commercially.

“We just want to raise some of the special concerns we have [regarding Florida Bay],” Tennyson said. “But we understand it’s difficult to move one part [ahead] without the other part.”

Neugent echoed her take. “We just want a voice that is aligned with others [throughout Florida],” he said.

Nobody is interested in seeing what happens if these specific projects, as well as the other parts of the state-federal Everglades restoration plan, are not completed in a timely fashion. Scientists already know from past experience that when the bay becomes too salty, seagrass decomposes and releases nutrients in vast quantities that can feed algae blooms.

According to a diagram compiled by Margaret “Penny” Hall, a research scientist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who oversaw a team studying the last summer’s seagrass die-off in Florida Bay, almost 34 square miles of bay bottom lost seagrass throughout 2015. This included multiple spots around Rankin Lake and Johnson Key Basin.

When compared to a similar die-off event that occurred in the bay in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which eventually triggered a catastrophic algae bloom that killed countless sea life, the results weren’t too far apart. According to the chart, more than 36 square miles of bay bottom seagrass die-off was recorded from 1987 to 1990.

SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith told the Free Press on Friday that some restoration projects could shift to earlier completion dates. While construction of certain Everglades restoration projects has to be completed in a specific order due to the layout of the entire water flow system, the district does try to expedite what will provide the greatest benefit in the quickest amount of time, he said.

Smith also pointed out that a new, dedicated funding source will help alleviate some of the concerns regarding whether or not these projects have state money to move forward with in the future.

“We’re encouraged by the [state] budget that was signed,” Smith said. “It goes a long way.”

The new Legacy Florida bill will dedicate $200 million toward Everglades restoration annually. And $100 million will be used for the design and construction of one of the main components Monroe County officials are focused on.

“We know they are concerned [about the Everglades and Florida Bay], too,” Neugent said of the state entities.

SFWMD Executive Director Peter Antonacci is expected to be in attendance at the Wednesday meeting, according to Smith and Tennyson, and will be part of a presentation for county officials being given by the water district.

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DNR study sees seagrass recovering in Puget Sound

22 March 2016, The Bellingham Herald (USA)


A rock crab uses the eel grass to hide near the shore at Maury Island. Critical eelgrass beds are showing signs of recovering in parts of Puget Sound, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Photo Credit: Lui Kit Wong File, 2002


Critical eelgrass beds are showing signs of recovering in parts of Puget Sound, including Hood Canal, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

A new DNR report found sites with increased eelgrass outnumbered sites with declining eelgrass between 2010 and 2014. The rebound was most pronounced in lower Hood Canal.

Seagrasses provide nearshore nursery grounds and shelter for many species, including salmon. They also serve as an indicator of the overall health of Washington’s saltwater environment.

Eelgrass had been on the decline in Puget Sound previously, and seagrass meadows still are globally in decline.

“We have a long way to go in the protection and restoration of Puget Sound, but it’s encouraging to see some positive news,” Megan Duffy, DNR's deputy supervisor for aquatics and geology, said in a news release. “DNR has committed attention and resources to protecting and restoring seagrass meadows. This report only strengthens that commitment.”

In 2014, eelgrass covered some 24,300 hectares of Puget Sound — slightly above the 2016 target set by Gov. Jay Inslee’s Results Washington initiative to track eelgrass coverage in Washington.

As the steward of state-owned aquatic lands, DNR officials believe its land management, aquatic restoration and derelict vessel programs contribute to protecting seagrasses, but questions remain about why recent years have been relatively good for seagrass growth in Puget Sound.

“Seagrass beds are sensitive to a wide variety of stressors, which makes them a great bio-indicator of ecosystem health. We are starting studies to identify which stressors dominate at selected locations,” Bart Christiaen, seagrass scientist at DNR and lead author of the report, said in a news release. “These increases are exciting. We are currently analyzing data from our monitoring efforts in 2015 to see if they persisted despite the anomalous weather conditions.”

The full report is available at:

More information: Click Here



Aggie prof hopes to save dugong species

21 March 2016, Texas A&M The Battalion (USA)

It is a large, elephant-like creature whose looks inspire giggles more than concern, but the dugong may be endangered if scientists don’t take action now.

Christopher Marshall, an associate professor at Texas A&M Galveston, is studying and raising awareness for dugongs, also known as “sea cows.” Dugongs, which are large marine mammals with distinctive tusks, are an endangered species that lives in the Persian Gulf, off the East coast of Africa and in Northern Australian waters.

“I’m studying dugongs in the Arabian Gulf from the country of Qatar,” Marshall said. “The issue is that nobody has really looked at these animals in 30 years and many biologists in Qatar don’t even know that they have these animals in their water.”

