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Barrier Reef's bleak report card reveals pollution levels too high
20 October 2016, ABC Online (Australia)
The Federal Government has delivered another bleak report card for the health of the Great Barrier Reef, revealing pollution loads are still too high in most of its catchments.
The Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015 shows sugarcane and grazing management and river catchment pollution have been graded either 'E' for very poor or 'D' for poor.
It also stated that the overall inshore marine environment and the seagrass there were in poor condition in 2014-2015.
Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg acknowledged there was significant work to do, but said there were some improvements.
"But coral and water quality improved from a D to C in part due to some recent drier years, which gave the reef a chance to recover after a number of floods and tropical cyclones," he said.
Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles said the report shows parts of the reef are suffering.
"That is why it is so important we're taking the steps we're taking to improve water quality and address farm practice."
Mr Miles said the poor results in the report card are due to the former Newman government's failure to make progress on reef protection.
"The Palaszczuk Government's investment since this reporting period has substantially increased, and I hope this report strengthens Mr Frydenberg's hand in securing additional federal funding that is needed."
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Latest GBR report card
Great Barrier Reef: Governments must spend more to save World Heritage Area, green groups say
20 October 2016, ABC Online (Australia)
Funding for Great Barrier Reef protection is inadequate and this is reflected in the latest poor assessment of reef health, which could prompt UNESCO to declare the World Heritage Area "in danger", conservationists say.
The Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015 has given the reef an overall grade of D, or poor.
Sugarcane and grazing management as well as river catchment pollution have been graded E (very poor) or D in most regions.
Inshore marine environment and seagrass levels are also poor.
Sean Hoobin from the World Wildlife Fund said poor funding levels were largely to blame for the latest results.
He said both the federal and state governments needed to boost spending on reef protection ahead of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee review in December.
"One of the key things UNESCO has singled out is sustained and adequate financing and basically the governments just aren't providing that," Mr Hoobin said.
"They admit the money is short and UNESCO will have to consider whether what they're doing is adequate."
Mr Hoobin said report cards had been saying the same thing for years.
"It isn't one level of government, it isn't one flavour of government, it's all governments that haven't been doing enough to save the reef."
Imogen Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society agreed more funding was crucial, saying it had to be focused on improving farm practice, reducing land clearing and putting a legal cap on fertiliser run-off.
"This report shows that we're just not doing enough to reduce fertiliser and soil washing into the Great Barrier Reef," Ms Zethoven said.
"Soil is precious and we need to keep it on land."
The Reef Alliance, a coalition of farm lobby groups, natural resource managers and government agencies, acknowledged the report was sobering.
But spokeswoman Ruth Wade said it did not include major policy changes and projects rolled out over the past 12 months.
Ms Wade acknowledged it would be a struggle to meet the ambitious reef targets by 2018, but that more funding from both governments would help.
"For every $1 invested by government, there's about $1.55 invested by farmers to deliver the outcomes required for the reef," she said.
"There needs to be much more investment and it needs to be much more stable."
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18 October 2016, BBC Radio Wales (Wales)
Adam Walton finds out about seagrass, which forms underwater "meadows" and plays a vital role in the ecology of the oceans.
Seagrass, not to be confused with seaweed, is an underwater flowering plant that thrives in saltwater environments, and provides important sheltering grounds for juvenile fish and other creatures. It is also incredibly efficient at capturing and storing carbon.
Adam is joined by Dr Richard Unsworth, a bioscientist based at Swansea University, and Ben Jones, from the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University. They explain the importance of seagrass and how it is declining due to poor water quality and pollution. But also, there is some hope for improvements as governments and agencies are persuaded to monitor water quality and become aware of the crucial role it plays in sustaining fish stocks and stabilising the ocean bed environment.
We also hear from Dr Johan Eklöf, of the Department of Ecology, Environment & Plant Sciences at Stockholm University, who has been researching the importance of bio-diversity for the preservation of healthy seagrass.
