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Dated state seagrass report obscures recent dieoffs

27 February 2017, Florida Today (USA)

Seagrass plummetted from record levels in 2009, after algae blooms hit the Indian River Lagoon. (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

A statewide "state-of-the-seagrass" report shows the vital bottom plant was thriving throughout most of Florida, until a few years ago when in some parts of the state brutal algae blooms laid waste to years of conservation efforts.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released a report Monday showing only two of 29 regions in the state with seagrass losses: Choctawhatchee Bay in the Panhandle and the southern Big Bend, south of Tallahassee. But estimates for those two regions were based on data as much as a decade old, the most recent mapping available. And most of the data for the other 27 regions in FWC's report is three or more years old.

For many coastal areas, especially the Indian River Lagoon, more recent seagrass surveys paint a much bleaker picture than FWC's report.

"It's not promising," Lori Morris, an environmental scientist who monitors lagoon seagrass for the St. Johns River Water Management District, said of what she's seen recently along the lagoon bottom. "The brown tide is just clearing out."

The lagoon had "gone dark" for over a year under a massive brown tide algae bloom, which blocked sunlight seagrass needs to photosynthesize. A toxic green algae bloom devastated the St. Lucie estuary last year. Scientists are just beginning to get glimpses of how bad the seagrass fallout is.

In many areas of the central regions of the lagoon, Morris finds moonscapes along the bottom when she dives in search of seagrass.

"There's nothing. There's very,very little drift-algae as well."

Drift algae is the stringy seaweed that resembles "tumbleweed" and often lines the lagoon banks.

Lack of rain reduced runoff this winter, allowing the lagoon and other state waters to clear up and stopped feeding nutrients from the land to the brown tide algae. The Banana River is clear of the algae, Morris said, and the northern lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon are just now clearing up. "Those areas have been a year without sunlight, and that was the last places where we had our dense grass left".

More than 40 scientists from agencies across Florida map and monitor seagrasses statewide and report those ecological health assessments online.

Using available data, researchers estimated there are about 2.5 million acres of seagrass in estuaries and nearshore waters of Florida, which provide ecological services worth more than $20 billion a year.

Among the report's findings:

  • Tampa Bay saw more than 10 percent seagrass growth between 2012 and 2014, exceeding acreage seen in the 1950s;
  • Pensacola Bay system saw a 15.2 percent seagrass increase between 2003 and 2010, growing to more than 1,000 acres;
  • Sarasota Bay's seagrasss increased 2.8 percent between 2012 and 2014, growing to 13,289 acres;
  • Florida Bay grew 1 percent between 2004 and 2010, increasing to 380,681.

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 Indian River Lagoon region, according to St. Johns River Water Management District and other studies.

The newest data in the report was from 2015, for the northern Indian River Lagoon. That data showed seagrass growing to 48,509 acres in the northern lagoon (from about Vero Beach to Ponce Inlet), a 6.3 percent increase since 2013. From about Vero Beach to Ponce Inlet, the lagoon grew more than 70,000 acres of seagrass, according to mapping in 2007 and 2009.

FWC's seagrass monitoring program was developed in 2009 to provide "a collaborative resource for seagrass mapping, monitoring and data sharing," the agency said in a news release. " The report’s second edition was funded by grants from the FWC’s State Wildlife Grants Program and the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

By 2009, the Indian River Lagoon's seagrass grew at levels not seen since the 1940s. But then cold and algae blooms cut seagrass coverage in half in just a few years.

The southern lagoon lost 1,946 acres of seagrass (21 percent) between 2009 and 2011 and gained 666 acres between 2011 and 2013, or 34 percent of what had been lost in the superbloom. The northern lagoon lost 31,916 acres between 2009 and 2011 (45 percent) and regained 4,762 acres between 2011 and 2013, or 15 percent of what had been lost.

But the long-lived brown tide blooms that followed claimed much of that regrowth, biologists said. They won't know how much until they analyse aerial seagrass surveys later this year.

Indian River County's portion of the lagoon also saw massive losses of seagrass, according to recent field surveys.