It is believed the dugongs that live in the Arabian waters are the second largest group of the animals in the world.

“An Australian by the name of Anthony Preen did a survey of the gulf 30 years ago and found 6,000 dugongs from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to the [United Arab Emirates],” Marshall said. “That is the second largest population in the world.”

This sizable dugong population is highly important to the survival of the species but faces several threats, namely the destruction of seagrass and incidental bycatch. Marshall said incidental bycatch occurs when a sea animal, in this case a dugong, gets caught in a fisherman’s net.

Although there are laws protecting the dugongs, they are not taken seriously, and offenses are rarely punished.

“Currently there is a law that you are not allowed to hunt them and catch them, but there is no enforcement,” Marshall said.

Another threat to dugongs is the extermination of their habitat.

“The interesting thing about dugongs is that they are the only herbivorous marine mammals that we have — they eat seagrass,” Marshall said. “Seagrass is really important because [it serves] as nourishing grounds for commercial and recreational fish, and if you preserve a habitat, you preserve all the animals that live in it, including fish, turtles, dugongs and whales.”

Seagrass is essential for dugongs, as it is their main source of food and a crucial component of their habitat, but it is in danger of being vastly reduced.

“The coastal waters around Qatar and Bahrain are also starting to be modified, which will potentially deplete the vast seagrass meadows that they feed upon,” said Josh Cullen, a graduate student working with Marshall.

Marshall addressed this issue directly on one of his visits to Qatar.

“On my last trip, I was able to have a training session with the ministry of municipality and urban planning, specifically their integrated coastal zone management team, and it was interesting because they weren’t really aware that if you don’t do coastal development right you can start to kill off seagrass, which is a very important habitat for dugongs as well as many fish and sea turtles,” Marshall said.

To better understand the problem, Marshall studies the dugong population demographics.

“What we need to do is figure out how many animals are in the population, how many animals are coming up on the beach dead from bycatch and then figure out if that is a sustainable number, which it probably is not, and if this continues the population of dugongs will drop,” Marshall said.

If the number is not sustainable, the government will need to take action in order to prevent the dugong population from being wiped out, said Marshall.

“What we are looking at is trying to propose a marine protected area in that part of the world and close fishing for the time that those animals are there [which is December through March],” Marshall said.

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Relax, the damage to Rottnest's seagrass isn't as bad as we thought

21 March 2016, Australian Geographic (Australia)


While 4.8ha is an alarming figure, the researchers point out it represents less than 1% of the island's seagrass meadows. Photo Credit: Edith Cowan University

A RECENT STUDY by Western Australian scientists found 4.8ha of Rottnest Island’s seagrass meadows has been scoured by chains from almost 900 moorings in bays around the island.

Tourists flock from far and wide to visit the popular holiday destination, which is home to an abundance of marine life, including nine varieties of seagrass, 25 types of coral, 135 tropical fish species, dolphins, sea lions and whales.

But the study, published in Nature: Scientific Reports, states when visitors moor their boats, they drift with the wind, currents and waves, dragging heavy chains across the seafloor and damaging seagrass meadows – which provide vital services to the island’s marine ecosystems.

According to at least one expert, there are a number of flaws in the study and its extensive media coverage comes at the expense of Rottnest's reputation.

“It’s just done us irreparable damage when we actually are world-class in terms of our environmental work,” said Dr Peter Hick, marine specialist and Rottnest Island Authority board member.

“Misleading figure”

The study’s lead researcher Dr Oscar Serrano from Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research says there are still a number of harmful moorings that need to be replaced on the island. However, Peter argues the old moorings were all replaced in the 1980s in an effort to protect the meadows.

“They’re making claims that there are 900 moorings with chains scraping over around 70-80sqm per mooring – getting this misleading figure,” Peter said. “There is not one mooring at Rottnest that is like that – every mooring at Rottnest is either a pin mooring or is a secured chain mooring, which doesn’t give it the potential to scrape on the ground at all and they are inspected annually,” he argued.

“We’re finding we’ve even had cases where up to 65 per cent of the seagrass has come back within two years, but in the last 25 years since we’ve stopped using swing-chain moorings, we’ve had an incredible increase in seagrass.”
Less than 1% of seagrass affected

Oscar is confident in his research, but said that what made headlines was not actually the main findings of the study – and that, when put into context, 4.8ha is less than one per cent of the island’s seagrass meadows.

He also found positive results – comparisons of high-resolution aerial images taken of moorings in 1989 and 2009 in the island’s Thomson and Stark Bays showed a reduction in seagrass in Stark Bay, but the recovery of 20 per cent of the previously scarred area in Thomson Bay where the largest meadows are found.

