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This page includes news articles of international and national interest. Seagrass-Watch HQ does not guarantee, and accepts no legal liability whatsoever arising from or connected to, the accuracy, reliability, currency or completeness of any news material contained on this page or on any linked site. The material on this page may include the views or recommendations of third parties, which do not necessarily reflect the views of the program nor it's supporters, or indicate commitment to a particular course of action

 

 

 

 

 

Dead Green Turtle found on Trat beach with plastic-stuffed stomach

11 August 2018, The Nation (Thailand)

Local residents found the dead turtle on Ban Ta Nuek Beach in Tambon Klong Yai of Klong Yai district. It was 5.15 centimetres in length and appeared to be around five or six years old, officials said. They cut open the sea creature’s stomach and found plastic bags and pieces of ropes and nets, along with some oyster shells.

The officials took tissue samples from its front leg and kept the stomach contents to send to the Rayong Marine and Coastal Resources research and development centre for further study. The carcass was buried at the beach.

More information: Click Here


 

Threat to marine powerhouse: doom and gloom for seagrass

11 August 2018, New Straits Times Online (Malaysia)

 

The cowfish is one the many species that lives and depends on seagrass meadows.

YOU don’t need to be whisked away to an endless field of flowers or a garden to watch flowering plants bloom.

Remarkably, the same wonder of nature occurs underwater in seagrass gardens or meadows.

Dubbed “Flowers of the Ocean”, seagrasses have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and are unique flowering plants that have evolved to live in marine habitats.

Growing in shallow sheltered areas along coastal regions around the world, they can flower, pollinate and even produce edible fruits.

But unlike terrestrial flowers which inspire swathes of romantic poetry and art, seagrass ecosystems remain marginalised and misunderstood.

Not as visually attractive as coral reefs or as visible as mangroves, they are reported to be one of the least charismatic of coastal ecosystems.

Yet seagrass is a marine powerhouse. It’s the world’s third most valuable ecosystem (after estuaries and wetlands).

While seagrasses account for less than 0.2 per cent of the world’s oceans, they’re responsible for 10 per cent of the carbon stored in the oceans annually, and they are up to 35 times for more efficient at sequestering carbon than rainforests.

Alarmingly, close to 30 per cent of the world’s seagrass meadows have already been lost, with an estimated 110 square kilometres of seagrass lost annually.

The region with the highest proportion of sites declining? Southeast Asia. At the same time, this region has the highest diversity of seagrass species and habitat types found anywhere else in the world.

UNSUNG ECOLOGICAL HEROES

The richest coastal marine resources in Southeast Asia are found in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The Power of the Three — coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass — make up the rich biodiversity in this region. However, it’s widely considered that coral reefs are the most popular, mangroves the most disturbed and seagrass the least studied.

“The knowledge about seagrass is low amongst the public and decision makers, and this ecosystem remains ignored on conservation agendas,” according to Benjamin Jones, director and co-founder of Project Seagrass, a UK-based environmental charity dedicated to advancing the conservation of seagrass through education, influence, research and action.

There are common misconceptions about seagrasses, he says, mainly the confusion between seagrass and seaweed.

The former belongs to a group of plants known as angiosperms (flowering plants).

“It (seagrass) has flowers, it has seeds, it has roots and it hatches through sand, not a rock. So a seagrass is a true plant; a seaweed is not.”

Seagrasses grow when completely submerged and pollination is aided by water. They’re able to withstand the forces of wave action and tidal currents, and have adapted to survive in salty waters in mostly sand or mud sediments. Seagrass roots pump oxygen into the sediment, and they rely on light to convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and water.

There is a bit of a debate as to how many species of seagrass there are, but studies point to around 60-70 species all over the world and there are clear trends of seagrass loss in all areas of the world.

Not only are seagrasses crucial to food security and alleviating poverty, they serve as nursery grounds for many species of commercially important fish and shellfishes, protect shorelines, are an essential food source for dugongs, green turtles and manatees, and provide natural protection against climate change.

Moreover, seagrass meadows offer non-consumptive services such as educational, recreational and tourism benefits and opportunities. This ecosystem is also inextricably linked to many cultural traditions of coastal communities.

Basic information seagrass distribution in Southeast Asia is still lacking, with 18 of the world’s 60 seagrass species and 33 per cent of all seagrass areas have been identified in this region where millions depend upon marine resources for their livelihoods and diets.

Jones contends that while Southeast Asia is a global biodiversity hotspot for seagrass, to what extent they’re declining is still unclear.

“We know what their threats are and we know they’re in a bad state, but how much of them are we losing?”

But it’s not all doom and gloom for seagrass meadows in the region. ‘Hope spots’, Jones mentions, are appearing on the map too.

RALLYING FOR SEAGRASS RECOVERY

Ghost nets (fishing nets set adrift either deliberately or accidentally from commercial fishing vessels) often ensnare marine wildlife and also smother seagrass beds.

One such ‘hope spot’ is located in Indonesia, a country that has experienced 30 to 40 per cent loss of seagrass beds in the last 50 years, with as much as 60 per cent around Java.

While natural variabilities such as storms and tsunamis contribute to seagrass decline, another study indicates that up to 90 per cent of seagrass in Indonesia has been extensively damaged and degraded over the past five years due largely to human activities such as coastal development, land reclamation and deforestation as well as seaweed farming, overfishing, poor water quality/sedimentation and garbage dumping.

On the island of Kaledupa in Wakatobi National Park, Sulawesi, researchers have worked together with locals to bring about change for the seagrass beds. Started in 2012, the Wakatobi Seagrass Programme is a collaborative research initiative led by scientists Leanne Cullen-Unsworth and Richard Unsworth, and supported by Cardiff University and Swansea University.

