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Seagrass hints at Indian River Lagoon rebound - Florida Today

27 July 2015, Florida Today (USA)

 

Green shoots of recovery are sprouting up throughout the Indian River Lagoon.

A three-year, $110,000 experiment has offered hints of hope that the lagoon's seagrass can recover from a freefall, triggered by a 100-mile-long algae bloom in 2011.

In still-barren spots where scientists transplanted seagrass from healthier areas of the lagoon, grass grew back, but often, not for long.

Some of the transplants couldn't withstand the voracious appetites of manatees, sea turtles and other marine grazers. The small transplants, encircled within plastic fences or metal cages, became salad bars for long-famished grazers that have for years faced slim pickings for seagrass. Manatees often munched up what grew back once protective metal cages or plastic fences were removed, or pinfish swam through openings in the plastic fences for a meal. But the bottom line was what scientists had hoped to prove.

"If seagrass gets there, can it survive? The answer seems to be 'yes,' a pretty definitive 'yes,' in absence of grazing," said Bob Virnstein, an environmental consultant with Seagrass Ecosystems Analysts in Palatka.

Officials think larger-scale transplants might overcome the grazing pressure. But they're unsure whether such transplants would be worth the cost, which can run hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre, or if it makes more sense to let the grass recover on its own. Transplants may be an option to jump start seagrass in Melbourne, Palm Bay and other areas now barren of grass. A final report on the project is due in September.

Cloudy waters and hungry grazers were among the biggest challenges to growing back the grass, the scientists say.

On a trip Wednesday to a transplant site in Palm Bay, Lori Morris ducked underwater to run her fingers through lush strands of shoal grass inside the protective plastic cages.

The water is so cloudy that the thin blades of grass can't be seen from the surface in water only a few feet deep.

"This was a gorgeous bed," said Morris, a scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, in waist deep water.

They run into another Catch-22 when trying to grow back seagrass. The plant needs clear water so that sunlight it requires to grow reaches the bottom. But without seagrass, more sediment stirs up from the bottom, clouding up the water and blocking sunlight.

They call this transplant spot, just south of Ozzie's Crabhouse in Palm Bay, the Exxon site, because it's near a gas station.

Fewer crabs crawl around these parts in recent years, since massive algae blooms over several consecutive years took over.

But something's getting through small openings in the fences that protect the seagrass transplants, maybe pinfish or some other small fish, the scientists suspect.

"No one's seen it happen," said Chuck Jacoby, a supervising environmental scientist with the water management district.

Nearby, a car engine block, covered in barnacles and algae barely breaks the water's surface. Someone dumped it there, maybe as a mooring to anchor a boat. Fish seem to like it.

Marine critters like the seagrass transplants, too. They find them fast.

"The amount of grazing was a surprise," said Bob Chamberlain, a scientist with the district, which is wrapping up its seagrass transplanting study. "The grazing was very important to the lack of recovery."

Two transplant sites along the shoals of Sebastian Inlet faced similar grazing pressure, but fared better because of the clearer water near the inlet.

The scientists use shoal grass, because it's among the fastest growers.

They temporarily placed metal "manatee cages" over many of the transplants to keep ravenous seacows from chomping their experiment bare. But after environmental consultants planted some early tufts of grass, they returned later the same day and found evidence a seacow had made a snack of their work.

The inlet's effort was part of a larger project that transplanted grass at several sites in the lagoon, including sites in Wabasso, the Banana River, the Exxon site and three sites in Sebastian Inlet.

"Manatees, crabs and turtles is I think the combination. Everything kind of got to it," said Martin Smithson, administrator for the Sebastian Inlet District.

"It doesn't appear to be conducive to a widespread public effort at this time."

Crabs and waves rooted up the transplant on the north side of the channel, but the other two sites at the interior of the inlet's shoals withstood the grazing, said Don Deis, a senior scientist with Atkins North America, the inlet district's consultant.

"We just have to wait. I keep predicting 10 to 20 years before we start seeing the mix of seagrasses that we saw before the die-off," Deis said.

"We see grazed areas, but they're not a major problem to the coming back of the species that were once significant in the shoals," he added.

Seagrass provides prime habitat for fish, crabs and other marine life and is considered a key barometer of the estuary's overall health. Each acre of seagrass supports about 10,000 fish and $5,000 to $10,000 in economic activity in the lagoon region, according to St. Johns River Water Management District and other studies.

Transplants are just one way biologists hope to restore some 74 square miles of seagrass lost since 2009, much of it clouded out by algae.

The scientists harvest the seagrass with hand tools only — no machinery — and manually install the grass at the recipient study sites.

Similar grass transplants in recent years have shown success along Sebastian Inlet's interior, patching boat propeller scars and other barren spots. The inlet district saw grass thrive after it had to transplant grass to make up for seagrass impacted by an August 2007 dredging of the channel. But large influxes of algae-ridden water from the north wiped out most of the grass along the inlet shoals, scientists said.