“It is important that we keep the message clear and we highlight the positive things as well,” Oscar said. “I feel and I know that the Rottnest Authority is doing a great job in managing the ecosystem, so it is unfortunate the media has focussed on the negatives rather than the positives.”
Key information

Oscar says the study’s main focus was determining the amount of carbon dioxide at risk of being emitted after disturbance of the seagrass, which has world-wide implications in policy-making for a blue-carbon economy (in which carbon is captured and stored by marine and wetland ecosystems).

Seagrass meadows – as well as salt marshes and mangroves – absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and when damaged release it back into the ocean and atmosphere.

“There is an opportunity for Australia to offset carbon dioxide emissions by the preservation of these coastal ecosystems,” Oscar said.

“For instance a mining company could pay to replace the harmful moorings from Rottnest Island for more environmentally friendly moorings, and then they’d be able to offset their own carbon emissions by preserving the ecosystem and promoting restoration activities and conservation.”

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Coral bleaching comes to the Great Barrier Reef as record-breaking global temperatures continue

21 March 2016, The Conversation AU (Australia)

As we write, the much-cherished Great Barrier Reef is experiencing the devastating effects of coral bleaching. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has declared severe coral bleaching underway on the reefs north of Cooktown.

El Niño and climate change have driven record-breaking temperatures worldwide. 2015 was the hottest year ever, and 2016 has continued the trend. February 2016 was 1.35℃ above average temperatures calculated between 1951 and 1980, the hottest month by the biggest margin ever.

Sea temperatures have also been at record-breaking levels. In the oceans, we have known for more than a decade that rapidly warming ocean temperatures present a serious threat to coral reefs, the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.

The latest changes in average global surface temperature, if they continue, suggest that coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef may significantly change even sooner than previously predicted.

What exactly is coral bleaching?

The first sign that a coral reef is in trouble from underwater heatwaves is a sudden change in colour, from brown to brilliant white (bleached). It only takes a temperature increase of 1-2℃ to cause entire reefs and regions to bleach.

Small changes in sea temperature disrupt the special relationship between corals and tiny marine algae that live inside their tissue. These algae supply 90% of the energy corals that require for growth and reproduction. When corals bleach, they expel the algae.

If conditions stay warm for a long time, corals start to die either directly or indirectly from starvation and disease. Loss of corals is coupled to the loss of fish and other organisms that ultimately determine opportunities for tourism and fisheries for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Is coral bleaching new?

Mass coral bleaching was first reported in the early 1980s. Before that, there were no scientific reports of corals bleaching en masse across entire reef systems and regions.

Did scientists accidentally overlook earlier bleaching events? With a rich history of coral reef ecology going back to the 1930s at least, the idea that we would have missed one of the most visual changes to coral reef seems implausible. It also seems odd that filmmakers such as Valerie Taylor and Jacques-Yves Cousteau could have also missed filming these spectacular events.

The first global bleaching event was recorded in 1998. In the lead-up to that event, strong El Niño conditions developed on top of already warm ocean waters in the Pacific. During the 1998 event the world lost 16% of its coral reefs.

Reports of record levels of coral bleaching in the eastern Pacific began to pour in during late 1997. This was followed by bleaching reports in the South Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef in February and March 1998.

A month or so later, coral bleaching was reported across the Western Indian Ocean and, as the northern hemisphere summer unrolled, coral reefs in Northeast Asia, the Middle East and Caribbean began to bleach.

A second global event was recorded 12 years later in 2010, with the third global event happening now. The new reports of severe bleaching – and the associated patterns of ocean temperature – are hauntingly similar to the 1998 event (see Figure 4).

Our team at the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland have documented extensive coral bleaching in Hawaii in November 2015, and in Fiji and New Caledonia in February 2016, as part of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

On cue, the Great Barrier Reef has undergone serious bleaching – albeit in a different sector to the 1998 event. While we had our suspicions that the reef was going to bleach based on the temperature predictions, we were hesitant to say exactly where and precisely when – weather ultimately determines which parts of the reef will bleach.

The bleaching is currently focused on the pristine reefs north of Cooktown, driven by water temperatures that have persisted at 1.0-1.5℃ above seasonal averages since mid to late January 2016, and calm and still weather conditions over recent weeks.

We don’t know for sure how the rest of the 2016 bleaching event will unfold. Based on what we have seen so far, our suspicion is that this event will follow similar broad geographical patterns to that seen in 1998, modified by local weather patterns.