Len McKenzie from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia explains his work with seagrass on the Great Barrier Reef, and the role of seagrass meadows as a vital resource for dugongs and turtles.
We also have music. A song called "Seagrass Blue Carbon Blues", written and performed by Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland's Center For Environmental Science.
Listen to the interview: Click Here
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Coalition urged to regulate Indigenous hunting of endangered animals
11 October 2016, The Guardian ( Australia)
The Turnbull government is considering greater regulation of Indigenous Australians’ hunting of dugongs and sea turtles.
Malcolm Turnbull has asked the environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, to investigate serious complaints that vulnerable and endangered animals are being subjected to great cruelty by some Indigenous families and killed merely for commercial purposes, not cultural purposes.
The Coalition MP Warren Entsch raised the matter in the Coalition party room on Tuesday.
He showed the partyroom a photo – since seen by Guardian Australia – of a green sea turtle lying upside down on a beach, its flippers cut off and its breast plate removed, its innards exposed.
He told his Coalition colleagues the turtle had not been killed before it was mutilated, and it had been left to die in agony because its intestines were found to be inflamed (a sign the animal was diseased).
He referred to scores of other incidents involving dead baby dugongs and boatloads of dead sea turtles that he said were killed by Indigenous hunters.
He said some Indigenous families were killing the animals for commercial gain and selling the meat to all parts of the country.
He called for a moratorium on the hunting of the animals in areas where they were deemed vulnerable so authorities could determine how many were left.
He said vulnerable animals should only be allowed to be eaten where they were hunted, rather than flown around the country to be sold for a profit.
Frydenberg has accepted Turnbull’s request to investigate the matter.
“I’m an absolute supporter of native title rights for traditional hunting for ceremony and cultural reasons,” Entsch later told Guardian Australia.
“But there is a very small number of family groups that has commercialised it, so under the guise of traditional hunting they’re taking significant numbers of animals and flogging them off.
“We make a lot of noise about the Japanese whaling, but all these conservation groups, when it comes to this sort of thing, are absolutely mute.
“These families should not be allowed to be packing those animals up in cryovac packs and flying them around the country. They should be consumed where they’re killed.”
He said Indigenous rangers working on the far north Queensland coast were trying to protect the animals, and many of the communities in which they worked had put their own prohibition on hunting the animals, but they lacked the authority to enforce the prohibition.
“What I’ve said that rather than duck-shove it from one department to another, what we need to do is to look at it collectively and put in appropriate checks and balances to stop this nonsense.”
Colin Riddell, a conservationist from a group called Animal Coalition, has supplied Entsch with many of the photos.
He told Guardian Australia he had been promoting the issue for seven years, working with everyone from the former environment minister Greg Hunt to the former Queensland premier Campbell Newman, and the new federal senator Derryn Hinch.
“I’m hoping Josh Frydenberg will do something,” Riddell said. “Greg [Hunt] said he would have a moratorium all around Australia for a minimum of two years when he was opposition environment spokesman but he didn’t do it.”
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Seagrass is a marine powerhouse, so why isn't it on the world's conservation agenda?
11 October 2016, The Conversation UK
Seagrass has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth, it is responsible for keeping the world’s coastlines clean and healthy, and supports many different species of animal, including humans. And yet, it is often overlooked, regarded as merely an innocuous feature of the ocean.
But the fact is that this plant is vital – and it is for that reason that the World Seagrass Association has issued a consensus statement, signed by 115 scientists from 25 countries, stating that these important ecosystems can no longer be ignored on the conservation agenda. Seagrass is part of a marginalised ecosystem that must be increasingly managed, protected and monitored – and needs urgent attention now.
Seagrass meadows are of fundamental importance to human life. They exist on the coastal fringes of almost every continent on earth, where seagrass and its associated biodiversity supports fisheries’ productivity. These flowering plants are the powerhouses of the sea, creating life in otherwise unproductive muddy environments. The meadows they form stabilise sediments, filter vast quantities of nutrients and provide one of the planet’s most efficient oceanic stores of carbon.
