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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

 

 

 

 

 

Great Barrier Reef marine reserves get a big tick

27 March 2015, ABC Science Online (Australia)

The combination of marine reserves and fishing controls appears to be working to protect the Great Barrier Reef as well as preserve stocks of commercially important species, say researchers.

The findings come out of a 30-year monitoring effort by scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University, and are reported today in the journal Current Biology.

In 2004, fishing was excluded from around a third of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in a network of 'no-take marine reserves'.

Monitoring since the 1980s of corals, fish species and other organisms on the reef have enabled scientists to now compare the health of marine reserves with matched fished areas.

The comparison, carried out by Dr David Williamson of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, and colleagues, found the main difference was in the number of coral trout, the most commercially important species on the reef.

"There are more coral trout in the reserves and their average size was bigger," he says.

The findings show that the total biomass of coral trout is on average 2.5 times higher in the reserves than in the fished areas.

If there was no poaching at all on the reef by commercial and recreational fishers, this figure would be higher, says Williamson.
No 'squeeze effect'

Importantly, the researchers found no differences in the general health of the reef between the reserves and the fished areas.

While fishing on some reefs can have a devastating effect on coral and other organisms, this is not the case with the selective approach taken on the Great Barrier Reef, says Williamson.

"The fishery methods that they're using on these coral reefs are essentially hook and line and this is not particularly damaging to the reef," he says.

One concern about marine reserves is that they may create more fishing pressure on the areas outside them, but Williamson and colleagues found no evidence of this "squeeze effect" when it comes to coral trout.

Levels of coral trout in the fished areas were the same both before and after the reserves were put in place, he says.

Williamson says this may be partly explained by catch limits that were imposed on the fishing industry at the same time the reserves were implemented.

However, he also argues that the increase in the number of coral trout in the reserves is likely to be benefiting the fishing industry.

Williamson points to a 2012 study that traced dispersal of coral trout larvae from places that are closed to fishing to places that are open to fishing.

"Those fish populations in the areas that are closed are forming really valuable breeding populations and that's also contributing to what we call 'recruitment' in the areas that are open to fishing," he says.

Another interesting finding from the study is that the larger coral trout in the reserves were better able to tough out and survive Tropical Cyclone Hamish, which devastated the reef in 2009.
'Heartening'

Dr Neville Barrett, a conservation biologist from the University of Tasmania who studies the impact of marine reserves, welcomes the study.

"The work here is very, very heartening because it's actually showing that the integrated management involving the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and Commonwealth state and fisheries agencies, is doing a really great job," he says.

"It's great to see such a good independent endorsement of fishery work."

But, he says, while coral trout larvae from marine reserves on the Great Barrier Reef may disperse to fishing zones it's hard to say how many of these will survive to adult fish and therefore benefit fisheries.

"It's likely to have some positive benefits to industry," he says, "But it's very difficult to quantify given the vagaries of larval and post-settlement processes that ultimately limit populations of such species."

"It can't be a bad thing," he adds. "But given the fisheries are in relatively such good condition, the magnitude of the difference is such that it's unlikely to be a marked improvement."

Regardless, Williamson says reserves are a good "insurance policy" to have, which are simple to implement, especially in developing countries where policing size or catch limits is particularly difficult.

The researchers emphasise that fishing is just one of the pressures on the reef, which must also contend with climate change, pollution, sediment and coastal development.

The Commonwealth government is currently carrying out a eview of marine reserves. Submissions close on Tuesday 31 March.

More information: Click Here


What can we say for certain about dredging and the Great Barrier Reef?

26 March 2015, The Conversation AU (Australia)

To protect and manage environmental treasures like the Great Barrier Reef requires a strong foundation of science, but what should agencies and political leaders do when the science is as widely debated as it has been for dredging and disposal in the Great Barrier Reef?

Over the past 15 months, we have led a process with a panel of experts to provide an independent overview of the current knowledge of the effects of dredging and sediment disposal in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Our panel included a very diverse range of expertise and experience, from years in the dredging industry, to physical oceanographers and coral ecologists.

The report, published yesterday, covers the effects of dredging on the physical and chemical environment, flow-on effects on the habitats and biodiversity, cumulative impacts, effects of land-based disposal, and next steps for management.

The report shows, for example, that although direct effects are localised, dredging and disposal may have been making significant contributions to suspended sediments in inshore waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

Given the complexity of the issue, the report can’t provide conclusive answers to all of the questions reef managers face, but it does provide a comprehensive and balanced interpretation of the available evidence. By clearly distinguishing what is known (and agreed by the experts), what is definitively not known, and what is uncertain (that is, still debated by the experts), the report not only provides a clearer way forward for managers, but clearly identifies the knowledge gaps we still need to address.

So what does the report tell us? It says that dredging and sediment disposal can change the physical and chemical environment, and thus affect the biological values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. But these effects will differ between locations, and also be influenced by the different types and extents of dredging and sediment disposal.

Direct removal by excavation, and burial during disposal, only affect relatively small areas, although within those areas the effects are obviously severe. Dredging and disposal don’t occur on coral reefs within the Great Barrier Reef area.

Release of fine sediment is the greatest concern

Both dredging and marine disposal create significant plumes of suspended sediment, causing increased cloudiness in the water and reducing the light available to marine organisms.

Importantly, the report concludes that both disposed sediments and dispersed sediments from dredge plumes have the potential to be re-suspended and transported by waves and ocean currents, and to contribute to the long-term, chronic increase in fine suspended sediment concentrations in the inshore Great Barrier Reef.

The extent to which this occurs and affects marine life was not agreed by the expert panel. In particular, the panellists had differing views on whether sediment from dredging was significant compared with background levels of resuspension and inputs of fine sediments in river run-off from catchments. However, calculations suggest that previous large dredging operations had potentially very significant effects.

Most experts do agree that increased levels of fine sediments, and associated nutrients, are, along with climate change, seriously affecting the long-term health of the Great Barrier Reef. Understanding dredging in the context of inshore sediment dynamics is a serious gap in our knowledge.

In general, dredged material from near the Great Barrier Reef has few chemical contaminants, and there are robust management procedures to avoid disposal of such material at sea.

Different habitats, differing effects

The report breaks down and summarises the risks to coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mangroves and estuaries, pelagic (open water) and seafloor habitats, along with the risks to fish and other wildlife of conservation concern, such as dugongs, marine turtles and seabirds. These effects will vary greatly with the location, timing and extent of dredging and disposal. But if dredging and disposal have been significantly increasing fine sediments supply, it is possible that long-term impacts on inshore ecosystems have been under-estimated. We know that chronic increases in suspended sediments have been affecting inshore coral reefs and seagrass beds.

What is clear is that the extent of future impacts in the marine environment will be very significantly improved with the impending bans on disposal of capital dredging in the marine environment, recently announced by the federal and Queensland governments. The proposed ban on disposal of capital material in the Marine Park closed on Friday 27 March 2015.

Future challenges

Following a ban on disposal of capital material within the marine environment, there remains the challenge of managing the remaining impacts of dredging, including disposal of maintenance dredged sediments in marine environments, and disposal of capital dredging material on land.

The Expert Panel identified a number of potentially serious impacts and challenges involved in disposing of dredge material on land or in reclamation, including loss of coastal habitats, runoff of seawater and fine sediments from dredged material, and potential acid sulphate soils.

Our panel prioritised identifying what we do know about dredging, but also found significant areas of insufficient knowledge. Most of the panel also agreed on the need to follow up our report with a similar analysis of the social, economic, cultural and heritage aspects of dredging and sediment disposal, including the impacts on Indigenous culture and heritage.

Given the complexity of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, and the range of expert views, the intention of this process was never to provide a single, conclusive answer. Rather, our report provides a strong foundation for progressing both knowledge and management directions, and it appears it is already doing that.

More information: Click Here


WEYMOUTH: Help with seagrass research project

25 March 2015, View Online (UK)

PEOPLE interested in a unique project to preserve sea grass beds have gathered for a volunteer evening at Weymouth Sea Life Park.

There are 19 known sea grass beds along 191 miles of coastline between Weymouth and Looe and the night, which attracted more than 40 visitors, was devoted to explaining all about how people could get involved in the three-year project.

The sea grass beds are home to everything from young fish to seahorses.

Community seagrass initiative spokesman Jess Mead said: “We are looking for three groups of volunteers, kayakers, sailors and qualified divers, as well as our schools programme which will engage with 19,000 schoolchildren.

“We hope that we will get lots of volunteers to help us survey the sea grass.”

She added that the Heritage Lottery Fund had provided nearly £500,000 for the project into the habitat which appears to be in decline perhaps through poor water quality, invasive species and increased recreational water use over the habitat.

Many people were unaware of the sea grass bed locations, five of which are in the Weymouth area at Ringstead, Weymouth bay, Weymouth pier, Portland harbour and the Fleet lagoon.

She urged people to volunteer for the project and said no knowledge or survey experience was needed.

More information: Click Here


Compiling and expanding knowledge of dredging

25 March 2015, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (Australia)

An independent panel of experts has compiled existing scientific knowledge of how dredging and disposal impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

Brought together under a joint initiative of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the panel reviewed information on the physical and biological effects of dredging and disposal.

The panel's report titled Synthesis of current knowledge of the biophysical impacts of dredging and disposal on the Great Barrier Reef summarises what is known about the effects of dredging, what is scientifically contentious, and the key gaps in our knowledge.

Consisting of 19 technical and scientific experts, the panel represented a broad range of skills, experience and perspectives — from oceanographic modelling to coral ecology.

Among its key findings, the report concluded:

  • In terms of direct effects, dredging and burial of seafloor habitats during disposal can have substantial impacts at a local level, but have only a small impact on the broader Great Barrier Reef and its biodiversity as a whole.
  • In terms of indirect effects, sediments released by dredging and disposal have the potential to stay suspended in the water and move. This may be contributing significantly to the long-term chronic increase in fine suspended sediments in inshore areas, however there wasn’t consensus among the panelists on the extent to which this happens and its impact on biodiversity.
  • Dredging and disposal may be a significant source of fine sediments in the World Heritage Area, in addition to other sources, such as land run-off. A general comparison shows that past large dredging projects produced amounts of fine sediment similar in magnitude to natural loads coming from land run-off in the same region.
  • The recent policy commitments to ban disposal of capital dredge material in marine environments will mean future disposal, which will be limited to maintenance dredging, will contribute much less fine sediment. This reduced amount will still need to be considered in the context of other cumulative impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

The knowledge gaps identified by the panel are likely to guide further research into the effects of dredging and disposal.

Improving our understanding of the effects of dredging will also help us further develop policy and best practice guidelines.

All management actions are based on best available knowledge — it is part of our adaptive management approach to ensure this knowledge is updated.


Project scope

This work focuses on physical, chemical and ecological aspects such as how sediment moves, settles and disperses and looks at ecological impacts on reefs, seagrass and other key species and habitats.

Although the social, economic, cultural and heritage aspects of dredging are important, these are beyond the scope of this phase of the project.

More information: Click Here


Dugong washed ashore

25 March 2015, The Hindu (India)

The carcass of a Dugong washed ashore at Marakayarpattinam near Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district on Tuesday. (Photo: L. BALACHANDAR)

The carcass of a male Dugong, weighing around 200 kg, was found washed ashore at Maraikayarpattinam seashore near here on Tuesday morning.

Forester M. Jaffar said forest personnel were on routine patrolling when they found the carcass washed ashore with injury on its back.

The injury suggested that it could have hit against a rock and succumbed to the injuries on Monday night.

The Dugong measured 213 cm long with a circumference measuring 84 cm.

It was buried at the seashore after Dr. Manikandan, Veterinary Assistant Surgeon conducted post mortem, he said.

Collector K. Nanthakumar, Superintendent of Police N. M. Mylvahanan and Wildlife Warden, Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, Deepak S. Bilgi, visited the seashore and inspected the carcass.

Second carcass:This was the second carcass of Dugong to be washed ashore in the Gulf of Mannar region in less than one month.

On February 27, the forest officials found a two-year-old female Dugong washed ashore at Thalaithoppu near Periyapattinam.

More information: Click Here


Chant questions Middlebank reclamation by state government

24 March 2015, New Straits Times Online (Malaysia)

An environmental interest group here questioned the state government's insistence in going ahead with the Middlebank reclamation, with the knowledge that it could destroy the ecosystem of the seagrass bed there.

Speaking in a press conference today on the matter, Citizens Awareness Chant Group (Chant) adviser Yan Lee said the Penang government should explain why it insist on reclaiming the Middlebank area, when there are so many other places to be reclaimed.

"Choose somewhere else that is feasible. The ecosystem on the seagrass bed has to be a priority," he said in a press conference here.

Lee claimed that reclamation in the area would change the whole system and water flow in Penang, affecting fish farmers from the island to Nibong Tebal, and cause siltation.

Lee cited the Forest City project in Johor as an example of how such a seagrass bed should not be touched for development. He said the Johor Department of Environment (DoE) had not allowed the Forest City developer to reclaim areas that have a large amount of seagrass.

The 50.6ha seabed in the Middlebank, located between the first Penang Bridge and the Sungai Pinang river mouth, is the second largest in Peninsular Malaysia after Merambong in Johor.

It was reported that the state government planned to reclaim the area under the proposed RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan.

The Penang Development Corporation (PDC) had called for a Request for Proposal (RFP) to reclaim the area, and ended on Feb 23.

When contacted by the New Straits Times, state Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said nothing has been decided yet on the project.

More information: Click Here


New study shows net value of seagrass to fishing in the Mediterranean

24 March 2015, Phys.Org (UK)

Seagrass meadows could be worth around €190 million every year to commercial and recreational fishing in the Mediterranean according to a new study by marine scientists.

Seagrass meadows could be worth around €190 million every year to commercial and recreational fishing in the Mediterranean according to a new study by marine scientists.

In a report published in Conservation Biology, academics at Plymouth University and the University of Central Queensland, Australia, say that marine policies should consider the socioeconomic effects of the loss of seagrass, which provides habitat for many fishery species.

Beds of seagrass play a fundamental role in supporting populations of marine species that are caught by commercial and recreational fishers, acting as nursery areas for juveniles, feeding grounds and refuge from predators. But despite protection from the European Union which bans the use of mobile fishing gear over the beds, seagrass is declining in the Mediterranean.

Project lead Dr Emma Jackson, who commenced the work while at Plymouth before moving to the School of Medical and Applied Sciences at Queensland, said:

"Where they dominate coastlines, seagrass beds are thought to have a fundamental role in maintaining populations of exploited species, and are afforded protection accordingly. And yet, no attempt to determine the contribution of these areas to both commercial fisheries landings and recreational fisheries expenditure had ever been made. The figures, even allowing for some variation and uncertainty, clearly demonstrate just how much is at stake if seagrass declines further."

Conducted under the EU's KnowSeas project, the researchers used a 'Seagrass Residency Index' to give different fishery species a score based on how much time they spend in seagrass meadows at different life stages, compared with other habitats. The score was then combined with information on the economic value of seafood caught by commercial fisheries to calculate the total value of seagrass to this industry. For recreational fishing, the scores were combined with figures on how much is spent each year by anglers, for example, on equipment and transport, contributing to the wider economy.

The results indicated that seagrass contributed between €58.3 million and €91.5 million per year to commercial fishing in the Mediterranean, between 2006 and 2008, at an average of €77.7 million. Approximately 4.5%, or €112.6 million, of annual angling expenditure could be attributed to seagrass meadows.

With seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) estimated to account for 5.5 million hectares, or 2% of the surface area of the Mediterranean Sea, it contributes a disproportionately valuable amount to fisheries in terms of 'habitat service'.

"Certain species would have a significant economic impact for commercial fishing if seagrass were to further decline," said Dr Sian Rees, a Research Fellow within Plymouth University's Marine Institute.

"These include cuttlefish (Sepiidae, Sepiolidae), scorpion fish (Scorpaenidae) and octopus (Octopodidae). In terms of recreational fishing, declines in seabass would have a particularly damaging effect."

The EU's Marine Strategy Framework Directive requires the cost of marine degradation to be determined. The full economic value of seagrass beds would be even higher than this calculated value if other ecosystem services were also accounted for, such as erosion protection and carbon sequestration, indicating how important seagrass habitat is to both the marine environment and human society.

More information: Click Here


 

 

Government unveils 2050 Great Barrier Reef plan: experts react

24 March 2015, The Conversation AU (Australia)

On Saturday the federal and Queensland governments released the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which outlines key measures to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef over the next 35 years.

The plan identifies targets and actions to protect the reef’s natural beauty and extraordinary wildlife as an internationally recognised World Heritage Area.

The plan addresses key threats to the reef identified in the 2014 Outlook Report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which found the overall outlook of the reef is poor and getting worse.

The greatest threats to the reef are climate change, coastal development, runoff, and some fishing.

Dumping of capital dredge spoil will be banned within the marine park and World Heritage Area, and dredging for new projects will be confined to established ports. However maintenance dredging will continue.

Sediment in runoff will be reduced to 50% below 2009 levels by 2025, and nitrogen by 80%.

On climate change, the plan cites the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund as the main tool for reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

Overall, the plan projects funding of A$2 billion over 10 years, including A$200 million from the federal government (particularly A$40 million from the Reef Trust) and A$100 million from the Queensland government over five years.

Below, experts react to the new plan.

Barbara Norman, Foundation Chair, Urban and Regional Planning at University of Canberra

The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan avoids the tough issues. The major omissions are a clear statement that protecting the environment is the first priority, a continuing absence of effective national action on climate change, and the continuing impact of coastal development and mining related infrastructure.

To illustrate, future “Masterplans” for the ports (Gladstone, Hay Point Mackay, Abbot Point and Townsville) will consider “operational, economic, environmental and social relationships as well as supply chains and surrounding land uses.”

Another example is that decision makers will have regard to a set of principles that include economic, social and environmental considerations. When push comes to shove a weak “having regard to” with no clear priorities is fraught with danger.

In contrast the Victorian Coastal Strategy 2014 sets a clear hierarchy of principles for decision makers placing protection of the environment first.

This approach is intentional because in coastal planning you are dealing with major vested interests and multiple stakeholders and the environment is most often the poor cousin in a decision making process that take a “balanced” approach.

The Queensland Government and the Commonwealth government need to make this clear commitment to the Great Barrier Reef in policy and law. A World Heritage Area deserves no less.

Terry Hughes, Federation Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

The final plan is a disappointment because too much of it is business-as-usual. The recent decision by Minister Hunt to ban dumping of capital dredge spoil is a welcome step in the right direction, but there is no change to the amount of dredging per se, only where it can be dumped. For example, Townsville Port is still proposing to dredge 10 million cubic metres of material, which will likely kill off the few corals that still survive around Magnetic Island.

There are no restrictions proposed for dumping about 2 million cubic metres of maintenance dredge spoil each year from the major ports, either in the Marine Park or the coastal area of the World Heritage Area administered by Queensland.

The biggest omission in the plan is that it virtually ignores climate change, which is clearly the major ongoing threat to the reef. Perversely, the plan will be partially financed by offsets – effectively fines paid as a licence fee for environmental damage – from fossil fuel developments.

The government wants to have coal mines operating in 60 years’ time, and still hopes to have a healthy reef. The science says otherwise: either we plan to adequately protect the reef and transition away from fossil fuels, or we abandon the reef and develop the world’s largest thermal coal mines. We can’t possibly do both.

Iain McCalman, Professorial Fellow, Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney

I applaud the Australian Government’s plan to improve Great Barrier Reef water quality by reducing the pollution caused by sewage, chemical fertilisers and silt dumping. But when it comes to preserving the long-term health of the reef and its region, these policies go straight to the periphery of the matter.