It is likely that we will start seeing reports of widespread mass coral bleaching and deaths in the western Indian Ocean from countries such as the Maldives, Kenya and the Seychelles, with Southeast Asia and the Coral Triangle centred on Indonesia following soon afterwards. As the northern summer develops, coral bleaching and deaths may be seen in parts of the Middle East, Japan and the Caribbean by July and August.

Coral bleaching and the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is bleaching at the same time of year (within a few weeks) as it did in 1998. Back then, around 50% of the reefs on the Reef saw bleaching.

In 2002 – not a global event – around 60% of its reefs showed bleaching on central and inshore areas as opposed to the more even distribution observed in 1998.

In both these bleaching events, coral deaths ranged from 5-10%. A localised bleaching event with significant coral deaths (around 30-40%) was recorded in 2006 in the Keppel Islands on the southern end of the Reef. Outside these events, there has been isolated bleaching on the Reef since the early 1980s, although the extent has never approached the recent extent and intensity.

In recent years, we have wondered whether the Great Barrier Reef was somewhat immune to large-scale impacts that have occurred elsewhere in the world. For example, while huge impacts were being felt in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, the Great Barrier Reef effectively dodged a bullet during the second global bleaching event in 2010.

It had also been speculated that the northern sector of the Reef, with its more pristine coastal forest and river catchments, might be more resilient to the impact of climate change.

This is backed up by the observation that the abundance of coral has remained stable in the northern sector of the Great Barrier Reef, whereas the central and southern sectors have declined by 50% over the past 27 years.

The speculation is now resolved. It is very clear from events of the last week that even the most pristine coral reefs (such as those in the northern sector of the reef) are as vulnerable as corals anywhere else.

This demonstrates that the failure to act decisively on climate change will negate any attempt to solve the more local problems of pollution and overfishing. The recent coral bleaching events underscore the importance of adopting the pledges made ahead of the 2015 Paris climate conference - and indeed going even deeper. This is a time for action, not business as usual.

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Dugongs chained and caged by Indonesian fishermen for tourist dollar

18 March 2016, AsiaOne (Indonesia)


Dugong was chained and trapped in a cage on the seabed.
Photo Credit: Video Screengrab

Photos and a video have emerged showing sea animals chained up inside underwater cages near the remote island of Kokoya, Indonesia.

Divers swimming in the area came across two cages that trapped two dugongs on the seabed.

The divers believe the trapped marine mammals are a mother and her calf, and that they had been caught by local fishermen hoping to profit by allowing tourists to take photos with them, The Sun reported.

One of the divers, Delon Lim, told the news website that the mother and baby were being held in separate cages.

Lim later told animal welfare website The Dodo that while the baby was allowed to swim inside its cage, the mother's movement was restricted by a huge rope.

The scars on the mother's tail and the wear and tear on the rope suggest that the animals had been restricted and trapped for several weeks.

"He asked for some money if we wanted to see the dugong or take a picture," Lim told The Sun, explaining that the animals were being used to attract tourists.

Lim and a fellow diver tried to convince the fishermen to free the dugongs.

He was quoted by The Sun as saying: "When we left the island, the fisherman had agreed to release them. But we were not so convinced he would, so we posted the video on social media."

The video drew the attention of animal welfare authorities who arrived on the island the following day only to find the dugongs still trapped.

According to The Sun, they were finally set free later that day.

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Boat mooring chains scour Rottnest (Australia) seagrass releasing CO2

15 March 2016, Phys.Org (Ausralia)

This photo shows the loss of seagrass in bays around Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth. Photo Credit: ECU

Seagrass covering 48,000sqm has been scoured from the sands of Rottnest Island (Western Australia') by almost 900 mooring chains used by recreational boats according to research from Edith Cowan University and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

The research published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports surveyed the 'scars' created by mooring chains in the bays around one of Western Australia's iconic tourist destinations.

Dr Oscar Serrano led the research with Professor Paul Lavery and Professor Pere Masque from the Edith Cowan University (ECU) and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB and Department of Physics UAB), and said the movement of the chains scraped seagrass off the seafloor.

"As moored boats drift with the currents, wind and waves they drag a heavy chain across the seafloor and that chain acts just like a razor across the skin removing the seagrass," said Oscar Serrano.

"But unlike a 5 o clock shadow—in this case the seagrass doesn't grow back.

"Unfortunately these protected, calm bays favoured for boat moorings are also prime habitats for seagrass."

Efforts to preserve seagrass meadows by using seagrass friendly mooring lines in some areas is resulting in the recovery of seagrass in some areas of the Island however overall seagrass covers is decreasing.