The lagoon has undergone severe seagrass loss since 2011, when an unprecedented phytoplankton "superbloom" clouded out the sunlight seagrasses need to grow. Then a brown tide bloom hit the northern lagoon and southern Mosquito Lagoon. The same algae species bloomed almost eight years in a row in Laguna Madre, Texas, making it the longest harmful algae bloom ever recorded.

In the aftermath of the blooms here, more than 135 manatees, 75 bottlenose dolphins and 250 brown pelicans died.

One positive sign scientists find at Sebastian Inlet is the emergence of Johnson's seagrass, listed federally as a "threatened" species.

It's pioneering roots typically precede a seagrass rebirth, providing substrate for other species of seagrass to latch onto and grow.

Spots farther from any inlet face a much longer road to recovery.

At the Exxon site in Palm Bay, what appears to be a small crab scampers across the bottom of one of the fenced-in grass transplants.

A pair of much larger, fist-sized crabs cling to one of the other fences.

Meanwhile, the researchers cling to hopes that more green shoots will soon sprout, enough to fend off all the grazers.

"There is recruitment," Morris said of the recent natural sprouting up of seagrass near the transplants. "It's just going to take a lot longer."

More information: Click Here


 

Researchers probe how much sulfide Puget Sound eelgrass can withstand

19 Jul 2015, goskagit (USA)

Western Washington University student Mike Adamczyk collects water samples Thursday from mud near the roots of eelgrass seedlings growing in the lab at the Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes. Photo Credit: Kimberly Cauvel / Skagit Valley Herald

What’s green, thin, slimy and sways in the water?

It’s eelgrass, an often unseen marine plant that is important for the environment and economy in the Puget Sound region.

The eelgrass in Puget Sound is sort of like a canary in a coal mine for the underwater world, serving as an indicator of marine health. It can affect many species that depend on it, from crabs to salmon.

“We want eelgrass to stay around because we know it’s such an important part of the ecosystem,” marine scientist Sylvia Yang said. “That’s why the Puget Sound Partnership cares about it.”

The partnership is a state agency formed to lead the region’s effort to protect the sound.

The agency has helped fund one of the latest local studies of the sea grass, a two-year research project Yang and Western Washington University environmental science professor David Shull are leading at the university’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes. Washington Sea Grant, a federal grant program managed through the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, is the primary sponsor.

“Eelgrass provides a number of important habitat functions for the nearshore environment, including acting like a nursery for forage fish like herring, … but we still need to learn what is controlling eelgrass health and growth,” Puget Sound Partnership spokeswoman Alicia Lawver said. “We hope this study will shed some light on water quality issues.”

Yang and Shull are working this summer with seven students — a mix of undergraduates and graduate students from WWU and other universities across the nation.

Western Washington University student Mike Adamczyk collects water samples Thursday from mud near the roots of eelgrass seedlings growing in the lab at the Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes. Photo Credit: Kimberly Cauvel / Skagit Valley Herald

Collectively, the team and those who have contributed to the project since its start in February 2014 are hoping to find out how well Puget Sound eelgrass grows and reproduces in areas with different levels of sulfide, found in the mud around its roots.

The results could help direct eelgrass management in Puget Sound.

The Puget Sound Partnership has set the ambitious goal of adding 10,600 acres of eelgrass in Puget Sound by 2020.

So far, the agency has found eelgrass in Puget Sound has held relatively stable since 2000.

Knowing how much sulfide can harm eelgrass could help restoration and conservation groups use their resources efficiently.

“Knowing that money resources are limited, what are places where maybe if you leave it alone it’s OK and where it’s critical that you do something?” Yang said.

Another question the research team hopes to answer is how the effect of sulfide varies for the plant at different life stages.

Bacteria create sulfide when they feed on material that is decomposing under water, such as rotting wood or dead sea creatures.

The students working under Shull and Yang’s direction this summer are doing field work in Padilla Bay and lab work at Shannon Point.

Padilla Bay is an ideal field site because of its large expanse of eelgrass, which is being mapped through another research project lead by Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve staff and volunteers.

“We know it’s a place where eelgrass is already (abundant), and so we want to look at the biology of the plant there,” Yang said.

Laura Tripp, a student from Minnesota who is studying at Shannon Point through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, is sampling the water in the mud for iron content.

Her research partner, WWU graduate student Allie Simpson, is doing the same for sulfide.

The pair collected their first samples Wednesday from Padilla Bay.

They push a plastic device about the size of a DVD case into the sand vertically, allowing a gel material placed inside it to soak in the water without getting caught in the mud.

For Tripp, a heavier pink color on the final product means more iron. For Simpson, dark splotches among an otherwise light yellow gel indicate patches of sulfide.

Because sulfide occurs in pockets, other students are collecting water directly from the mud at Padilla Bay.