But the habitat seagrasses create is suffering due to the impact of humans: poor water quality, coastal development, boating and destructive fishing are all resulting in seagrass loss and degradation. This leads in turn to the loss of most of the fish and invertebrate populations that the meadows support. The green turtle, dugong and species of seahorse, for example, all rely on seagrass for food and shelter, and loss endangers their viability. The plants are important fish nurseries and key fishing grounds. Losing them puts the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people at risk too, and exposes them to increasing levels of poverty.
There is clear, extensive evidence of the rapid loss of seagrass. Growing historic, recent and current records show degradation and fragmentation of the plant around the world. In Biscayne Bay, Florida, for example, 2.6km² of seagrass disappeared between 1938 and 2009. Up to 38% of the seagrass in a lagoon in the south of France may have been lost since the 1920s. The nearshore waters of Singapore has lost some 45% over the past 50 years. Similar examples have been reported in Canada, the British Isles and the Caribbean too.
Even the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has suffered periods of widespread decline and loss of seagrass over the past decade, particularly along its central and southern developed coasts; a consequence of multiple years of above average rainfall, poor water quality, and climate-related impacts followed by extreme weather events. The most recent published monitoring surveys show that the majority of inshore seagrass meadows across the reef – which cover some 3,063 km² – remain in a vulnerable state, with weak resistance, low abundance and a low capacity to recover.
As the human population grows and the world economy expands, there will be increasing pressure on our coastal zone. And it must be ensured that this doesn’t negatively influence seagrass meadows. It is already recognised that poor water quality, specifically elevated nutrients, is the biggest threat to seagrasses; these problems are particularly acute in many developing nations with rapidly growing economies, such as Indonesia, where municipal infrastructure is often limited and environmental legislation is largely weak.
Coastal development is a competition for finite space: boating, tourism, aquaculture, ports, energy projects and housing are all placing pressures on seagrass survival. These threats exist with a backdrop of the impacts of environmental change and sea level rise too. Humans must reduce their local-scale impact on seagrass so that it can remain resilient to longer term environmental stressors.
There can be a bright future for this oceanic plant, however. Across the world, communities, NGOs and governments are beginning to embrace the monitoring of meadows. As knowledge of the plants’ ecology improves, conservationists are learning more about how to successfully restore seagrass meadows: Tampa Bay in Florida and Virginia’s bays, for example, have seen genuine large scale recovery. We also now have greater appreciation for the value of seagrass in the global carbon cycle, and governments are more willing to include its conservation in ways to mitigate carbon emissions. Though commendable, these are just the first steps on a course of targeted strategic action.
As the WSA statement calls, seagrass meadows must be put at the forefront of marine conservation today. We need to increase its resilience by improving coastal water quality, prevent damage from destructive fishing practices and boating, include seagrasses in Marine Protected Areas and ensure that fisheries aren’t over exploited. Seagrasses also need to be managed effectively during coastal developments, and steps taken to ensure recovery and restoration in areas where losses have occurred.
The scientific community must be more united, not only in its work, but in engaging more actively with the general public, coastal managers and conservation agencies too. Seagrass ecosystems must fully pervade policy around the globe too, as well as the consciousness of our global coastal communities. For the sake of future generations we need to work together to ensure the survival of the world’s seagrass meadows now.
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Matthew could deliver mixed bag for the Indian River
08 October 2016, Florida Today (USA)
In the short-term, Hurricane Matthew's surge likely benefited the Indian River Lagoon's water quality, diluting pollution and algae that clouds out seagrass and kills marine life.
But the storm also pushed pulses of nitrogen and phosphorus from farms, lawns and septic tanks along the lagoon watershed. And in the longer-term, those two nutrients can fuel harmful algae blooms. So the storm's benefits or banes remain to be seen.
"We won't really know for a few weeks," Virginia Barker, director of Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department, said Saturday.