Instituting such remedies while at the same time supporting massive increases in coal mining – with their attendant need for port expansions, channel dredging, and container ship congestion – seems bizarre at best. These much-trumpeted new water policies deliberately ignore the dire long-term threats to the reef that are contained in the now unutterable words “climate change”. They are akin to investing in cures for a patient’s skin diseases while ignoring their cancer symptoms.

The global warming and climate instability resulting from the greenhouse gases that we pump into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels will continue, with mounting frequency, to cause our reef waters both to warm and to acidify. Only a few degrees of water heat beyond normal turns reef-growing corals into bleached white skeletons; and the carbon dioxide-altered water chemistry also causes their limestone skeletons to dissolve gradually, as if immersed in carbonic acid.

If all this were not enough, more frequent and more ferocious cyclones – like the one that has just devastated Vanuatu – will bash the reef’s increasingly brittle skeletons to pieces. We might have cleaner waters, but we won’t have a reef.

No wonder our late great poet Judith Wright once wrote in exasperation that if the Barrier Reef could think, it would fear us. We offer gifts with one hand and wield clubs with the other.

More information: Click Here


 

After dead Green turtle, remains of dugong found

23 March 2015, Malay Mail Online (Malaysia)

Just weeks after fishermen near here buried the carcass of an endangered turtle, they have been confronted with another shocking discovery.

They found the remains a dugong, measuring a little more than 1m in length, floating about 800m from the beach of Teluk Senangin, a popular weekend picnic spot, on Thursday.

According to Sahabat Alam Malaysia field officer Meor Razak, the marine mammal had not been sighted in the area recently.

“Like the Green and Olive Ridley turtles, the number of dugong in the area has dwindled substantially. Maybe it is due to fishing activity or changes in the environment or sea water,” he said.

“The area is losing its appeal to these sea creatures. So whenever we see or hear about dugong swimming in the area we get quite excited.

“Imagine our shock when we learned about the sighting of the remains of a dugong.

Meor said the dugong came to Teluk Senangin most likely to feed.

He said the local geography could also be a factor in attracting dugong, turtles and dolphins.

However, fishing, along with the opening of forested areas as picnic spots and rapid industrialisation, were ruining the area’s natural beauty.

Fisherman Noor Ismady Ahmad Radzuan said dugong were a common sight in Taluk Senangin many years ago.

He said fishermen would normally see them swimming alone although there had been instances when they saw them in pairs, and sometimes a calf with its mother.

“It is rare to see them nowadays. When a fisherman found the carcass we were shocked. It may have been floating around the bay for a few days,” Noor Ismady said.

“We could not figure out what may have caused its death.

“It obviously died prematurely because it was not that big. It could be a calf.”

An adult dugong can grow up to 3m in length and weigh more than 400kg.

Last month, fishermen found the carcass of a Green turtle with its shell torn apart after being hit by propeller from a fishing boat.

More information: Click Here


 

Great Barrier Reef campaign: scientists call for scrapping of coal projects

23 March 2015, The Guardian (Australia)

Australia’s leading coral reef scientists have called for huge coalmining and port developments in Queensland to be scrapped in order to avoid “permanent damage” to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS) report, compiled by experts from five Australian universities and submitted to the United Nations, warns that “industrialising the Great Barrier Reef coastline will cause further stress to what is already a fragile ecosystem.”


The report notes that nine proposed mines in the Galilee Basin, in central Queensland, will produce coal that will emit an estimated 705m tonnes of carbon dioxide at capacity – making the Galilee Basin region the seventh largest source of emissions in the world when compared to countries.

Climate change, driven by excess emissions, has been cited as the leading long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Corals bleach and die as water warms and struggle to grow as oceans acidify.

“ACRS believe that a broad range of policies should be urgently put in place as quickly as possible to reduce Australia’s record high per capita carbon emissions to a much lower level,” the report states.

“Such policies are inconsistent with opening new fossil fuel industries like the mega coalmines of the Galilee Basin. Doing so would generate significant climate change that will permanently damage the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef.”

The warning follows the unveiling of a long-term plan to reverse the reef’s decline on Saturday. The strategy, which outlines cuts in pollution flowing onto the reef but sets out no additional action to curb emissions, was hailed by Tony Abbott as evidence that the government was “utterly committed” to the reef’s preservation.

In the ACRS report, the scientists urge a rethink on associated plans to expand the Abbot Point port, near the town of Bowen as well as calling for a halt to the Galilee Basin mines, which have broad support from the Queensland and federal governments.

The expansion would make Abbot Point one of the largest coal ports in the world, requiring the dredging of 5m tonnes of seabed to facilitate a significant increase in shipping through the reef.

The report warns dredging will have “substantial negative impacts on surrounding seagrass, soft corals and other macroinvertebrates, as well as turtles, dugongs and other megafauna.” Research has shown that coral disease can double in areas close to dredging activity.

The port expansion will also increase the amount of coal dust blowing onto the reef and the risk of shipping strikes upon whales and dugongs, the report states.

Sediment dredged from Abbot Point was initially earmarked to be dumped within the reef’s waters, but following a request from Unesco, an alternate onshore plan was devised.

Dr Selina Ward, a reef scientist at the University of Queensland and co-author of the report, said the high-profile campaign around the sediment dumping obscured the more pressing threats to the reef.

“The dumping of the dredge spoil is important but it’s not the whole story,” she said. “We have the huge background threat of climate change and going ahead with the industrialisation of the coastline just doesn’t sit well with that.

“The dredging involves the removal of seagrass beds and it creates sediment plumes that move large distances and cut light out to corals, which need photosynthesis for energy.

“If we have a 2C rise in the world’s temperature we’ll have bleaching events far more frequently. The outlook really is grim for the reef, but we still have time to turn it around.”

Ward said she hoped the report would spur international pressure on Australia to scale back the mines and port. The report will be send to advisors to Unesco’s world heritage committee, which will decide whether to officially list the reef as “in danger” in June.

“I don’t want to see the Great Barrier Reef listed as in danger, that would be terrible for Australia,” Ward said. “I hope the government understands what is at stake. We can have these mines and this port or we can have a healthy reef. We really can’t have both.”

Queensland’s mining industry has also voiced its apprehension over the reef being listed in danger. The Queensland Resources Council said that the listing would harm the economy by triggering potential restrictions on mining activity, port operations and tourism facilities.

More information: Click


Exposing underwater devastation

22 March 2015, Times of Malta (Malta)

 
 
Snapshots of the utter devastation being wrought to life on the seabed at Sikka l-Bajda as a result of ongoing bunkering activities on the reef. (Photos courtesy of Mario Camilleri and Raniero Borg)

The thumbs down recently given by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority board to the proposed offshore wind farm at Sikka l-Bajda is still a vivid memory. The major motivations behind Mepa’s stance include the fact that the site lies near an important bird rafting zone next to the Yelkouan shearwater colony at Tal-Madonna cliffs.

Sikka l-Bajda also lies within a Natura 2000 site – the Northeast Marine Protected Area (MPA). One of the inevitable environmental impacts of offshore wind farms is the smothering of seabed communities which happen to fall under the footprint of the turbine foundations. Since Sikka l-Bajda is covered by seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) meadows, the logical conclusion to reach was that the environmental impact on marine and bird communities would be considerable.

At this juncture, one can safely conclude that the planning process has simply taken its course and that environmental considerations prevailed at the end of the day, and rightly so, of course.

However, the situation at Sikka l-Bajda is more complex. As the appropriate assessment (AA) study for the proposed windfarm at Sikka l-Bajda highlighted, the reef is currently being used as one of the Malta’s six offshore bunkering sites. In fact, it is the second largest such site after the massive Hurd’s Bank.

Bunkering involves the stationing of vessels for a temporary period ranging from hours to days in a relatively shallow marine area while waiting to be refuelled. The economic importance of bunkering is supported by the Maltese islands’ strategic geogra­phical location flanking the Malta-Sicily Channel – one of the most important oil transit routes in the world.

The five bunkering sites in Malta’s territorial waters add up to almost 60 square kilometres, or roughly 1.5 per cent of the total extent of these waters, or more than half the total built-up area of the Maltese islands. The figures rise further if one considers the so-called ‘waiting one’, a large marine area about five nautical miles off Marsaxlokk Harbour, where vessels anchor while waiting to be granted access to harbour facilities.

In 2011, just over 3,000 vessels bunkered in Maltese waters. This is equivalent to an average of eight vessels a day.

Sikka l-Bajda (literally, the ‘white reef’) owes its name to the white surf and foam generated as a result of the turbulence and shoaling of waves it generates due to its shallow depth. The reef, whose depth ranges from four to five metres at its shallowest point to a maximum depth of 25 metres, has been a popular haunt for amateur fishermen – especially those hailing from St Paul’s Bay – and divers alike, in view of the prolific fish populations it used to support.

But with increasing bunkering activity on the reef, all this has changed and only the most intrepid of divers still venture in the reef’s waters. A couple of these – Raniero Borg and Mario Camilleri – recently dived at Sikka l-Bajda and photographed the utter devastation being caused by anchored vessels on the reef.

Basically, bunkered vessels impact the seabed in two ways – through anchoring and through crabbing, with the latter involving the dragging of anchors along the seabed when vessels need to shift position in the bunkering area. Both actions have a detrimental impact on the seabed, with so-called ‘halos’ being left behind in seagrass meadows as a result of massive anchors being dropped on the seabed. The anchors in question are juggernauts in size. For instance, the weight of a 26-metre-long vessel is expected to range between 55kg and 110kg.

Seagrasses are the not the only living things bearing the brunt of anchoring and crabbing. Sessile (non-motile) protected species, such as the Noble Pen shell, the star coral and the purple starfish, all recorded at Sikka l-Bajda, are smashed to smithereens by the weight of such anchors. The wake of a crabbing action resembles that of a trawling site, with a swathe of the seabed being cleared of most forms of life and converted into a semi-barren landscape almost overnight.

The accompanying underwater photos, taken just a few weeks ago, reveal the onslaught on the seabed of the Sikka l-Bajdra reef. The divers noticed that extensive parts of the rock surface had collapsed and saw considerable barren swathes in what were once dense seagrass meadows. Sikka l-Bajda is perhaps the most accessible of local bunkering sites – one shudders to think of the underwater destruction going on in the other less accessible bunkering sites which have much higher vessel densities, most notably Hurd’s Bank, and where no one is looking underwater.

If the Mepa board drew a line in the sand with respect to the proposed offshore wind farm at Sikka l-Bajda, presumably to safeguard the marine communities supported by the reef, similar action should be taken to curb further damage by bunkering activity on reefs that are colonised by protected habitats and species.

To achieve this no one is proposing any draconian measures, such as the cessation of all bunkering activities in local waters. Rather, the benthic communities in all five local bunkering sites should be mapped and vessels be instructed to stick to the seagrass-free zones in the sites. Such a measure would need to be constantly enforced at sea, and there are already some sore lacunae is such enforcement.

Alternatively, Sikka l- Bajda should no longer be used as a bunkering site in view of the dense seagrass meadows it supports. After all, the reefs falls within a Natura 2000 site and an MPA. Such a decision would constitute the first tangible sign of action being taken by Mepa regarding this MPA, which to date seems to exists only on paper.

My gut feeling is that at the end of the day, financial considerations will prevail, and even sound arguments and photographic evidence will not manage to sway the status quo.

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Sydney Harbour boat moorings are impacting sea floor marine life: researchers

22 March 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

Diver, Aria Lee, a researcher from UNSW, collecting sediment in Sydney Harbour: Researchers have begun intensive surveys of the sea floor to gauge the extent of the damage by boating infrastructure in Sydney Harbour.
A mooring chain on the ocean floor of Sydney Harbour: Professor Emma Johnston says half of Sydney's sea grass meadows have disappeared in the last 60 years due to moorings and other activities.
Mooring chain on floor of Sydney Harbour : Mooring chains can cause quite an area of damage as they move through the sea bed, researchers say.

Sydney Harbour is becoming "cluttered" with boats, prompting the New South Wales Department of Transport to launch the first study into the impact of boat moorings on the health of the waterway.

"It would be great to be able to open up some of the waterways that are currently cluttered with moorings," Howard Glenn, the general manager of Maritime and Transport for NSW, said.

Sydney Harbour is home to about 17,000 recreational boat users, amounting to 8 per cent of registered vessels across the state.

There are 4,850 private moorings in the harbour and demand has increased at a rate of about 3 per cent a year.

"If you look at Rushcutters Bay, that's now pretty much full of boats on moorings," Mr Glenn said.

"Lots of boats on the Pittwater are full of boats on moorings and there's many other parts of the harbour where the bay is actually taken up as a storage facility, rather than as a recreational waterway."

The NSW Government is looking at how to improve boat storage without hurting the environment.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) have begun intensive surveys of the sea floor at six sites from Manly in Sydney's north, to Watson's Bay in the east. The project is expected to last three years.

SIMS director Professor Emma Johnston said traditional moorings were a particular concern for sea grass because they carve circular holes in harbour meadows.

"There's a very large block of concrete that usually sits on the bottom which causes a small amount of impact, but really it's the swing," she said.

"It's the actual mooring line and the way it moves through the sea grass bed that can cause quite a wide area of damage not only to the sea grass, but to the soft sediment system itself."

Professor Johnston said half of Sydney's sea grass meadows had disappeared in the last 60 years. One species, Posidonia Australis, or strapweed, is endangered.

"That's not only from moorings, but also from a range of other activities," she said.

It's a species of sea grass that has been particularly vulnerable to human activity and it doesn't regrow very quickly.

"In Sydney we have very small fragments of strapweed left in the harbour and we think these populations are very, very precious.

"But there are existing moorings that occur within strapweed beds and we need to find better ways of keeping the boats on the harbour so people can use them, but avoiding damage to our precious sea grass."

The ABC joined technical divers from the UNSW near Nielsen Park in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

UNSW research associate Doctor Luke Hedge said there was "a lot going on" in Sydney Harbour, particularly around the boating infrastructure, marinas and moorings.

"We have big chains going up holding 40-foot yachts, we have hundreds of moorings in a one kilometre square area," Dr Hedge said.
Data to assist transport department in boating management

The research divers have seen evidence the mooring structures can affect the sediment.

Dr Hedge said they were taking comprehensive samples of the sea floor to gauge the extent of the damage.

He said the data could help the Government to implement the best possible management plans for the boating community.

"We're taking sediment samples, we're taking video transects, we're counting the fish, we're going down and looking at the sea grass, we have students taking three dimensional models of the sea floor," Dr Hedge said.

"We want to go deeper. We want to look at not only how moorings interact with sea grass, but also how the moorings can interact with say microbes ... right up to how these moorings can interact with the fish.

"All this data we've never had before. So it's really great for the Transport Department to invest to get that data so they can best manage our vibrant boating community."

Professor Emma Johnston said alternatives to traditional swing moorings had also raised potential environmental concerns.

"When you look at the moorings, they have a particular impact on the sea grass. Marinas tend to concentrate contamination," she said.

"And if we put the boats on land they tend to block people's view of the harbour, so we need to work out compromises - the solution that is going to best fit the people, the recreational boaters themselves and the environment."

Hugh Treharne installs and repairs moorings in Sydney Harbour. His father started the business in 1950.

He said too many boats were falling into disrepair and laying idle.

"Sadly they're just cluttering up the bays," he said.

Mr Treharne acknowledged moorings could harm sea grass, but only in shallow water less than 10 metres deep.

And, he said onshore storage solutions could prove to be unattractive and unpopular.

"Those stack buildings that they put them in with a forklift, they're a bit of an eyesore and [on] not too many parts of the harbour [are] people are going to like to see that sort of storage," Mr Treharne said.

"I hope they can come up with some other way."

In July 2015, 41 swing moorings are due to be removed from Clontarf in Sydney's north as part of the redevelopment of the local marina.

Scientists are preparing to monitor the area to see what, if any, recovery is possible on the ocean floor. Their findings will form part of the report to be delivered to the State Government.

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Great Barrier Reef: Government releases Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan

21 March 2015, ABC (Australia)

The Federal and Queensland Governments have together released the final version of the long-term plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan satisfies one of the key recommendations made by the United Nation's World Heritage Committee and forms a key plank in the Governments' bid to avoid the site being declared "in danger" by UNESCO.

The report warns climate change is the biggest long-term threat facing the reef, while the immediate pressures include water quality, which has declined due to nutrient and sediment runoff from agricultural production.

Previously, a draft version of the report was criticised by some scientists as being a plan for sustainable development rather than protecting and conserving the reef.

The Queensland Government also sought urgent changes to the draft, to include its $100 million election commitment to improve water quality.

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles said the new plan would help protect and save the reef.

Mr Miles said significant changes had been made and he hoped the United Nations World Heritage Committee would not go ahead with upgrading the reef's status to "in danger".

"The key commitments include the limitation on the dumping of dredge spoil from port expansions, a limitation on the number of large ports on the coastline, but also a longer term plan about addressing water quality running into the reef," he said.

The updated version also contains the Federal and State Government's plans to ban dredge-dumping in the World Heritage Area.

However, the report does not stipulate any set caps on the amount of maintenance dredging that can be carried out.

"Protecting the Reef requires long-tern planning and commitment," the report said.

"Actions under the Reef 2050 plan will ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to be among the world's best managed and protected World Heritage areas."

The plan was released by Prime Minister Tony Abbott at an event on Hamilton Island in far north Queensland on Saturday.

"Australia is telling the international agencies that we are utterly committed as an entire nation to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef which is one of the natural wonders of the world," he said.

The World Heritage Committee will decide in June whether to place the Great Barrier Reef on the "in danger" list.

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Delaying dredging will give the Great Barrier Reef breathing room

20 March 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

AS CONCERNS REGARDING the future the Great Barrier Reef reach fever pitch, the Australian government may have just been handed an opportunity for some much-needed breathing space.

A paper published today in the prestigious journal Science by an international group of researchers suggested ways that World Heritage listed places threatened by climate change could potentially be propped up, until climate change can be addressed. The paper, which looked specifically at the example of the Great Barrier Reef, said that by bolstering the health of the Reef in other ways, it may become strong enough to withstand the bleaching and acidifying ocean predicted to occur with climate change for as long as it takes to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, and an author on the study said, "The Great Barrier Reef is increasingly challenged by climate change, as well as by other stressors that make matters worse. We know that coral cover has declined by 50 per cent in the past 30 years, and most of the decline has occurred close to shore where pollution, dredging and fishing pressure are concentrated." The paper listed "runoff nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and sediments from land" as problems for the Reef.

In recent years, the Australian government has made steps towards preventing this kind of pollution from reaching the delicate corals. However in a blow to plans to expand the shipping traffic running through the iconic site, the study said that besides climate change, "coastal development and dredging [are] major future threats".

Apart from the controversial Abbot Point development, six other upgraded or new ports requiring dredging works are currently proposed for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area. "UNESCO is concerned that Australia isn't doing enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef. It would be disastrous for the $6 billion reef tourism industry and Australia's reputation if they list the GBR as 'in danger.' We need to put science into action to prevent this from happening," urged Professor Hughes. "Australian society will have to choose between a healthy Great Barrier Reef, or new coal mines and the largest coal ports in the world. The science is very clear — you can't have both," he said.

Fellow author, Brian Walker a Fellow with the CSIRO's Land and Water Flagship said, "Over time the value to Australia of the Great Barrier Reef as a healthy coral reef will be very high and much higher than the declining values that might be accruing due to the mining industry."

The paper pointed out that managing climate change is an immensely complex task, requiring the co-operation of all the world's nations. In contrast, managing local pressures on the Reef, while "challenging", is a more achievable task.

The researchers cautioned that "local interventions are no panacea for the threats of climatic change", but said that they would give the government control over at least some of the threats facing the Reef, while reframing the fight against climate change from "gloom and doom" to "positive" and "action-oriented".

In the meantime, Dr Walker urged decision-makers to do more on climate change. "We can't relax our efforts on climate change. It's a very great threatening process. But [the recommendations of this research] gives us some time to deal with that effort on climate change. If we do not deal with it, inevitably over time we will lose the Great Barrier Reef."