Jones is part of the team that have that been working on addressing threats through a bottom-up approach of community-level and action.

“Communities there are pioneering methods that Western and conservation scientists can only dream of,” he enthuses, referring to the integration of local ecological knowledge which helped identify sedimentation as a focal threat that needed to be dealt with.

Local non-governmental organisation, FORKANI, the project’s community partner, is pivotal in inspiring this change. It proposed the idea to provide fruit trees to land owners living adjacent to river beds. Because of mangrove destruction and terrestrial run-off, the trees serve to repopulate the riverine systems, increase water retention and reduce impact on seagrass.

To date, they have planted 6,000 trees along seven river beds. Moreover, once awareness was raised on the importance of seagrass to their livelihoods and nutrition, seagrass education was later incorporated into local school curriculums.

Jones adds: “Women go out on seagrass beds during low tide to collect invertebrates to feed their families and to sell on a daily basis. Fishermen understand that the substantial decline of seagrass affects their catch and food source. They’re the voices that need to be heard in the fight to preserve seagrass ecosystems.”

SAVING DUGONGS AND THEIR SPECIALISED DIETS

Humans are not the only ones reliant on seagrass ecosystems for food. Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are the world’s only vegetarian marine mammal and can consume up to 40kg of seagrass a day.

Also known as “sea cows” because of their tendency to “graze” on seagrass, dugongs can only survive in specific areas with healthy seagrass ecosystems.

Therefore, dugong and seagrass conservation should go hand in hand, as well as the mainstreaming policies and planning for this endangered species with their habitats needing to be national and regional priorities.

Endangered in Malaysia, it is estimated that there are only 40 to 50 dugongs left in Johor, mainly around Sibu and Tinggi islands and their adjacent waters.

Dugongs are also found in Sabah, where around 20 to 30 dugongs were recorded around Mantanani, Bangi and Mengalum islands, and in Sarawak, in the waters of Brunei Bay, Lawas.

Dr Leela Rajamani, a marine conservation biologist from Universiti Sains Malaysia, has been researching on community understanding and management of dugong and seagrass resources in Johor and Sabah.

She cites her studies as using interdisciplinary methods such as marine biology, ecology, anthropology and sociology in looking at conservation problems.

She stresses on community involvement in protecting dugongs and their seagrass habitats, and that education is key in transforming their involvement into conservation action.

Says Leela: “The older males and females seem to know about the dugong from seeing it themselves or the seeing the animals stranded on the shore. The younger people do not know much about these animals because they’ve never seen it. Using the local knowledge and anecdotes, communities on these islands are aware that the presence of dugongs on seagrass beds which they call Rumput Setu (Enhalus acoroides) and Rumput Ketam (Halophila sp.) make these plants healthier.”

Leela states that the main threats on Malaysia’s seagrasses are mainly coastal development and sedimentation.

She created focus groups to engage and educate members of the community, fishermen and resort operators on the loss of seagrass along the coastline and how this will have a negative impact on marine animals, especially dugongs.

She also met with the oldest residents in the village to collect oral histories on dugong origin stories and myths, and to use these stories to link cultural values of locals with this charismatic species.

“In most of the stories about dugongs, they’re ‘originated’ from humans — consequently the communities regard this animal with respect. They also recognise that when dugongs are around, it’s easier to get fish and other catch as the environment is thriving with sea life. For this reason, they don’t disturb dugongs or other animals like turtles as a sign of respect.”

Dugongs are protected under the Fisheries Act 1985 and the Fisheries Regulations 1999 (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) for Peninsular Malaysia and Federal Territories of Labuan, Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998 and the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 for Sarawak and Sabah.

The Johor state government is in the process of gazetting the area between three islands off Mersing as a Dugong Sanctuary but Leela argues for the 
creation of Seagrass Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Seagrasses are usually included in MPA management plans for the sake of inclusion without any real thought on why it should be included.

“There are no reasons not to have seagrass protected areas. I can still remember the first time I went to a seagrass meadow and saw the flowers, and thought, wow! They’re not well-understood and there’s still a lot more to discover about seagrasses and its inhabitants like the dugongs, turtles and seahorses,” says Leela.

SEAGRASS OPTIMISM

It is this same fascination with seagrasses that are driving efforts around the region to save these habitats.

Since more than 30 years ago, scientists have reported the need to stop the degradation of seagrasses and to step up protection and management of this vulnerable ecosystem.

In spite of the ample evidence accumulated on their threats, benefits and biology, the urgency hasn’t reverberated enough.

“The biggest challenge is that we simply don’t know where they are, how much they are and how much we’re losing. People do get behind initiatives that want to change things, and it’s really about education, education and education,” remarks Jones. But a little bit of technology also can’t hurt.

Project Seagrass launched the ‘Seagrass Spotter’ this year ­— a free database which allows for citizen scientists around the world to participate in the conservation effort instead of a handful of researchers.

Accessible with a mobile phone, anyone can upload a photo of seagrass and key in basic information such as the shape of the leaves, the location, etc. There have been 27 species uploaded within the app from 54 countries so far.

Jones explains that there’s no other global citizen science programme like Seagrass Spotter, and showcases how science can be translated into what communities and marine natural resource managers and decision-makers can use.

“It’s entry-level, anybody can use it and anybody can get involved. It was designed initially as a tool to get people to visit seagrass meadows and learn about these sites. But now it’s evolved to mapping them through pictures globally and serves as a free database for management agencies and a tool to streamline data collection for seagrasses.”

With less than 500 scientists studying seagrasses around the world, there’s a need to increase the local capacity of researchers, teams and managers. Seagrasses has never been on the big players’ table.

Getting seagrasses acknowledged on the main stage is central to efforts for the protection and conservation of seagrasses in this region and worldwide.