A second sampling method involves using a straw-like plastic tube with holes the size of pin-pricks on one end and an opening for a syringe on the other. It’s called sipping.

It’s a complex process that ensures water is pulled from the mud without allowing contact with oxygen, which can change the sulfide into other compounds, said WWU biology student Mike Adamczyk.

The research team said comparing results from the two methods will paint a clearer picture of how much sulfide is in the area.

“We’re trying to learn as much as we can with all the different methods,” Yang said.

More information: Click Here


 

Turtle - hater shoots turtle rescue volunteer in South Florida

19 July 2015, Al.com, Florida (USA)

On Friday night, a turtle rescue led to violence in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea in South Florida, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Two volunteers determined to protect sea turtle nests were confronted by a man saying he dislikes turtles and turtle volunteers, according to one of the volunteers.

One of the volunteers was hospitalized with a gunshot wound and the man who confronted them was arrested, the Broward Sheriff's Office said.

Michael Q. McAuliffe, 38, has been jailed without bond on two charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and battery on a person 65 or older.

Stan Pannaman, 72, was taken to Broward Health Medical Center with a gunshot wound to his left hip Friday night. He was home Saturday night with the bullet still embedded in his hip, he said.

Doug Young, president of the South Florida Audubon Society and Pannaman's fellow volunteer, described the strange scene on the beach Friday night.

"There was a man sitting on a bench at the entrance of the beach who was giving off profanity," said Young, 64, of Tamarac. "He got up and went toward one of the nests and very aggressively started pulling the stakes out."

According to the Sheriff's Office, McAuliffe hit Young and then Pannaman pulled out a gun.

"In an attempt to de-escalate the situation, Pannaman pulled a gun out of his pocket," a sheriff's statement said. McAuliffe, undeterred, took the gun away from Pannaman, the agency said.

Young said that Pannaman pointed the gun at the man as he explained that disrupting a sea turtle nest is a felony and he'd better stop.

Young said that Pannaman had put the gun back in his pocket. But then McAuliffe approached Young and hit him. The trio began wrestling, he said. And then McAuliffe had the gun.

"He said, 'I'm going to shoot,'" Young said.

Pannaman turned quickly enough that the bullet hit him in the left hip, Young said.

"The guy freaked out when he saw the wound," Young said, recalling McAuliffe throwing the gun into the sand. "He was saying, 'I can't believe I did this. I can't believe I did this.'"

Richard Whitecloud, founder of Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, which works with Young's group to help distressed hatchlings, said he gets reports nightly about turtle volunteers getting harassed.

"Almost every night our people are dealing with people who are rude, aggressive and pursuing the nesting females," he said.

McAuliffe has had several run-ins with the law, records show. He last year pleaded no contest to battery on a person older than 65, a third-degree felony, and to indecent exposure, a misdemeanor. And in 2008, he was twice arrested on charges of criminal mischief. In each case, he pleaded no contest.

More information: Click Here


No oil found in waters near Great Barrier Reef off north Queensland, authorities say

18 July 2015, ABC Online (Australia)


No oil has been found despite an aerial search after reports of a spill near the Great Barrier Reef off north Queensland, maritime authorities say.

A sheen and small patches of oil about a metre in diameter were reported by water police and an Emergency Management Queensland helicopter off Cape Upstart, about 126 kilometres south-east of Townsville on Friday.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) sent aircraft from Cairns to conduct further inspections of the ocean, islands and coastline south of Townsville this morning and had not found any oil yet.

The search on Friday was prompted by unconfirmed reports of an oil spill in the area.

A Customs aircraft was unable to locate any oil when it searched on Friday morning, a Transport and Main Roads Department spokeswoman said.

Ships passing through the area were asked to be aware.

A Marine Safety Queensland (MSQ) helicopter will inspect the region later today.

More information: Click Here


Manatee: 5 Fun Facts About This Large and Slow-Moving Sea Cow

17 July 2015, Chinatopix


A gentle sea cow known as the manatee has recently been making some buzz after it was seen swimming north and just kept going. According to ABC 2, the large and slow-moving marine mammal was found swimming about in St. George Creek, a Potomac River tributary near Waldorf, Maryland.

Unlike Florida that is well-accustomed to manatee sightings, Maryland is a rather unusual place to find the creature, St. Pete Patch noted. But the National Aquarium explained warmed summer months normally urge these large animals to swim along the East Coast before returning to Florida in winter. Experts also suggested the marine mammal likely headed north from Florida to graze on Chesapeake Bay's sea grasses.

A manatee sighting in Maryland is not as surprising as many would think. In fact, they will head back to Florida once the temperatures start to drop in September, Sentinel Republic revealed.

Meanwhile, here are 5 fun facts about these gentle manatees.

1. Manatees are herbivores that can munch on food for almost half a day. As per Smithsonian, they can be found in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on grass, mangrove leaves and algae. Weighing up to 1,200 pounds, manatees are eating ten percent of their body weight in plant mass daily.

