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Australia drops $8 million on reef

30 June 2015, (Australia)

Australia is going to drop an $8 million cash bomb on the floor of the United Nations chamber tomorrow where the country has been called to account over its perceived lack of protection for the Great Barrier Reef.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt is to be given one minute to speak to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and its 21-member world delegation over why the reef should not be put on a “danger” list.

As part of a draft plan for protecting the reef from further degradation from farm fertiliser run off and other now shelved plans for ports expansion, dredging, and dumping of dredge spoil in the oceans, Hunt is set to say another $8 million will be provided for monitoring and reporting “to the world”.

The Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Programme, to be coordinated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, would lock in the commitment to deliver Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Reef 2050 Plan.

Both the Federal and Queensland State governments have been under immense pressure to prove it is taking global concern over the state of the reef seriously. Both had already pledged $485 million this year and the cash drop in the chamber in Bonn Germany is being seen as a last minute sweetener.

Hunt and Queensland deputy Queensland premier Jackie Trad are in the western German city of Bonn, where the reef’s future is one of the central discussions at the UNESCO session, on the agenda with discussion on lost ancient world structures in Syria and Iraq.

A danger listing would effectively lock out Australia’s future development of ports and mining exploration and curtail the $6 billion a year tourism industry and shipping trade.

Federal Cabinet had also been warned it could significantly affect vital commodities trade with European banks, notably Deutsche Bank, unlikely to want to back any resource project that could be an environmental concern or indirectly affect a UN danger protected reef covering 348,000sqkm of north eastern coastline.

Australia had faced the prospect of international humiliation with a UNESCO censure, alongside nations like Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria, with disquiet from member states including Germany over Australia’s perceived lack of concern for the reef’s health and welfare.

But a move last month by Hunt to ban dumping of sediment from new dredging projects about the reef, plus the new $8-million for monitoring and reporting, is expected to be enough to convince delegates to back a draft long-term protection plan and leave the site off the danger list.

Some delegates have privately said the dredging ban had been enough to convince their member nations Australia had “woken up” to its international responsibilities over the world’s most loved natural icon.

Ms Trad, who enjoys bipartisan support with her federal counterpart on the issue, said such was the “reasonably unpredictable” forum, support was not yet guaranteed and objections or amendments could still be raised.

“It could go either way, it’s still unpredictable,” she said. “What has happened is the committee members have digested the draft report, there seems to be reasonable support for the draft and there is good feedback (but) I think it is important we don’t take anything for granted, we don’t come to the committee hearing thinking it’s all done and dusted, that’s not our approach and we appreciate how significant this decision is.”

Yesterday she met with the WWF, Greenpeace and officials likely to talk about the issue in the grand UN chamber in Bonn.

She said she was not surprised by the rest of the world’s concern over the issue, with the reef a much loved site.

“I’m incredibly heartened that the world cares so much about the Great Barrier Reef,” she said.

Australia’s lack of perceived concern for the reef, by at one stage both the federal and Queensland state governments seemingly set to allow dredge spoil from the Abbot Point port expansion on the north Queensland coast being dumped offshore.

That policy changed but the delegation still believes the World Heritage reef issue was separate from the Galilee Basin mining project in western Queensland, potentially the largest coal mine in the world. Greenpeace created a mural display outside the large chamber where UNESCO is meeting to passively protest the broader mining issue.

The WWF also built a large reef display where people from across Europe contributed to the more than 700 crochet fish and other sea creatures.

“The Australian government is now in probation, that’s the way we see it, so this display is to remind everyone to stay strong in their commitment,” spokeswoman Britta Koenig said.

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It's time for the new Great Barrier Reef expert panel to wade into the issue

30 June 2015, The Conversation AU (Australia)

Federal environment minister Greg Hunt has announced the make-up of the Independent Expert Panel of 16 leading experts who will advise the government on actions and priorities relating to the Great Barrier Reef. As an Australian who is passionate about the future of our Reef, I am honoured to have been selected and stand ready to serve.

Over recent years there have been lots of panels, and even more reports, about the Reef and its health. So what will the new one bring to the table?

We will mainly be advising on how best to progress with the Reef 2050 Plan – the umbrella for protecting and managing the Great Barrier Reef from today until 2050. It is a key component of the federal and Queensland governments' response to the recommendations of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Recent concerns over whether or not the Great Barrier Reef should be added to the official list of World Heritage In Danger rested partly on whether or not state and federal governments are taking appropriate steps to reverse the Reef’s clear decline over the past several decades.

The Reef 2050 Plan, announced earlier this year by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Queensland Premier Annastasia Palaszczuk, together with federal and state environment ministers, aims to protect the Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) that define the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The plan consists of hundreds of actions, as well as several clear targets, such as:

  • Improving water quality by reducing dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads in priority areas by at least 50% by 2018, on the way to achieving an overall reduction of 80% in inorganic nitrogen by 2025.

  • Reducing pesticide loads by at least 60% in priority areas by 2018

  • Improving the net condition of natural wetlands and riverside vegetation by 2020

  • Stabilising or increasing the populations of dolphins, dugongs and turtles by 2020.