A petition by the international seagrass research and conservation community is underway to call on the United Nations to declare a World Seagrass Day.

Exposed only at low tide, the loss of seagrass meadows have gone largely unnoticed, but this doesn’t mean we need to submerge our appreciation for these amazing marine habitats.

More information: Click Here


 

Marine Mammals Have Lost a Gene That Now They May Desperately Need

09 August 2018, New York Times

Dolphins, manatees, sea lions, elephant seals and other animals no longer produce an enzyme that protects land mammals against harmful chemicals, including some pesticides.

About 50 million years ago, dog-like mammals returned to the seas, eventually evolving into whales and dolphins. Around then, too, an early cousin of elephants took the plunge, giving rise to manatees and dugongs.

About 20 million years later, bearlike mammals also waded back into the sea, evolving into seals, sea lions and walruses.

Each of these marine species adapted to the aquatic life in its own way. Manatees and dugongs slowly graze on sea grass. Seals and their relatives dive deep underwater after prey, but still haul themselves onto beaches to mate and rear pups.

Whales and dolphins have made the most radical adaptations, including blowholes, baleen and echolocation.

But a study published on Thursday reveals a common bond: In all three groups of mammals, many species stopped making the same enzyme. Now that loss may come back to haunt them.

The enzyme provides an essential defense against certain kinds of harmful pesticides. The new study raises the possibility that marine mammals may be particularly vulnerable to these chemicals, which are carried from farm fields into coastal waters.

“It’s too important not to pay attention to,” said Nathan L. Clark, a co-author of the new study and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

Charles Darwin was the first to recognize that marine mammals evolved from ancestors on land. The clues were in their anatomy: Seal flippers are just modified feet. The whale’s blowhole is a nose that has migrated.

More recently, the DNA of marine mammals has revealed more details about their adaptations. Some genes evolved to do new things, but others simply stopped working, scientists have found.

Dr. Clark and his colleagues recently developed a new way to search for these genes and looked for those more likely to be broken in marine mammals than in terrestrial ones. The scientists ended up with a short list of genes that were repeatedly shut down in marine mammals.

Most were involved in smelling, which supported earlier studies showing that marine mammals have little or no sense of smell.

But at the top of the list was a gene that had nothing to do with smell, called PON1.

Wynn K. Meyer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the new study, said she was taken aback when she found out what the gene is best known for: a defense against some toxic chemicals.

These chemicals are called organophosphates, a class of compounds that includes certain pesticides as well as nerve agents like sarin gas.

PON1 encodes an enzyme called paraoxonase that can quickly break down organophosphates. Mice genetically engineered without paraoxonase die quickly when they’re exposed to the chemicals.

Dr. Meyer and her colleagues found that all marine mammals have broken copies of the PON1 gene, with a few exceptions: walruses, fur seals and spotted seals.

To see if the gene were truly kaput, the researchers gathered blood plasma from a range of mammal species. They then added pesticides to the plasma.

The plasma from land mammals quickly broke down the chemicals. But plasma from dolphins, manatees, sea lions and elephant seals failed to clear the pesticides.

Mammals didn’t evolve the paraoxonase enzyme to fight the pesticides humans have invented over the past century. After all, the animals have had the adaptation for millions of years.

But paraoxonase breaks down other harmful molecules that our own bodies naturally produce. These oxygen-bearing molecules can damage our cells, causing a variety of problems like a buildup of plaque on the walls of blood vessels.

People who make low levels of paraoxonase run a greater risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.

So why did marine mammals lose such an important gene? One possibility is that their bodies abandoned paraoxonase when they started taking long dives.

In preparation, the animals suck in tremendous amounts of oxygen, which may create a lot of damaging oxygen-bearing molecules.

Marine mammals may have evolved a new, more powerful way to defend against oxygen-bearing molecules, making PON1 unnecessary, Dr. Meyer and her colleagues speculated.

They are carrying out more research to pin down the reason, and they’re also investigating what this legacy means today with the introduction of organophosphates as pesticides.

Some organophosphate pesticides are widely used on farms, despite decades of research indicating that they can cause brain damage in children. In some parts of the world, marine mammals may be exposed to the chemicals on a regular basis.

In Florida, for example, manatees swim up canals that run straight through farmland. Bottlenose dolphins spend a lot of time in bays where farm runoff ends up.

Marine mammals may be slowly accumulating the pesticides in their bodies. Or exposure may take the form of a sudden influx if a hard rain comes down right after farmers spray their fields.

Dr. Clark and his colleagues plan to examine manatees and dolphins for a buildup of organophosphates with a test now given to farm workers.

“I don’t have any foregone conclusions,” said Dr. Clark. “I just want to get some answers.”

More information: Click Here


 

FGCU researchers launch mission to find out if Lake O supercharge red tide conditions

09 August 2019, Wink News (USA)

Red tide: you can smell it, and see its deadly impact, but what makes some summers worse than others?

“The water here are used to be clear there used to be sea grass there is a boyster now it’s far from that,” said Daniel Andrews, of Captains for Clean Water.

Dr. Bill Mitsch, a wetland ecologist and professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, is on a mission to find out if Lake Okeechobbee releases are supercharging red tide conditions.

“This river is sending billions of gallons of Lake O water down stream,” Dr. Mitsch said.

A team of researchers lead by Dr. Mitsch spent the day collecting water samples from the Caloosahatchee River as well as red tide along the coast.

“We want to know if the nitrogen we believe is feeding the frenzy of red tide plus what We will call it red tide plus plus plus if that’s the nitrogen coming out of Lake O,” Dr. Mitsch said.

If his theory is proven correct, Dr. Mitsch believes this will be the concrete evidence needed to finally push lawmakers to solve this puzzle: and that’s to add 100,000 acres of wetlands near Lake Okeechobee to act as a natural filter for the water discharges.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance where and we never thought this would happen this quickly and that’s why it’s imperative that we get the science quickly and move forward with known solutions immediately,” Andrews said.