"They're also thinning out as well," Morris said. Even sites near the Fort Pierce Inlet recently showed significant losses.

"It's also very, very turbid," Morris said. "The clarity was horrible."

Field assessments in 2014 found very little seagrass remained near the mouth of the Suwannee River in the Big Bend area. Seagrass density in beds has declined sharply in the past 10 years throughout the region, FWC's report says.

Tropical storms Debby and Andrea in early summers of 2012 and 2013, respectively, and heavy rains in July 2013 caused local rivers to discharge large volumes of dark, nutrient-laden waters, reducing water clarity that seagrass needs to grow. Heavy boat propeller scars also harm seagrass beds throughout the Big Bend region, the report said.

Did the summer fertilizer ban work?

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has had huge gains in seagrass acreage, and estimates from 2014 exceed estimated predevelopment seagrass acreage from the 1950s. The bay saw a 10.2 percent increase in seagrass between 2012 to 2014, alone, according to FWC's report. The bay has seen another 1,300 acres grow since then, so now exceeds 41,000 acres of seagrass.

"Overall, the water quality in Tampa Bay continues to meet requirements," said Holly Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Greening said the bay's success is due in part to a nitrogen management consortium formed among industry, local government, agriculture and other interests that has kept nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in check since the 1990s.

"Our nitrogen loads have stayed essentially stable," she said.

Even though the data in FWC's seagrass report is dated, Greening says it's a valuable tool for resource managers.

"I think it's a very helpful to be able to see what areas are having success and what areas are not, and perhaps using some of the lessons learned," she said.

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Government failing to address threat of climate change to Great Barrier Reef

24 February 2017, ABC Radio (Australia)

After last year's unprecedented mass bleaching event, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has warned of an 'elevated and imminent risk' of widespread coral bleaching across the reef again this year.

The warning comes as a new independent review of the government's REEF 2050 plan says that it's failing to address the threat of climate change to the reef, with more than one third of the targets at risk of not being met because they're only just starting, or 'seriously under-funded'.

With declining coral cover, poor water quality and the impacts of climate change, the future of the Great Barrier Reef has been under close scrutiny in recent years by the World Heritage Committee.

To address these concerns and to map out a long-term future for the reef, two years ago the federal and Queensland governments developed the REEF 2050 Sustainability Plan.

But the Great Barrier Reef Independent Review Group says that the plan has no substantive plan for dealing with climate change impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

Di Tarte, the convenor of the IRG, said the 2016 mass bleaching event was an 'absolute game-changer' and that climate change had become the 'new normal' for the reef'.

'(The 2016 bleaching) was a precursor, it gave us an insight as to what's going to happen on the Reef if we don't get ahead of the game. At the moment, there's a business-as-usual feel ... and we aren't dealing effectively with climate change impacts'.

The Independent Review Group has now asked the World Heritage Committee to again examine the 'state of conservation' on the reef, and to put this on the agenda for next year's committee meeting.

The GBRMPA has confirmed that it's doing initial underwater surveys on reefs between Townsville and Cairns, after receiving 'increasing anecdotal reports' of coral bleaching.

In a briefing note to the Queensland government obtained by RN Breakfast, the marine park authority says that an 'unusually warm winter and a second warm summer has resulted in more heat stress accumulating in more areas than at this time last year'.

More information: Click Here



Singapore scientists, volunteers monitor seagrass health

24 February 2017, The Straits Times (Singapore)

Apart from being a source of food for herbivores, seagrass meadows are nurseries for juvenile animals such as crabs, shrimps and fishes. The structural complexity of seagrasses makes seagrass meadows areas of rich marine biodiversity.

There are a total of 12 species of seagrasses in Singapore, out of 23 in the Indo-Pacific region, and their habitats can be found both on the northern and southern shores of the island.