While the plan been criticised by the Australian Academy of Science as being too modest in scope, these targets nevertheless represent a considerable challenge, particularly given the short deadlines. And the targets and deadlines are consistent with the seriousness of the specific problems facing the Great Barrier Reef.

The new independent expert panel features a balance of expertise, including ecologists, water quality experts and climate change experts, as well as agricultural and conservation scientists. Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb will chair the panel, which besides supporting the implementation and review of the Reef 2050 Plan will also advise on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, help guide the Reef Trust, and perform other related actions aimed at reversing the downward trend of the Reef’s health.

This panel will also interact with the recently established Great Barrier Reef Water Science Task Force, chaired by Queensland’s Chief Scientist Geoff Garrett. Given the complex set of arrangements for protecting the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland will also be looking at the issue from its own perspective.

All eyes are now on Australia, with this being the first of many steps to be taken by the federal government to reverse the decline of one of the nation’s (and the world’s) greatest environmental assets. With a rapidly changing climate posing one of the severest threats the Great Barrier Reef, federal government leadership is also required at the United Nations Paris climate summit later this year.

Reducing Australia’s contribution to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases remains an urgent priority. Meanwhile, tackling the ever-present dangers from declining coastal water quality remains critically important for Australia and its Great Barrier Reef.

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Dugongs were once on the menu for fishermen in Abu Dhabi

28 June 2015, by Vesela Todorova, The National UAE (UAE)

The dugongs that live in the waters around the UAE enjoy a protected life, with harsh punishments for anyone caught hunting the gentle mammals. In the past, the animals, which can weigh up to 300 kilograms, had been an important source of protein for fishermen.

Findings at an archaeological site on the island of Marawah have shown the relationship between man and dugong was well established by the late Stone Age. The remains were found to be 7,500 years old. Dr Mark Beech, head of coastal heritage and palaeontology at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority said dugongs were most probably killed for food, although the presence of human remains within the building indicated they may have been placed as an offering.

This is not the only piece of evidence pointing to the ceremonial use of dugongs. A 40-centimetre mound containing the remains of about 40 animals was found on the island of Akab in Umm Al Quwain. More than 6,000 years old, the dugong remains were part of a complex and intentional arrangement. Skulls were found aligned in rows facing east, while bundles of ribs painted with ochre dye were laid in front of the first row of skulls.

The late Islamic period graveyard near Al Ghubba village on Marawah also points to the ceremonial significance of dugong remains. During a survey in 1992, scientists found graves that had been dug between the 16th and 18th century. Two of them had dugong remains placed beside them. This, said Dr Beech, was a variation on traditional Islamic practice that relies on simple grave markers for headstones.

Dr Himansu Das, unit head for marine threatened species and habitats at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, said One of the reasons the waters around Marawah were declared protected was to preserve its extensive seagrass beds, which provide food for dugongs. About 1,600 of the animals live in the area, Dr Das said.

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Call for more protection for seagrass meadows

27 June 2015, BBC News (UK)

Seagrasses - the underwater plants that act as nursery grounds for young fish - need more protection, say scientists.

Monitoring of seagrass meadows off the North Wales coast found areas damaged by the likes of boat moorings, anchors and vehicles crossing at low tide had reduced value to the ecosystem.

Fewer species of fish were found where seagrass was degraded, according to research published in PeerJ journal.

The seagrass studied was near the village of Porthdinllaen, in Gwynned.

Researchers at Swansea University studied areas with both high and low cover over a 28-hectare stretch of sea bed.

They also sampled fish living in the underwater meadows of flowering plants.

There was a three-fold reduction in the diversity of fish species and invertebrates, such as prawns, shrimp, juvenile cod and juvenile plaice, in areas of low cover, said lead researcher Dr Richard Unsworth.

He said that in the areas that had become damaged, there was "a reduction in diversity of the species and in the value of the habitat for juvenile fish".

The seagrass is in a special area of conservation, which is a strictly protected site under the European Habitats Directive.

However, despite this protection it was still being degraded, he said.

"We have a lot of legislation in the UK already to conserve a lot of marine habitats but these mechanisms do not have enough financial clout," said Dr Unsworth.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society said the study reaffirmed that seagrass meadows are important habitats that should be protected.

"This research shows that disturbance to seagrass beds negatively impacts on ecosystems, and the capacity for these habitats to support a wealth of species.

"It is further evidence that protection measures are needed to preserve these diverse but fragile places."

Seagrasses are also found in several marine conservation zones off England.

Some marine conservation zones have already designated, with others due for consideration next year.

Conservation groups, backed by MPs, have been calling for a full network of protected zones to be created around the coastline of the UK.

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Want to experience the estuaries up close?

26 June 2015, Boca Beacon (USA)

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is hoping that bringing people into close contact with the nature around them will help convince people of the need for preservation.

They have begun shuttling people to see the preserves firsthand, for free.

“The main goal is for people to have a good time and enjoy the resources,” said Stephanie Erickson, CHAP environmental specialist. She added that she hopes people will take from the experience a better understanding of seagrass beds and why it’s important to protect them.

That need for protection is crucial because of how many different kinds of wildlife spend part of their life in the fragile ecosystems like marine grass beds. Florida’s 2,000,000 acres of seagrass beds filter water, stabilize sandy bottoms, and provide shelter for marine life – over 80 percent of all recreationally and commercially important fish species depend on seagrass in some way, according to material provided by CHAP.