2. Manatees are protected under federal law by Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Save the Manatee Club revealed. They are also listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species. Their vulnerability status is partly attributed to human activity, particularly powerful collisions, residential and commercial developments along rivers and waterways.

3. Despite being known as sea cows, manatees are more closely related to hyrax or the aquatic relative of elephants, Live Science has learned. While most animals have a heart that has a point, manatees and elephants have hearts that are rounded on the bottom.

They are also non-territorial so they often swim alone or in pairs. When manatees are seen in a group, it is either a mating herd or an informal meeting of the species simply sharing a warm area that has a large food supply. A group of manatees is called an aggregation and it usually never grows larger than about six individuals.

4. Manatee's nose and nostrils are often the only thing visible from above the water's surface. As per the National Geographic, manatees never leave the water but, like all marine mammals, they must breathe air at the surface.

A resting manatee can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes, but while swimming, it must surface every three or four minutes. With a single breath, manatees can replace 90 percent of the air in their lungs as compared to humans with only just 10 percent.

5. A manatee has a smooth brain and the smallest brain of all mammals in relation to its body mass. But that doesn't mean they're stupid. Mental Floss noted manatees are "as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate."

Manatees are also nearsighted and can see in blue, green and gray — but not red!

More information: Click Here


Tags reveal secret life of turtles and dugongs

16 July 2015, Gladstone Observer (Australia)


A STUDY that tracks turtles and dugongs in the Port Curtis area will continue into next year to gather more information about the marine animals.

The studies started in 2014 and will continue over a three year period to track the animals' movements to gain information about how the animals are using habitats in Port Curtis, and how long they are staying in particular areas.

In 2014, 11 green turtles were assessed in Port Curtis.

These animals had a tendency to remain in or return to where they were found, but used a variety of microhabitats and crossed deep water areas between foraging areas and areas of high vessel traffic, including shipping channels.

Two dugongs were also found on the Pelican Banks in Port Curtis in 2014.

Both remained in the Port Curtis region for the duration of tagging.

An adult female tracked from October 2014 to January 2015 spent most of her time moving over the Pelican Banks region, while an immature male tracked from October to November 2014 moved widely in Port Curtis including inshore port areas.

As part of the second year of the project, Environment Heritage and Protection officers and students from James Cook University and University of Queensland are in Gladstone to find green turtles and fit satellite tags to 11 new animals.

The tags are glued to the carapace of the animal, where they stay for more than four months.

The tags fall off when the turtles shed their scales.

Before the tagged animals are returned to where they were found, they will be weighed, measured, and assessed for gender, maturity and general health.

Researchers also hope to fit tags on up to three dugongs. They will be attached by a soft strap around the tail and will provide months of data.

EHP Threatened Species Unit chief scientist Dr Col Limpus said members of the community may mistake the satellite tags for litter and may think that the animal has been entangled in a float line.

The tagging projects will run until 2016, but the program comprises research projects until at least 2020 to examine the short, medium and long-term impacts on a range of marine mega fauna.

The studies are being carried out by researchers from JCU and the department, supported by Gladstone Ports Corporation.

More information: Click Here


Port Melville: Increased activity around Tiwi Islands puts dugong, nesting turtles at risk, groups say

15 July 2015, ABC Online (Australia)

Dugongs and turtles that nest around the Tiwi Islands will be put at risk unless the company developing Port Melville takes steps to mitigate the environmental impacts of its operations, three separate environmental groups have claimed.

The Sea Turtle Foundation, the Environmental Defenders Office and the Australian Marine Conservation Society have said in submissions to the federal Department of Environment that greater risks would come with increased ship traffic and more industrial activity through the waters around the islands.

In its submission, the EDO said:

This type of project clearly carries risks to matters of national environmental significance that require environmental approval [including]..

  • increased vessel movements
  • vastly increased potential for oil and chemical spills; and
  • impacts of lighting on internationally significant turtle nesting sites.

The groups are not alone in their concern, with the Federal Environment Department receiving close to 400 submissions calling for greater environmental scrutiny of the operational plans for Port Melville.

The ABC revealed in May the port had been built without environmental clearance from the Northern Territory or Commonwealth governments.

A subsequent investigation ordered by Environment Minister Greg Hunt found the port's developer Ezion Offshore Logistics Hub (Tiwi) had not breached Federal Environmental laws in building the port.

But the Department alerted Ezion its investigation had identified "activities associated with future operations of the Port and Marine Supply Base", including "shipping movements, fuel storage and fuelling activities" that may require environmental assessment under federal law.

"The Department is concerned that the operation aspects of the project ... may impact on listed marine species and/or their habitat," it wrote in a letter to Ezion dated May 8, 2015.

"Our preliminary findings are that the shipping movements, fuel storage and fuelling activities associated with future operations of the Port and Marine Supply Base may be a controlled action for the purposes of the EPBC Act."