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Seagrass recovery projects looms for bay

19 March 2015, Port St. Joe Star (USA)

A multi-pronged project aimed at rebuilding seagrass beds in St. Joseph Bay will be underway soon.

According to a fact sheet from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Coastal Office, the work will employ a restoration and education component to address scarred seagrass in the bay. The hope is to have the bulk of the project completed by the July start of scallop season. The goal is to bolster the seagrass beds which are essential to a healthy scallop population.

The project will be funded with fine monies from BP under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and stem from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The money flows from the NRDA trustees to the FDEP and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the two government agencies coordinating NRDA projects in the county. The list of projects also includes improvements and construction at boat landings in Highland View and Port St. Joe as well as new pier at WindMark Beach and improvements at Veteran’s Memorial Park at Beacon Hill.

County Commissioner Warren Yeager said last week he was frustrated by the slow distribution of NRDA funds and information; projects awarded funding were announced nearly a year ago. “These are supposed to be dollars for early restoration,” Yeager said. “It has been five years.” County Commissioner Joanna Bryan indicated planning work is underway in Highland View and Beacon Hill. Port St. Joe city manager Jim Anderson said he hoped to have an update on boat ramp improvements at Frank Pate Park this week.

The seagrass project, which the FDEP includes restoration of a two-acre area that is “severely scarred seagrass habitat.” St. Joseph Bay is one of 41 aquatic preserves in Florida and the goal is that restoring the two-acre area will improve “seagrass recruitment” and the return of other plants and animals, such as scallops. “This restoration project will stabilize injured seagrass areas … and protect thousands of acres of this critical habitat,” according to the FDEP fact sheet. Researchers will use sediment tubes and bird roosting stakes, methods that have proved successful in other areas of the state with “high success rates”, the fact sheet detailed. The target site is surrounded by healthy seagrass and the restoration will halt expansion and erosion of the scarred areas to “foster long-term health” of the seagrass beds, according to the FDEP.

The second component of the project centers on education and outreach. “The established seagrass buoy system in St. Joseph Bay Aquatic Preserve is in critical need of updating,” the FDEP fact sheet detailed. The proposal is for staff at the St. Joseph Bay Aquatic Preserve to update the 13 naviagational buoys placed in the southern end of the bay in 2008. Those buoys will be replaced as 38-40 post-driven sliding buoys are installed at locations throughout the bay. The Preserve hopes to have that work completed by July.

Further, existing non-regulatory buoys throughout the bay will be updated to “keep boaters in the natural, deep-water channels” and the project will also include a brochure/map highlighting sensitive seagrass areas and how boaters can avoid damaging them.

Port St. Joe Mayor Mel Magidson asked that whatever entity performs the buoy and signage work in the bay consult with Dusty May and other locals who have been working on ways to preserve the bay since last year. “They should work with them, they have been looking at this issue,” Magidson said during a recent meeting of the Tourist Development Council.

In addition to overhauling the bay’s buoy system, the project will see the installation of seagrass signage at the restoration site to prevent further damage. “Educational signage” will go up at boat ramps and marinas and a demonstration buoy will be placed at the TDC Welcome Center.

Under the project the FDEP proposes to work with Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) and its Coastal Training Program to develop a workshop for local ecotour businesses, boaters and fishermen to “discuss restoration activities and how to navigate the southern end of the bay safely utilizing the seagrass buoy system.”

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Marine Conservation Zone proposed to protect Irish Sea porpoises

17 March 2015, Belfast Telegraph (Ireland)

Harbour porpoises will be protected under new marine safeguards proposed by the Department of the Environment.

The DoE has proposed a new protected Marine Conservation Zone for our smallest marine mammal in the Irish Sea, as well as new protected areas for key seabird colonies and a seagrass colony that provides nursery grounds for marine wildlife.

Northern Ireland has already designated the UK's first marine protected area for harbour porpoise in 2012 - the Causeway Coast and Skerries Special Area of Conservation (SAC) on the north coast.

There are proposals now to create a MCZ somewhere within an area between Belfast and Carlingford loughs, stretching to the other side of the Irish Sea.

The DoE has also proposed new Special Protection Areas around the coast to protect seabirds of European importance such as Manx shearwaters, red-throated divers and terns.

A new MCZ has also been proposed for Red Bay in Co Antrim, which would protect vulnerable beds of seagrass, a fragile plant which produces flowers and seeds. Seagrass meadows are home to wildlife such as larval fish, crustaceans and marine invertebrates.

If designated, the new area will join an existing proposed network including Rathlin Island and Belfast and Carlingford loughs.

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Seagrass is essential to Keys life

13 March 2015, Florida Keys Keynoter (USA)

 

A sea turtle rests in seagrass off the Upper Keys.(PHOTO: ADRIAN BELL/CONCH REPUBLIC DIVERS)

What does seagrass have to do with diving in the Florida Keys? It seems a lot.

Florida takes its seagrass very seriously. If you are a visitor to the Keys and haven’t used your boat here before, it may be a good idea to obtain a booklet of regulations (see https://www.boat-ed.com/florida/handbook/page/36/Protect-Florida%E2%80%99s-Seagrasses) or view http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/regs/welcome.html.

Boaters can face federal and state fines as well as costs associated with restoration efforts and monitoring if they are caught destroying seagrass. A fine of up to $1,000 can be imposed under Florida law.

Bring in the feds and things get more serious. In 1997 federal judge ordered a treasure-hunting company to pay a fine of $589,311 for destroying sea grass while searching without a permit for shipwrecks in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Seagrass damage aside, running aground costs millions of dollars each year to boaters in towing fees, propeller replacement and engine repairs.

So what is the big deal about seagrass?

It is valuable to the health of our ocean, marine life and Florida’s economy. Estimates are that more than 70 percent of all recreationally and commercially important fish species are dependent on sea grass at some point in their lives.

The high level of productivity, structural complexity, and biodiversity of seagrass has led some researchers to describe it as the marine equivalent of tropical rainforests.

In 2014 alone, seagrass in Monroe County supported an estimated harvest of roughly $380.5 million for stone crab, spiny lobster, shrimp, yellowtail snapper, gray snapper and blue crab. (FFWCC, Annual Landings, 2014)

Florida’s approximate 2 million acres of seagrass (and the organisms that grow on them) provide shelter and food for fish, crustaceans, shellfish marine mammals, like our friends the manatees, and birds.

A single acre of seagrass can produce over 10 tons of leaves per year, providing food, habitat, and nursery areas, supporting as many as 40,000 fish, and 50 million small invertebrates (http://www.sms.si.edu/IRLspec/Seagrass_Habitat.htm).

Seagrass is recognized as an important indicator of water quality and the health of coastal ecosystems. It helps maintain water clarity by trapping fine sediments and particles and stabilizing the ocean the bottom.

Worldwide, there are 60 species of seagrass. Seven of those varieties grow in 2.7 million acres of seagrass meadows along Florida's extensive coastline, protected bays and lagoons.

Turtle grass, manatee grass, and shoal grass are the most common types of seagrass in the Keys.

The bad news is that seagrass are disappearing at an alarming rate from coastal development, climate change, pollution, harvesting and vessel damage.

Damaging seagrass with a boat’s propeller fragments the grass, creates barren areas and restricts the movement of marine wildlife.

If only leaves are damaged, seagrass can recover in a few weeks. But more extensive damage to the plant can lead to a recovery period of over seven years, if at all.

Because seagrass is so intertwined with the sea’s hard bottoms and coral, damaging seagrass has a negative effect on the coral reef.

Is seagrass really grass?

It turns out — no. Seagrass is a grass-like flowering plant that lives submerged in water. Most seagrasses have separate sexes and produce flowers and seeds, with embryos developing inside ovaries. They can also reproduce asexually by sending out shoots under the sediment.

Unlike land plants, seagrasses do not have supportive stems and remain flexible in the actions of waves and currents.

The depth at which seagrass grows is controlled by water clarity, which determines the amount of light reaching the plant. Sufficient light is required for the plants to grow and make food through photosynthesis (a process to convert light energy into chemical energy stored in carbohydrate molecules such as sugars).

Seagrass also uses carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen, which is good for the ocean, you and me.

If you are a diver it can be interesting to move off the reef above a bed of seagrass, especially on night dives. Many fish that find shelter on the reef during the day swim to the seagrass at night to feed.

Day visitors to grass beds include nurse sharks and southern stingrays.

Besides fish, who needs seagrass? Seems reptiles, birds and mammals do.

The American crocodile, which lives in the shallow waters of Florida Bay and the northern Florida Keys, is known to feed in sea grass beds.

The main food of the green sea turtle is turtle grass.

The Great White Heron, with a very small distribution that is restricted to Florida Bay and the Florida Keys, has undergone a substantial decline. This probably is due to decreasing fish availability, in turn is tied to losses of sea grass beds.

Manatees feed on seagrass and bottlenose dolphins go to the shallow depths of the grass beds to find prey.

“To give seagrasses a chance, we gotta take a stance. It’s up to you to choose; Or, we’ll be singing the bluegrass carbon blues.” (For full credits and to listen to song go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8KOOd9uzTE)

March is “Seagrass Awareness Month.” Preserving Florida's seagrass is critical to protecting marine life, water quality and Florida’s ocean-based economy.

Learn more about seagrass at: www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/habitats/seagrass/

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Tracking the epic journey of sea turtles

13 March 2015, Royal Gazette (Bermuda)

New data about Bermuda’s sea turtles, including research tracing the journey of young animals from Bermuda to foreign shores, is to be presented at an upcoming talk.

Bermuda Turtle Project co-ordinator Jennifer Gray will host the talk at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute on March 26.

She told The Royal Gazette: “The talk will cover the amazing history of sea turtle research and how it has influenced the region. I’ll be including all the new discoveries we have found through high tech tools. We have had our first recorded cases of sea turtles that grew up in Bermuda successfully reaching a nesting beach overseas and reproducing. I think there has only been one previous case of a turtle being followed from its immature status to a successful reproducing.”

The Bermuda Turtle Project is a partnership with Bermuda Zoological Society, Atlantic Conservation Partnership, Department of Conservation Services, Sea Turtle Conservancy and Chevron.

Ms Gray’s illustrated talk will include details about the project’s efforts in educating other countries to come up to the same standards of conservation that Bermuda has.

“We are teaching students, resource managers and conservation managers in other countries who share this resource with us.

“One thing Bermuda can be very proud of it is how we are sharing our knowledge and building the ability of these managers in other parts of the region to either engage in similar scientific research or influence positive policy and political change that leads to better conservation overseas.

“Every year we invite people from overseas as part of the project.”

There will be some information about the Critter Cams used on BAMZ turtles by the Sea Grass Group at Conservation Services.

“The two scientific projects dovetailed beautifully because their group studies the habitat and we study the turtles and there is a lot of overlap.”

Ms Gray said that Bermuda’s turtle population is among the healthiest in the world.

“We have an extremely healthy population.

“We see none of the diseases you see in other populations — they are robust and their habitat is relatively healthy. We are still taking in injured animals from human activity, plastics, entanglement, and boat collisions but generally speaking it is one of the best places to be in the world if you are a sea turtle.”

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Shifting theories

12 March 2015, Whyalla News (Australia)

A resident has rejected the prevailing theory that the marina breakwater barrier is the major cause of the flattening of the foreshore.

Graham Butt said contrary to what many believe, this structure actually helped to build sand up because of the south to north littoral sand drift. Mr Butt said although he was not a hydrologist, he had an alternative hypothesis on why the beach was not naturally replenishing. Supporting a theory originally proposed by former Whyalla City Council manager infrastructure Mike Blyth, Mr Butt said an artificially generated seagrass bed had prevented sand drift. Mr Butt said the beach was regularly replenished by a south to north littoral sand drift near the mangroves in the early 1960s.

However, Mr Butt said SA Water's Engineering and Water Supply Department had established a sewage treatment plant in Whyalla in the mid '60s and nutrient-rich effluent was discharged via a tidal creek through the mangroves. This effluent had the effect of growing seagrass beds where there were none before which Mr Butt said impeded sand movement onto the beach with sand disappearing in the late '60s. A few years ago the Environmental Protection Agency recognised that the effluent was having a detrimental effect on the marine environment and instructed SA Water to dispose of the effluent on land.

Mr Butt said he had observed that the artificial seagrass had since broken up and sand seemed to be progressing towards the beach. Mr Butt said if this were the case, Mother Nature would replenish the beach at no cost to ratepayers.

Beach replenishment works at the cost of $56,000 are currently underway at the foreshore.

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High school students help UVI map seagrass

11 March 2015, Virgin Islands Daily News (Virgin Islands)

Virgin Islands Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy students use a quadrat Tuesday to catalog seagrasses in Secret Harbour off St. Thomas.(Photo Daily News AISHA-ZAKIYA BOYD )

About 25 high school students spent Tuesday morning at the beach doing a scientific study that could help research being conducted at the University of the Virgin Islands.

The students, all 11th and 12th graders at V.I. Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy, are taking a humanities and science class called "Environmental Systems and Societies" taught by the school's director, Gloria Zakers.

UVI Marine and Advisory Service coordinator Howard Forbes Jr. teamed up with Zakers to use the students to help gather data about seagrasses in the territory.

Zakers' students each came up with their own research question and developed a method to collect and record data to answer that question.

"So, today we were looking very specifically at an invasive species of seagrass," Zakers said. "They don't know what the impact of this invasive species might be."

The new species is Halophila stipulacea, and while it is smaller than the native seagrasses, it is taking over and pushing out the native species.

UVI Marine and Environmental Sciences graduate students Sam Mitchell and Jess Keller recently wrapped up a study of the invasive seagrass as a part of the capstone project for their degrees. Their study revealed evidence that local animals eat the invasive seagrass, but the rate of consumption is not sufficient to prevent its expansion.

However, not much is known about the new seagrass species, not even where is it found around the island, Forbes said.

UVI Environmental Data Manager Primack Avram worked with the Institute for Geocomputational Analysis and Statistics to develop a mapping software for the territory.

The students in Zakers' class will enter their findings into the mapping program. It will be the first step toward building a map of native and invasive seagrass beds in the territory, which could help future research projects at the university.

"Which helps us because we need the extra help to map all the areas," Forbes said.

Halophila stipulacea is native to the western Indian Ocean and is thought to have spread into the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas in ship ballasts.

The way the grass reproduces is through fragmentation. If a piece breaks off, it starts growing a new plant.

Forbes said this is believed to be the reason it is spreading so fast. Every time a boat drops anchor in the seagrass it damages the grass, breaks off pieces and spreads and starts to grow new colonies.

Native seagrasses buffer currents and surge and reduce beach erosion, and they also provide important food sources to endangered sea turtles.

By mapping the different species of seagrass, scientists will be able to answer questions about how fast the invasisve grass is growing, whether animals are eating it and whether it grows in the same place as native species.

"Which is all really useful information for us," Forbes said.

Zakers said her students found all three species of seagrass - two native and one invasive - at Secret Harbour on Tuesday.

"We don't really know what it means yet," she said. "But no data is bad data."

The mapping software uses satellite images of the islands.

"The kids will zoom in using GPS coordinates to map species and what they saw," Zakers said. "In theory, we would use this process for years to come. We would ultimately be able to track the growth patterns, try to find the impact the species might be having on one another."

Forbes said he wants other schools to work with the university to do their own field research and use the mapping software to continue to build the territory's seagrass map.

"Hopefully some of their data will be helpful," Zakers said. "There's not enough manpower to do the mapping, because it's tedious work."

"This is part of the civilian science initiative," Forbes said. "With citizen science, it's the collection of data with the community alongside scientific researchers."

He said there are two ways to use citizen science, a "top down" approach where a scientist dictates specific instructions to volunteers or a "bottom up" approach where the community comes up with ideas and collects their own data to give to the scientific community.

"Right now we're trying to find a balance between both aspects, and seeing what works the best," Forbes said

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Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park is on a mission to save our seabeds.

12 March 2015, Dorset Echo (UK)

Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park is on a mission to save our seabeds.

Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park is to turn the tide by taking part in a project to save our sea beds.

The Community Seagrass Initiative project covers a 191 mile stretch of the coastline from Looe in Cornwall to Weymouth.

The project has a plan to spend the next three years obtaining information about important habitats along the coastline to ensure that they are protected in the future by reducing disturbance. The project plans to do this by raising awareness through the use of data collections to advise policy makers on the current conditions of the habitats.

The aim of the initiative is to encourage and engage volunteers, be they sailors, kayakers, canoeists, divers and even internet users to help monitor the health and biodiversity of sea grass beds and to connect the coastal community.

Jessica Mead, CSI project officer for Weymouth at the Weymouth Sea Life Park said: “Being part of this project is hugely exciting, it’s a fantastic opportunity for the whole community to get involved and find out more about an extremely special habitat that’s right on their doorstep.

“We hope to work with as many people as possible over the three year project to enthuse and engage people with these vitally important but sensitive areas. We have a variety of tools in which to achieve this and will be discussing them in further detail at our official launch party at Weymouth Sea Life Park on March 19.”

To see how you can help you can contact to Jessica Mead at jessica.mead@national-aquarium.co.uk.

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Yes, it happened again!

10 March 2015, Daily Express (Malaysia)

Turtle carcasses on Pulau Tiga

There was yet another shock discovery of a "sea turtle killing field' with 19 "Totally Protected" Green turtles found massacred behind a beach in Pulau Tiga , on the northern side of the Balambangan-Banggi Channel near Pulau Banggi, Monday, about three hours by boat northwest of Kudat.

Whistle blower Dr James Alin said a repeat of a pattern of deliberate sea turtle hunting and killing on the same island where some 50-60 turtles were butchered in March 2014, says only one thing: No lesson learnt as the enforcement agencies had failed yet again".

Dr James said he found the failed lesson hard to swallow even though the big shocker last year hit maximum front-page headlines in the local dailies followed by a series feature articles highlighting the Balambangan-Banggi Channel as most likely the crime scene because the Channel is a regular sea turtle migratory route while Pulau Tiga's robust seagrass beds attract female turtles to forage and nest .

"This means field information on both the whereabouts of turtle presence and the seasons of their escalated presence are predictable to enforcement authorities to set ambush to nab these environmental criminals," Dr James opined.

"After all, the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1998 provides mandatory jail terms for violators who capture and kill Totally Protected Species of which Green and Hawksbill turtles are two god examples," he said.

In the case of Pulau Tiga where such mass slaughters of turtles have been repeated, the authorities need only go to the field as he has done to talk to a tiny clan of land owners who would easily confirm that a history of turtle egg collection and turtle hunting are both facts, Dr James said.

Shell shock: Rangers taking photographs of the turtle carcasses on Pulau Tiga. (Photo Thestar.com)

"All three groups of eye-witness accounts I met since last Christmas point to deliberate poaching," he said. "The first group comprised about five to six fishermen from Balambangan and Banggi who went to Pulau Tiga last December on the second day of Christmas 2014 – usually when the lowest tide of the year occurs and therefore the best time to walk around to collect sea cucumbers ," Dr James noted.

"Like sea turtles and dugongs or even abalone, sea cucumbers thrive on seagrass," Dr James noted.

"So it's the habit of these Balambangan and Banggi fishermen to head for Pulau Tiga two or three days before and after Christmas each year," he said.

"While there, they saw people casting turtle nets among the seagrass areas and while taking breaks ashore they saw these turtle hunters processing and cutting up turtles on the island," Dr James said.

"In January, I visited Kg Mengubau, Pitas, another group of about five fishermen also reported seeing turtle hunters casting turtle nets off Pulau Tiga. They also told me they saw the same turtle looting in 2014," Dr James said.

"My latest trip to Kg Mengubau, Pitas, was just one week ago and the villagers explained to me the kind of turtle nets these hunters use and what time of the year they actively hunt and kill turtles,"Dr James said.