But they are also susceptible to human activity, particularly damage from boat. Efforts to rehabilitate and replant seagrasses have been supplemented by F.L. 253.04 (3)(a), which makes destruction of seagrass in Aquatic Preserves a violation of law that carries a penalty of up to $1,000.

CHAP monitors not only seagrass, but water quality and colonial nesting birds, and keeps invasive species like Australian Pines and Asian Green Mussels at bay.

They also provide education and outreach through programs like the snorkeling trips. Most recently, participants were taken to the trestles near the north end of Gasparilla Island to explore and look for creatures large and small, from dolphin and great egrets, to pinfish and stone crabs.

The trips last approximately two hours and gear, obtained through a grant, is provided, but participants should wear a bathing suit and bring any needed towels, water, or sun protection like hats and sunscreen.

There is no cost, but participants must pay $5 for parking at the Gasparilla Marina, from which the trip departs.

Erickson said the response has been great and that many upcoming trips are full. They will add some dates, but those interested shouldn’t hesitate to contact CHAP at (941) 575-5861 for more information about how to reserve a spot.

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Great Barrier Reef water quality to be monitored in real time in pollution crackdown

26 June 2015, The Guardian (Australia)

The Queensland government will use new real-time water quality monitoring to take action against industrial and agricultural polluters of the Great Barrier Reef, says the state environment minister.

Steven Miles also defended the role of the state’s largest coalminer, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA), as a cornerstone investor in the “eReef” tool, despite carbon-driven climate change being the reef’s greatest long-term threat.

The online tracking, which models the effect of sediment and chemicals in reef waters via satellite, will be showcased to world heritage committee members in Germany next week before Unesco’s final ruling on whether to list the reef as “in danger”.
Great Barrier Reef shouldn't be on 'in danger' list for now, says Unesco
Read more

Asked whether BMA’s involvement in the project was ironic, Miles said the miner’s contribution showed their “commitment to … managing whatever impacts their business might be having on the reef”.

“I’ve said repeatedly that the big long-term threat to the reef is ocean warming and acidification, both caused by carbon pollution,” he said.

“Much of what we’re doing here is about resilience, making sure the reef is in the best possible shape to deal with those coming threats.

“I think what you’re seeing in terms of BHP’s involvement is their intention to be a long-term positive contributor to Queensland and to support our efforts to protect the reef and I certainly welcome that.”

Miles said the chance to address climate change would be at the UN conference in Paris in November and called on the federal government to implement “targets that will see Australia do what it needs to do to limit global warming to 2C”.

Scientists hope the tracker will help transform stewardship of the reef, with the public able to measure progress in checking flows of sediments, nutrients and pesticides into reef waters via local rivers.

Miles said eReef would also be a useful tool for the government in forcing local industry to stop or limit pollution.

“What this will do is strengthen our case in going to particular industries and sectors and saying, look it’s no longer a suspicion that what you’re doing is having an impact, we know it is and here we can show you,” he said.

It also partly addressed recent concerns flagged by the state auditor general about the need to “invest more in the science that tells us what impact we’re having”.

“So we can say, you don’t need to take our word for it, you can jump on eReef and can compare two similar storms, compare the sediment impact to see whether it’s making a difference,” Miles said.

“It’s not all the solution by any measure and the bigger and harder thing we need to do is to have more monitoring, so we’re measuring more and modeling less.”

Miles also believed eReef would make a “powerful” impact on Unesco delegates before the final ruling on the reef.

“It’ll certainly be one of the tools we’ll have with us to show the member countries just the scale and level of our investment in monitoring the reef and monitoring our impact over time,” he said.

“One of the things that’s hard to explain to people around the world is just how big and complex this system is. They’re much more used to dealing with world heritage sites that are much, much smaller.

“So being able to show the scale and how we’re gradually getting our data down to more granular levels, we can much more accurately see where the changes we’re making are working.”

Scientists hope satellite advancements will soon enable viewers to go from square kilometres to square metres at high resolution. Their aim is to achieve realtime monitoring, as opposed to daily monitoring, by 2017.

Crown of thorns starfish outbreaks, and the health of coral and seagrasses will also be monitored.

Dr Andy Steven, the CSIRO research director on coastal development and management, said eReef gave “an unprecedented ability to provide current conditions and even forecast conditions so that we can start to respond and anticipate”.

BMA joined the federal government, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology and the Science and Industry Endowment Fund in putting $11m into the foundation running the project after an initial $3m investment from the Queensland government.

More information: Click Here

'Genetic Rescue' Could Save Coral Reefs Threatened By Global Warming

25 June 2015, Tech Times (Australia)

Corals naturally able to survive in the hottest tropical waters may be bred with cousins in cooler seas in the form of a "genetic rescue" that could help them survive the growing threat of global warming, researchers are suggesting.

A study involving scientists at the University of Texas at Austin found that corals inhabiting warm waters around Australia's Great Barrier Reef showed an ability to survive greater increases in temperatures than an identical species from cooler waters just 300 miles to the south.