The water samples will be sent to the University of California, Davis, where the results will be determined in a few months.

More information: Click Here


 

Study shows seagrass helps mitigate rates of ocean acidification

08 August 2018, Point Reyes Light

A recent study conducted by the Carnegie Institution of Science based on data from Tomales Bay indicates that seagrass has an important role to play in curtailing the rate of ocean acidification. Eelgrass, which is a type of seagrass, has already been shown to reduce erosion rates and provide habitat for crabs and fish.

“Interestingly, we actually never had to go into Tomales Bay to collect the seagrass to conduct the experiment,” explained David Koweek, the lead author of the study. “Computer models allow you to ask questions in a really non-invasive way. They’re also really efficient. Simulating a month of data took a minute on my laptop.”

The study was able to draw on the deep pool of available knowledge about Tomales Bay to set water conditions based on the season, light levels, depth and tides. “The question is whether or not marine plants—not just seagrass, but also kelp—can buffer water,” Dr. Koweek said. “The model is tailored to Tomales Bay, but we can think of the results as really broadly applicable to estuaries in California, Oregon and Washington.”

Ocean acidity has increased by 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and current forecasts expect it to double compared to pre-industrial levels by 2100. The rise in acidity has particularly grave implications for shellfish, whose calcium carbonate shells dissolve in acidic water. “We are starting to see evidence of the impact of ocean acidification along the California coast,” Dr. Koweek said. “In particular, some of the shellfish operations in Oregon and Washington have experienced failure that they have attributed to ocean acidification.”

Tomales Bay, which is home to several oyster and clam operations, is at risk of similar challenges. The restoration of seagrass could help temper the rate of acidification through photosynthesis: marine plants decrease water acidity by removing carbon dioxide from water in their respiration process to make sugars. Recent studies estimate that Tomales Bay have about 23 percent seagrass coverage, although grasses in the west side of the bay have been threatened by extensive water runoff after heavy rains, which lower salinity levels.

“Eventually it will come back,” said study coauthor Jay Stachwitz. “The study is adding yet another benefit to seagrass. It also provides this potential benefit to reduced acidification on a very local scale.” Research indicates that seagrass meadows are most productive in shallow water with lots of light, where water moves through relatively slowly. Dr. Koweek hopes the results incentivize decision-makers along the coast to prioritize seagrass meadow restoration. But, he said, “part of making smart decisions is understanding the potential of seagrass meadows but also understanding their limitations.

It’s not going to be this silver bullet that solves all of our problems along the California coastline.”

More information: Click Here


 

Fishermen honoured for rescuing dugong

08 August 2018, The Hindu (India)

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has honoured a set of fishermen with cash award for rescuing and releasing back into the sea, a 10-foot long dugong, known as sea cow, got entangled in their fishing net, while fishing at Keezhathottam in Thanjavur district on July 26.

Tamil Nadu Biodiversity and Greening Project Director Jagdish presented the cash award of ₹10,000 to Naguran and his fishermen colleagues at a brief programme organised by the WII at OMCAR Palk Bay centre at Velivayal in Thanjavur district, WII, said in a press release here on Wednesday.

The WII has also honoured Mr. Chelladurai, an active member of the Friends of Dugong Network, who coordinate the rescue operation and was part of the previous two dugong rescue operations in 2016 with token cash award of ₹3,000.

Mr. Ashok Kumar, Wildlife Warden, Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, Ramanathapuram, Mr Gurusamy, District Forest Officer, Tanjavur district, and Mr. Arivoli, District Forest Officer, Tiruvarur district, were others present at the felicitation programme.

The WII team comprising Prem Jothi, Madhu Magesh and Rukmini Shekar, Balaji from OMCAR, a voluntary organisation engaged in dugong conservation and the ‘Friends of Dugong’ members of the Keezhathottam fishing community along with their village head attended the function.

Naguran and other fishermen were fishing when the adult dugong got entangled in the fishing net. Finding that the marine mammal was struggling for life, the fishermen along with WII, Tamil Nadu Forest department, the Marine police of the Coastal Security Group, Fisheries Department staff OMCAR rescued the mammal and released it back into the sea.

The CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority) – Dugong Recovery Project of the WII, which aimed towards the conservation of dugongs and their habitats in the country with the participation of all related stakeholders, deemed this response from the fishing community, as one of their biggest successes, the WII release said.

More information: Click Here


 

The value of seagrass in securing a sustainable planet

08 August 2018, Phys.Org

Researchers believe that improving knowledge of how seagrasses are important for biodiversity, fisheries and our global carbon cycle in turn needs to be reflected with greater protection for these sensitive habitats.

In a recent issue of Science, Dr. Richard Unsworth from Swansea University and Dr. Leanne Cullen-Unsworth from Cardiff University state that seagrass conservation is crucial for climate mitigation, sustaining fisheries productivity and food security.

Seagrasses are marine flowering plants that are found along temperate and tropical coastlines around the world and provide habitat for species of fish as well as herbivores such as turtles.

However, the distribution of seagrass makes it an easily exploitable fishing habitat and like many of the world's natural habitats, seagrass meadows are in decline with estimated global losses of -7% annually since 1990. They are also a potentially crucial component of efforts to prevent rapid uncontrolled climate change, due to their ability to store carbon in their sediments.

But it is their support of biodiversity which also makes the protection of seagrasses an even greater priority. The floral diversity in seagrass meadows is relatively low, but the three-dimensional structure of their shoots, roots, and rhizomes attracts a high abundance and diversity of other organisms (such as juvenile fish).