"Descendants of a the small band of land owners told me that turtles actually lay eggs year round in Pulau Tiga but more turtles land to lay eggs in November and mid January," Dr James said.

"Those are times when they say they can see female turtles foraging among the seagrass in shallow water sand therefore these are likely the females which also go ashore to lay eggs at night and they are likely the easy preys for the criminals ," Dr James said.

These land owners once maintained a small settlement on Pulau Tiga, but after being repeatedly raided and robbed (pirates? kidnappers? ), they has abandoned their homes, except some graveyards of their ancestors.

But weather is definitely affect turtle presence in Pulau Tiga, Dr James said.

" Female turtles don't like heavy rains," he said.

"So, if you look at nesting, usually the monsoons, that is, December to February , heavy rains batter the area and usually turtles do not nest when it rains and rains continuously but when the rains stop in between , for example, in mid January , they start coming up to lay eggs, " Dr James provide some useful details of the behaviour of turtles in the troubled area.

All these are helpful basic information for the vanguards of wildlife to work out a strategy and tactic to halt the alarming slaughter once and for all of a deep and certainly lucrative tourism attraction before they are decimated by these environmental criminals.

Dr Sen Nathan, Assistant Director of Wildlife Dept-cum Chief Veterinarian, said regular patrols are carried out under the sea zone which comes directly under Esscom.

"Bear in mind the area is more than 1m hectares or 10,000 km and Sabah Wildlife Dept does not have the assets or resources to cover that big an area without help of MMEA and Marine police," he said.

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Great Barrier Reef in dire straits without extra $500m and ban on dumping

10 March 2015, The Guardian (Australia)

The Great Barrier Reef risks being officially listed as “in danger” unless Australia provides greater funding to reduce pollution and widens a ban on dumping sediment into the reef’s waters, environment groups have told the UN.

In a joint submission to Unesco’s world heritage committee, the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Marine Conservation Society claim that key concerns over the fading health of the reef are still not being addressed.

The groups call for an additional $500m to prevent chemicals from farmed land flowing on to the reef and better resourcing of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority so it can become a “true champion of the reef”.

The submission also urges the Australian government to ban dumping of dredged seabed material into the reef’s world heritage area. The federal government has committed to banning dumping, but only in the reef’s marine park, which does not include the port areas adjacent to the coral ecosystem.

The world heritage committee will meet in Germany in June to decide whether the reef, which has lost half its coral cover in the past 30 years, should be listed as “in danger”.

“If we lost 50% of the Taj Mahal there would be no question it would be on the world heritage in danger list, but when things are underwater they are less visible and less immediate,” said Richard Leck, a Great Barrier Reef campaigner at WWF.

“There is a strong case for listing the reef in danger but there is also a good chance it can be avoided if the federal government steps up its commitments. I’d say it’s too close to call at this stage.”

Leck, who travelled to France to deliver the submission, said there was “concern and shock” within Unesco at the decline of the reef.

“It’s one thing to present a plan to Unesco, it’s another thing to invest in it and make sure it’s implemented,” he said. “It won’t be successful unless you have that investment and the committee members understand that.”

Unesco has previously raised concern over port development alongside the reef, as well as dumped dredged spoil, which can smother and damage corals and sea grasses.

The latest government outlook for the reef, published last year, warns the condition of the world heritage-listed site is “poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future”.

The reef is facing a range of threats, with climate change posing the greatest long-term risk. Pollution, cyclones and a plague of coral-eating starfish are also placing strain on the reef.

The federal government has a number of programs to aid the reef, such as the $40m Reef Trust, but WWF warned that without much greater funding, the ecosystem was at risk of being listed as in danger.

The Australian government has deployed a “whole of government” approach to lobbying the 21 countries that provide members to the world heritage committee, to help avoid the embarrassment of an in-danger listing.

A taskforce has been set up to coordinate the lobbying effort, and journalists from world heritage committee member countries have been invited on an all-expenses paid trip to the reef to report conservation efforts.

A spokesman for Greg Hunt, the federal environment minister, said more than $2bn would be spent on the reef over the next decade.


“This is a significant investment and it’s on top of the $2.55bn we’re spending to tackle climate change – one of the major long-term threats to the reef,” he said.


“Our Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan sets a framework for investment and actions to protect the reef, and we’ll continue to work with Queensland and the community to ensure the funding is directed where it is needed.”

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'Brunei Bay can be safe haven for sea turtles'

09 March 2015, AsiaOne

Brunei has the potential to develop its own sea turtle sanctuary at Brunei Bay as part of its ecotourism industry, said a biologist from University Malaysia Terengganu (UMT).

In a recent interview with The Brunei Times, Dr Juanita Joseph said that the Brunei Bay, which spans an area of 250,000 acres, is a mega seaweed farm site for sea turtles and other marine life.

Dr Juanita said it could potentially lure tourists and marine enthusiasts from other countries, and that the Sultanate could emulate the Labuan Marine Park in malaysia by introducing tour package deals to watch sea turtles nesting and hatching there.

The biologist was speaking during a recent sea turtles biology and conservation workshop organised by the Wildlife Division.

Asked how the country can turn Brunei Bay into an ecotourism destination, Dr Juanita said that it has to be a "controlled tourism".

She urged Brunei to conduct scientific studies by getting expert advice from other countries.

"If Brunei wants to do ecotourism, it needs to get advice from the experts. If not controlled, it could damage the surrounding environment," she said.

"For example, during the start of the leatherback turtle ecotourism in Terengganu, they don't know that turtles are sensitive to lights. What happened next was that it disrupted the ecosystem of the sea turtles in the island.

"Brunei is new to marine… I urge Brunei to set rules and regulations, such as no flash photography during a turtle watching programme," she added.

Dr Juanita said that at Sabah's Turtle Islands, the government has turned one of the islands into a tourist attraction where tourists are charged to watch the turtles in the area. "In order to not disrupt the habitat, the numbers of tourists are limited to less than 60 people. They are charged around $2,000 per night as they are guaranteed to watch the nesting of the turtles," she said.

For the industry to thrive in Brunei, she said that that the country could encourage the locals to become tour operators.

Dr Juanita shared her recent experience in a boat ride to Tanjong Pelumpong at Brunei Bay, where she witnessed a group of Irrawadi Dolphins. "Tourists would pay a lot of money to watch these dophins," she added.

Tourists could also dive in the Brunei Bay to experience the marine life and environment during low tides, said the biologists.

Dr Juanita said that sea turtles are an indicator of a healthy ocean. "Green turtles eat sea grass and hawksbill turtles eat coral reefs. They become the fertiliser of the ocean bed to ensure fishes are able to lay eggs and as food for other predators.

"If there are a lot of sea turtles, it means the ecosystem is healthy. If there are less sea turtle, the food habitat is poor which lead to the declining number of seafood products," she said.

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Mass fish deaths off Singapore coast spark concern

06 March 2015, BBC News Asia (Singapore)

Photo: Frank Tan

Last Sunday morning, Bryan Ang woke up onboard his floating fish farm on the Johor Strait between Malaysia and Singapore to find nearly all his stock had died.

"We woke up and saw all the fish floating belly-up," he said. "It's devastating."

He was not alone. Hundreds of tonnes of fish - both farmed and wild - died over the weekend in the eastern part of the strait. Fish farmers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock overnight.

Floating out at sea and washing up on the beaches and mangroves, dead sea creatures began to appear, from sea snakes and seahorses to squid and moray eel.

Nature guide and environmental biology student Sean Yap - who supplied some of these pictures to the BBC - said he was jogging along the eastern Pasir Ris beach on Saturday evening when he smelt a foul stench.

It came from what he described as a "mass grave" - thousands of dead fish washed up on shore.

"There were cleaners present on the shore on Sunday morning to deal with the carcasses, but when we returned at night the high tide had brought in a new batch of bodies."

Photo: Sean Yap

The environmental authorities said the deaths were due to a plankton bloom, where a species of plankton multiplies rapidly, damaging the gills of fish. It can be triggered by sudden changes in temperature, high nutrient levels in the water, and poor water circulation.

Government agencies were unable to provide the BBC with figures, but said they were "concerned" about the potential impact on marine biodiversity and were taking steps to investigate and help farmers clean up.

Mr Yap said he found it alarming that even species such as catfish and burrowing gobies, which are considered to be more resilient, were found dead. The deaths of "invertebrates like worms is also alarming, as it may mean that the base of the food chain is affected," he said.

There have been similar mass fish deaths in the past five years. This time round, the authorities had given an early warning to farmers - giving them time to move their stock into protective nets, activate pumps to keep the water moving or even float their entire farm to safer areas.

Some managed to save their stock, but few had anticipated the intensity of the plankton bloom nor how quickly it would strike, killing the fish en masse within hours.

Several fish farmers told the BBC that rapid development in the western part of the strait in Johor, the Malaysian state closest to Singapore, was one of the factors affecting the water quality.

Photo: Frank Tan

"The plankton bloomed this fast because the nutrient content in the sea is so high. And where are all these nutrients coming from? Land reclamation in Malaysia," said Frank Tan.

But tiny Singapore has also reclaimed parts of its northern coast, and dammed up estuaries in the northeast to create reservoirs. It has pumped millions of dollars into the fish farming industry to boost its domestic food security.

Latest government figures show there are now 117 fish farms in waters surrounding the island, spread out over 102ha - twice the amount of space compared to a decade ago.

Dr Lim Po Teen, a marine scientist with the University of Malaya, said climate change was in part to blame for the blooms, by affecting temperatures and weather patterns.

"But on a local level, you can see the number of farms increasing in the last few years", he said, which is directly increasing the level of nutrients in the water from fish food and waste.

"We need to have very strict controls and improve the water circulation."

Some of the farmers reeling from the loss of their stock were considering moving away altogether to less troubled waters.

"This weekend's incident was the worst I'd ever seen. Everyone is horrified." said Mr Tan. "We may have to relocate now." He said he was eyeing spots to the south of Singapore.

But many of the farmers were hoping to get through the year by restocking with new fry and selling what little they could save of their remaining stock. Said Mr Ang: "We are trying to explain to people that our fish is still edible. We just need to regain people's trust."

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Illegal drift nets killing Abu Dhabi's dugongs

04 March 2015, The National (Abu Dhabi)

 

Two of 111 dugongs whose deaths have been caused by fishing nets since 2000. And the rate is rising, with nets accounting for 85 per cent of deaths among the emirate’s dugongs in the past five years. The environment agency is working to change all that.

Fishing nets are the leading cause of dugong deaths in Abu Dhabi’s coastal waters, scientists have said.

Since 2000, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) has investigated 153 dugong deaths.

Of these, 111, or 72.5 per cent, were caused by drowning after the mammal was caught up in nets.

If data from the past five years is reviewed, fishing nets contributed to 85 per cent of deaths.

The creatures feed on sea grass and are protected under federal law, meaning targeting them directly or unintentionally can lead to heavy fines.

While EAD scientists have no doubt the data is reliable when it comes to highlighting the main threat to Abu Dhabi’s population of the endangered animals, the numbers could in reality be higher.

“Globally, usually 50 to 60 per cent of marine mammal mortality incidents are reported,” said Dr Himansu Das, unit head for marine threatened species and habitats at EAD’s terrestrial and marine biodiversity sector.

While it is not possible to record all deaths, it is clear that “the rate of dugongs dying in fishing nets has increased”, he said.

“That means, in the past five years, the fishing effort has increased, or the use of illegal fishing nets [has increased],” said Dr Das.

Most of the fatalities were reported between November and March when increased numbers of dugongs congregate off the shallow coastal waters of Abu Dhabi and when there is also heightened fishing activity.

A type of drift net, known as hiyali, was identified by the EAD as the cause of the deaths.

These nets, which reach in length from 500 metres to a kilometre, are used illegally by fishermen to catch king fish.

They are deployed at locations with a maximum depth of 10 metres and left to drift. Fishermen return to collect nets based on calculations about currents.

The estimates are often wrong and the nets are lost, posing a risk to marine wildlife.

As they have poor eyesight, dugongs are very vulnerable, said Dr Das.

EAD has conducted informal interviews with fishermen as part of its study and found that the majority were aware of the laws prohibiting the use of illegal nets and the protected status of dugongs.

Yet many continue to rely on this lucrative method of fishing, the agency said.

Last year, EAD carried out workshops in the Western Region and is planning on continuing its efforts to ensure existing fishing regulations are implemented, as well as necessary marine clean-ups, Dr Das said.

The agency is also planning to increase aerial surveys outside marine protected areas where the dugong population is “very healthy,” said Dr Das.

“Most of this mortality happens outside protected areas,” said Dr Das, who explained that 20 per cent of aerial monitoring was in waters with no special protection status.

The UAE is one of 26 signatories of a United Nations-backed global programme to conserve dugongs in the 40 states where they live.

Dr Donna Kwan, the initiative’s programme officer, said that human-related activities, particularly use of fishing gear, were the main cause of dugong deaths around the world.

“The UAE is the only country other than Australia that has historical datasets relating to mortality,” she said.

“The UAE has all the right tools in place.

“The question is why, despite these measures, dugong mortality continues?”

The National approached the Abu Dhabi Fishermen Cooperative Society but was unable to obtain comments.

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Reef plan changes but Abbot Point future still unknown

05 March 2015, Toowoomba Chronicle (Australia)

THE State Government is making changes to a long-term Great Barrier Reef plan but it is still yet to announce whether the Abbot Point expansion project should go ahead.

Yesterday the Labor Government issued a statement saying it had asked the Federal Government's support on changing the reef's 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan before it is handed over to the World Heritage Committee.

Some of these changes include banning the dumping of dredge spoil in the World Heritage area, establishing a taskforce to reduce nitrogen run-off by 80% and reinstating coastal planning laws.

A spokesman for Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the government had accepted these changes and that the plan would be amended before it was handed to the World Heritage Committee soon.

But the spokesman confirmed they were still waiting to hear about the Labor Government's intensions regarding the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion.

The deadline for the decision on whether or not the expansion will go ahead has been extended until April 30.

"This was a Queensland Labor project," Minister Hunt's spokesman said.

"It's now up to the new Labor government to determine how they wish to proceed."

He said the Federal Environment Department had written to Queensland officials seeking advice on how the State Government wished to proceed.

During the election campaign, the now Treasurer Curtis Pitt said Labor was not opposed to the expansion.

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt's spokesman said both governments were working together to protect the reef as part of the long-term plan.

But changes to the reef's long-term plan have not impressed The Greens, with Senator Larissa Waters saying the changes contained glaring omissions.

She said the plan needed to acknowledge that climate change was the reef's biggest threat and that allowing mines to export through the reef put it under more stress.

"Before the long-term plan goes to the World Heritage Committee, these gaps need to be urgently fixed in order to save the reef from an in-danger listing," Senator Waters said.

Queensland Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg said when Labor was in power between 2009 and 2012 it proposed to dump 40 million cubic metres of dredge spoil on the reef before the LNP reduced it to four million.

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Underwater plants, critical to maintaining a healthy environment, face multiple threats

04 March 2015, Florida Weekly (USA)

Seagrass probably isn’t what you think it is.

It is not the smelly, slimy stuff that clings to your leg as you emerge from a swim in the gulf or washes up on the sand and gets even smellier as it decomposes. That’s seaweed — marine macro algae, plantlike organisms, which are not true plants because they didn’t evolve from land plants.

Seagrass is a plant that lives underwater, has roots, flowers, seeds and pollen, and provides vegetation and habitat. It enhances an environment that otherwise would be unproductive sand and can live where nutrients are scarce. Where there is an excess of nutrients from pollution — like runoff from fertilizers and farms or from sewage and septic tanks — seaweed takes over for seagrass.

Seagrasses are extremely important indicators of the health of an ecosystem. They help maintain water clarity by trapping fine sediments and particles. They provide shelter for fish and crustaceans. And they serve as food (along with the organisms that grow on them) for marine animals and water birds.

And they’re being threatened in Southwest Florida, which is why James Douglass, an assistant professor in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences, is spending a great deal of time and energy investigating them.

Mr. Douglass is studying seagrasses in the Caloosahatchee and Matlacha estuaries aided by technician Christina Kennedy, graduate students Shannan McAskill and Thomas Behlmer, and undergraduate interns Spencer Hilbert, Alexandra Rodriguez, Stephanie D’Orazio, Manuel Coffill, Andrew Eiseman, Lisa Rickards and Rachel Margalus.

“We care about seagrasses because they help clean the water and they take nutrients out of the water, and as long as there are not too many nutrients, the seagrasses can deal with them,” Mr. Douglass says. “They can also take sediments out of the water, just like a brush or comb can scrub. Just like a filter takes dust out of the air in your house, seagrasses take dirt and dust out of the water.”

They also perform the vital task of removing carbon dioxide from the water, storing it in their roots and leaves.

“So it’s sort of the reverse of what we usually do,” Mr. Douglass says, “which is take petroleum out of the ground and burn it and put carbon dioxide in the air.”

So, in other words, seagrasses help combat global warming?

“Yes,” he says. “Because seagrasses absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, they can partially offset the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby reducing global warming. Of course, when an existing seagrass bed dies, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and worsens climate change. So we need to protect the seagrass beds we still have as well as to restore the seagrass beds that were lost to human impacts in the past.”

There are believed to be about 52 species of seagrasses worldwide, but only seven are found in Florida’s marine waters, and they’re declining for a variety of reasons: worsening water quality; direct physical disturbance, such as scars from motorboats or dredging; climate change; and changes in the food chain.

“Salinity (the salt content of the water) is a really big issue around here because it’s affected so much by releases of water from Lake Okeechobee,” Mr. Douglass says. “Salinity is not staying constant even in one particular spot of the estuaries. It’s going up and down from the wet season to the dry season. When we release water, it gets fresh, and when we hold back water, it gets much saltier than it’s supposed to be. This is what I call the ‘Rainbow of Death.’ There is no variety of seagrass that can deal with such a wide variation.

“The ‘Rainbow of Death’ is because of the way we’ve managed or changed the water flow. It used to flow from up around Orlando and the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee and then gradually through the Everglades into Florida Bay. This was a gradual flow and not such a drastic change from the wet and dry season because the wetlands would sponge up the flow and release it gradually, but now that we have all these canals and dams, we’ve sent a lot of water from Lake Okeechobee out through the Caloosahatchee Estuary, and that’s really messed up the ecology.”

Mr. Douglass’ research has analyzed salinity conditions and the amount of seagrass at various places along the estuary.

On a late-October morning under a cloudless, azure sky, Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Hilbert took a 16-foot skiff into the water. They threw into the four-feetdeep water a “quadrat” — pieces of PVC pipe with string in a grid of 25 squares, each measuring 20cm by 20cm. Then they put on snorkels and counted the seagrasses in about 25 areas of two distinct sections.

“I like the ecological aspects of seagrass,” Ms. Kennedy says. “It’s so important. It’s a good indicator of the ecosystem’s health. If seagrass is doing badly, then the water quality is probably fairly poor, because seagrass needs fairly good quality to survive.”

The results so far?

“In the upper estuary, we’ve lost a lot of freshwater seagrass species, so we have an unpleasant bottom that is mostly barren and there’s not a lot of food for manatees, and the few blades of freshwater grass are sparse and short,” Mr. Douglass says. “In the middle estuary, the water is very murky and seagrass is sparse. In the lower estuary, there’s a lot of seagrass, but it’s covered with a lot of algae, probably because of excess nutrients coming from Lake Okeechobee. We can’t entirely blame Lake Okeechobee because there are a lot of nutrients in the water from Fort Myers and Cape Coral.”

He recently presented his results to a meeting of scientists and managers working on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and recommended that to stop killing seagrass in the Caloosahatchee

Estuary, water managers should do whatever is necessary to control freshwater releases from the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Olga.