Ezion has shared its operational plans with the Federal Government and the NT Environment Protection Authority for assessment.

A 10-day period for public comment on the plans closed on Tuesday.

However, the NT EPA, which assesses the environmental impact of projects under NT legislation, told Ezion in May it had "formed the preliminary view" that the operation of Port Melville did not require environmental assessment "at the level of a public environmental report or any environmental impact statement".

More information: Click Here


 

Dugongs on brink of extinction, poaching continues in India

12 July 2015, Times of India (India)

 

CHENNAI: The Union government's Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) on Wednesday declared that dugongs among the five species to be the focus of conservation, but the marine mammals, ironically called the 'angel of the sea', continue to be poached for their meat.

There are just 250 dugongs in the Indian seas, according to a study by Zoological Survey of India in 2013. Conservation in other places like Australia has seen their population crossing 85,000. In the Gulf of Mannar, the dugong population ranged between 77 and 158, said the survey. In Andamans, there could be 41 to 81 dugongs, and in the Gulf of Kutch, some 10 to 15, said ZSI director K Venkataraman.

The species has been categorized in the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Natural Flora and Fauna ( IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species ( CITES) had classified it under Appendix I, implying that the mammal is under threat. They are poached for their meat.

Feeding on sea grass, dugongs are found in sea grass beds, sheltered waters, lagoons and bays. Fourteen sea grass species are found in the marine waters in the country of which 13 are found in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay areas. Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute records showed that in 1983-84 more than 250 dugongs were killed in Keelakarai and Periapatnam villages in Ramanathapuram. Researchers said a section of people in villages believed that the dugongs carried boxes full of money in their stomach and poached them indiscriminately.

As dugongs had been brought under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, the punishment for poaching is imprisonment, but seldom is anyone punished. "The offenders would get the same punishment as that of killing tigers, leopards or elephants," said a senior officer.

Human intervention, fishing activities, pollution, mixing of excessive nutrients from agricultural fields that gets drained into the coastal waters and mixing of sewage are some of the direct threats to dugong habitats.

More cooperation among countries in the South Asian region is needed to protect them from extinction, says Venkataraman. Sri Lanka has made efforts to protect its small dugong population that migrate from the Gulf of Mannar.

Threat evaluation, putting an end to illegal and incidental captures, reducing marine pollution through serious monitoring are some of the measures researchers suggest to protect dugongs from extinction. CAMPA has announced 4 crore each for conserving five species including dugongs, sangai deer, Gangetic dolphins, wild water buffalo and the great Indian bustard.

More information: Click Here


 

Whale, dugong and turtle populations still reeling from past fishing practices

08 July 2015, ABC Local (Australia)

A young woman rides on the back of a loggerhead turtle at Mon Repos Beach, near Bundaberg, in the 1930s. Photo Credit: State Library of Queensland - www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryqueensland/3208890840/

Can you imagine riding a turtle or fishing for dugongs? These actions sound unthinkable but they were both once considered completely acceptable in the Great Barrier Reef.

Mark Read from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says these practices are still affecting species today, even though they've been outlawed for decades.

"Some of the animals that were affected have got very long life histories, so what happened 100 years ago is actually still influencing our population today," he said.

The harvesting of dugongs began in 1847 and continued for over a century, despite the fact that the animals were officially declared as protected in 1888.

Dugong oil was used in cosmetics and for various ailments, while their hides were used as a high grade leather.

"That came at a real price ... they actually recognised that they were having problems finding enough dugongs for the harvest and they instituted the first closure of the harvest in 1890 - that ran for two years," he said.

"Even that long ago they recognised the impact that they were having on the population, so it's astounding that that harvest continued through until 1969."

Mr Read says green and hawksbill turtles were also harvested until the 1930s.

Hawksbill turtles were used for their shells, while the green turtles were used for meat and to make turtle soup.

Central Queensland tourist attraction Heron Island actually started as a turtle soup factory, before the operation became unviable and was transformed into a resort.

Turtle riding was also a common practice among tourists on Heron Island and other tourist spots in the Great Barrier Reef.

Whale tales

Mr Read says one of the most fantastic events that happens on the Great Barrier Reef is the migration of humpback whales every winter.

But whales were intensively harvested off the Queensland coast only half a century ago.

"That didn't stop until 1963," Mr Read said.

"Tangalooma whaling station on Moreton Bay, just off Brisbane ... they recorded 6,277 humpback whales through their processing plant.

"That stopped once again because it became economically unviable, but also because of international pressure about not harvesting whales."

Mr Read says whales, turtles and dugongs are great examples of how far the management of the Great Barrier Reef has come.

"Even some of the fishing techniques back in the old days ... people used to go out and set monstrous great big nets and use them to harvest dugongs," he said.

"Given that dugongs have got such a high level of protection [now], that's just an illustration of the fact that we've come so far in recognising just how much influence we have on some of these long lived species."