The finding raises the possibility that deliberately planned breeding efforts could pass on the heat-tolerant genes to help some coral reefs adapt to climate change, the researchers suggest in a study appearing in the journal Science.

"Coral larvae with parents from the north, where waters were about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) warmer, were up to 10 times as likely to survive heat stress, compared with those with parents from the south," the scientists wrote.

While the heat-tolerant genes are likely to eventually spread through natural migration to the stressed corals, there is no reason that process can't be helped along and sped up by human efforts, researchers say.

"These mutations are already there, they just need to be spread out," says UT biologist Mikhail Matz.

The heat-tolerant genes were discovered by researchers attempting to cross-breed a branching coral known as Acropora millepora, found in the northern regions of the Great Barrier Reef, with examples of the same species found further south.

The result was heat tolerance displayed by the offspring of the cross-breeding, they say.

"The take-home message is that the genetic capacity is already there," Matz says.

Such a "genetic rescue" could ultimately be more effective than current proposals that would see adult forms of the species physically shuttled from one area to another.

"Coral larvae can move across oceans naturally, but humans could also contribute, relocating adult corals to jump-start the process," Matz says.

That would require permission from the Great Barrier Reef Park Authority, the researches note.

The researches said global warming was not the only threat faced by the world's coral reefs; pollution and increasing acidification of the ocean are also taking their toll.

Even a genetic rescue would not be "a magic bullet that will safeguard corals from the multitude of stressors they are currently facing," says study co-author Line Bay from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Additionally, it wouldn't provide a permanent solution in the face of ongoing ocean warming, the researchers warn.

"Eventually, the corals will run out of genetic variation," Matz says. "But this might buy us time. We might feel safe for the next few decades."

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Study finds Tampa Bay seagrass growth, bottom health improving

25 June 2015, 83degreesmedia (USA)

In any body of water, the benthic zone, or bottom layer, can be considered a good indicator of the water body’s overall health.

A 20-year study of Tampa Bay’s benthic ecological region shows that as a whole, Tampa Bay's waters are in fair-to-good condition.

Middle and Lower Tampa Bay, which comprise over 50 percent of Tampa Bay’s surface area, were rated “Good.”

Hillsborough Bay and some of the smaller or more heavily urbanized bodies of water within Tampa Bay (including Boca Ciega Bay, Terra Ceia Bay and Manatee River) were ranked “Poor.” Old Tampa Bay was rated “Fair.”

The 20-Year Tampa Bay Benthic Community Trends Study, released by the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, was conducted from 1993-2012. Ratings were determined using criteria from the EPA’s National Coastal Assessment program and the Tampa Bay Benthic Index.

For two decades, random samples were collected at more than 1,500 sites across Tampa Bay’s main segments, which total just shy of 400 square miles. The samples were taken in late summer and then processed in the EPC’s labs.

Sampling data monitored animal communities in the Bay (over 1,500 invertebrate animal species were identified); sediment composition and contaminants (heavy metals, pesticides, etc.); salinity; temperature; pH levels, and more.

The study found that the majority of Tampa Bay sediments at the bottom layer do not contain high levels of contaminants; exceptional sites with higher contaminant levels were primarily found in Hillsborough Bay.

The collection and processing of data for the study was initiated two decades ago by the Tampa Bay National Estuary Program (TBEP), and continues today as a cooperative effort between Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties.

Study results reveal continued improvement in Tampa Bay’s “fair to good” regions, Dr. David Karlen, the EPC Chief Environmental Scientist who authored the report, explained in a news release.

“Baywide, we’ve seen improvement in the benthic index, which is an overall summary of all species,” Karlen says.

Along with Karlen, report authors include Kevin W. Campbell; Dr. Thomas L. Dix; Barbara K. Goetting; Joette M. Jernigan; and Sara E. Markham.

The report includes recommendations for the future monitoring of benthic communities in Tampa Bay, although additional funding is required to support continued analysis and monitoring programs.

Recommendations include:

  • Special study of some sites within Tampa Bay, including Port Tampa Bay (which contains Ybor and Sparkman Channels and Garrison Channel), East Bay, Clam Bayou and Bayboro Harbor.
  • Increased monitoring of river and tidal tributary systems, low salinity areas that serve as nursery areas for many species. These include the Hillsborough, Palm, Alafia and Little Manatee Rivers. Known high sediment contaminants in several rivers could have potential impacts.
  • Expanding lab analysis to include newer sediment contaminants, such as microplastics.

"The benthic report gives us insight into the legacy (longterm) contaminants that can be found in the sediment," TBEP senior scientist Ed Sherwood says in a news release.

Problem areas indicated by the benthic report will help to guide the estuary program, determine the next step in special studies, track long-term trends in the benthic community and form management policy, Sherwood says.

Another indicator that Tampa Bay is in good shape: seagrass is flourishing. Like a benthic ecological region, seagrasses can be a good measure of a body of water’s overall health. In the case of Tampa Bay, it's on the rise.

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Adani confirms work halted at controversial coal project by the Great Barrier Reef

25 June 2015, (Australia)

Indian conglomerate Adani Mining has halted preparatory engineering work on its debated Carmichael project in Queensland, Australia, one of the world’s biggest untapped thermal coal deposits.