Mr. Douglass is finishing up his work for the South Florida Water Management District — the main agency running the Everglades restoration plan — which provided two grants of $50,000 for one year. Lee County is supporting him through next summer at $28,000 a year as he does a baseline survey of seagrasses in Matlacha Pass.

“I’m looking for new funding sources,” he says. “I’d like to do something to address boat propeller scars in Estero Bay. Funding is difficult. You just have to continue to be productive, get papers published and do the right kind of networking to look for new funding sources. Today, Lee County. Tomorrow, the National Science Foundation.”

Mr. Douglass and his students have already gained the respect of members of the FGCU community.

Last year, the Repertory and Performance class led by Lynn Neuman was interested in staging a production for National Water Dances Day. After Mr. Douglass spoke to the class, the students chose to call the production “Monami” – Japanese for “grass waves.” Mr. Douglass was astonished when he saw the performance at the Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center.

“They ended up with this really nice dance, all inspired by seagrass and the conservation of seagrass,” he says. “It was very artistic. Not that I had a great role in it, but that was one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to do with seagrass studies, because we crossed over.”

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Cane growers beginning to see results from trials aimed at improving water quality of runoff to the Great Barrier Reef

04 March 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

Cane growers in Queensland are making progress improving the water quality running off their properties to the Great Barrier Reef, but say there are still challenges ahead.

CEO of land management agency Reef Catchments, Rob Cocco said he would like to see wider uptake of sustainable practices by cane farmers.

"The project started in 2009 with 15 growers, only in the Mackay region and we're now basically from Sarina to Mossman, with nearly 80 growers actively participating," he said.

"We've been able to calibrate the water quality improvements derived from a number of those innovations and they show a significant improvement.

"I think the challenge of the project now is how do we transition those key learnings into support from mainstream industry?"

Mr Cocco spoke at the Project Catalyst forum in Townsville, that brought cane growers, conservationists and researchers together, showcasing work done by the project to improve farming practices.

Eton North cane grower Phil Deguara has been participating in the project for three years.

A trial under way on his property is testing the effectiveness of applying different levels of nitrogen to areas of varying sodic levels.

The soil is more sodic at one end of the trial site than the other and the cane is clearly healthier at the less sodic end.

In the sections with high sodic levels, the trial is starting to show applying a standard base load of nitrogen provides a benefit, but adding extra nitrogen provides no extra cane growth, as the plant cannot absorb it.

On the other hand, in areas with low sodic levels, adding extra nitrogen does provide extra cane growth.

The findings of the trial will help Mr Deguara, and other cane growers, determine the right amount of nitrogen to apply at different points of the farm and avoid having the extra nitrogen run off the property.

Mr Deguara said the new knowledge will allow him to use 10 tonnes less urea fertiliser per year, saving him $6,000.

"We need to be efficient in our nitrogen use," he said.

"With the Great Barrier Reef and water quality becoming a bigger issue and I think we have just got to try and use our nitrogen better.

"If there are areas we could cut it down, we should.

"But in saying that, there are probably areas we could increase it and get a better yield (without affecting the environment.)"

Another cane grower in the Mackay region hosting Project Catalyst trials is Tony Bugeja.

On his property in Palmyra, near Mackay, Mr Bugeja is participating in a trial to test the effectiveness of different types of organic carbon.

"We're looking at different ways of fertilising," he said.

"We are looking at strip trials of soy bean, strip trials of bare fallow, strips of ash, strips of mud and variable rates of nitrogen across the paddock."

Mr Bugeja said Project Catalyst was proving a success.

"I reckon it's great," he said

"We were one of the original 19 farmers to get involved in Project Catalyst.

"And to get our message (about sustainable innovation) out to the wider community is a big bonus."


New reef water quality targets ambitious but "not impossible"

While the new Labor Government has set ambitious targets relating to future farm water run-off, Mr Cocco said he was hopeful the sugar industry would step-up and meet the challenge.

"I suppose time will tell," he said.

"I guess we are still evaluating a number of our processes, so we won't say anything is impossible, but I suppose we're a bit grounded on the reality in terms of knowing what the science will allow us to do.

"So on one hand I suppose we're saying there are some significant challenges ahead to try and reach those targets.

"We're not going to kid ourselves that everyone can achieve those targets.

"But at the same time we are up for the challenge in terms of basically saying 'How do we turn over every stone to ensure that we're trying our best in terms of trying to get close to that."

Mr Cocco said adequate funding will be critical in meeting the new targets.

"I think ensuring that we have a base level of investment, which can export extension frameworks and capacity building within the rural population is a key one," he said.

"The Queensland regional bodies have put together a recent submission which has been upwards of $750 million over the next five years, not just for rural, but across everything from coastal development to riparian systems and repair.

"We're not necessarily saying it has to be that amount, but I think it is based on some reasonable science which suggests it's a significant level of investment that's required if we are going to get close to that 80 per cent target."

Mr Bugeja and Mr Deguara both echoed Canegrowers Queensland's criticism of the new target, saying it was a return to over-regulation and policing, rather than cooperation.

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Swift action to protect the Great Barrier Reef

04 March 2015, My Sunshine Coast (Australia)

The Palaszczuk Government has moved to update a key plan for the Great Barrier Reef to reflect its proactive approach to protecting the Reef and address UNESCO’s concerns about the protection of the state’s single biggest natural asset.

Minister for the Great Barrier Reef Dr Steven Miles said the new government had already acted to stop retrograde changes the LNP Government planned to the state’s Water Act that would have adversely impacted the Great Barrier Reef.

“The Premier has made it clear she wants our government to be the one that puts the future of our Great Barrier Reef beyond doubt,” Dr Miles said.

“In the election campaign we released several policy initiatives to give added protections to our Reef that recognised it is not only a massive natural attraction, but it also generates 60,000 jobs and contributes $6 billion a year to our economy.

"The new government has underlined the priority it places on protecting the future of our Reef by taking action that will hopefully avoid UNESCO applying a ‘World Heritage in danger’ listing to our Great Barrier Reef.”

Dr Miles said the state government has sought federal government support to amend the draft Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan to reflect the Palaszczuk Government’s commitments to protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

“Preparation of the 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan began in March 2014 in conjunction with the federal government and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and in consultation with a 13-member partnership group representing the agricultural, tourism, ports, local government, seafood, resources, and conservation sectors,” he said.

“We want updates included in the final Plan to be lodged by early March for UNESCO’s consideration before it meets in Bonn, Germany in June to consider the status of the Reef’s listing.”

The amendments being sought would outline initiatives planned by the Palaszczuk Government including:

  • a ban on sea dumping of capital dredge spoil within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
  • convening a high-level taskforce with representatives from regional communities, conservation organisations, industry groups (including primary producers, tourism operators and local government) and leading scientists to determine the best possible approach to achieve an 80% reduction in nitrogen run-off and a 50% reduction in sediment run-off into the Great Barrier Reef by 2025
  • providing an additional $100 million over five years towards water quality initiatives, scientific research and helping businesses transition to better environmental practices in the primary production and fishing industries
  • implementing vegetation protection laws in consultation with landowners to minimise damaging run-off to the reef
  • reinstating coastal planning laws axed by the LNP Government
  • working with the Federal Government and the International Maritime Organisation to develop a new vessel class which will ensure bulk goods carriers travelling in the World Heritage area meet stringent safety codes
  • fighting to ensure the Abbott Government pays a fair share to help save the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Miles said the new government had acted swiftly to protect Queensland’s water resources and the Great Barrier Reef by stopping changes to the Water Act set in train by the LNP.

“We have already stopped the LNP’s plans to remove the requirement to use principles of ecologically sustainable development to manage water resources,” Dr Miles said.

“The LNP’s amendments will now not come into effect. Its proposed changes caused serious concern for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

“The hallmark of the LNP when it comes to our environment is a willingness to weaken protection and maximise unchecked environmental damage.

“That’s why the Palaszczuk Government has acted swiftly to reverse the impending damage and, in doing so, we’ve shown we are serious about protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

“If these changes weren’t stopped, the risk of the reef being listed as endangered by UNESCO would have dramatically increased.”

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Water managers struggle with invasive hydrilla

03 March 2015, Florida Today (USA)

Invasive hydrilla can clog up canals and structures in the Melbourne-Tillman Water Control District, increasing flood risks. (Photo: Dan Anderson, Melbourne Tillman Water Control District)

Hydrilla's roots run deep in Florida.

After a Gulf Coast aquarium dealer had the plant shipped from Sri Lanka in the early 1950s, the stringy nuisance has cost government agencies countless millions. Hydrilla grows up to two inches a day, clogging lakes, rivers and canals that flow to the Melbourne-Tillman (C-1) canal in Palm Bay. That, in turn, raises flood risks.

So Florida water managers spray upward of $15 million worth of herbicides annually to keep the invasive plant in check on public lands — with uncertain environmental consequences.

The Melbourne-Tillman Water Control District uses a slow-release herbicide called fluridone (brand name Sonar), spending about $120,000 annually to control hydrilla in 163 miles of canals in the 100 square-mile district. They plan to apply the herbicide again in the next few weeks.

But as government gears up to spend millions to dredge muck from Turkey Creek and the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), one longtime, avid river advocate is raising concerns that the herbicide might be killing seagrass at the mouth of the creek and fouling the lagoon with rotted, dead hydrilla and other plants.

"Why are we creating muck upstream from the Indian River Lagoon and letting it flow down into the IRL, while we spend millions of dollars to remove the muck from the IRL?" said John Mongioi, a longtime river advocate and Palm Bay resident.

Nobody knows whether fluridone is killing seagrass. Experts doubt it. But some scientists say the herbicide might be worth testing for in waters near seagrass. And recent concerns about the lagoon could lead to more environmentally friendly ways of handling hydrilla. Water managers want to limit how much dead, rotted hydrilla builds up as muck along canal bottoms. Plant ecologists say herbicide is the most practical, affordable way to control hydrilla and other nuisance water plants. But this die-hard plant defies simple solutions.

"It's so complex, all the facets of trying to control this stuff," said Dan Anderson, manager of the Melbourne-Tillman district. "There's just no quick fix."

Mongioi has been pushing the district to find a better way. He was chairman of Friends of Turkey Creek. The now-defunct volunteer group for a decade represented more than 200 homeowners along the creek and pushed for dredging the creek and other improvements to the lagoon.

Melbourne-Tillman district has used fluridone for years. The herbicide was first registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1986.

"Everything we do is according to the label," Anderson said of the district's fluridone use. "That label is our bible."

Hydrilla haven

Helping the lagoon unintentionally set the stage for hydrilla to thrive.

The invasive plant has grown worse in Melbourne-Tillman's canals since 2011, when a new dam structure went in as part of efforts to hold back nutrient-rich fresh water from flowing to the lagoon. That created a hydrilla haven.

"Now that we're holding the water back, it's like Miracle-Gro," Anderson said.

District officials — bolstered by scientists who study fluridone — say the herbicide is safe. The district must remove hydrilla to prevent the plant from clogging up canals and water control structures that provide flood control for some 80,000 people, district officials say. The district spends $1,100 an acre to treat hydrilla with the herbicide, Anderson said, so they are very careful not to over-use it.

"It's essentially nontoxic to wildlife — shrimp and invertebrates — because it inhibits the production of chlorophyll, and animals don't do chlorophyll," said William Haller, acting director of University of Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. He conducted some of the early tests on fluridone.

"It doesn't kill many other plants other than hydrilla," he added. "A lot of other native plants will survive the treatments."

Using the herbicide early in the spring minimizes muck, because it kills hydrilla while the plant is very small, he said.

Haller doubts any impacts to downstream seagrass, because the herbicide would be so diluted by the time it reaches seagrass.

Nonetheless, Anderson said the Melbourne-Tillman district is in discussions with state environmental officials about conducting water tests to see whether the herbicide remains at levels that might harm seagrass.

DDT-derivitaves and fireproofing chemicals found in lagoon sharks

Fluridone may be worth testing for, says John Windsor, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Florida Institute of Technology. But finding herbicide near seagrass is a far-cry from proving it's a problem.

"I understand the concern ... herbicide in a canal that runs to a place where seagrasses are dying," Windsor said. "It seems like it's a good thing to consider."

But he says tests could be expensive and yield no answers.

"It's something that people should be concerned about," he added. "But we have such a long list of concerns. If we had an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of money, we should be looking at all of it."

Meanwhile, the Melbourne-Tillman district hopes to team with Brevard County to harvest some hydrilla and other excess water weeds mechanically. Brevard plans to buy a small mechanical harvester with $118,000 state grant the county received last year.

Brevard asks to double lagoon funding

But Anderson said his district would need a much larger machine to make a significant dent in the district's hydrilla onslaught. Melbourne-Tillman hopes to buy its own larger mechanical harvester, which Anderson says would run about $250,000.

Melbourne-Tillman also hopes to partner more with the St. Johns River Water Management District to battle back hydrilla.

But Anderson says it would be too costly to harvest hydrilla throughout the entire 100 square-mile district.

Mechanical harvest is often impractical, especially in remote areas, says Gary Nichols, supervisor of the St. Johns River Water Management District's invasive plant program.

"Then you have to have an area to go dump it," Nichols said.

Bass like hydrilla for hiding places, but the plant has few natural enemies.

"A lot of waterfowl eat it," Nichols said. "Coots can decimate hydrilla."

Biologists once considered introducing manatees to eat back hydrilla in certain Florida springs, but they found sea cows wouldn't make enough of a dent in the plant to make it worthwile.

In some areas, hydrilla has grown resistant to fluridone.

"They call it Rambo hydrilla," Anderson said. "We haven't run into any resistance yet."

Some hydrilla relief may arrive later this year, when the St. Johns district completes the required structures to divert water from the C-1 to store it on thousands of acres west of the western end of Malabar Road. The reflooded marshes will help filter out the nutrients hydrilla feeds on.

Meanwhile, Mongioi watches canals along his Turkey Creek home turn to dead zones and wonders whether fluridone played a role.

"There ain't nothin' in the canal. There ain't a blade. It's dead," he said.

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Grassy Flats restoration project nearly complete

03 March 2015, Palm Beach Daily News

Grassy Flats diagram. Courtesy of Palm Beach County ERM.

A Palm Beach County sand placement project to cover muck and create cleaner water in the Lake Worth Lagoon will wrap up by early next week, according to the project manager.

The county Department of Environmental Resources Management and other state and federal environmental agencies began the Grassy Flats restoration project, adjacent to the Par 3 Golf Course, 15 months ago. The purpose of the $3.4 million project is to cover mud on the bottom of the lagoon with clean sand to create 10.5-acres of sea grass, salt marsh, mangrove, tidal flat and oyster habitat.

“The benefit of this is to reduce the mud and provide a nice clean sand bottom to allow sea grass to recruit,” project manager Eric Anderson said. “The water quality is already better in some areas.”

Anderson said workers brought in about 50,000 cubic yards of sand and are “broadcasting” it into the lagoon. Conveyor and broadcaster machines spray sand across the surface of the water, which provides a 12-15-inch layer above the 1-3 feet of mud. Once the muck is capped, water quality improves and the sand/muck layers become ideal for sea grass and shallow water habitat.

The two mangrove islands provide inter-tidal habitat and are underwater at high tide and above water at low tide. They’re surrounded by 2,758 tons of limestone rock that provides oyster reef habitat. The county plans to plant 2,900 mangroves and 25,000 plugs of smooth cord grass on the islands.

“We’re excited this methodology of capping muck to create inter-tidal habitat was very successful,” Anderson said. “We look forward to continuing these types of projects throughout the lagoon.”

He said the project should be complete by the end of this week or early next week. It originally was expected to finish in December.

Shallow water depth caused the delay by forcing workers to use an 800-foot conveyor system to spray sand to and around the islands, Anderson said. Also, the machine was only able to broadcast 400 tons a day instead of 500 tons, he said.

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Rare Dugong Is Sighted in Seychelles At Aldabra

02 March 2015, Seychelles News Agency

When travelling through the Seychelles archipelago of 115 islands, scattered throughout the warm, tropical waters of the western Indian Ocean, seafarers might consider themselves fortunate to witness a whale lumbering gracefully through the sea or a pod of dolphins frolicking in the waves.

But for a group of conservationists working in the remote far-flung atoll of Aldabra, located in the westernmost reaches of the archipelago, they were recently treated to an almost mythical sight - a dugong speeding playfully through the atoll's waters.

Around two hundred years ago, the dugong, otherwise known as the sea-cow, was a common sight throughout the Seychelles when the archipelago was first discovered by European explorers.

The rotund, peaceful creatures which primarily graze on seagrass were a common sight around the other islands in the archipelago, and the northernmost Bird Island was once known as Ile aux Vaches as testament to the large numbers of dugongs which gathered there to breed.

Sadly, the dugongs were hunted to extinction in the Seychelles by seafarers eager to exploit them for their meat and oil.

Since those days, the dugongs have not been back to the islands, but in 2001, dugongs were suddenly sighted around the wild, uninhabited western atoll of Aldabra, where up to 150,000 giant tortoises roam freely on the hard, sun-baked land.

The public trust which manages the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aldabra, the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), believes that the dugongs frequenting the atoll travelled north-west from Madagascar, which lies a scant 426 kilometres away.

Speaking to SNA via email, SIF communications officer Rowana Walton said that East Africa and Madagascar still have healthy dugong populations, but added that it was unknown whether the dugongs were permanently resident at Aldabra or if they migrate periodically between these areas.

"Aldabra provides a safe refuge for dugongs and has extensive seagrass beds where they can feed and reproduce," she said. "Dugongs may have been present and unrecorded on Aldabra for a long time but they seem to be increasing now."

Walton said researchers are still unsure why the notoriously shy dugongs had thus far failed to return to the other islands within the Seychelles archipelago, but said possible reasons could include a loss of natural habitat and disturbance.

"It is also possible that the Aldabra dugong population are part of a migratory group from another area and the inner Seychelles dugongs belonged to a different population, in which case a return to other islands from Seychelles is unlikely," she told SNA.

Even with this re-emerging population at Aldabra, which has a large calm central lagoon and outer reef area of 285 square kilometres, the density of dugongs is low.

"This means that the chances of people encountering dugong in this area are also limited," said Walton.

The dugongs are thought to feed in the numerous seagrass beds both in the lagoon and outside the atoll and have been sighted in both areas.

"There is still much to learn about the movements of this dugong population and we hope that future research may shed more light on where they forage and reproduce," she explained. "It is possible that they migrate long distances to other feeding areas hundreds of kilometres away."

Aerial survey and an action plan

In 2013, an aerial survey was undertaken by SIF to establish a population estimate for dugongs at Aldabra. After conducting several survey transects, a total of 14 to 20 dugongs were recorded, but sightings were never in excess of four individuals due to the dugong's nature.

"Dugongs are largely solitary animals and tend to be seen in groups on Aldabra only rarely and most often with mothers and calves or juveniles," said Walton.

The exact number of dugongs at Aldabra is hard to estimate and the SIF says that a more comprehensive survey of the atoll still needs to be undertaken to provide a more accurate estimate.

As far as the way forward for this extraordinary creature is concerned, Walton said that any action to protect dugongs needed to be collaborative regional efforts, due to the dugong's migratory nature and their larger populations in several countries around the Indian Ocean.

To this end, the SIF announced in March 2014 that it had become part of a recently approved multi-partner regional project, led by the Association for the Conservation and Protection of Dugongs and Marine Mammal Species, to research and conserve dugongs.

SIF's role in the project is to undertake surveys to assess the status of Aldabra's dugong population.

"The overall project marks an essential step forward in understanding the distribution and status of this endangered marine mammal in the region as well as identifying measures for its protection," said Walton. "The continuing protection of the Aldabra atoll and its valuable dugong habitats are also essential to secure the survival of these dugongs."

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Dugong found washed ashore

28 February 2015, The Hindu (India)

Remains:Carcass of the dugong that was washed ashore at Thalaithoppu in Ramanathapuram district.