Storm surges increase water levels in the lagoon, dilute pollution, and can flush pollution and algae out of inlets, depending on the timing of wind, waves and the surge.
Any deluge of rain that raises lagoon levels, and winds that push the water south to Sebastian Inlet flush out algae and pollution, experts say. But if a storm's rains carry enough organic matter and wind forces water in other directions than toward an inlet, that means more muck buildup and algae blooms.
Seagrass impacts mostly depend on the direction and duration of the wind. Long fetches of wind over long distances in the lagoon can move sediments around and tear seagrass out. In 2004, hurricanes caused muck sediments to fan out from residential canals into the lagoon at large, smothering some seagrass beds.
And heavy rains often overload sewage systems, delivering more nitrogen and phosphorus to the lagoon, as well as pathogens.
Brevard County Utilities Department had stationed generators in the areas they expected the most need, so they can hook them up quickly during power outages.
Cocoa Beach, like several others along the lagoon, is allowed 90 days of emergency discharges to the Banana River during heavy rains, when flows exceed capacity. The plant discharged 25 days last year, averaging 4.6 million gallons per day. The discharges wind through a series of five ponds on the nearby city golf course before emptying to the Banana River. The plant has made several such discharged in weeks prior to the storm but required no raw sewage releases during Hurricane Matthew.
Those large discharges will end when the city completes a deep injection well in a few years.
Because so many people heeded the evacuation order for the barrier island, Cocoa Beach's sewer system officials were able to store sewage in tanks and handle the volumes into the plant.
"If people didn't leave, we wouldn't have been able to help it, the tanks would have overflowed," said Jack Shelton, director of the city's water reclamation department. "The impact to the lagoon was minimal, if anything."
Had the storm poked any new openings to the ocean along the barrier island, that would cleanse the nearby lagoon, but also could cause massive downdrift beach erosion and sewer and stormwater system failures, depending on the location.
After Hurricane Frances raised the St. Johns River by about a foot in 2004, freshwater surged through a seldom-used C-54 canal — which hugs Brevard's southern border — for about 10 days. Up to 18,700 gallons per second poured through a concrete water control structure, adding almost 10 billion gallons of phosphorus-laden freshwater to the lagoon.
But in the days prior to Hurricane Matthew, St. Johns River Water Management District officials said large discharges wouldn't likely be necessary, because there is ample storage capacity within large water management areas in the river's upper basin.
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Tropical marine species predicted to compete with western rock lobster for seagrass meadows
07 October 2016, ABC Online (Australia)
The western rock lobster fishery could be negatively impacted by tropical marine animals feeding on seagrass meadows in normally temperate waters, say researchers.
Research conducted by Edith Cowan University predicted that rising ocean temperatures were likely to cause warm water fish, turtles and dugong to migrate south and eat all the seagrass.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Glenn Hyndes said grazing species would change the structure of the seagrass that baby lobster relied on for food and shelter.
"There could be slower growth, lower population, and high mortality of those juveniles because there is just not as much food available to them," Mr Hyndes said.
The research showed that ocean temperatures had increased 0.1 of a degree Celsius per decade for the past 100 years and the trend was expected to continue with climate change.
Mr Hyndes said movement of aquatic animals would lead to less seaweed or wrack washing up on the beach.
"They are likely to graze down the seagrass and that means that the seagrass that would normally be loosened and taken off in storms and end up on the beaches in another eco system is actually going to enter the food chain in coastal waters so it is going to change the whole dynamics of the eco systems.
The changes in Western Australia are happening more rapidly than elsewhere in the world due to the Leeuwin Current, and the effect on rock lobster is expected to be two-fold.
"It is quite possible that there will be a contraction of the northern distribution of rock lobster because they will be living beyond their temperature range and of course the change in habitat structure could also effect the western rock lobster."
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ECU research finds climate change could stop smelly seaweed on beaches
06 October 2016, Community Newspaper Group (Australia)
CLIMATE change could mean the end of piles of smelly seaweed on WA’s south west beaches, ECU research has found.