With the right science and the political and financial will, seagrass meadows can thrive and contribute to ensuring our planet stays within its sustainable boundaries. The authors of the study point to their research and conservation work in the Coral Triangle as an example of hope.

In Indonesia where they've documented large scale seagrass loss, they have importantly also led the development of a range of seagrass conservation initiatives that are beginning to raise hope for the sustainability of these amazingly productive habitats.

Dr. Richard Unsworth, from Swansea University's Biosciences department, said:

"By developing long-term collaborations with community NGO's we've been able to understand the problems facing these ecosystems from a more holistic stand point and develop bespoke locally based solutions.

"In the Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia we've facilitated the restoration of small river catchments with trees through the creation of an incentive scheme. Farmers in the Wakatobi are now growing fruit trees to protect the seagrass and coral reefs."

Seagrass meadows aren't charismatic habitats, so selling their conservation value remains difficult, however the research they describe in the recent Science article illustrates that the world needs to place a much greater level of importance on the conservation of seagrass.

More information: Click Here


 

Waning Seagrass and Other Factors Point to Problems in Indian River Lagoon

07 August 2018, WMFE (USA)

Environmental researchers are releasing a comprehensive study of the Indian River Lagoons’ health and researchers like the Marine Resources Council’s Leesa Souto say indicators in the south portion of the lagoon are concerning.

She says contaminated freshwater discharged from Lake Okeechobee is causing toxic algae blooms that threaten the local economy.

“As production go down and dolphins start starving it’s affected in our area’s quality of life. 15000 jobs that rely on the lagoon are going to start being lost.”

A 2016 Florida Taxwatch study found that more than 15 percent of all fish and shellfish harvested in the U.S. come from the Indian River Lagoon, accounting for roughly $140 million in the local economy.

The report analyzed 20 years of environmental data, including information from water quality stations throughout the area.

More information: Click Here


 

Florida gutted water quality monitoring – as killer algae increased

07 August 2018, Tampa Bay Times (USA)

Dead fish line the mangroves on Anna Maria Island in Bradenton Beach near the Cortez Road bridge on the inter coastal waterway on Monday. A bloom of red tide algae has swept in from Naples to Tampa, killing marine life. (PHOTO CREDIT: Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

When Florida Sea Grant director Karl Havens, who is a well-regarded expert on water and has studied pollution all over the world, began hearing about a deepening algae bloom in his own backyard in Lake Okeechobee this summer, he struggled to find information that could tell him what was going on.

State scientists sample water in the lake, but too infrequently to track rapidly evolving algae blooms. Instead, Havens had to rely on satellite images that were taken on sunny days when clouds don't get in the way.

"No one is out on the lake collecting water samples of the bloom," he said last month. "We're flying blind."

And not for the first time.

Over the last decade, as the state fought federal efforts to protect water, shrunk its own environmental and water-management agencies, and cut funding to an algae task force, monitoring for water quality has plummeted. While one crisis after another hit Florida, state and federal funding that paid for a massive coastal network with nearly three decades of information dwindled from about 350 stations to 115, according to Florida International University's Southeast Environmental Research Center.

That included Pine Island Sound, which is ground zero for the worst of the current red-tide fish kills and is where sampling was halted in October 2007, and shutting down a 49-station network that was across the Florida Shelf and started in 1995. The Florida Shelf is adjacent to Florida Bay, between the Keys to the south and Ten Thousand Islands to the north.

In 2014, the state cut funding to about 30 percent of the stations in Biscayne Bay where half the seagrass has died in the last six years.

The feds also scaled back: In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency dropped 43 stations in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary where a mysterious coral disease is threatening reefs.

Better monitoring alone wouldn't have spared the state from a summer-long algae bloom on the lake choking the Caloosahatchee River with blue-green slime and a red tide dumping dead fish, sea turtles, and other marine life on the west coast. Both are fed by too much pollution. But better monitoring could have provided more warning about the lake and critical information for better understanding and fighting red tide and other water woes around the state.

"I am very worried because we are doing a lot of things in the Everglades with all this restoration and some of the changes I don't feel we are tracing," said Florida International University geochemist Henry Briceño, who oversees the coastal network and sparred with Miami Beach officials three years ago over stormwater polluting Biscayne Bay. "Right now, when we have something going on in the Florida Keys, we don't know where that's coming from."

Between 2008 and 2014, the South Florida Water Management District eliminated monitoring along Southwest Florida and Biscayne Bay. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency also ended scaled back monitoring, including a large network on the Florida Shelf.

And that has left officials scrambling and defensive amid the ongoing algae blooms.

Gov. Rick Scott — who ordered budget cuts to water-management agencies for five consecutive years and dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, which regulated growth and agreed to postpone cleaning up the lake — issued a press release saying his administration had spent millions on red-tide research, including $5.5 million awarded to the Mote Marine Laboratory since 2013. Last month, he issued a state of emergency, ordered more sampling, and lifted restrictions for temporary pumps and other measures to avoid polluted discharges from the lake.

Sen. Marco Rubio also introduced legislation last month to give the Environmental Protection Agency $5 million to study algae blooms, while Sen. Bill Nelson has asked the Centers for Disease Control to investigate health risks from exposure to the lake- and coastal-algae blooms.

But playing catch up now doesn't get to the root of the problem, scientists say. And cuts could impede efforts to protect Florida: Last month, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which tracks environmental enforcement, said the state had the second worst year for enforcement since 1987.

Because monitoring is often subcontracted to research universities or divvied up among various government agencies, it's hard to determine exactly how much has been cut. The Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Health, and the state's wildlife agency also conduct sampling. But scientists contacted for this story agree that money has dried up.

"The water-management district is not doing as much monitoring as they used to," said University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science phytoplankton expert Larry Brand. "They have a huge network and used to have a great data set and now it's no good anymore. Same with [Miami-Dade County]. There's not as much data around as you used to have."