That's because the size of mooring scars in Stark Bay on the Island's north coast has increased about 500 per cent from 2,000sqm in 1980to 9,000 sqm today due to erosion of the already scarred areas by wave action.

"Once the mooring chains have started the process of scouring, waves will likely continue spreading those scoured areas.

"In Stark Bay, we've seen the scarred areas join up to become large areas devoid of any seagrass."

The destruction of the seagrass meadows has important implications for the ecosystems of Perth's favourite marine playground.

"Seagrass is an important habitat for many species of fish as well as a food source for dugong and turtles," he said.

"More importantly in a global sense, seagrass absorbs carbon dioxide at more than 40 times faster than tropical rainforests.

"What that also means is that when the seagrass meadows are wiped out the carbon dioxide which has been absorbed over hundreds of years, is released back into the atmosphere."

As part of this project, core samples were taken in the scarred areas and where seagrass still existed.

Those sample showed on average more than 75 per cent of carbon absorbed in those seagrass meadows was lost increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Dr Serrano said it is important steps are taken to protect the seagrass meadows around Rottnest Island and the rest of Australia.

"These older style moorings have started to be replaced on Rottnest Island, but that needs to continue here and in other popular mooring sites," he said.

Fast facts on seagrass:

  • Seagrass meadows cover about 90,000 sqkm of seabed off Australia's coast - that's about the same size as Tasmania.
  • Seagrass absorbs CO2 about 40 times faster than rainforests and could be a valuable way to offset carbon emissions.
  • But as seagrass meadows die off due to climate change and the effects of human development, that CO2 will be released.
  • It is notoriously hard to propagate seagrasses and replace meadows lost due to human influences

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Asia-Pacific Analysis: Saving the sea grass meadows

15 March 2016, SciDev.Net

Fringing the coastal waters of Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, mainland Asia and the Pacific islands are the sea grass meadows of the oceans.

They are akin to grass meadows on land and nurture many forms of sea life, playing a significant role in the ecological balance of our planet.

Today, sea grass areas are “among the most threatened ecosystems on earth with an estimated disappearance rate of 110 square kilometres per year since 1980,” marine scientist Hilconida Calumpong tells SciDev.Net.

Calumpong, a science professor at the Silliman University in the Philippines, is a member of the UN-mandated World Ocean Assessment (WOA) group of marine scientists that studied the state of the world’s oceans for five years (2011-2015).

“The rate of decline is accelerating from a median of 0.9 per cent per year before 1940 to 7 per cent per year since 1990. One-third of all the sea grass areas recorded around the world about a century ago in the 1870s have now disappeared,” says Calumpong, citing the WOA report.

The most intense destruction is in the China-Korea-Japan region where the highest decline of 80-100 per cent of all species is reported. The decline is associated with heavy coastal development and extensive coastal reclamation.

The destruction of one species of sea grass meadows is intense in South-East Asia due to aquaculture, fisheries and heavy watershed siltation, notes Calumpong.

Another three species in Australia and four species in the Mediterranean are damaged by propellers and ship grounding, by degraded water quality, and competition with introduced sea life species.

Roles of sea grass meadows

Sea grasses are flowering plants found in shallow marine waters (like bays and lagoons) and the continental shelves. They provide food, habitat and nursery areas for numerous marine life — fishes, crabs, shrimps, shells, sea horses, sea urchins, sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, waterfowl, scallops, clams and sea cucumbers.

Sea grasses perform other important functions. They stabilise the sea bottom in a manner similar to the way land grasses prevent soil erosion. They also lessen the impact of strong currents at the bottom of the sea.

Sea grasses help maintain water quality in the coastal areas. They trap fine sediments and particles that are suspended in the water and increase water quality. Without the grasses, the sediments are stirred by winds and waves.

Sea grasses also filter nutrients that come from land-based industrial discharge and storm water runoff before these are washed out to sea and affect other sensitive habitats like coral reefs.

Seagrass destruction

These sea grass meadows are under siege by humans. A major human-made cause are plastics. The South-East Asian region has been reported to be the world’s worst plastic polluters of the oceans.

Scientists explain that plastics break into very tiny particles, competing with microscopic organisms that serve as food for larger marine animals and block the sunlight needed for the sea grass to survive.

Sea grass produces oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide. With the loss of sea grass meadows, more carbon dioxide is released into the air, causing more heating in the oceans. With more heating, the climate becomes more extreme.

Sea grass loss will affect populations of some 115 marine species that live on sea grass beds, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Reefs and mangrove ecosystems are also affected because many fish and invertebrate species found in coral reefs and mangroves spend their juvenile stages in sea grass beds.