The university’s Centre of Marine Ecosystems recently investigated the potential shift of species of marine life – including seagrass, seaweed, fish, turtles and dugongs, as ocean temperatures warm.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Glenn Hyndes said one of the potential impacts of the process, known as ‘tropicalisation’, was herbivorous fish species moving south from the waters of sub-tropical WA.
“What’s likely to happen as these species move south with warming waters is that they could start foraging on the different species of seagrass found around the South West,” he said
“This increased foraging could decimate those local species meaning there’s nothing washing up on our beaches.
“That might sound like it’s good news – especially if you live near one of those beaches where seagrass wash up regularly, also known as ‘wrack’.
“But it would have disastrous consequences for the coastal ecosystems in those areas which rely on the nutrients and habitat provided by the wrack to survive.”
Prof Hyndes and colleagues used information on projected sea temperature rises to predict the distribution of species of seagrass, fish, turtles and dugong in 2100.
They found the annual mean sea surface temperature off the coast of WA had been increasing by about 0.1 degrees Celsius per decade for the past 110 years.
“We predict that that change in sea temperature will see some species move more than 500km south along the WA coast,” he said.
Prof Hyndes said the changes predicted here were more rapid than elsewhere in the world.
“The speed at which we’re predicting changes will happen along the WA coast means that what goes on here could provide valuable lessons for similar ecosystems around the world,” he said.
“Seagrass meadows are incredibly important habitats for a huge number of species as well as for their ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide at a rate 40 times higher than tropical rainforests.”
The journal Biosciences published the research in an article titled ‘Accelerating Tropicalization and the Transformation of Temperate Seagrass Meadows’ in September.
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Returning home? Sightings of dugongs increase in Seychelles' Aldabra atoll
03 October 2016, Seychelles News Agency (Seychelles)
Nine separate sightings of dugongs within the space of a month have left conservationists working on the Aldabra atoll filled with hope that the rare mammals may decide to return to the Seychelles.
Dugongs -- sometimes called sea cows, and similar to manatees -- are shy and gentle creatures that survive solely on a diet of seagrass. They were hunted and slaughtered by early settlers and sailors to the islands for their meat and oil.
Once a common sight throughout the archipelago of 115 islands, they disappeared entirely from view in the region. But a few may have escaped to the isolated refuge of Aldabra and the nearby islands surrounding Madagascar.
One of the furthest-flung group of islands in the Seychelles archipelago, the Aldabra atoll is one of the most remote and difficult places to access, even for citizens of the island nation. The area is a special nature reserve protected by the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), and only conservation officers, scientific researchers and a few very carefully selected visitors are allowed on the ring of coralline islands with its shallow central lagoon.
A protected habitat
According to the SIF, between July and August this year the team working on Aldabra reported nine separate dugong sightings, the highest number of opportunistic sightings recorded annually since the Aldabra research station was established in the early 70s.
The SIF hopes that the increased number of sightings indicates that Aldabra’s dugong population is increasing, and several observations of female dugongs with juveniles in Aldabra’s lagoon suggest that the site plays an important regional role as a dugong breeding and nursery area.
According to SIF’s communication officer Rowana Walton, the first documented sighting of a dugong in recent years at Aldabra was in 1970 by boat. Sightings since then were incidental and sporadic, with no sightings for decades after this.
“Even if the dugongs are reproducing at Aldabra, which is not confirmed, as a long-lived and slow growing species it would take many years for the population to increase in the protected area,” Walton told SNA.
Shy, solitary mammals
Dugongs are a migratory species, and are capable of travelling great distances across the ocean. However, within the Western Indian Ocean region as a whole, dugong populations have declined rapidly and face a multitude of threats when not in the protected waters of Aldabra. And like many other wild animals, dugongs can be affected by human activity.
“If the dugongs at Aldabra are migrating from the east coast of Africa, there they are faced with a number of direct and indirect threats from humans - and boats - which would of course make them wary of any human or boat activity at Aldabra as well,” said Walton.