The district, which is overseeing the $16 billion Everglades restoration project, maintains a massive database with stations stretching from lakes south of Orlando to the tip of the Florida Bay. But the stations are operated under an annual plan that has resulted in inconsistent sampling and focuses largely on nitrogen and phosphorus.

"When you have an event like the blooms, that is additional sampling that probably isn't listed in the original plan because you didn't know whether or not you'd have that," said spokesman Randy Smith. "A lot of the monitoring we do is related to court cases that list specific GPS locations and the frequency they must be monitored. It's a combination of things."

District scientists check 13-14 lake stations monthly for levels of chlorophyll, an indication that a bloom might be forming, and send the results to the state's environmental regulators, Smith said.

But that's not enough to understand the life and evolution of a bloom, or when and where it forms, Havens said. It's also far less than what's needed to build a forecast model like the kind that Ohio scientists created to provide seasonal bloom forecasts for Lake Erie, where drinking-water supplies are regularly threatened by toxic scum.

"Once a month is a real problem," said Rick Stumpf, who is an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and helped develop the model. "Data allowed us to work out the models."

Building a similar model for Lake Okeechobee is do-able, he said, but would need to factor in many variables since the lake not only gets fouled by run-off and stormwater, like Lake Erie, but has years of polluted muck that is sitting on the shallow bottom and is easily stirred up.

"There's a risk that someone could throw a bunch of data into a statistical blender and out pops something that looks like an answer and it really isn't," he said.

The water-management district, previously run by Scott's former general counsel, has also come under fire for selective monitoring that paints a rosier picture of conditions. Last year, when an Everglades canal flushing water from farm fields began polluting Miccosukee tribal land, the district stopped monitoring near the canal. The district said the sampling was part of a project that ended. But the tribe accused the district of trying to cover up the pollution as it prepared to ask a federal judge overseeing Everglades restoration to ease water-quality standards.

In the 1990s, when he worked at the district, Rick Bartleson, who is a research scientist at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and studies red tide, said he proposed a project to model algae blooms and intentionally left out the lake.

"I knew that would hurt my chances," he said.

One of the hurdles that scientists face is cost. To maintain a reliable data set, researchers need to follow the same protocols and repeat sampling frequently. Seagrass monitoring, for example, has dropped to once a month in places, not enough to track or understand changes.

"The more water-quality data you have, the better off you're going to track how those projects are affecting Florida Bay and elsewhere," said Margaret "Penny" Hall, a seagrass biologist at the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "But it's really hard when you're trying to pay for the projects themselves. Everybody's just doing their very best with less and less money."

Selling decision-makers on monitoring with no immediate consequences can also be tough, Briceño said

"Doing the same thing over and over again for years is usually boring. I know it is," he said. "But what happens is that data is used by thousands of people around the world and to understand problems somewhere else, too."

The data FIU collected, for instance, helped Florida develop Everglades water criteria that were eventually adopted by the EPA.

After another massive red tide in 1996 killed 151 manatees in the midst of a national scare by a different toxic algae that left dead fish pocked with lesions, lawmakers passed a law that created a harmful-algae-bloom task force. The legislation resulted in the state's Wildlife Research Institute tracking and issuing weekly forecasts for Florida's seasonal red tides and called for the task force to come up with ways to minimize blooms and respond once they hit. But then lawmakers began cutting money, according to a 2009 report.

When his group lobbied lawmakers this year to reinstate funding in light of the repeated major blooms triggered by lake releases — in 2005, 2013, 2016, and again this summer — Calusa Waterkeeper chief scientist John Cassani, who monitors water quality on the Southwest coast, said he and his colleagues were told there wasn't money in the budget.

"Why aren't we effectively monitoring waterways so we can predict when a bloom is occurring? And why is there so much confusion over what state agencies are responsible for issuing public-health advisories and, most importantly, posting signs at the waterways themselves?" he asked. "It's almost like Florida doesn't want to know it's coming."

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UVI, NPS Partner to Conduct Seagrass Surveys at Buck Island Reef

03 August 2018, Saint Croix Source (USVI)

The National Park Service (NPS) began a partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands to conduct seagrass surveys at Buck Island Reef National Monument (NM) on Thursday, Aug. 2. Researchers will be snorkeling and diving in the seagrass beds to the west and south of West Beach.

People should be aware of the researchers and maintain a safe distance from them while they are in the water. Dive flags will indicate their locations. These surveys will be part of a larger effort to understand the capacity of seagrasses to sequester and retain carbon that might otherwise rise up and trap heat in the atmosphere. Increases in atmospheric temperature can compound existing environmental stresses and lead to, for example, stronger hurricanes.

In the context of the global carbon cycle, “blue carbon” habitats like seagrass meadows are substantial carbon sinks and provide a key ecosystem service by sequestering and storing significant amounts of carbon, particularly below ground in plant roots and rhizomes. Recent work shows that within these habitats, sediment carbon concentrations vary spatially.

These relationships are not well understood for seagrass species common to the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). Previous work on St. Thomas explored carbon storage in two native seagrass species: (Thalassia testudinum and Syringodium filiforme), the invasive seagrass: (Halophila stipulacea) and un-vegetated sand. Results suggest that H. stipulacea may be storing carbon in a comparable amount to native seagrass species.

Collecting additional sediment cores around Buck Island seeks to answer the question of carbon storage in seagrass habitats with time since establishment, which is another key variable that may play a role in predicting carbon storage in these habitats.

Halophila stipulacea was first documented on St. John in 2012, then in St. Thomas in 2013, and finally St. Croix in 2016. The invasion history of H. stipulacea across the U.S.V.I. sets up a natural experimental design and allows for researchers to gain a better understanding of seagrass habitats as blue carbon ecosystems.