The ocean is a complex system that is interconnected, and what goes wrong in one part of the ocean will affect the whole.

Reversing the tide of destruction

What can be done to mitigate the destruction?

“Many strategies have been employed in the management of sea grass meadows,” says Calumpong.

“These strategies include declaration of sanctuaries and protected areas, regulation of fishing methods destructive to kelps and sea grasses (such as trawls and seines), transplantation and restoration of sea grass beds.”

“But since sea grass meadows are catchments, an integrated approach is needed to regulate siltation-causing activities in the uplands such as deforestation, agriculture, mining plus reclamation,” she emphasises.

The UN has recognised the gravity of the destruction and organised the First Integrated World Ocean Assessment in 2011 to mitigate the problem. However, there is no specific date for the next WOA.

We think there is urgent need for action now, both at local and national government levels, and from the United Nations perspective, without waiting for the next WOA. The WOA report admits that some problems – such as those flowing from climate change and acidification – can only be dealt with at a global level.

As one of the 25 experts from the Asia-Pacific working with WOA 2011-2115, Calumpong says the experience has made her realise how small she is as a scientist and how huge “the challenge to act as a family of nations so that humans can survive as a species”.

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Trang fishermen asked to help slow-moving male dugong

12 March 2016, Phuket Gazette (Thailand)


The dugong population off the coast of Trang is growing thanks to conservation efforts. Photo Credit: The Nation

A senior marine official has urged Trang fishermen to help a male dugong (sea cow) believed to be entangled in a dragnet.

Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong, the head of Phuket Marine Biological Centre's Rare Sea Animal Division, said the animal was spotted during the division's latest annual survey of the seagrass zone off the province.

"We have been monitoring him and found that this teenage male dugong swims slower than usual,” Mr Kongkiat said.

"Although it can still find food by itself, there is a risk that a seine [that the animal is presumed to be somewhat entangled in] might one day get caught on a big undersea rock and trap this animal under the sea.

"It will die if it can't swim to the surface and get some oxygen.”

He told fishermen to alert officials if the animal was injured.

According to an annual aerial survey that concluded on Wednesday, Thailand's dugong population is growing, with at least 15 more sea cows counted in the Trang Sea. Twelve pairs of dugong mothers and calves were found – a positive sign that efforts to conserve the last and largest dugong herd in Thailand have made progress.

Fishermen in the area have co-operated by not using dangerous fishing gear. Still, at least one dugong was found entangled in seine fishing net near Koh Libong.

This year's survey started on March 3 and was made up of 10 gyroplane trips – which counted rare marine life including sea turtles, dolphins, whales and dugongs.

Mr Kongkiat led the survey with support from other Thai and Japanese researchers.

"This latest survey was very successful. We found at least 150 dugongs in total, an increase from the previous year's 135 sea cows. We also found baby dugongs in the area, which indicated the dugongs' better reproduction condition. The oldest dugong is believed to be about 70 years old," Mr Kongkiat said. "Plus, Trang's 35,000 rai of seagrass appeared to be healthy."

The survey were first conducted in 2010 and reported a peak of dugong deaths – 13 cases – in 2012.

Last year, six dugong deaths were reported, mostly because of hazardous fishing gear, Mr Kongkiat said. He added that PMBC aimed to keep the death rate under five a year.

The center must boost local people's awareness about hazardous fishing gear and rubbish in the ocean to minimize threats to marine life and invite the public to participate in conservation efforts, he said.

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How to keep seagrasses as happy as a clam

10 March 2016, Science News (Mauritania)


TOUGHING IT OUT Researchers investigate what lets certain patches of seagrasses survive hot spells and drying winds when receding tides leave them as a flat green carpet on the Banc d’Arguin mudflats off the West Africa coast. Photo Credit: Laura L. Govers

Clamming up could help underwater seagrass meadows better withstand drought, heat waves and climate change.

Breakdown of a symbiotic bond between seagrasses off the West Africa coast and tiny lucinid clams can exacerbate damage in hard times, researchers say March 10 in Current Biology. So protecting meadows may mean worrying just as much about the partnership as the seagrasses themselves, says coauthor Tjisse van der Heide of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Seagrasses aren’t seaweed like kelp. They’re genuine flowering plants whose ancestors over about 100 million years adapted to a salty underwater life that would quickly kill most land plants.

Clams can play a role in easing one risk of this life: debris breakdown that goes toxic. Their own dead leaves plus floating bits of dead stuff and waste, including runoff from nearby land, snag in a seagrass meadow’s expanse of swaying leaves. Sea-bottom microbes that break down the rain of debris release sulfides, which can poison the plants.