More information: Click Here


 

US ambassador reiterates commitment to controversial Okinawa air base, a setback for endangered dugong

06 July 2015, Mongabay.com (Japan)

Protesters in the Okinawan city of Naha carry signs opposing construction of a new US air base on May 17, 2015. The base would threaten habitat critical for dugongs and is fiercely opposed by local residents. Photo credit: Greenpeace Japan.

Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, has a long history of US military presence on its tropical islands. This presence has not always been universally welcome. A longstanding plan to relocate the major Futenma airbase from the urbanized northeast of the island to a coastal site in Henoko Bay in the less-populated north has provoked the ire of many local residents, the local government, and numerous NGOs. They claim the development, which is in preparatory stages, will cause catastrophic environmental damage and seal the fate in the region of the iconic dugong (Dugong dugon), an elusive and gentle herbivore that is a cousin of the manatee.

Hopes of a long-awaited breakthrough were raised recently when it was announced that Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Japan, was scheduled to meet Takeshi Onaga, the governor of Okinawa who was elected last November on a platform of opposition to the US plan.

But hope soon turned to frustration. In a statement issued by the US embassy in Tokyo following the meeting on June 19, Kennedy reiterated that the Henoko location remains the "only solution" for the new Marine Corps air base as far as the US is concerned. For his part, Onaga claims that the ambassador has not responded to a request from the prefectural government to conduct environmental research in the waters around Henoko that are currently controlled by the US military.

"We are very disappointed that the US ambassador has not listened to the growing opposition in Okinawa, across Japan and around the world," Greenpeace Japan's communications director, Yuki Sekimoto said after the meeting. Greenpeace is among the groups that have been campaigning for years against the base, organizing large protests that have seen thousands of demonstrators in kayaks descend on the Camp Schwab military base near the planned construction site. Ahead of the meeting, the group presented a petition with more than 53,000 signatures urging the US to halt construction.

Kayakers rally against the construction of a new US air base in Okinawa in August 2014. Photo credit: Photo credit: ©Greenpeace / Kayo Sawaguchi.

Battle lines have been drawn ever since the US announced the plan to move the facility way back in 1997. Backed by the current Japanese administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the US has long maintained that the Henoko Bay site is the only viable location for the new air base.

The project's numerous critics claim that no proper environmental impact survey has been carried out and that land reclamation for the construction will destroy coral reefs and two major seagrass beds that serve as the only documented food source for the region's dwindling population of dugongs.

The tropical waters around Okinawa and the Ryukus Islands represent the northernmost range of the species. Estimates of the number of dugongs remaining in the area range from an optimistic 50 (a number recorded in 1997 that pretty much no one believes to be accurate) down to as few as three.

Hideki Yoshikawa is the international director of the Save the Dugong campaign and an anthropologist who teaches at Meio University and University of the Ryukus in Okinawa. He told mongabay.com that although there are other seagrass beds in the region there is no record of dugongs feeding there.

As a result he said the area cited for the base is vitally important — for dugongs as well as for marine life in general. "The area of Henoko and Oura Bay is one of the most biodiversity-rich areas in Okinawa, with more than 5,300 marine species including some 260 endangered species," he said. "This area should be designated as a natural conservation area not as a military base and military training area."

Despite the dugong being listed as critically endangered by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment and as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, critics of the base say their concerns, protests, and numerous legal actions have simply been given the stonewall treatment by the Japanese and US governments.

The local plight of Okinawa's dugongs reflects global pressures. Despite being found across a huge global range that encompasses 48 countries and an estimated 140,000 km of coastline, dugong populations are extremely fragmented with several, such as Japan's, facing extinction. Threats include destruction of habitat, hunting, and marine pollution. The numbers of one population near the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean have reportedly declined by more than 50 per cent in the last 50 years, according to one study.

Japanese coast guard vessels approach kayakers near the US base Camp Schwab, where the new US airstrip is planned, in August 2014. The kayakers are protesting construction of the airstrip. Photo credit: ©Greenpeace / Kayo Sawaguchi.

Ellen Hines, a professor of geography at San Francisco State University, is an expert on dugongs and the seagrass they feed on. She first assisted the campaign to save the Okinawan population when she conducted a survey on their movements in 2007 that established that the animals were feeding on the beds in Henoko Bay. She and colleagues from James Cook University in Australia and the University of the Philippines have helped teach locals how to track the behavior of the often-elusive creatures.

Despite what she described as criticism of her findings at the time by "scientists whose specialty was the arctic," Hines told mongabay.com "there are dugongs in Henoko Bay and they are feeding." She said such an isolated population at the northern extremes of a species' range inherently faces diminished chances of survival. And the Okinawan dugongs are especially vulnerable because their numbers have likely been reduced by human activities, such as hunting, in the wake of World War II.

"We [the US] are failing in our stewardship of the environment," Hines said. "I think the US is pursuing something in Okinawa that it might not necessarily get away with in the US… There are examples of bases where work has been done to protect endangered species there."