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A call for seagrass protection

03 August 2018, Science Magazine

Seagrass meadows supply a vast suite of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, fisheries support, and coastal protection. They are part of an interconnected seascape; degradation of any habitat in this seascape has negative consequences for the other component habitats.GRAPHIC: V. ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE

Seagrasses are marine flowering plants that are found along temperate and tropical coastlines around the world. They provide habitat for fish, shellfish, and marine herbivores such as turtles (see the photo) and dugong and also serve important physical roles—for example, by filtering sediments and reducing wave and current energies near coasts. By filtering the water column of pathogens, seagrasses reduce contamination in seafood while also reducing coral disease. Given the global distribution of seagrass and its role in climate mitigation and food security, the protection of these ecosystems has implications for the planetary boundaries within which humanity can safely operate. Growing understanding of the roles of seagrass shows that their protection is crucial for staying within safe planetary boundaries and sustaining fisheries productivity and food security (see the figure).

Seagrass meadows are one of the most widespread coastal habitats on Earth. They are found throughout subarctic to tropical latitudes and exist in countries across the range of the human development index. However, like many of the world's natural habitats, seagrass meadows are in decline, with estimated global losses of approx. 7% annually since 1990. Poor coastal water quality and coastal development are among the major drivers of the loss.

Seagrasses have received comparatively little consideration in conservation and scientific research, but this is beginning to change. Coordinated international calls for improved protection led by the World Seagrass Association and eventually signed by hundreds of scientists, together with advances in research, provide optimism for securing a future for seagrass.

Olsen et al. reported the genetic sequence of the most dominant seagrass species in the Northern Hemisphere, Zostera marina. This research showed how genetic adaptations of this species enabled seagrasses to become one of the world's most productive ecosystems. Key to this productivity was the ability to source the building blocks of photosynthesis in an aquatic saline environment. Thanks to this genome sequence, we can understand the reverse evolutionary trajectory that allowed angiosperms to live in the sea; as terrestrial plants adapted to life in the ocean, they developed genes that enabled them to take up nutrients and conduct O2/CO2 exchange in a saline environment through leaf epidermal cells.

The productivity of seagrasses and their ability to store carbon in their sediments means that they are increasingly considered to be a crucial component of the world's carbon stores. Seagrass is therefore a potentially crucial component of efforts to prevent rapid uncontrolled climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement has opened the door for integrating seagrass conservation programs into climate mitigation strategies. Evidence-based conservation decisions will require a more mechanistic understanding of the processes that drive the storage or release of this blue carbon.

Understanding how and why seagrass meadows store carbon in their sediments is based largely on correlative studies that attempt to use environmental or biological variables to predict carbon stock location and size across the broad range of seagrass bioregions. This research has, for example, shown how pollutants or disturbance can influence the microbial communities in seagrass sediments, weakening carbon storage capacity and providing a pathway to CO2 release. Other recent research highlights the role of sediment oxidation by seagrass root rhizomes, altering abundances of sulfide-oxidizing bacteria.

Seagrasses may also be key to climate mitigation in other ways. Their role as productive net primary producers in the coastal zone has led to suggestions that they provide a local pH buffering effect. This is due to their rapid uptake of CO2, which pushes the carbonate chemistry toward a less acidic state. It remains to be shown whether seagrass-driven changes in the local carbonate chemistry can reduce the negative impacts of ocean acidification on other habitats and organisms, such as coral reefs.

Increasing recognition that seagrasses are an important part of the global and local carbon cycles is increasing the need for more accurate estimates of global seagrass cover. Around 300,000 km2 of seagrass has been mapped across the globe, but estimates suggest that the actual coverage could be more than 10 times greater.

Seagrass meadows are also important ecologically because they support high biodiversity. The floral diversity in seagrass meadows is relatively low, with approximately 72 seagrass species recognized globally, but the three-dimensional structure of their shoots, roots, and rhizomes attracts a high abundance and diversity of other organisms. Small grazing invertebrates profit from the colonization of the large leaf surface area by microalgae and the abundance of plant detritus. Invertebrates benefit from the oxygenation of otherwise sulfide-rich sediments.

This abundance of diverse animal life creates a vast feeding resource for numerous important fishery species. Seagrass meadows form critical nursery habitats for juvenile fish for ∼20% of the world's biggest fisheries, including for Atlantic cod and walleye pollock. An abundance of animal life in seagrass also creates fishing grounds that are highly accessible for fishers all around the world and require limited gear to fish. These fisheries are increasingly recognized as critical to the livelihoods of vulnerable people across the globe. The coastal location of seagrasses, however, also makes them vulnerable to land- and sea-derived threats, such as fertilizer runoff and the impacts of anchor use by boats, as well as to overexploitation of their productive fisheries.

The widespread threats to seagrasses places their long-term viability in doubt. But although scientists are documenting extensive degradation of seagrass meadows and their associated fauna, the evolving understanding of seagrass ecology also increases our capacity to conserve seagrass ecosystems. The Paris Climate Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and other major international agreements such as the Convention on Migratory Species have helped to drive knowledge acquisition and the desire to protect seagrass meadows. With the right science and the political and financial will, seagrass meadows can thrive and contribute to ensuring our planet stays within its sustainable boundaries. But maintaining momentum in seagrass science, building on recent advances, and increasing public awareness is crucial for the long-term viability of seagrass systems.

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Red tide impacting Sarasota beaches and marine life

02 August 2018, FirstCoastNews.com WTLV-WJXX (USA)

Red tide is so bad it can clear out a beach.

Nokomis Beach is desolate except for the lifeguard. A red flag flies high, warning there’s no swimming. The water is dark. The smell is strong.