The company, which cited uncertainty and delays in approvals, said that despite the challenges it remains committed to the project, which has been at the centre of an ongoing the battle among environmentalists, the company and the fossil fuel industry.

“As a result of changes to a range of approvals it’s necessary to synchronize our budget, project timelines and spending to meet those changes,” the miner said in a statement.

"It is important to note we are now into the fifth year of development and approvals and therefore the need to finalize those approvals and timelines is critical," it added.

But the Queensland government denied Thursday any responsibility on the delays, adding that —to date— all state regulatory processes have been completed to schedule, as reported by The Guardian.

Adani has signed up buyers for about 70% of the 40 million tonnes coal the Carmichael project is due to produce in its first phase, with production expected to begin in late 2017.

The massive project is mainly waiting for on environmental approval to deepen Abbot Point port on the fringe of Australia' Great Barrier Reef in order to ship the coal, a proposal generating opposition worldwide.

An earlier plan to dump 3 million cubic metres of soil dredged at the port of Abbot Point into the sea about 25 km (15 miles) from the Great Barrier Reef was rejected.

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Great Barrier Reef: Researchers map coral DNA to pinpoint species most resilient to climate change

25 June 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

Researchers are unlocking the genetic secrets of corals on the Great Barrier Reef in a bid to preserve them for the future.

Scientists involved in the world-first study are mapping the DNA of 10 species of coral in the World Heritage Area to work out which are more resilient to threats such as climate change and farm run-off.

Chief scientific officer Eva Abal from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation said the species of boulder coral, porites lutea, is the first to be finished.

"Boulder corals, or the massive corals, tend to be more resilient to threats that face the reef now and that's why I think understanding how they're able to adapt to these threats is critical," she said.

David Bourne from the Australian Institute of Marine Science has been analysing samples from the reef for the study.

He said understanding the genetic makeup of the species will help devise a plan to protect it.

"Understanding our genome has revolutionised a lot of medical approaches to understanding diseases," Mr Bourne said.

"For corals, it's the same process, it's no different from any other animal.

"If we have that understanding of the genes and what leads to the basic physiological response, then we can actually create management strategies to help corals into the future."

It is estimated there are about 1000 species of coral in the world's oceans but the DNA of just two has previously been mapped.

In this study, scientists used samples from the whole coral organism including the algae and microbes that support it.

Ms Abal described the approach as ground-breaking.

"We've found that these communities are very special for corals," she said.

"They can provide food to the algae and the corals and they can also possibly provide other materials that can be beneficial to the coral.

"In the past, it was only the coral organism, but now we've found the microorganisms that live around the corals are as important as the algae and the coral animal itself."

Mr Bourne said mapping the DNA of boulder coral was a crucial step toward the conservation effort.

"If we have an understanding of the basic genomic resources of coral, from all partners of the corals, then we can look into questions about resilience.

"Can we actually aid corals by using certain genomic traits that allow them to live at higher temperatures or increased nutrients."

More information: Click Here


The Giant cow that swam the ocean

25 June 2015, BBC Earth

A modern illustration of Steller's sea cow (credit: Christian Darkin/SPL)

Not so long ago, a sailor navigating the cold waters of the northern Pacific Ocean might have had every chance of being confronted by a giant cow.

This cow would have measured 10 metres long, and weighed between five and ten tonnes.

And it would have been the most adept swimmer, spending its days cruising the seas, grazing on fields of grass growing underwater.

The cow in question was known as Steller’s sea cow. It is now extinct, having left this earth almost 250 years ago.

But many people are unaware that such a huge and extraordinary creature once existed, or know its incredible story.

And even today, scientists are still discovering fundamental insights into the life and history of this huge, lumbering, but almost mystical animal.

Steller’s sea cow didn’t look anything like the modern cows we rear for meat and milk.

It belonged to a different group of mammals, known as the Sirenia, named after the mermaids of Greek mythology that were known as sirens.

Today, four species of Sirenia still exist, grouped into two distinct families.

One, the dugong (Dugong dugon) of South East Asia, measures some 3 metres long, weighing around 400 kg.

There are also three species of manatee; the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). These can grow to 4 metres long and weigh almost 600 kg, and the three species of manatee are more closely related to each other than the dugong.

All have large rotund bodies, downturned snouts, short rounded paddle-like flippers, and a horizontal tail fluke that they use to move around.

But Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was much, much bigger. It reached a length of 10 metres and different sources suggest it could have weighed anywhere between 4,000-11,000 kgs.

It also lacked teeth, surviving by using a pair of broad horny pads to chew kelp.

Surprisingly perhaps, the first recorded sighting of a Steller’s sea cow didn’t happen until 1741, when a sailing expedition led by Captain Vitus Bering of the Russian Navy was marooned on an desolate, treeless uninhabited island, later named Bering Island, in what is today known as the Bering Sea.

The sailors survived by hunting and eating the huge sea cow.

They documented its habits and number, with estimates suggesting that perhaps 1500 or fewer lived around the island.

Like its modern relatives, the sea cow aggregated in herds. That and its slow-moving, almost docile behaviour made it easy prey.

The sea cow was studied by a single scientist, Georg Steller, after whom the species is named.