The carcass of a two-year-old female Dugong was found washed ashore at Thalaithoppu, near Periyapattinam on Friday morning.

Forest officials said an area watcher who was on an anti-poaching mission on the shore found the carcass washed ashore with injury on its forehead. On being alerted, Range officer, accompanied by Dr. M. Mohamed Nizamudhin, Veterinary Assistant Surgeon, Valantharavai, inspected the carcass and burnt and buried it after post mortem.

Dr. Nizamudhin said the marine mammal, weighing 220 kg, could have died due to head injury and internal bleeding. It could have hit against a rock or a propeller, he said.

There was also an aberration in the abdomen, suggesting that it could have been attacked by Thirukkai fish with its poisonous sting but that could not have been the cause of death, he added.

Mr Ganesalingam said the Dugong measured 2.5 metres long with a circumference measuring 289 cm. Carcass of Dugong getting washed ashore in the Palk Bay was common and this was the first time in recent years, the carcass was found washed ashore in the Gulf of Mannar region, he said.

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South West conservation zones "applauded" in call for further action

24 February 2015, Western Morning News (UK)

Scientists have praised efforts to protect marine plant life in the South West in their campaign to secure “further urgent action” for ecosystems across the UK. Members of the organisation Project Seagrass “applauded” the Government for including seagrass meadows in two new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in the region. The researchers described the move as a “welcome” step towards preserving “critical” marine habitats for the future. And in their response to the Government’s latest round of MCZ proposals, the group has called for similar recognition to be extended to seagrass meadows around the nation’s coastline.

The letter to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), concerns plans for 23 new off-shore conservation sites, including sites at Mounts Bay, Land’s End, Newquay and Hartland Point. Since the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 came into force, 28 MCZs have been established in the UK, with the aim of conserving “rare, threatened and representative” habitats and species. The four Project Seagrass researchers commended the creation of an MCZ at Torbay and recommendations for further zones at Mount’s Bay in Cornwall and the Needles near the Isle of Wight – all of which cover seagrass habitat. But they have criticised the country’s wider “lack of recognition” of important seagrass ecosystems, and its “inadequate commitment” to seagrass conservation.

“Seagrass meadows play a significant role in supporting coastal biodiversity and fisheries productivity,” the group states. “But UK seagrass meadows are under extreme pressure. “As primary producers living in sheltered coastal waters, they are subjected to the problems associated with poor water quality and limited catchment management. “This is compounded by other physical stressors such as anchor damage, mooring damage, destructive fishing practices and coastal development. They conclude: “Whilst we applaud the inclusion of seagrass in two proposed MCZs… there exists sufficient scientific evidence for the long term protection of all seagrass meadows in the UK.”

Dr Richard Unsworth, who heads the project alongside Benjamin Jones, Richard Lilley and Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, warned that the UK had already lost “a large proportion” of its seagrass. “We cannot allow any more to be lost,” he added. He explained that the team had identified several key sites around the South coast which they hoped the Government would reconsider for MCZ designation. “These sites all contain extensive seagrass that is under threat and needs protection,” he said. Defra is due to begin consultations on the second round of MCZs in April.

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Trapped manatees rescued from Florida storm drain

24 February 2015, SMH (Australia)

 

About 20 Florida manatees were freed by early Tuesday morning from a storm drain near Cape Canaveral, where they were apparently trying to warm themselves, officials and local media said.

Video footage showed a rescuer comforting one manatee floating at the opening of the pipe, which was cut open during the hours-long rescue.

The footage, posted online by Central Florida News 13 and Florida Today newspaper, also showed a manatee being carried in a sling to a nearby canal, where it was released to cheers from onlookers, and two other manatees being petted after being hoisted out of the water by heavy machinery.

The rescue in Satellite Beach, a town on the Atlantic coast 24 kilometres south of Cape Canaveral, started mid-afternoon on Monday when Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, Ann Spellman, sounded the alarm, according to Florida Today.

She told the paper that her hunch led city workers to check the 30 to 45 metre-long drain pipe.

Manatees, also known as sea cows, often leave the Indian River Lagoon during cold snaps for warmer waters in the canals and had probably followed each other into the pipe, she said.

The rescue wrapped up at about 2am local time. Satellite Beach Fire Department Captain Jay Dragon said, with local police working alongside experts from SeaWorld.

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Turtles stayed put as Cyclone Marcia raged overhead: Researcher

23 February 2015, Brisbane Times (Australia)

Green turtles being tracked by James Cook University researchers stayed put as Cyclone Marcia passed overhead. (Photo: Supplied)

Turtles being monitored off the Central Queensland coast appeared blissfully unaware of the destructive force of Cyclone Marcia, a researcher says.

James Cook University lecturer Mark Hamann said flatback and green turtles had been tagged and monitored for months as part of research in to how they interacted with seagrass beds and their broader habitat.

But he said they barely moved as the Category 5 cyclone passed overhead.

"They basically just stayed there," Associate Professor Hamann said.

"Their environment might have been pretty messed up for about three hours but it all would have been fairly uneventful for them."

Associate Professor Hamann said while it was interesting to see how the turtles reacted to the cyclone, it was "kind of an accidental project" in the context of the broader research.

Research so far had found the turtle population had stayed in a small area for several months.

"They are living in a really small area really ... ranging from a couple of square kilometres up to 20 or 25 square kilometres.

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£500k project will ensure fragile Devon marine environment is protected

20 February 2015, Western Morning News (UK)

Seagrass meadow. (Photo Keith Hiscock)

A fragile marine environment which is home to seahorses and other creatures is to be the subject of a research project worth £475,000.

The National Marine Aquarium, in Plymouth, has appointed two project officers for its Community Seagrass Initiative which focuses on the conservation of seagrass and seahorses.
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Jessica Mead and Rachel Cole will be based in Weymouth and Torbay respectively, and will be responsible for recruiting volunteers to educate local communities and water users about seagrass meadows.

The project will cover the 191-mile stretch of coastline from Looe to Weymouth.

Everyone from school children, sailors, canoeists, divers and kayakers will be encouraged to help collect vital information to aid the mapping and surveying of seagrass meadows along the south coast.

The appointments follow £475,000 funding for the scheme that was received from the Heritage Lottery Fund last year for the three-year ‘citizen science project’ which will aim to find out more about seagrass and seahorses in the region and help to conserve fragile seagrass eco-systems.

Weymouth project officer Jessica Mead, a marine biology graduate, has volunteered on numerous marine conservation projects, including a 10 week post in the Philippines where she worked with dive centres to minimise their impacts on coral reefs.

“Many people don't realise that these amazing meadows of seagrass, which are home to lots of fascinating creatures including seahorses, can be found right on their doorstep,” she said. “Seagrass is under a lot of pressure from humans and I hope that by the end of this three-year project the Community Seagrass Initiative will have helped to ensure these sites are well-managed in the future and the valuable species that live there are protected.

“For me, one of the most exciting and important parts of the project is raising awareness of this high priority habitat, showing people just how valuable it is to us and how everyone can do their bit to help protect it.”

Torbay project officer Rachel Cole also a marine biology graduate, has spent the last three years managing an eco-tourism and diving expedition business for TV adventurer Monty Halls in Dartmouth.

She added: “So much of the marine conservation efforts in the UK focuses on the large charismatic animals that the general public relate to, but sometimes smaller and very important habitats need just as much attention.

“It’s habitats like seagrass beds that provide food and ecosystem services for our coastal waters.”

Jessica and Rachel will be co-ordinating events and activities from March.

To find out more, log on to www.national-aquarium.co.uk

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Dugongs Eating, Swimming, and Serving as Seagrass "Mascots"

18 February 2015, Youtube

 

Perhaps best known for inspiring mermaid folklore in the Pacific, the rotund, graceful dugongs—close relatives of manatees and sea cows—are stars of Malaysia’s shallow ocean meadows. See dugongs eating and swimming. Plus, learn more facts about the unique relationship between vulnerable coastlines and these loveable, but critically endangered, seagrass "mascots."

Malaysia’s coast is undergoing rapid, large-scale development, putting pressure on the region’s sensitive seagrass meadows and the many animals that call them home. Seagrass meadows are essential to the survival of a wide variety of species. But no other animals are more directly dependent on these meadows than the dugong, which have developed unique adaptations to seagrass life over the centuries.

This Pacific cousin to the manatee is critically endangered in Malaysia, and it relies solely on seagrass for its food and habitat. Pew marine fellow Louisa Ponnampalam is working off the coast of Johor, Malaysia, to identify habitats that are crucial for one of the country’s last remaining populations of dugongs.

 


No Help for the Endangered Dugong

18 February 2015, Courthouse News Service (USA)

Dugongs feeding on seagrass (Photo: file)

Threats to the endangered Okinawa dugong, a manatee-like marine mammal, are not enough to stop construction of a military base in Okinawa, a federal judge ruled.

"We are disappointed with the outcome and plan to appeal the decision to the Federal Court of Appeals," Peter Galvin, director of programs and co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity told Courthouse News.

"The decision is not good news for the already critically imperiled Okinawa dugong. We plan to redouble our efforts with our partners to help the Okinawa dugong avoid imminent extinction," Galvin said of the Feb. 13 ruling by U.S. District Judge Edwin Chen.

The dugong is one of four species of the order Sirenia; the other three species are manatees. Dugongs live in sea-grass beds in shallow coastal waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They grow up to 9 feet long, weigh 550 to 1,000 lbs, and can live for up to 70 years.

Okinawa dugongs have smooth, dark gray or bronze skin, fluked tails and downturned muzzles with stiff, whisker-like bristles they use to dig up sea grasses, their primary food source.

Dugongs were listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1972 and are considered critically endangered in Japan. The dugong population off the eastern coast of Okinawa is a very small, isolated group with fewer than 50 members. Their existence is threatened by habitat destruction caused by U.S. military exercises, noise pollution, and marine water pollution, according to the Center for Biological Diversity's dugong web page.

Despite these threats, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Japanese government in May 2006 agreed to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan City, Okinawa, to an offshore location near Camp Schwab next to Henoko and Oura Bays. Construction plans include two 1,600-meter-long runways built on landfill that may destroy sea-grass beds in Henoko Bay, according to the ruling.

The Center for Biological Diversity, three other environmental groups and three Japanese residents challenged the project in September 2003 and filed an amended complaint after the May 2006 agreement.

Among other things, they argued that construction of the military base would destroy Okinawa dugong habitat, and that noise, excessive light and pollution from construction activities would harm the animals. They also claimed the Department of Defense violated section 402 of the National Historic Preservation Act by concluding that the project would have no significant impacts upon the Okinawa dugong and its habitat.

Though U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel in 2008 awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the court administratively closed the case due to uncertainties about the project's future until August 2014, when it was reopened and assigned to Judge Chen after Judge Patel retired.

About a month later, the government moved to dismiss on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction. Chen sided with the government, finding that the court could not stop construction of a military base being built on Japanese soil as part of treaty obligations between the United States and Japan.

Requests for the court to enjoin construction until the government fulfills its obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act fail because they are beyond the court's ability to grant, Chen said. The court has no ability, or the responsibility, to weigh the balance of harm between protecting dugongs from possible extinction and the foreign policy issue of maintaining the United States' military presence in Asia in light of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, or ensuring that relations between the United States and Japan remain friendly, the ruling states.

The environmentalists also sought declaratory judgment that the government's conclusion that the project would not harm Okinawa dugongs was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act, and an injunction setting aside the NHPA findings.

Though Chen refused to dismiss these claims on the basis that they are enjoined by questions of foreign policy and national defense, as the government argued, he concluded that they must nevertheless be dismissed because the court cannot grant the plaintiffs any effective relief to protect Okinawa dugongs.

Since the plaintiffs' declaratory relief claims are strictly procedural, the government is not likely to halt construction on the base or alter its NHPA findings simply because the court deems the findings flawed and orders it to reconsider them, Chen wrote.

"After decades of negotiations, the American and Japanese governments have made a final and (apparently) irreversible decision to construct the challenged military base, and as suggested above, this court lacks the power to enjoin or otherwise alter that decision. Given that the military base will be built regardless of what this court might determine regarding the DoD's [Department of Defense] compliance with the procedural mandates of the NHPA, plaintiffs cannot show that an order requiring the government's compliance with a purely procedural statute will in any way redress their claimed injuries. Thus ... plaintiffs' entire lawsuit is hereby dismissed with prejudice," Chen wrote.

Download Ruling: Click Here

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FAU Harbor Branch researchers working on two projects to track, improve quality of lagoon

13 February 2015, WPTV.com (USA)

Lake Okeechobee water releases started pouring into the St. Lucie Estuary Friday at the fastest rate so far this year.

Scientists with Florida Oceanographic say salinity levels in the water decreased considerably during the last month of lower discharges. No marine life is being affected yet. Scientists say the heavier dose of fresh water could start to become risky soon, especially for oyster beds and seagrass. The rate of discharges is still lower than what the area saw during the summer of 2013. That's when toxic conditions developed, harming marine life and seagrass. Right now, the Lake Okeechobee water level is just below 15 feet. The Army Corps of Engineers says that level is too high going into the rainy season.

As fresh water infiltrates the estuary, researchers are working diligently to look for solutions for potential damage. FAU Harbor Branch Research Professor, Dennis Hanisak, is involved with two developing projects. First, researchers are looking to install water quality sensors called LOBOS at several locations in the St. Lucie Estuary. The sensors would detect salinity levels, temperatures, nutrient levels and light in the water. The sensors could digitally send data back to researchers every hour. It's a new way to learn how quickly the discharges impact seagrass and marine life. "It does it 24/7 regardless of conditions. If we have a cold front coming in, it's still going to be working. We might not want to go out because it's a little chilly and we might want to wait a few days, but then we might miss things," Hanisak said.

Also, FAU's Harbor Branch is hoping to create a new seagrass nursery. Researchers would collect seagrass floating on the water, plant it in the nursery and grow more seagrass. It would all eventually be replanted in the estuary. It's an effort to help replace seagrass that has been damaged from fresh water releases over the years. "The goal would be to recover everything we lost, then hopefully beyond that," Hanisak said. Hanisak says he would like to start planting the seagrass this summer once they raise enough money. They would replant the seagrass next summer. The LOBOS are scheduled to be installed by this summer.

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Camera-carrying turtles reveal seagrass decline

13 February 2015, Science Network Western Australia  (Australia)

Shark Bay was home to lush meadows of the seagrass Amphibolis antarctica before the 2011 marine heat wave. (Photo Derek Burkholder)

SEA turtles fitted with video cameras have revealed a decline in seagrass health in Shark Bay following a catastrophic marine heat wave in 2011.

Animal-borne videos have previously been used to study animal behaviour, but this is believed to have been the first use of such videos to assess ecosystem health.

Florida International University post-doctoral researcher Jordan Thomson says the footage, combined with traditional standardised seagrass surveys, reveals that the heat wave caused more than 90 per cent dieback of the dominant seagrass, Amphibolis antarctica, in several regions of Shark Bay.

“Turtle-borne video footage provides unique insights into the health of seagrass meadows from the perspective of resident wildlife that depend on these habitats,” Dr Thomson says.

Dr Thomson’s team compared the video footage, captured in 2011–12, with similar footage taken in the early 2000s. “In the older footage, from 2000 to 2003, turtles spent 97 per cent of their time swimming over lush, dense seagrass. “In comparison, after the heat wave, turtles almost exclusively encountered sparse, defoliated or dead seagrass that was overgrown by algae.” Dr Thomson says the findings are alarming because of the important role of seagrass in the ecosystem. “Seagrasses are marine foundation species that support diverse food webs and provide valuable ecosystem services,” he says.

Dr Thomson’s study has also revealed the seagrass die-off has negatively affected the health of green turtles (Chelonia mydas), which rely on seagrasses for food and feeding habitat. The researchers assessed the health of 424 green turtles in Shark Bay between 2000 and 2013, finding the turtles were more likely to fall in a lower health status category after the heat wave than before. What’s more, turtle health status declined consistently from 2011, the year of the heat wave, to 2013.

Dr Thomson says Shark Bay was one of the worst affected areas during the heatwave, with average water temperatures in the region spiking by up to four degrees Celsius in February 2011. The heat wave was caused by a combination of factors including strong flow of the Leeuwin Current, which brings warm tropical water south along the WA coast, and near-record La Niña conditions. This event is concerning because, with ocean temperatures in this part of the Indian Ocean gradually increasing, marine heat waves may become more frequent and intense, causing even more pronounced impacts on coastal ecosystems.

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Dugong poachers face fines of up to $1 million

12 February 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

Illegal poachers of dugongs and turtles in far north Queensland are about to face tougher penalties, as the Federal Government announces new measures to protect threatened species.

New laws passed in the Senate have increased the hunting fines to up to $1 million in Commonwealth marine areas. Environment Minister is Greg Hunt said it was important legislation. "I am determined to wipe out any residual practice of poaching of dugongs and turtles," he said. "I think what we find is that these are majestic creatures."

Traditional owners welcomed the move. Gavin Singleton, a project officer at the Dawul Wuru Indigenous Corporation in the Cairns region, said poaching was an insidious practice in far north Queensland. "We do have a lot of people who are taking those kinds of marine resources," he said. "It's unsustainable."  Mr Singleton said he hoped the tougher fines would deter poachers while native title holders should still be able to hunt dugongs.

Under the Native Title Act of 1993, Indigenous people with native title rights can hunt marine turtles and dugong for personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs. "For traditional owners, within the traditional sea country area, that's where there's a bit of uncertainty," he said.

Dugongs are among many Australian species under serious threat. A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said 21 per cent of Australian mammals were threatened. Co-author Dr John Woinarski, a conservation professor at Charles Darwin University, warned the situation for threatened mammals was "catastrophic".

The Federal Government has announced it would give an additional $743,000 to boost the work of 11 conservation projects around the country.

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Seagrass helps protect natural 'carbon sinks', study finds

12 February 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

The disappearance of seagrass meadows could be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, an international study has found. Research conducted at Oyster Harbour in Albany found centuries-old carbon dioxide deposits have been created by seagrass meadows.

Scientists at the University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute, in conjunction with overseas researchers, discovered the meadows act as carbon "sinks", preventing the erosion of carbon deposits and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When the seagrass is removed, usually by dredging or mooring but sometimes by severe storms, the old carbon is eroded and freed. "If we destroy the meadows, if the plants are not there anymore, it's not only that the plants are not there, but the sediments below it can get eroded, and that's when the carbon is [released]," co-author of the study Professor Pere Masqué said. "When the plants disappear, carbon accumulated for decades, even millennia, [goes too]." "We're talking about the erosion of up to a metre of soil. "That's a lot of time of accumulating carbon."

Professor Masque said this was bad news for the atmosphere. "The amount of C02 that we have in the atmosphere is the main driver of the greenhouse effect, and [therefore] the rise of temperatures and the global change we're experiencing," he said.


Revegetation restores carbon sinks

But the research also had a positive outcome. Scientists discovered that revegetation of sea meadows like at Oyster Harbour prevented the erosion of carbon deposits and restored the ability for the meadows to act as carbon sinks. A long-term restoration of seagrass in the Albany meadow, which was lost between the 1960s and 1980s, has been highly successful. "Replanting seagrass meadows like they did in Oyster Harbour actually gets the system back to what it used to be," Professor Masqué said.

Lead study author Professor Núria Marbà said this could have a positive impact on a global scale. "The conservation and restoration of heavily impacted areas can help mitigate man-made emissions," she said.

Professor Masqué said many areas across the world could benefit from seagrass revegetation projects. "These [projects] can help reconstruct carbon sinks, as well as preserve older deposits," he said. "It's doable, and it's doable in a very large number of situations in the world." The research has been published in the Journal of Ecology.