Locals say the mammal has deep cultural significance for the people of the region, a point that has featured prominently in the numerous legal actions that have been brought during the campaign to halt construction of the base.

"Our folktales tell us that gods from Niraikanai [afar] come to our islands riding on the backs of dugongs and the dugongs ensure the abundance of food from the sea," Takuma Higashionna, an Okinawan scuba-diving guide, was quoted as saying as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by a number of Japanese and American NGOs last year against the US Department of Defense that sought to block construction of the airstrip.

The suit was brought under a provision of the National Historic Preservation Act that requires the United States to avoid or mitigate any harm to places or things of cultural significance to another country. A US District Court in California rejected the case, but the plaintiffs, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice, are appealing.

Caroline Kennedy's affirmation that the construction work on the base will continue is another sign that the US and Japanese governments do not intend to bow to pressure anytime soon.

For Save the Dugong 's Yoshikawa, Kennedy's refusal to acknowledge environmental concerns was disappointing but he says ultimately it is the government of Japan that has the power to change things.

"I cannot see any better reaction from the Japanese government, especially with Mr. Abe as PM," Yoshikawa wrote in an email. "I often wonder if the Japanese government is afraid of 'losing face,' so to speak. As the US government does not need to deal directly with the people of Okinawa and does not need to worry about the money (as the Japanese government is paying for the construction), the US government just goes along with the Japanese government."

However, for Hines the challenges facing the dugongs and their advocates are no reason to give up after such a long struggle.

"From the moment you saw the first legal case, 'versus the US state department' you knew it was a case of David versus Goliath," she said. "I was really disappointed in the last court decision but it would break my heart if we give up now."

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Great Barrier Reef World Heritage ruling: Still a titanic task ahead

04 July 2015, The Courier Mail (Australia)

TRYING to save the Great Barrier Reef will be like turning around the Titanic, says Terry Hughes, a coral expert who sits on federal and state government scientific panels overseeing repair work.

He warned that emerging El Nino conditions this summer could cause further ocean warming which might lead to a big coral bleaching event like those that occurred in 1998 and 2002. This also could set repair work back.

Professor Hughes, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Studies director, said it was unrealistic to think that 200 years of damage would be repaired quickly, but state, federal and UNESCO actions had put Australia on the right path.

No matter what Australia did about water quality and other problems, climate change remained the Reef’s greatest threat.

“The elephant in the room is climate change,’’ Prof Hughes said.

University of Queensland Global Change Institute director Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said more work was needed to achieve targets set for reducing sediment and nutrient run-off.

If these could be solved, then the greatest short-term threat to the Reef would be averted.

This left climate change still to be dealt with.

“Let’s hope that we get ­committed action out of the Abbott Government before it is too late for one of Australia’s great environmental assets,” he said.

Prof Hughes said Australia had no choice but to meet the targets set by the 2050 plan, otherwise the World Heritage area would end up on the UNESCO in danger list.

“The targets are very ambitious and it’s hard to see how they can be achieved without significant additional funding,” he said.

“The 80 per cent reduction target for nitrogen by 2025, that’s huge. It will be many years before we have detectable changes.”

Marine conservation planning expert Bob Pressey said of the 2050 plan: “We’ve got a plan that doesn’t have enough specifics and still allows ­coastal zone development to the ­detriment of the Reef. It will take a lot more effort than the Government has put in so far to arrest this.

“Climate change is probably the most important issue yet the Government is still looking at digging up more coal and shipping it through the Reef. There’s a basic conflict there.”

He said the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority had done a good job in protecting the Reef but was crippled by cuts in federal funding which had forced out experienced staff.

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Grunter's life choices chronicled in fisheries study

02 July 2015, Science Network Western Australia (Australia)

RESEARCH into populations of the western striped grunter (Pelates octolineatus) on the lower west coast shows the species has a highly seasonal growth pattern and migrate between coastal and estuarine environments depending on their age.

Murdoch University Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research (CFFR) and the Department of Fisheries scientists investigated the species’ life cycle in what was the first study of a terapontid species to use individually aged fish.

“It is crucial to age fish individually in order to determine the age at which they typically become sexually mature or move from one habitat to another i.e. dense seagrass to sparse seagrass,” Murdoch University Professor Ian Potter says.

“Or, in the case of individuals that enter estuaries, at which age this occurs and also at which they depart.”

They determined the abundant grunter spends the first year of its life in nearshore or estuarine seagrass meadows before it migrates into deeper coastal waters with sparser seagrass to mature.

“Dense seagrass beds provide protection from predators and a rich food source,” he says.

They conducted monthly species sampling from March 2009 to February 2011 in both nearshore and offshore coastal waters at Mangles Bay and offshore coastal waters at Safety Bay.

The researchers removed and analysed each fish’s otolith (inner ear bones) and counted the number of opaque zones to determine their age and found fish collected from offshore waters ranged 1-10 years of age.