The skull of an extinct Steller's sea cow (credit: VPC Travel Photo/Alamy)

Steller described the sea cow’s 3 to 4-inch thick blubber as tasting something like almond oil, which might have played an unfortunate role in its demise.

Those sailors that escaped Bering Island spread word of the bounty of meat to be found off its shores. Each year new expeditions hunted the animals.

One report stated that one sea cow could feed 33 men for a month, and it was thought sailors stored the meat on ships to feed themselves on voyages lasting up to a year.

Incredibly, the last sea cow was reported killed in 1768, just 27 years after the island and species had been discovered by modern man.

Scientists have since tried to establish whether these hunting expeditions killed off the sea cow, or whether other factors played a role.

One idea is that humans also hunted sea otters on the island. These otters fed on sea urchins, and the otters' absence caused an explosion in sea urchin numbers.

This plague of sea urchins then ate all the shallow kelp on the sea floor, removing the main food source of Steller’s sea cow, essentially starving the population to death.

A depiction of the now extinct Steller's sea cow (credit: Richard Ellis/SPL)

But studies now suggest this was unlikely and humans did hunt the sea cows far faster than they could reproduce. Hunters may have even killed seven times as many sea cows as they could eat, using wasteful primitive hunting methods, assuming there was an almost infinite supply.

As a result humans drove Steller’s sea cow extinct within three decades.

That makes Steller’s sea cow one of the few truly large mammals known to have been driven extinct in the modern age.

Sirenians are also special as they are one of only two major groups of mammals to have evolved an aquatic lifestyle that allowed them to colonise the oceans.

A new genetic analysis, published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, has now established which animal still living today is the closest relative of the Steller's sea cow.

A survey of the genes held in the nucleus of the animals’ cells confirms that dugongs, rather than manatees, are more closely related to Steller's sea cows.

The dugong now survives as the only truly herbivorous marine mammal, as manatees often frequent fresh water

Many more dugongs are known to have existed in the past, with at least 19 different genera being known from a fossil record that extends back to the Eocene.

There is one other extraordinary thing about these animals: all sirenians may be more closely related to elephants than any other groups of mammals.

Earlier in their history, the first sirenians may have been hippo-sized, four-legged animals that waded into the water to feed on marine algae and sea grasses, learning to swim, only later evolving truly aquatic bodies.

That culminated in the gargantuan Steller’s sea cow, which whales aside, may well have been the largest mammal to live in the modern age.

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Preston Primary School pupils to learn about the importance of seagrass

24 June 2015, Torquay Herald Express (UK)

female spiny seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) shelters is a meadow of common eelgrass (Zostera marina). Photographed in summer (August) in Studland Bay, Dorset

PRESTON Primary School will be one of the first in the South West to learn about the importance of seagrass to marine species.

The Community Seagrass Initiative will be visiting schools to deliver a series of interactive assemblies where they hope to increase awareness of seagrass habitats and allow children to develop a greater emotional investment in undersea environments to ensure their protection in the future.

Preston Primary School Headteacher Scott Ord said: "Our vision for Preston Primary is for us to be an outstanding coastal school, known for an innovative curriculum that delivers excellent outcomes for children. That innovative curriculum must be built on our local community, with an emphasis upon our school values; Respect, Responsibility, Independence, Teamwork, Creativity and Determination.

"We all have a responsibility to look after our environment. We need to do more than tell children this, we need to model it. The Community Seagrass Initiative is a marvellous opportunity for Preston Primary School to show Respect, act Responsibly and enrich our curriculum."

Mark Parry, Community Seagrass Initiative Plymouth Project Manager, added: "Our CSI schools outreach programme will aim to provide opportunities for the younger generations to learn about seagrass, and its importance to many of our marine species.

"The sessions will also be a great way for teachers and pupils to find out how they can get involved in our citizen CSI events and become marine citizen scientists themselves. "

Spearheaded by the National Marine Aquarium, the Community Seagrass Initiative is in partnership with Plymouth University Maine Institute, Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, Weymouth SEALIFE and Living Coasts – and was made possible by a £475,000 grant received by the Heritage Lottery Fund last year.

Seagrass is one of the world's only marine flowering plants, which creates large meadows in shallow waters on sandy seabeds. Seagrass meadows are home to some of the most charismatic species in the UK such as seahorses and cuttlefish, and act as a nursery ground for commercial fish species. They can also improve water quality and stabilise sediments, reducing coastal erosion.

To find out more information about the Community Seagrass Initiative or to get involved, please visit or

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US Ambassador ``Dooms`` Japanese Dugong: Greenpeace

21 June 2015, PanOrient News (Japan)

The U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Ms. Caroline Kennedy, has rejected local opposition of construction of a new U.S military base at Henoko in Okinawa which, according to Greenpeace, threatens extinction of the critically endangered Japanese dugong.

“Not only does this announcement seal the fate of the remaining Japanese dugong, it also flies in the face of communities who have long demanded that their local environment be protected from further destruction,” said Yuki Sekimoto, Head of Media and Communications at Greenpeace Japan.

On Friday (June 19), Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga met U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and expressed opposition to plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma air station in Ginowan to the Henoko coastal district in Nago, both in the southern Japan prefecture.