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Sunlight to the Seagrasses: US Forest Service Research Shines Light on Threatened Coastal Plant

11 February 2015, USDA.gov (press release) (USA)

Healthy seagrass meadows prevent erosion on coasts, store carbon, and provide marine animals with food and habitat. (Photo National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency)

Just off Florida’s 8,000 miles of coastline and tidal areas, in shallow sunlit waters, over two million acres of seagrass meadows waft in the ocean currents.

Besides providing food and habitat for manatees, sea turtles, shellfish, and other animals, seagrasses protect coasts from erosion and store vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

“Seagrasses grow off the coast of many other U.S. states, including North Carolina and Virginia, as well as around the world,” said U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station scientist Zanethia Choice. “Globally, their economic value is nearly $4 trillion.”

Although more closely related to lilies than to terrestrial grasses, like most of their distant grass kin, seagrasses require plenty of sunlight. Poor water quality reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches them, and seagrasses around the world are threatened by practices that affect water quality such as wastewater disposal and fertilizer runoff.

Choice, a natural resource specialist at the research center’s Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research, and her colleagues from the University of Florida recently studied light requirements for four common seagrass species along the Florida Gulf Coast. The study was published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“We found a direct relationship between the amount of light reaching the ocean floor and the amount and diversity of seagrasses growing there,” said Choice.

In 90 percent of sites where 13 years of historic data showed that adequate sunlight had been reaching the ocean floor, researchers found thriving seagrass meadows. However, areas with suitable light but no seagrass were most likely due to unsuitable substrate, temperature, and the amounts of dissolved salts and oxygen.

Seagrasses are adapted to nutrient-poor waters. When nutrients – whether from fertilizer runoff, wastewater disposal, or other human activities – wash into the ocean, they float suspended in the ocean waters. Seagrasses cannot use these suspended nutrients very efficiently, but tiny algae called phytoplankton can. Phytoplankton thrive in nutrient-rich waters, and as they grow, they intercept light and shade the ocean floor. Seagrasses were notably absent from areas with high nutrient levels.

Some seagrasses such as star grass could survive with as little as 8 percent of sunlight reaching the ocean floor, while other species required 25 percent sunlight or more.

“Light requirements for all the seagrasses we studied differed from previous findings at other locations,” said Choice. “The differences are probably due to morphological and physiological differences, and adaptation to light histories at specific locations.”

Understanding the light requirements of different seagrass species is essential for coastal managers who want to maintain seagrass habitats, and managing for seagrass health also provides water quality targets that can benefit other marine life.

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The Ecosystem Services of Seagrass Beds in a CO2-Enriched World

11 February 2015, CO2 Science Magazine

Paper Reviewed
Garrard, S.L. and Beaumont, N.J. 2014. The effect of ocean acidification on carbon storage and sequestration in seagrass beds: a global and UK context. Marine Pollution Bulletin 86: 138-146.

Introducing their work, Garrard and Beaumont (2014) state that seagrass beds provide numerous important ecosystem services, such as "protection of the coastline, bioremediation of waste, food provision and maintenance of marine biodiversity," citing the works of Jackson et al. (2012) and Cullen-Unsworth and Unsworth (2013). And in light of these facts, they review how the several mentioned services are likely to be impacted by the ongoing rise in the atmosphere's CO2 concentration.

Based on projections of future anthropogenic CO2 emissions and their impacts on the above- and below-ground growth of seagrass, the two UK researchers estimate that over the remainder of this century, the global standing stock of seagrass "is expected to increase by 94%, whilst the standing stock in the UK is expected to increase by 82%." And they calculate that the associated value of this increase in both above- and below-ground carbon sequestration capacity is - when summed over the entire world - approximately 500 and 600 billion pounds sterling ($765-918 billion USD), respectively, between 2010 and 2100.

And so it is that they conclude that "sustainable management of seagrasses is critical to avoid their continued degradation and loss of carbon sequestration capacity," and, it might be added, to maintain - or even enhance - their many important ecosystem services.

References
Cullen-Unsworth, L and Unsworth, R. 2013. Seagrass meadows, ecosystem services, and sustainability. Environment 55: 14-27.

Jackson, E.L., Langmead, O., Beaumont, N., Potts, T. and Hattam, C.A. 2012. Seagrass Ecosystem Interactions with Social Economic Systems, UK Defra Funded Study.

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Seagrass loss linked to greenhouse gas emissions

11 February 2015, University World News (Australia)

An international team of researchers has found that the disappearance of seagrass meadows could be contributing to the release of carbon dioxide that has been stored for centuries under the sea.

The team of six researchers from Spain and Australia studied the impact of disappearing seagrass meadows, Posidonia australis, at Oyster Harbour in Albany, Western Australia, where long-term restoration of seagrass has been highly successful. These unusual marine flowering plants are called ‘seagrasses’ because in many species the leaves are long and narrow and often grow in large “meadows that look like grassland”. But they also account for more than 10% of the ocean’s total carbon storage and, per hectare, they hold twice as much carbon dioxide as rainforests. Every year, seagrasses sequester about 27 million tonnes of CO2 but global warming is expected to cause some species to become extinct, resulting in the release of vast quantities of CO2 back into the atmosphere.

In the latest study, the team of scientists used sediment-dating techniques to quantify the accumulation of carbon in repopulated areas and calculate the erosion of carbon in areas that were not revegetated. Writing in a paper published in the Journal of Ecology, the researchers say the results suggest that restoring seagrass meadows would prevent the erosion of important deposits of organic carbon.

Meadows act as carbon sinks

Lead author Professor Núria Marbà, from the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Spain, said the loss of underwater seagrass meadows posed two problems: “These areas can no longer capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, and they can become a source of this gas by eroding and freeing decades-old, and even centuries-old carbon stored in the meadow,” Marbà said. “Seagrass meadows act as carbon sinks on a global scale and the conservation and restoration of heavily impacted areas can help mitigate man-made emissions.”

The researchers assessed whether revegetation of underwater meadows was effective in restoring their capacity to act as carbon sinks in relation to the time needed to achieve this over decades. Marbà said revegetation of meadows prevented the erosion of these organic carbon deposits that had accumulated over hundreds of years. The study results indicated that the loss of this ecosystem must have also represented an important loss in its capacity to sequester and store carbon in the sediments of underwater meadows.

Oyster Harbour is colonised by a meadow of Posidonia australis that was mostly lost from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. After 1994, the meadow recovered, in part because of revegetation efforts under the direction of co-author Geoff Bastyan, an honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia’s school of plant biology.

Bastyan was named a “Southseas Oceans Hero” last year, an award given annually to a champion from the community whose work addresses solutions to degradation and loss of ocean resources. The seagrass restoration project at Oyster Harbour was carried out until 2006 and has become the most successful seagrass restoration project in the world.

Another co-author of the study, Professor Pere Masqué from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, said the potential areas available worldwide to carry out seagrass revegetation projects were enormous. “These can help reconstruct carbon sinks, as well as preserve older deposits,” Masqué said.

The results of the study will help dispel doubts that were hindering the development of ‘blue carbon’ strategies in underwater meadows. ‘Blue carbon’ is the term given to carbon captured by marine and coastal ecosystems in the form of biomass and sediments.

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Loss of posidonia reduces CO2 storage areas and could contribute to gas emissions

09 February 2015, Phys.Org

Posidonia australis meadow. (Photo Gary A. Kendrick)

The loss of underwater posidonia meadows poses two problems: these areas can no longer capture and store atmospheric CO2, and, moreover, they can become a source of this gas by eroding and freeing the carbon stored in the meadow during decades or even centuries.

This is one of the main conclusions reached by an international team which included the participation of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia. The team assessed whether the revegetation of underwater meadows is effective in restoring their capacity to act as carbon sinks in relation to the time needed to achieve this (decades). The study was published in the Journal of Ecology.

"The revegetation of meadows prevents the erosion of these organic carbon deposits which have accumulated throughout centuries in meadows which have now disappeared," points out CSIC researcher Núria Marbà from the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA).

"Our results indicate that the loss of this ecosystem must have also represented an important loss in the capacity to sequester and store carbon in the sediments of underwater meadows," she adds.

Pere Masqué, at the UAB and co-author of the study, says that "the potential areas available worldwide to carry out marine angiosperm revegetation projects is enormous", and adds that "these can help reconstruct carbon sinks, as well as preserve older deposits".

Seagrass meadows are relevant as carbon sinks at a global scale and that is why their conservation and restoration can contribute to mitigating anthropogenic emissions, researchers state. In addition, the results of this study contribute to dispel the doubts which were hindering the development of blue carbon strategies in underwater meadows. Blue carbon is the term given to carbon captured by marine and coastal ecosystems in the form of biomass and sediments.

The researchers explain that the study was conducted at Oyster Harbour, in Western Australia. "This area is colonised by a meadow of Posidonia australis that largely was lost from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. After 1994, the meadow recovered in part thanks to a series of revegetation efforts which went on until 2006 under the direction of Geoff Bastyan, one of the authors of the research".

The study relied on using sediment-dating techniques to quantify the accumulation of carbon in repopulated areas and the erosion of historic carbon in areas that were not revegetated. No other revegetation project has been monitored this long in all the world, Marbà concludes.

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Digging for dugongs

03 February 2015, Australian Museum (Australia)

Palaeontologist William Dun (left) and Australian Museum Curator Robert Etheridge Jnr stand watch as Dugong bones are excavated from Shea’s Creek, Alexandria, Sydney. (Photographer unknown. Australian Museum Archives. V9817)

We know why these gentlemen are digging in their three-piece suits, but their identity has been a moot point among archivists.

This famous photograph from the Museum Archives dates from 1896 and was taken at Shea’s Creek, Alexandria, during the construction of Alexandra Canal.

Workers had uncovered numerous large bones, but further excavation of the site, near the Ricketty Street bridge, was delayed until the Museum’s Curator, Robert Etheridge Jnr (second from left), and Government Palaeontologist William Dun (far left), could inspect it.

The bones, later identified as Dugong, were (and are) of great scientific interest. The Dugong is a warm-water tropical marine mammal, and this deposit was hundreds of kilometres south of its range. Further the fossilised bones were ‘confusedly heaped together’ and revealed cut marks which the authors attributed to an Aboriginal stone tool.

So who are the men in the photograph? The handwritten registration of the glass-plate negative in the Museum photographic collection identifies the two standing men as Etheridge and Dun.

Etheridge presented a paper about the discovery to a meeting of the Royal Society of New South Wales on 5 August 1896 with co-authors JW Grimshaw (an engineer on the excavation and amateur scientist) and geologist TW Edgeworth David.

The paper noted that the bones were initially detected in the presence of ‘one of us’ (the engineer, Grimshaw) with the later excavation ‘in the presence of two of us’. The next day’s report of the meeting in the Sydney Morning Herald identified these two as Grimshaw and Etheridge.

The identity of the fourth man is not recorded, but if the article, photograph and newspaper report are correct, he could not have been Edgeworth David as some authors have erroneously inferred.

The scientists concluded that the occurrence of Dugong bones so far south indicated recent changes (in geological terms) in sea level and water temperature. It wasn’t until 2004 that Dr Robert Haworth and colleagues at the University of New England carbon-dated the fossils to around 5500 years BP.

The human markings on the fossils also provided the first archaeological evidence of long-standing Aboriginal occupation of the area, which was reinforced by the recovery of a number of stone hatchets from the excavation. The fossil bones and one of the hatchet heads are still held in the Australian Museum collection.

As a footnote, the Alexandra Canal was originally envisaged as a grand waterway for transporting goods between Botany Bay and Port Jackson at Circular Quay, but the cost proved prohibitive and the plan was abandoned after the completion of just a few kilometres.

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“Seagrass rehabilitation can mitigate impact of climate change”

09 February 2015, The Hindu (India)

A view of rehabilitated seagrass site on sea bed off Tuticorin coast. (Photo Special Arrangement )

Seagrass, which acts as nursery for many marine organisms and is feed for endangered dugongs, has been successfully rehabilitated along Tuticorin coast.

Seagrass was rehabilitated on the seabed within six months and its survival rate was between 85 and 90 per cent, J.K. Patterson Edward, Director, Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute (SDMRI), Tuticorin, told The Hindu here on Sunday.

With funding support from Mangroves for the Future Programme of International Union of Conservation of Natural Resources (IUCN) India, researchers took up conservation of seagrass from threats caused by bottom trawling. It would enhance fisheries productivity.

Traditional fishermen from over 50 coastal villages from Pamban to Athiramapattinam had been depending on seagrass-associated fishery for their livelihood. Seagrass was responsible for about 15 per cent of total carbon storage in oceans across the world, he said, adding its rehabilitation would create a viable adaptive mechanism to mitigate climate change impacts.

Seagrass rehabilitation was carried out in one square kilometre of degraded area outside Koswari Island with 400 PVC pipes. Over 20 per cent of seagrass beds had been degraded mainly due to bottom trawling, Dr. Edward noted.

He said “seagrass meadows are ecologically sensitive habitats and it plays a role in safeguarding a number of endangered species, including dugongs, turtles and sea horses”. Seagrass meadows also bound sediments to reduce coastal erosion, he added.

The low-cost technology was adopted under this programme to ensure high returns of fisheries. Associated fauna like bivalve, gastropod, echinoderms, sea anemone and sponges also started appearing in the rehabilitated area.

Fish species such as Lutjanus sp., Epinephelus sp., Scolopsis sp., Terapon sp., Sardinella sp., Caranx sp., Ostracion sp. and Lactoria sp. were also reported in the area, he noted.

Luxuriant and patch seagrass areas were found in around 300 square kilometres in Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, he added.

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Seagrass isn't sexy, but 'nurseries of the Gulf' are a key part of oil spill restoration

06 February 2015, AL.com (USA)

Underwater seagrass meadows are a vital habitat for juvenile fish, shrimp and crabs in Alabama's coastal waters. (Photo Dauphin Island Sea Lab)

Ask the average person how important submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) is in their daily life, and the likely response is among 50 shades of "meh." The grouper that person ate for dinner, however, would likely have a very different response. 

Often out of sight and out of mind for the general public, seagrasses are vital to the health of the overall ecosystem and serve as a nursery ground for juvenile fish and invertebrates. Those who study coastal ecology, or make their living pulling fish, shrimp and crabs from the water, know the vital role of SAVs in the complex Gulf ecosystem. 

The state of Alabama hasn't forgotten the importance of seagrass beds. One of five projects the state submitted for consideration to the federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, the Alabama Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Restoration and Monitoring Project seeks to use RESTORE Act funding to study, map and restore SAVs in Alabama's coastal waters.

At an estimated cost of only $875,000 the project is one of the least expensive proposals, but proponents say it can have a significant impact for its relatively light investment. 

The project proposal cites a study estimating that more than 70 percent of recreationally and commercially important species in the Gulf spend some portion of their lifecycles in seagrasses, usually in the early stages taking shelter from predators. That list includes blue crabs, shrimp, speckled trout, red drum, some species of grouper, water fowl.

"The Gulf is a dangerous place for these animals," said Ken Heck, a senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab who has done extensive work studying SAVs. "If you're not in some kind of shelter and you're a little shrimp or crab or fish then you're in danger. We can see that because when you put a piece of bait in the open water, how long does it take for it to get eaten? Not very long usually."

In addition to the habitat benefit, seagrass beds also improve water quality by using excess nutrients from the water column, trapping sediment and have been shown to reduce underwater and shoreline erosion. 

Where did the seagrass go?

That critically important habitat is disappearing in the waters off Alabama, and around the world. In the waters of Mobile Bay, Perdido Bay and Mississippi Sound, Heck said that roughly half of observed seagrass beds have disappeared, based on old aerial photographs.

"The best estimate in the Alabama area is that roughly half of all the submerged vegetation that used to be present is no longer present," Heck said. "We don't have really good quantitative information because people weren't measuring the size of these vegetated areas back 50, 60 years ago. There's some guesswork involved but there's no doubt that we've lost quite a lot."

Carl Ferraro, a biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources who helped put together the state's project proposal said the seagrasses probably reached an all-time low in the mid-90s, but have rebounded in some areas. That does not include the populated areas on the eastern and western shores of Mobile Bay. 

"The losses along the Eastern Shore and on Weeks Bay are pretty drastic," Ferraro said. "There used to be Vallisneria (also called tapegrass or wild celery) beds all up and down the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, and they're pretty much gone."

The project would fund multiple years of SAV mapping via aerial photography and compare the data from year to year. Ferraro said the grass beds can fluctuate from year to year and additional observations could help track changes in SAV coverage, and compare observations to meteorological data to get a better overall picture of the health of SAVs in Alabama's waters. 

What's eating Alabama's seagrass?

Well, manatees eat seagrasses for a start, as do some popular species of water fowl. But Heck said the biggest threats to Alabama's submerged vegetation are not from wild animals.

"It's pretty well accepted that the main reason for the loss of seagrass, here and elsewhere, is just that the water clarity declines," Heck said. "These are plants, they need sunlight to grow, and seagrasses need quite a bit of light.

"A good rule of thumb is about 20 percent of the light that hits the surface of the water needs to make it down to the leaves of the seagrasses for them to be able to function normally. That's a lot of light compared to something like algae that only needs one percent of the light for them to be able to grow." 

The water clarity decline is mostly attributed to untreated runoff from paved surfaces, construction sites, dirt roads or sediments. Instead of filtering through the ground naturally, rainwater streams down paved surfaces, bringing mud, silt and other particulate matter with it into Mobile Bay.

Another issue, Heck said, was the excess nutrients dumped into the water from sewage or fertilizer runoff. Algae grows much faster under those conditions and can choke out the more substantial seagrasses. 

"It's really the same cause," Heck said. "The grasses don't get any light, but here this is occurring because we've overfertilized the waters and stimulated the growth of the algae."

Ferraro pointed out that some natural factors, such as drought conditions or tropical storms, could change the salinity of water, affecting which species would thrive in a given area. 

How can we get it back?

There are many different species of SAV, with different requirements to thrive. Part of Heck's work in the field has included pinpointing ideal ranges of water clarity, salinity and other conditions that the various species need. 

"We've been measuring those things and we can pretty much now say what conditions are required for these species to be happy and healthy," Heck said. "One way to use that information is we go to areas that used to have vegetation and conditions have improved now, we can measure the water quality and say, 'This is suitable for vegetation so it might make sense to try to restore that vegetation here.'"

Heck and others at Dauphin Island Sea Lab have already completed projects collecting Vallisneria seeds, sowing them in a laboratory setting and planting them in the field where conditions proved favorable. The proposed restoration project would include additional funding for that type of on-the-ground work, but Heck said that kind of restoration only works in certain areas. 

"A lot of people say 'why don't you just go out and replant this grass,'" Heck said. "It won't work unless the conditions have improved and they're suitable for vegetation to grow there. If it used to be there, and it's no longer there, there's probably a reason for that and usually it's that water quality has declined."

A low-tech solution

Aerial photograph taken near Ono Island in Perdido Bay shows a pattern of propeller scars in seagrass beds. (Photo Dauphin Island Sea Lab)

In some areas, especially lower Perdido Bay near Ono Island, seagrasses are impacted less by water quality and salinity changes than by propeller scars from boaters who run aground in the shallow waters around the island.

"People don't want to do it, it's not what they intend to do, but they run their boats through there and create these furrows in the grass," Heck said. "Some of the aerial photos are amazing, the beds are just criss-crossed with these propeller scars."

In these areas, Heck said overall conditions are still in the acceptable range, the grasses just need a kick-start to regrow over the propeller scars. Heck and others have worked to put up signage at boat ramps warning people of the shallow areas of seagrass, trying to minimize future damage. They've also worked on restoring the existing scars by installing devices called bird stakes along the scars. 

A bird stake is simply a length of PVC pipe with a wooden perch at the top. The stakes' purpose is simple: Provide birds with a place to perch, to shake out their feathers and stay a while, and while the birds are there, they'll do what birds do and add some natural fertilizer to help grasses grow. 