In 2012, van der Heide and colleagues proposed that in some seagrass communities, especially in the tropics and subtropics, clams burrowing among the plant roots help detoxify sulfides. The Loripes clams and other species in the lucinid group benefit from oxygen that plant roots give off, and the sulfides from debris breakdown nourish symbiotic bacteria in the clams. “They’re farming bacteria in their gills,” says van der Heide. As the bacteria feast, they leak sugars that nourish their clam, and the toxic sulfides are turned into harmless sulfates, lowering the toxic risks to seagrasses.

Not every seagrass meadow has lucinid clams, but intertidal meadows at Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania do. The clam density there can average 1,500 to 2,000 small clams per square meter in the top 10 centimeters or so of mud. At low tides, mats of seagrasses lie exposed to air for hours at a time. During the severe drought of 2011, the hot, thirsty air desiccated swaths of the meadow. Dying plants faltered in oxygenating the clams and their bacteria, causing a cascade of effects that weakened the detoxification process.

As drought-stricken seagrasses and clams failed to provide each other with benefits, a feedback loop of increasingly worse performance for both partners accelerated their demise, van der Heide and his colleagues propose. That’s the scenario they draw from satellite data on the meadow during the drought. Seeing considerable living patches mix with dead zones at the same elevation and exposed to the same climate conditions points to something else — such as a mutualism breakdown — speeding the change from leafy to bald.

Comparing seagrass patches that died with patches that survived, van der Heide and his colleagues propose that maintaining the clam partnership made a difference. Of 32 plots of meadow, the half where seagrasses survived the drought had nine times as many clams as the dead zones. These survival spots also averaged only about a quarter of the toxic sulfides.

This seagrass-clam mutualism may be important in Banc d’Arguin but has yet to be demonstrated as a more general phenomenon, says marine ecologist Carlos Duarte of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

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Hopes high that new boat mooring design will conserve Lake Macquarie seagrass species

08 March 2016, ABC Online (Australia)

It is hoped a New South Wales Government rebate scheme will entice boat owners to help conserve seagrasses in Lake Macquarie, by purchasing ecologically sustainable moorings.

Nine years ago, Port Stephens resident Des Maslen invented the Seagrass-Friendly Mooring System.

The device looks like a corkscrew of sorts, and is drilled into the seafloor. A rope then attaches to a buoy, which boats connect to.

Mr Maslen said his design of mooring negated the need for a heavy chain, which had traditionally scoured the seafloor and impacted on grass species.

A $30,000 grant from the Recreation Fishing Trust to Hunter Local Land Services has allowed the organisation to offer a 50 per cent rebate to boat owners who take up the eco-friendly moorings.

From environmental worker to inventor

Mr Maslen had worked in a number of environmentally-focused jobs for years when he decided to take action to help conserve seagrass.

"Watching how much of the seagrass was being wiped out, especially where I was mainly based at Shoal Bay, prompted me into looking for something different," he said.

"One of the other issues that I was forever coming up with was, the moorings that we were putting in were not only scouring that area out, but moving.

"I just thought, 'there has to be a better way'; it's just never been improved and it needed something done."

Mr Maslen's eco-friendly mooring has a rod made of carbon steel which is screwed into the seabed.

A rope is then attached to the top of the rod, which protrudes above the seabed and the rope connects to a buoy on the surface, to which boats attach.

The mooring cannot be used on a rocky seabed, or in a silty estuary.

"We've gotten rid of the chain, and that's the problem," Mr Maslen said.

"The chain works in that it cushions the effect of wind and waves on the boat, but the negative point of the chain is it is heavy and drags on the seabed.

"It's been a long, hard, slow process [and] we had to convince a lot of people that this would work.

"There were no specifications for moorings, and there still isn't a specification for what is required for moorings."

Rebate scheme designed to help conservation

Brian Hughes, estuary and marine officer at Hunter Local Land Services, said conserving the marine environment was the priority.

"We think environmentally-friendly moorings are a great idea because they can help rehabilitate important marine habitats, especially seagrass," Mr Hughes said.

"We recently did a project with [the Department of] Fisheries, and they mapped around 12 hectares of seagrass that had been damaged by moorings in Lake Macquarie alone, which is very significant because seagrass is such a good habitat.

"If you think about all that seagrass being rehabilitated and how much more habitat, how many more fish, and all the other functions seagrass provides for the ecology of Lake Macquarie, it's really exciting.

"So much work's been done in Lake Macquarie so this is really building on that work, and now it is in a much healthier condition, but we're getting all this habitat damage.

"If we can rehabilitate that, that'll be awesome."