“Saying that, the staff at Aldabra have had several dugong encounters which have lasted several minutes with the dugongs apparently unconcerned by their presence,” she added.
While it could be possible that the dugongs encountered at Aldabra are becoming more used to the presence of boats, Walton says it could also be possible that there has been an increase in population size, meaning that the likelihood of rangers and researchers bumping into the creatures is higher.
More dugong research planned for 2017
Without further research to determine the current population size, Walton says it is difficult to know which of these explanations would account for the increased sightings.
“It is likely that the extensive seagrass beds of Aldabra could support a larger number of dugongs, however, further data on the dugongs' movements and habitat use would be needed in order to establish the carrying capacity for this species at Aldabra,” she told SNA. “We hope that projects we have planned in the future will shed light on this exact question.”
During a dedicated aerial survey conducted in 2013, researchers put the total number of dugongs in the atoll between 14 and 20 individuals.
In 2014, SIF announced a multi-partner regional project, led by the Association for the Conservation and Protection of Dugongs and Marine Mammal Species, to research and conserve dugongs, and their role in this partnership is to undertake surveys to assess the status of Aldabra's dugong population.
SIF hopes to carry out its next survey of the dugong population at Aldabra by the end of 2017, but whether these research activities will be carried out or not depends on funding.
“[We] have been waiting to secure additional funding from another source in order to make the best use of the resources and ensure a successful outcome,” said Walton.
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Clams could help give muscle to seagrass beds
30 September 2016, Bradenton Herald (USA)
Bald patches in seagrass around Port Manatee will likely fill in and grow with the help of an Eckerd College marine science professor and over a half-million clams.
With $59,150 from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program Restoration Fund, Bruce Barber began his two-year research in September on how planting native southern quahog clams, Mercenaria campechiensis, in seagrass beds could improve the sediment quality.
Barber is also the executive director of Gulf Shellfish Institute, which was created to promote shellfish aquaculture and research like his own.
Bi-valves such as clams and oysters are known for their ability to clean water, as many oyster beds have been placed in waterways to do just that. When the water is clean and clear, sunlight is able to pass through the water column and reach the seagrass for it to grow.
So why isn’t Barber using oysters?
“Clams bury themselves in the sediment. Oysters don’t,” he said.
Barber hypothesizes that the clams will take nutrients from the water column and distribute them in the sediment through their fecal matter, helping seagrass to grow in a way other than clearer water.
While Barber and his students collect data on water quality and clam growth and death, Gregg Brooks and his students will collect data on sediment.
Putting the clams into mesh bags and screens will try to keep out predators like crabs and cownose rays while the research goes on. Barber said he’ll likely have all 600,000 clams, which he’s getting from Bay Shellfish Co. in Palmetto, out in the two-acre plot by the end of the year.
This is the first time Port Manatee is letting an organization use its submerged lands, said George Isiminger, the port’s planning, engineering and environmental affairs senior director.
“There’s always more to be learned,” he said.
Aside from commercial fisherman negatively affecting the bi-valve population, Barber said, the most damaging thing to the population is dredging and filling.
In the 1960s, Port Manatee began digging a channel for its port, which undoubtedly disturbed the underwater ecology and subsequently clouded the waters and kept the sun from reaching seagrasses. From that dredged material, the port created Manbirtee Key, now a bird sanctuary near where Barber is conducting his research.
Around 2000, Isiminger said, the port transplanted and protected 20 acres of new seagrass beds before they impacted 5.3 acres of seagrass for two dredging projects in 2005 and 2011.
But even with the port’s mitigation efforts, there were some unsuccessful, barren spots.
Barber added that researchers say seagrasses have bounced back to levels before the 1950s. But as the need for his research shows, there’s still work to do.
“This is a potential way to mitigate seagrass loss and help with recovery, rather than the standard method of plugging seagrass ...which has a low success rate,” Barber said.
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