While tons of excess fertilizer runoff in Mobile Bay can be harmful in general, a targeted burst in the right location can help regrow a bare spot in the thick grassbeds. 

The proposed RESTORE Act project also includes funding for more bird stakes and informational signage at boat ramps and near shallow grassbeds. 

What's next for the project?

The project is one of 50 proposals submitted to the federal council for funding through the Council-Selected Restoration Component, sometimes called "Bucket Two," of the RESTORE Act, a law passed to send the most of the Clean Water Act fine money to be paid by BP and other companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the coastal states that were impacted by the spill. Funds from this bucket are designated for ecosystem restoration only. No strictly economic projects will be considered for funding through this component. 

Each of those 50 proposals is currently being evaluated by the council members. The council consists of the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida as well as the heads of six federal agencies: the Departments of the Army, Commerce, Interior, Agriculture, and Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

There's been no sense so far as to which projects have an edge in this process, but with the limited funds currently available and the final amount of BP's fine still to be determined, the council is likely to proceed slowly at first. 

A draft funded priorities list is expected to be released later this year, and will be available for public review and comment before it is finalized. That FPL will include more details about which projects are in line for the earliest funding under this bucket. 

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Obama seeks $30M for ocean acidification studies

04 February 2015, Monterey County Herald (USA)

Marine researchers found a gift hidden among the loophole closures and tax changes in the President Barack Obama’s new budget.

Released Monday, the budget proposal for fiscal year 2016 included $30 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study ocean acidification, the ongoing change in ocean chemistry caused by higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air.

“It’s a really important issue in California because here it’s acidifying twice as fast,” said Kristy Kroeker, a biologist at UC Santa Cruz.

It’s twice as much as the president requested last year, and more than three times greater than the amount Congress approved. The money would be used, in part, for grants to scientists like Francisco Chavez, a biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, who study the effects of acidification on local marine plants and animals.

“We’re trying to understand how organisms in general might respond to this,” said Chavez, adding that the full consequences of ocean acidification are uncertain. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Ocean acidification is a consequence of burning fossil fuels. The more carbon dioxide there is in the air, the more the ocean absorbs. Once it’s in the ocean, it creates compounds that break apart and make the sea more acidic.

This is especially bad for shellfish because it strips the ocean of compounds they need to build their shells. The effects could even travel up and down the food chain.

“Does that mean salmon success is going to be impacted?” Chavez said. “Maybe. We need this research money to come in to help us figure those things out.”

The problems associated with ocean acidification might be exacerbated along California’s coast. Cold water from the deep ocean can rise to the surface in upwells, bringing water that’s even more acidic. It’s a natural phenomenon, but it further stresses the coastal ecosystem.

“Ocean acidification can make it harder for a lot of the animals to survive and grow,” Kroeker said. “Things like oysters or abalone or sea urchins — those organisms do worse.”

Kroeker works on a project studying if sea grass can help alleviate the effects of higher acidity, at least in small areas. Because it’s a plant, sea grass gobbles up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, creating pockets of less acidic water in its neighborhood.

“We’re looking at whether sea grass can create refuges,” Kroeker said. “We want to know if we can somehow use sea grass to protect oysters and help them grow more naturally.”

Kroeker is currently looking for funds to study how kelp forests might provide similar sanctuaries. The proposed increase in NOAA funding might finance her next project.

But scientists aren’t the only ones interested in understanding the effects of ocean acidification.

“The health of our economy is linked to the health of our oceans,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, in a joint statement released Monday. “Rapid changes in ocean chemistry are threatening many aquatic species, particularly shellfish, endangering the jobs that rely on abundant healthy populations.”

Farr plans to introduce a bill later this year to lend more support to ocean acidification research, as well as provide affected industries tools and information to help them respond.

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UCF researchers say Fla. manatees are in hot water

04 February 2015, Central Florida Future (USA)

(Photo Malcolm Denemark, Florida Today)

There's a less than 50 percent chance manatees will exist in the next 1,000 years. UCF researchers say the springs may be the only refuge for the future for these gentle giants, unless we can change our ways.

"Loss of warm water habitat is threatening them in the future, but there are several other major threats to the manatee," said Madison Hall, a Ph.D. candidate in UCF's Physiology Ecology and Bioenergetics Lab. "Some of the warm water habitats that they rely on can be changed by humans in the future. There are power plants that can be out of use in years from now. The manatees will not have anywhere to go during the winter, and without anywhere to go, they are so sensitive to cold water and cold snaps that they can die from cold stress."

Hall is a graduate student who studies seascape genetics and species distribution modeling for West Indian manatees.

"I am building a species distribution model for manatees to describe what environmental variables are associated with manatee occurrence," Hall said. "So, where do manatees occur and what do they need out of their habitat? Once a model is developed, you can project it under different climate change scenarios. You can predict where manatees may occur in the future and determine if that habitat exists then or needs to be protected."

Hall says that with human development of coastal systems, we are destroying their habitat and main source of food — sea grass.

"One thing I'm anticipating might be important is the distance from shore or seagrass coverage; those are two variables I'm looking at for a seascape genetics model," she said. "If those things wind up being significant, it would mean we would have to conserve seagrasses and restore areas that are close to shore."

With limiting locations to move to for winter and finding food, Hall said their population is expected to decline from 10 to 20 percent over the next 40 years with a loss of warm water habitats, increase in harmful algal blooms, loss of seagrasses and from direct and indirect human-related mortality.

Graham Worthy, a Provosts Distinguished Professor of Biology and the Hubbs-SeaWorld Endowed Professor of Marine Mammalogy at UCF, describes how crucial the springs are.

"The springs are crucial refuges because of temperature. Blue Springs is one of many springs where manatees can get into water that's relatively warm," he explained.

Hall said they start their migration to winter habitats when waters reach around 20 to 22 degrees Celsius, which would be 68 degrees Fahrenheit. They return to the same springs or winter habitat yearly. They learn where to go from their mom during their calf years.

"Blue Springs is a designated Manatee Refuge and the winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees. The spring and spring run are closed during manatee season, mid-November through March 15. Swimming or diving with manatees is not permitted; this rule is strictly enforced," according to Floridastatepark.org.

Savethemanatee.org has a live webcam of the manatees at Blue Springs along with the latest manatee updates. Through the site, you can adopt a manatee for $25.

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Marine wildlife at risk as Hampshire sites lose protection

04 February 2015, Daily Echo (UK)

HAMPSHIRE marine experts fear the region’s seas have been left open to an “environmental disaster” after some of the most “important” sites for marine wildlife have been axed from a Government list of protection.

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust have been left “bitterly disappointed” at the Government’s decision to cut back on its ambitious plans to protect more marine sites across the UK.

The trust had hoped that six sites in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight would be part of the consultation to designate new Marine Conservation Zones, but only half have made the cut.

The three included are the Offshore over falls, Utopia and The Needles with Bembridge, Norris to Ryde and Yarmouth to Cowes missing out.

The long-awaited consultation features only 23 out of a possible 37 sites across the UK, with critics frustrated at the lack of ambition shown by those in charge.

Tim Ferrero, head of marine conservation at the trust, said: “We are bitterly disappointed that the Government has opted to consult on just 23 new Marine Conservation Zones and that some very important areas for marine wildlife have been dropped from the list.

“We are pleased that three of six sites in our region have been put forward in this tranche but frustrated that not all of the proposed sites have been recommended because of the likely ‘economic cost’.

“The wildlife trusts believe this is a missed opportunity to achieve longer-term gains that will benefit both marine biodiversity and the resources we derive from the sea through activities like fishing and recreation.

“Ultimately, any economic activity that is based on over-exploitation, beyond the ability of the resource to renew itself, is not sustainable and has no long-term future.”

The decision to recommend only three of the region’s six proposed sites means that around only five per cent of the area’s seagrass meadows will be protected if these sites are designated.

Seagrass is an important breeding ground and nursery for commercially important fish and crustaceans and are a vital food source for migrating wildfowl such as teal, widgeon and Brent geese.

Dr Amy Marsden, marine officer at the trust, added: “Seagrass habitats are a vital yet often overlooked feature of our functioning environment.

“They are easily damaged yet slow to recover and protection from activities such a dredging is critical to prevent further degradation and allow regeneration.

“By postponing action to protect these areas yet again, the Government is leaving our seas open to an environmental disaster.”

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Brevard considers new manatee protection plan

04 February 2015, MyFoxOrlando.com (USA)

A 2006 manatee protection plan might be re-evaluated in Brevard County.

The Indian River Lagoon lost 50,000 acres of underwater sea grass in 2011, damaging it and reducing the food supply for its marine life. The cause of this loss is not known, however Citizens for Florida Waterways believes that manatees might be a factor, since they eat sea grass. They want manatees to be managed by the county so that the lagoon can survive.

Newly elected county commissioner Kurt Smith proposed the re-evaluation of the manatee protection plan which, among other things, regulates boating speeds and allows for artificial warm-water habitats. The proposal was pulled from Tuesday's agenda, as the issue is still under heated debate.

The Save the Manatee Club says that Brevard does not have a manatee overpopulation problem, and that the mammal was not responsible for the lagoon's loss of sea grass.

The commissioner says that he will talk with county staff to determine whether there is a way to proceed in re-evaluating the manatee protection plan.

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Over 300 dugongs seen off Qatar

01 February 2015, MENAFN.COM

 

Around 300 to 500 dugongs were sighted off the west coast of Qatar during a field mission by ExxonMobil Research Qatar (EMRQ) and the General Directorate of Natural Reserves-Private Engineering Office.

The one-day visit was part of ongoing data collection efforts to better understand the distribution, abundance and behaviour of Qatar's dugong population.

The efforts are part of a tripartite agreement signed in 2014 by ExxonMobil Research Qatar, Qatar University (QU) and Texas A&M University Galveston, with in-kind support from the general directorate and the Ministry of Environment.

The mission resulted in video and photographic documentation of dugongs as they travelled and fed in the area. It was the first time that live animals were documented as part of research efforts.

"It is exciting for us as scientists and marine biologists to come face-to-face with these creatures and study their behaviour so closely.

"We are pleased with the data we have collected so far and will continue to exert every effort to ensure that the rare species is protected in its natural habitat, in collaboration with QU and Texas A&M University Galveston and with the support of the general directorate and the ministry," said Dr Jennifer Dupont, Research Director, EMRQ.

Dugongs are long-lived, herbivorous marine mammals that can grow to almost three metres in length and live for over 70 years.

About 6,000 dugongs are estimated in the Gulf, making it the second largest population in the world, apart from Australia. Qatar is home to two of at least three habitats for dugongs in the Gulf, and is strategically positioned within the species' range and critical to its survival.

Modern-day threats to the species, listed as Vulnerable to Extinction under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, include natural events such as cold stress and harmful algal blooms along with human threats such as fishing and bycatch, vessel strikes and coastal development leading to habitat destruction. To date, over 14 stranded (dead) animals have been reported under the project, indicating that the population is experiencing threats in Qatari waters. Future work will focus on collecting data to inform management efforts centred on the protection of the species.

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Metals might be linked to turtle deaths

03 February 2015, The Australian (Australia)


HEAVY metals might have played a role in the mystery mass deaths of green turtles near a remote North Queensland beach in 2012.

EXPERTS have begun to investigate whether unusually high levels of cobalt, a common by-product of nickel, silver, lead, copper and iron mining, is linked to the stranding and eventual deaths of more than 100 turtles during a three-month period at Upstart Bay in 2012.
It is a significant spike from the five strandings in 2009.

James Cook University research fellow Colette Thomas, who will take part in the four-year investigation, said their team was searching for traces of metals.

"The presence of legacy metals in the catchment draining to Upstart Bay, and previous detections of unusually high levels of cobalt in local green turtles leads us to focus there," Dr Thomas said.

It is a case which has baffled experts, with the mystery ailment only affecting mature turtles aged between 50 and 70-years-old.

James Cook University virology lecturer Ellen Ariel said none of the usual signs which usually presented in stranding deaths was evident, and for the most part the turtles appeared to be healthy.

"We never found out what it was. No fish, no dolphins, no dugongs, nothing else died," Dr Ellen Ariel told AAP.

"It was a very puzzling, very unsatisfying feeling that so many (of these) threatened species died. They were very important for the population and we couldn't pinpoint the cause of it."

The investigation will try to discover whether humans are responsible.

"But if contaminates of concern are detected we will attempt to trace them to their source for proper management," Dr Thomas said.

She said there were both legacy mines and natural metal sources upstream and around the catchments which filter into where the epidemic took place.

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Paradise Discovered: Seagrass

01 February 2015, The Cayman Reporter

Photo by Frank Roulstone

February 2nd is designated World Wetlands Day and as we think about preserving national assets such as mangroves and other wetland areas, let us remember that seagrass communities are also wetlands with many important functions. Let us try to protect and preserve these systems also! While most of us know something about the ocean and coral reefs, we know little about seagrass beds. Moving seaward from the mangroves we typically find seagrass beds..

There are about 60 species of seagrass found worldwide. These mostly range from the size of your fingernail to plants with leaves as long as 7 metres. Seagrass is the only type of flowering plant that has adapted to life in the sea. There are six species of seagrasses in the Caribbean. Species recorded in Cayman include turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), shoal grass (Halodule wrightii and Halodule bermudensis) and manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme). The most common species in the Cayman Islands isturtle grass (Thalassia testudinum). Turtle grass gets its name from its important connection to green turtles. It is an important source of food for green turtles and is easy to identify with its broad flat green blades that make up lush meadows growing over the sea floor. The North Sound has broad areas of mud-rich sediments with shoal grass, but predominantly turtle grass.

Seagrass has a numberof important functions. They are habitats and nursery grounds for recreationally and commercially important finfish and shellfish. Juvenile finfish found in seagrass beds include snappers, croakers, grunts, groupers, and many others. Other commercial species found in these beds are queen conchs, lobsters and shrimps.

Some animal species which are not of commercial importance are also found in seagrass beds. These include sea urchins (commonly referred to as sea eggs), sea cucumbers, starfishes, brittle stars, snails such as Murex, cones and olives, octopus, anemones, and sponges. Even sea horses may be found in seagrass beds. Of course seagrass beds are also grazing grounds for turtles. There is an incredible diversity and abundance of organisms in this environment.

Mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs are often linked and all three habitats must remain healthy for each to thrive. Mangroves filter pollutants and trap sediments that would otherwise smother seagrass and coral. Sediment banks accumulated by seagrasses may eventually form substrate that can be colonized by mangroves. Seagrass also creates clean water for coral reef inhabitants by trapping sediment and slowing water movement, causing suspended sediment to fall out. In turn, coral reefs protect mangroves and seagrass from ocean storms by slowing the surging waves. All three communities keep nutrients from being dispersed and lost into the surrounding oceanic waters.

All species of seagrass can be affected by pollution and damage in the environment. This can cause seagrass to die from being shaded from light, covered by faster growing algae, buried by sediment from a land base source or harmful chemicals. Human impacts include physical disturbance by anchoring of boats and by propellers, complete destruction by dredging and sand mining for coastal construction, heat and oil pollution, and the release of excessive organic materials such as sewage.

Celebrate World Wetland Day and explore the seagrass areas close to our coasts and discover the amazing life in these marine meadows!

For more information, to share your knowledge or to get involved with the National Trust, please call 749-1121 or email education@nationaltrust.org.ky

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Forest City developer to restart work in February, pledges to preserve environment

01 February 2015, The Malaysian Insider

 

The Forest City project in Johor ran into controversy last year when nearby residents, environmentalists and Singapore raised concerns over its massive reclamation works. – Pic courtesy of Country Garden Pacific View, February 1, 2015.

Developer Country Garden Pacific View (CGPV) is targeting to restart land reclamation works at its Forest City project in Johor this month after a seven-month halt by the Department of Environment (DOE) following environmental concerns, and has pledged to spend millions to preserve the surrounding seabed, including the sensitive 48.5ha seagrass area.

The RM600 billion mixed-development 1,386ha project involving the building of four man-made islands ran into controversy last year when nearby residents, environmentalists and Singapore raised concerns over the massive works.

The DOE ordered work at the site to be halted last June and the Malaysian-Chinese company was instructed to submit a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA).

Following the green light from the DOE last month, CGPV executive director Datuk Md Othman Yusof said the southern peak of one of the islands had been scaled down by a third.

This was after more than 20 simulation models were run to come up with the best reclamation shape and sizes to ensure minimal impact on the surroundings.

As the development in Tanjung Kupang between southwestern Johor and northwest of Singapore is located near the shipping Port of Tanjung Pelepas, it also took into account the port limit which encompassed the anchorage area for ships, as well as the port’s future expansion plans.

"The current land form is the final proposal selected by DOE. Islands one, three and four remained unchanged. For island two, the southern peak has been reduced by 30%," he told The Malaysian Insider.

He said the company was unaware of the presence of seagrass when it was first awarded the land by the Johor government and immediately took steps to stop reclamation works once it realised the impact on the sensitive seabed.

"We are committed to preserving the seagrass, hence our work will be synergised with the existing ecosystem.”

This was done by installing a 2km double-silt curtain to contain plume and minimise any pollution, which cost the company more than RM10 million.

It has also set up a RM300,000 online monitoring system to monitor water quality in real time and water samples are obtained daily as long as the reclamation works are ongoing with the data transmitted to the DOE offices in Johor Baru and Putrajaya.

Additionally, CGPV submitted the Environmental Management Plan on January 25 to the DOE with in-depth details of its reclamation work.

Routine third-party audits will also be conducted to ensure all the requirements are implemented.

Moreover, no dredging works will be conducted until 2033.

We can only resume work once we get the clearance and we hope to be able to do so after the Chinese New Year celebrations," he said of the festivities that start on February 19.

To date, the company has spent more than RM3.5 million on mitigation measures to preserve the surrounding environment, including placing a single silt curtain around the seagrass.

In the works are replanting of mangroves ringing the four islands and installation of underwater cameras on the seagrass for the public to enjoy the sea animals, including seahorses.

"We are engaging with local NGOs and if they say what we are doing is not enough, we will seek their opinions to ensure how we can do more to protect the surroundings.

"Let us know and we will consider their advice," he said, adding that they were engaging seagrass experts to help them as well.

The seven-month stop work has cost the company not only monetary wise but operationally, too, something Othman was philosophical about.

"Although the size has been minimised, we are OK with it, we will comply."

Contrary to claims, he said waters around the development had no fishing activities because of its shallow waters of only between 2m and 3m deep.

Moreover, the area is part of the gazetted port limit where fishing is prohibited.

"It's all wild allegations. We don't see any disturbances to the livelihood of anybody here. If people say they are affected, we want to know in what aspect and if it's true, we will find a way to overcome it.”

He said since income from the surrounding community came from aquaculture and agriculture activities, the company planned to provide training schools for locals to explore viable options in different sectors, such as the services sector.

"Once the islands are constructed, we will need no fewer than 200,000 semi-skilled workers and this opportunity can be offered to the locals first.”

Additionally, once there is any increase in activity in the area, this will be translated into more human traffic which will expose the locals to more economic opportunities.

Despite the setback, CGPV aimed to start marketing before the year-end after it goes back to the drawing board to redesign its master plan.

But at its core, the principle of creating a liveable world-class forested city aimed at the international market remains.

"We are here for the long term and we will comply with whatever decisions set by the government," said Othman.

The New Straits Times reported last year that following a diplomatic note from the republic, the DEIA was carried out because the project was located near the Malaysia-Singapore borders and it involved coastal reclamation.

The project had initially been approved by the Johor Department of Environment in January but work at the project’s site was halted in June after the developer was instructed to submit a DEIA.

Fishermen and fish farm operators have claimed that mass fish deaths in the area had been caused by the land reclamation works, which was denied by CGPV. – February 1, 2015.

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