The dead fish were raked off the shore early in the morning, but across the way along the Intercoastal there’s the evidence.

Dead fish along the shoreline, and stone crabs too. The algae bloom is taking down much larger marine life.

“We’re working a lot,” said Gretchen Lovewell, Mote’s Stranding Investigation program manager.

Mote is caring for 10 sea turtles. The newest one, Augusta, was brought in a few hours ago found off Caspersen beach.

“We have her dry docked with special foam around her. She was really lethargic. She has brief activity, then goes comatose again. It’s touch-and-go first 24 hours.”

Volunteers will try to flush the toxins out of her system.

“As they ingest crabs and fish and seagrass ,,, they come in lethargic and don’t know which way is up. They suffer too long in the water and ultimately drown,” explained Lovewell.

Augusta is the 120th sea turtle rescue this year. Mote says 58 percent fell ill to red tide but they can recover. Independence is a 220-pound loggerhead found off Longboat Key July 1.

Lovewell said, “He’s medically cleared doing great. He started out like this, dry docked, The fact they can turn around this quickly when taken out of that environment with good food and good nutrition fluid and therapy, they do an amazing job.”

Why is Sarasota seeing so many turtle rescues from red tide?

“Some of it is timing and spacing, we're in the middle of nesting season for a lot of sea turtles now,” explained Lovewell.

Further south, manatees are red tide’s victims.

“Manatees ... get it breathing the air and eating sea grass, so they're getting from two pathways,” said Lovewell.

Augusta will be moved to one of the critical care tanks and hopefully recover well enough to head back out. She will be released far away from the red tide water.

Lovewell said, “We’re giving the turtles the best shot being out there not here in a critical care tank.”

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Judge OKs Okinawa Base, Despite Endangered Dugong

02 August 2018, Courthouse News Service (USA)

Despite fierce opposition from environmental groups over potential harm to the endangered dugong, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that a military base the U.S. government plans to build in Okinawa, Japan, can move forward.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen said the Pentagon had done all it could to consider the impact of the base on the sacred marine mammal, including commissioning biological and cultural reports, interviewing cultural experts, and relying on a Japanese environmental impact report that included extensive public and Okinawa Prefectural Government comment.

Environmental groups had fought to stop the base from being built, challenging its planned construction in a 2003 lawsuit. Chen inherited the case from U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who awarded the groups summary judgment in 2008 and administratively closed the case due to uncertainties about the project’s future. In August 2014 the case was reopened and assigned to Chen after Patel retired, and Chen initially dismissed the case in 2015.

In 2017, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned Chen’s dismissal, finding the Center for Biological Diversity and its American and Japanese co-plaintiffs had standing to contest the construction in court.

The dugong is significant in traditional Okinawan culture and mythology, and the Japanese government has designated them for protection under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.

Pentagon officials plan to build the Futenma replacement base next to Henoko and Oura bays, and includes a V-shaped set of runways built on top of landfill dumped into the bays. But the plaintiffs say the dumping could ravage the seagrass beds on which the dugongs feed and that noise, excessive light and pollution from construction could harm the animals.

At a hearing on cross-motions for summary judgment in June, Earthjustice attorney Sarah Burt, who represents the environmental groups, said the government did too little in evaluating the base’s effect on the dugong.

Burt said the Defense Department J is required under the National Historic Preservation Act to consult with the Okinawan government and affected communities, but instead hired contractors to speak with the Japanese government and outside academics. Section 402 of the act says federal agencies must “take into account” the effect of a planned project on any effected property.

In his ruling, Chen found the Pentagon’s efforts passed legal muster, and that its finding of “no adverse effect” on the dugong was reasonable.

“The court is aware of the high stakes at issue. The court understands the concern of plaintiffs and those of affected citizens about the potential harm to the endangered dugongs of Okinawa,” Chen wrote. “But Section 402, while requiring the U.S. government to take account the effect of its undertaking in constructing the [Futenma Replacement Facility], offers a limited scope of judicial review. Under that limited scope of review, the efforts taken by defendants to comply with Section 402, including implementation of mitigating measures, fulfill the requirements of Section 402 and support a finding of no adverse effect.”

In a phone interview, Burt said Chen’s ruling was “disappointing but not surprising,” as courts tend to show deference to government agencies.

“Judge Chen basically says without regulations saying what ‘take into account’ means, anything they did sounds reasonable enough. The statute is vague and courts tend to give deference to agencies and that’s what happened in this case,” she said.

Burt said she will be conferring with her clients as to their next steps, but the fight continues even outside the courtroom.

“I will be talking about the decision with the clients in the coming days and we’ll make a decision about whether or not to appeal,” Burt said. “For the plaintiffs, for the local communities in Okinawa, the fight goes on. They’ve been organizing and campaigning and trying to make their voices heard to protest against the increasing militarization of their communities for a long time now. This lawsuit is just one tool. The law is a powerful tool, but they will continue organizing and fighting for their way of life.”

Efforts to get comment from the government were unsuccessful as of press time.

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Dead dugong found off Phang Nga

01 August 2018, The Nation (Thailand)

A 250-kilogram dugong, found dead off Phang Nga over the weekend, has been brought to Phuket for further examination.

Officials from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC) were notified on Sunday that the body of the dugong had been found by local fishermen in Phang Nga. The dugong, which was brought back to Phuket for a full autopsy, was a mature male measuring 2.46 metres long and weighing 250 kilograms. Its body had already started to decompose.

An autopsy was conducted immediately after it arrived at the PMBC.
PMBC officials said that initial investigations could not clearly determine the cause of death as the creature’s organs had started to rot.

However, it is believed that the dugong died quite suddenly, as food was still found in its digestive system. A large bruise, measuring 25 centimetres, was found on its skin. The dugong’s DNA is yet to be tested.

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