During the talks, Kennedy reiterated that the planned relocation is "the only solution" to avoid the continued use of the current Futenma base, according to a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. But Governor Onaga said that Kennedy did not respond to his request to allow the prefectural government to conduct environmental research in U.S. military-controlled waters off Henoko.

"Ms. Kennedy said the construction is the only solution to replace the current base at Futemma, which is in a crowded residential area. This is despite reports that the US Ambassador is said to be committed to reducing the burden of US bases on the local Okinawan people and supposedly interested in the protection of Japan’s natural environment," Greenpeace statement said.

Greenpeace Japan said it has delivered over 53,326 signatures to the US embassy in Tokyo as a sign of global support for the Okinawan’s struggle to save the last remaining Japanese dugong. They, along with the Okinawan prefectural government, local community groups and other NGOs have raised concerns about the irreversible environmental impact of the base installation in Oura Bay, Henoko.

“We are very disappointed that the US ambassador has not listened to the growing opposition in Okinawa, across Japan and around the world. We will monitor the situation closely in Henoko and continue to work with communities and civil society groups around Japan to protect our natural environment,” said Yuki Sekimoto,

Dugongs are listed by IUCN and the Japanese Environment Ministry as highly at risk of extinction, with some estimates putting their number to as few as 12.

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Predicting sediment flow in coastal vegetation

16 June 2015, Phys.Org (USA)

Seagrass, kelp beds, mangroves, and other aquatic vegetation are often considered "ecosystem engineers" for their ability to essentially create their own habitats: Aquatic leaves and reeds slow the flow of water, encouraging sediments to settle nearby to form a foundation on which more plants can grow.

Such underwater forests provide shelter to hundreds of organisms, and can also protect shorelines from erosion. However, in the last few decades, large swaths of aquatic vegetation have disappeared around the world, including 100 million acres of wetlands, and thousands of acres of seagrass and kelp beds, in the United States.

In large part, sediment transport—how sediment flows through a region—determines the survival of coastal marshes and mangroves: Plant growth depends on the accumulation of sediment to the seafloor. When strong storms or currents carry sediment away, underwater forests can also wash away, exposing coastlines and riverbanks to erosion.

Now researchers at MIT have developed a simple model that can help scientists understand how and when sediments move through a region of aquatic vegetation, such as a wetland. The researchers say engineers may use this model to design better ways to restore seagrass, mangroves, and other underwater plant beds. For example, using the model, scientists may be able to identify locations where aquatic vegetation may be less prone to erosion.

"Wetlands are very important because they protect our coastal areas, but they are eroding," says Qingjun Yang, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "With this, engineers can do modeling on how the stresses vary, and whether it would be helpful to plant vegetation here or there, based on the equation."

Yang and her colleagues —Heidi Nepf, the Donald and Martha Harleman Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, and postdoc Francois Kerger—have published their results in the journal Water Resources Research.

Catching drift

To estimate sediment transport in aquatic environments, one key factor is what's known as "bed shear stress"—the friction exerted by water at the seabed, which gives scientists an idea of how sediments move across the seafloor. Existing models and equations calculate bed shear stress for underwater environments without vegetation. However, there exist no applicable models for vegetated regions, as plants create more complicated currents and eddies, muddying the picture of sediment transport through such regions.

Yang and her colleagues sought to develop a model of bed shear stress for vegetated environments by first setting up a controlled experiment to simulate sediment transport through a simple, reed-like environment.

In a large, 10-meter recirculating water tank lined with a bottom layer of plastic, the researchers erected thousands of thin dowels to simulate sturdy, marsh-like reeds. They then deposited polymer particles in the water, and ran a pump to circulate water through the tank.

Using a technique called laser Doppler velocimetry, they aimed a pair of lasers into the tank at various depths and positions. The researchers used the lasers' backscattering, or reflected light, to calculate the particles' velocity at a particular location. As the particles were very small, their velocity was equal to that of the surrounding water parcels, or groups of water molecules. The researchers then converted velocity measurements into estimates of friction, or stress, between water parcels, and at the bed.

Shaping the seabed

After multiple trials, the researchers observed that the friction exerted by one water parcel on another resembled a linear function with depth: The deeper a water parcel, the more friction it experienced, with the most stress occurring at the bed. This linear relationship is contrast to a well-established theory of bed shear stress, called "the law of the wall"—a theory that has mostly been applied to nonvegetated regions, and that generally assumes that an aquatic environment exerts constant stress near the bed, regardless of depth.

Yang developed an equation for bed shear stress based on the linear stress observed in the group's experiment. She then used the equation to successfully predict friction at the bed, based on the velocity of water parcels at any location above the bed.

Yang says the model is most relevant for environments with relatively smooth beds and emergent vegetation—long, thin plants, such as reeds, that extend from the seabed to the water surface.

"We can use this model to predict how much energy it takes for sediment to begin to flow, and how fast the flow has to be," Yang says. "The faster the flow, the more friction is exerted on the bed, and the more the sediment begins to move. Then we know how the land will evolve, and how we can shape and design vegetation and soil so they can live on without much erosion."