Summer months usher in peak growth

The study also found pronounced seasonal changes in the species’ growth rates, peaking in the summer months with negligible growth in the winter months.

“Our results provide a particularly good example of how growth varies seasonally in response to temperature—greater metabolism in warmer months—and food availability,” he says.

The species was also found to spawn from October to February.

“This is the period when productivity and thus availability of food for juvenile fish is greatest and when metabolism and thus growth of the juveniles is greatest.”

Observations at the nearshore seagrass meadows at Mangles Bay found the grunter entered the Harvey-Peel Estuary in mid-summer soon after they matured.

Prof Potter says the estuaries’ high productivity made them important nursery grounds and resulted in a higher individual growth rate as opposed to those in coastal waters.

“It illustrates very clearly the ways in which and how a species can use different habitats and environments—nearshore coastal waters and estuaries—as a nursery area,” he says.

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Great Barrier Reef spared Unesco's 'in-danger' listing

02 July 2015, The Guardian (Australia)

The UN has ruled against listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”, congratulating Australia on its conservation plan but giving it five years to halt deterioration of the natural icon.

Unesco’s world heritage committee in Germany on Wednesday unanimously passed an earlier draft ruling that the reef’s status remain unchanged but that Australia must show significant progress in pushing its plan by the end of 2016.

The committee praised Australia’s efforts but said it was still concerned about the threat of climate change, industrial port development and water pollution to the reef.

The environmental groups Greenpeace and WWF, which won praise for bringing concerns about the reef to the fore, told the committee it needed to maintain its scrutiny, given Australia’s support for the coal industry and “troubling signs” in monitoring water quality.

The committee chairwoman, Maria Böhmer, said Australia had done “everything in [its] ability” to engage with the committee’s concerns and its financial commitments were “a decisive foundation for preserving and conserving this brilliant world heritage property”.

But Unesco’s decision was not “the end of the debate, it’s just the beginning of a new phase” as focus turned to Australia’s implementation, she said.

Böhmer said she was convinced Australia would do so with “the greatest intensity”.

Australia came under fire for its care of the reef – which has lost half of its coral cover in 30 years and was on track to further deteriorate – in a tense meeting in Qatar last year.

But it won praise on Wednesday even from vocal critics including Germany and Portugal, with the latter saying that “today happily the future of this outstanding property looks much more promising”.

Committee members broadly commended moves to limit new ports on the Queensland coastline, ban the dumping of dredging spoil in world heritage waters and cut pollution runoff by 80% within a decade.

However, Germany noted the impact of dumping spoil from maintenance dredging for existing ports in reef waters, while Finland spoke of concerns about increased shipping.

The Philippines said Australia needed to address “knowledge gaps” in monitoring a reef 1,400 miles (2,300km) long and extend its vigilance in protecting coral to “seagrass beds, mangroves, floodplains and saltmarshes”.

The committee also heard that legislation and a detailed investment strategy still needed to be put in place by the Australian and Queensland governments.

Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, said the country had “clearly heard the concerns of the world heritage committee” and implemented all its recommendations.

“In fact, the committee’s and in particular Germany’s interest and advice on the reef, has allowed us to do in 18 months what might otherwise have taken a decade,” he said.

Hunt said combined government investment in reef management and research would exceed A$2bn (£1bn) in the next decade with another A$200m in water-quality improvement.

“Having said this, like every reef, there are real challenges such as climate change and water quality, and that is why the new 2050 reef plan is a game-changing 35-year blueprint to protect and build the resilience of the reef,” he said.

Queensland’s deputy premier, Jackie Trad, told the committee that total government investment in reef management in the last financial year alone was A$485m.

Queensland’s minister for the Great Barrier Reef, Steven Miles, told the Guardian from Bonn that Unesco regarded its work around the reef as a “success story” but would be looking to see signs of improvement in its health by 2020.

“Particularly with the effect of restricted dredging, we would love to be able to demonstrate progress by then but really it’s the five-year horizon that’s going to be the best indicator,” he said.

Miles said the “proliferation of port developments” on the Queensland coast “was really what triggered” Unesco’s scrutiny of the reef’s world heritage status.

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come on that. If three or four years ago you’d have [introduced] a complete ban on capital dredging [creating new civil engineering, such as ports, by dredging] apart from import ports, you would have had a riot,” he said. “But to the credit of industry and stakeholders, we’ve introduced that with relatively little controversy.”

Jess Panegyres, political adviser to Greenpeace Australia Pacific, asked the committee to “keep watching Australia” as its plan would not save the reef from the impact of an expanding coal industry onshore.

WWF Australia’s chief executive, Dermot O’Gorman, said the committee had “stood up for the reef with a very strong decision that places Australia on probation for the next five years”.

“It is the right thing to do until the actual condition of the reef improves. Plans alone won’t save the reef. The real work starts now,” he said.

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