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UA Professor to Aid Park Service in Mapping of Florida Bay

07 March 2016, UA News (USA)


The map is crucial to slowing the habitat damage caused by boats and other external, man-made forces

A University of Alabama faculty member is mapping Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.

Dr. Michael Steinberg, associate professor in New College and geography, and Brad Bates, a graduate assistant to Steinberg, are developing an accurate map of the channels and flats to help ensure the conservation of the bay.

The map is crucial to slowing the habitat damage caused by boats and other external, man-made forces, Steinberg said. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust commissioned and funded the map to help the National Park Service. According to Steinberg, the trust contacted him because of his cartography lab at UA as well as past research with the trust.

“The environmental issues caused by humans are hard to quantify, but most of them stem from issues to the north (in Miami),” Steinberg said.

Steinberg also said that the park hopes to use the map to institute “pole and troll” zones in Florida Bay to avoid excessive boat traffic.

“If you have a lot of boat traffic through the bay, the wakes can destroy nesting sites for birds and sea turtles,” he said. “It’s a big enough problem that the Park Service has said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’

“They want to limit the effect that boat traffic has on areas where animals will be nesting,” Steinberg said. “There are large numbers of manatees in the bay, and they love these shallow water areas, so they face a great potential for conflict with these boats. Those powerful outboards on the boats can do a lot of damage to the manatees.”

Steinberg said turtle grass is a major part of the habitats that are being destroyed. Turtle grass can take seven years to grow back. In that time, the bottom of the bay can undergo severe changes in the absence of the grass to hold the sand in place.

“Most of the seagrass issues are attributed to human activities, rather than natural activities,” Steinberg said. “The absence of seagrass causes more wave activity that can destroy habitats, and that’s when you start getting into trouble.”

Bates said that prop scars from boat motors also play a part in the destruction of the grass beds.

“You’re not only making a fragmented habitat by doing that, you’re also stirring up sediment that resettles and can reduce the amount of sunlight that the seagrass beds can actually get,” he said.

Steinberg compared it to erosion and desertification on land, with the water currents acting like the wind in the desert.

“Once the current and the tide interact with these barren areas, it’s really hard for seagrass to grow back, and that leads to more destruction and erosion in those areas,” he said.

Steinberg also cited the connection between the environment and the economy of the Florida Keys as a major factor in the importance of the map and preserving the ecosystem of Florida Bay. Ground-truthing is the process of going to the site and “see what you’re seeing,” as Steinberg put it. He said they do ground-truthing as a means of verifying the satellite images of the bay.

“Satellite images can be very accurate, but even with really good images, you still have to ground-truth certain things,” he said. According to Steinberg and Bates, satellite images can be compromised by things such as cloud cover or a poor picture in one section.

By going to the site and performing the ground-truthing, Steinberg said they learned more about the importance of these areas to the animals and the humans that call Florida Bay home.

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Environmental Photographer Braasch Dies Snorkeling At Great Barrier Reef

07 March 2016, Society of Environmental Journalists

"Award-winning American environmental photographer Gary Braasch died on Monday while snorkeling at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

Braasch, 70, from Portland, Oregon, was snorkeling with a companion at the Australian Museum's Lizard Island Research Station, the museum said in a statement. He was documenting the effect of climate change on the reef.

The cause of death was not immediately clear. Queensland police had been notified and were investigating, the museum added."

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Unusual algae in Tauranga Harbour

03 March 2016, (New Zealand)

Bay of Plenty Regional Council scientists are working on identifying a blue-green algae that has bloomed near Ōmokoroa in Tauranga Harbour.

The algae, which looks like fine, green cotton wool, is growing amongst sea grass in an area of approximately 20 hectares in the upper reaches of Mangawhai Bay, on the eastern side of the Ōmokoroa Peninsula.

“It’s a type of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria that looks a lot like a species called Lyngbya. We’ve seen it amongst sea grass beds in the harbour before but not on this scale.

We don’t know at this stage if it’s likely to be harmful to people or what’s caused the bloom, so we suggest people avoid contact with it for now as a precautionary measure,” said Regional Council Coastal Scientist Rob Win.

Mr Win said the bloom is likely to have occurred in response to unusually warm water temperatures in the harbour over summer and the high number of swans around Ōmokoroa.

“There’s lots of swan excrement in the water there at the moment that may have fuelled algae growth,” Mr Win said.

Mr Win said that the algae accumulates gas bubbles (from high rates of photosynthesis) around its filaments, causing algae clumps to rise to the surface and form large conspicuous floating mats.

“We’re keeping an eye on it. In the meantime if anyone experiences irritation after contact with the algae, they should seek medical advice,” Mr Win said.

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