"As anyone can imagine, the presence of plants makes the flow patterns very complicated—we can only approach the problem from a statistical perspective, by modeling relevant statistics of the flow field through the plants," says Francesco Ballio, a professor of civil engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan who was not involved in the research. "This model can be already used for calculation of the flow field in vegetated water systems such as rivers and wetlands. … As a consequence, it may be incorporated also as a component of more complex eco-hydrodynamic models for water bodies management and restoration. But this will require some testing."

More information: "Estimation of the bed shear stress in vegetated and bare channels with smooth beds." Water Resour. Res., 51, DOI: 10.1002/2014WR016042

Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This story is republished courtesy of MIT News (, a popular site that covers news about MIT research, innovation and teaching.

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Turtle rescued from poachers

18 June 2015, Cayman Compass (Cayman Islands)

Poachers were disturbed in the act as they attempted to drag a 400 pound nesting green sea turtle off a West Bay beach.

The three men fled the area, leaving the turtle lying on its back, after they were interrupted by a fisherman, out with his dog, at around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Police and Department of Environment officials were called to the scene and the turtle was helped safely back to the sea. Department of Environment enforcement officer Mark Orr said it had taken four people to lift the turtle over the ironshore and back to the water.

“We took some DNA samples and measurements and carried her about 100 feet to get back to the water. She wouldn’t have been able to make it back on her own from where we found her,” Mr. Orr said.

He said Department of Environment patrols, which monitor the beaches and tag nesting turtles, do their best to protect the animals and prevent poaching, but incidents continue to occur.

“The usual thing is that they cut [the turtles] up and sell the meat. Unfortunately, they would not have had much trouble going door to door and selling it. We are still fighting this idea that it is traditional and people have a right to catch them.

“We don’t have the numbers to support that anymore. We have to keep battling against it.”

A 400 pound turtle could have made the men more than $1,000 on the black market, Mr. Orr believes. He said turtles were a “target of opportunity” for poachers. The Department of Environment typically sees around two to three incidents of turtle poaching every year.

During nesting season, volunteers patrol the beaches to count the number of nests and ensure the safety of the turtles and their nests.

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Research pact signed to protect ecology

15 June 2015, The Gulf Times (Qatar)

The General Directorate of Natural Reserves Private Engineering Office (PEO) and ExxonMobil Research Qatar (EMRQ) have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to protect Qatar’s ecology. The MoU provides a collective framework for the research and resources needed to fulfill long-term goals of increasing knowledge about marine habitats and species in Qatar.

Under the newly signed MoU, EMRQ will leverage existing information gathered with its research partners, Qatar University and Texas A&M at Galveston, on the local population of dugongs. The MoU also enables EMRQ to provide PEO with technical advice, scientific data and technology transfer, as well as training and capacity building opportunities, among others. Dr Jennifer Dupont’s (EMRQ research director) team will work collaboratively with academic research partners, along with government agencies such as the PEO, to secure necessary resources and scientific expertise needed to ensure dugongs are protected and live unhindered in their natural habitat.

Historically, dugongs have had a cultural and economic importance to Qataris, having been used as both an economic and food resource in the Arabian Gulf for more than 7,500 years. Qatar is home to the largest population of dugongs outside of Australia with two of the three most important regions in the Arabian Gulf. Currently, dugongs in Qatar face challenges including incidental fishing and habitat degradation.

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Improvements in wastewater treatment produce cleaner coastal waters in Catalonia

10 June 2015, Phys.Org (Spain)

Posidonia oceanica : useful bioindicators for environmental monitoring programmes. (Credit: Matteo Ciani)

A study, published in the journal Ecological Indicators proves that Catalan coastal waters are in a good ecological status. In order to make such a positive statement, the study analysed the evolution of the seagrass Posidonia oceanica, a species that shows an extraordinary sensitivity to changes in water quality.

Water quality improvement is largely due to the implementation of better wastewater treatment systems.

Water quality improvement has occurred along the Catalan coast (Spain), but it has been particularly important in the most affected and damaged areas. For the period 2003 to 2010, improvements in several plant physiological and biochemical parameters have been detected; they indicate not only a nutrient and organic matter reduction, but also an increase of water transparency.

Biological indicators, like the seagrass Posidonia oceanica, are useful tools for environmental monitoring programmes because they allow obtaining an integrated response to marine ecosystem alterations. For the last fifteen years, universities, CSIC research centres and the Catalan Water Agency have worked together and their research on water quality bioindicators has become pioneer in Spain and Europe. To date, bioindicators were particularly used to detect degradation. Sensitive indicators are required to detect ecosystem improvement and the present study is pioneer in this sense.

From 1990 to 2010, wastewater treatment plants were ameliorated and three hundred new ones were built in Catalonia. These actions reduced nutrient and organic matter discharges into the sea.

Considering public investments made in improving coastal water quality, authors highlight that it is necessary to have a powerful tool to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and guide environmental policies. Therefore, monitoring programmes, like the one in which this study is based, must continue to receive institutional and economic support.

More information: "Detecting water quality improvement along the Catalan coast (Spain) using stress-specific biochemical seagrass indicators." Ecological Indicators Volume 54, July 2015, Pages 161–170 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2015.02.031

Provided by University of Barcelona

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