Animals associated with seagrass habitats include sea stars, seahorses, crabs, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and snails. TeamSeagrass, a group of volunteers, conducts frequent seagrass monitoring at six locations - Chek Jawa, Pulau Semakau, Cyrene Reef, Sentosa, Labrador Beach and Tuas. The information collected is shared with Seagrass-Watch, an international monitoring programme for seagrasses.

Like much of the country's natural heritage, seagrass meadows have been in decline for decades, with around 40 per cent of the original cover lost to coastal development. Since 2007, scientists and volunteers have regularly monitored them for their health.

A three-year research project, which ends in the middle of next year, intends to better understand the dispersal patterns of seagrasses, in addition to assessing how resilient they are in the face of various stressors.

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17th Annual Seagrass Awareness Celebration scheduled

22 February 2017, Santa Rosa Press Gazette (USA)

You can learn about seagrass, marine creatures that live in it and how to protect the habitat during the 17th annual Seagrass Awareness Celebration.

The event, free to attend, is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 18 at Shoreline Park South in Gulf Breeze.

Family-focused activities feature marine life in touch tanks, seining, games, fishing, marine creatures, marine debris, arts and crafts including making shark tooth necklaces, boating and water safety, kayaking and food vendors. Attendees should bring water, sunscreen, a hat, water shoes and lawn chairs.

Participating organizations include the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station, the United States EPA Gulf Ecology Division, Gulf Breeze High School, University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Florida Sea Grant, UF-IFAS Master Gardeners, Ocean Hour, Navarre Beach Kayaks and Escambia County Natural Resources.

If you would like to participate in this event by offering an activity or a display, contact Chris Verlinde, UF-IFAS Santa Rosa County Sea Grant extension agent, at 623-3868 or

More information: Click Here



Underwater seagrass beds dial back polluted seawater

16 February 2017, Science Daily (USA)


"The seagrass appear to combat bacteria, and this is the first research to assess whether that coastal ecosystem can alleviate disease associated with marine organisms," said lead author Joleah Lamb of Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, where she is a Nature Conservancy NatureNet fellow.

Senior author Drew Harvell, Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and an Atkinson Center Fellow, had been running an international workshop and examining the health of underwater corals with colleagues near small islands at Spermonde Archipelago, Indonesia. But after a few days, the entire research team fell ill with dysentery, and one scientist contracted typhoid. "I experienced firsthand how threats to both human health and coral health were linked," Harvell said.

Lamb returned with an international team armed to test the waters. On these small islands freshwater is sparse, surface soil is thin and just off shore the marine environment teems with solid waste, sewage and wastewater pollution. Generally, the islands -- though filled with people -- do not have septic systems.

The group used Enterococcus assays, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard of health risk levels for wastewater pollution in recreational waters, to see whether seagrass meadows influenced bacterial levels. Water samples taken near the beaches exceeded exposure levels by a factor of 10. But, Lamb's team found threefold lower levels of Enterococcus in seawater collected from within seagrass meadows.

"The genetic sequencing work pinpointed the kinds of bacteria -- all in difficult, arduous conditions," said Harvell. "It showed exactly what was in the water. The beautiful oceanside water looked blue-green, but truly it was filled with dangerous pollution -- some really bad stuff in the water close to shore."

While research is beginning to reveal the mechanisms driving bacterial-load reductions in these ecosystems, it is evident that an intact seagrass ecosystem -- home to filter-feeders like bivalves, sponges, tunicates (marine invertebrates) -- removes more bacteria from water.

As seagrass meadows and coral reefs are usually linked habitats, Lamb's team examined more than 8,000 reef-building corals for disease. The researchers found lower levels -- by twofold -- of disease on reefs with adjacent seagrass beds than on reefs without nearby grasses. "Millions of people rely on healthy coral reefs for food, income and cultural value," said Lamb.

Harvell, Lamb and their colleagues agree that these findings are key to conserving seagrass ecosystems. "Global loss of seagrass meadows is about 7 percent each year since 1990," said Lamb. "Hopefully this research will provide a clear message about the benefits of seagrasses for human and marine health that will resonate globally."

Regions around the world promote aquaculture to help feed populations, as diseases for many ocean-dwelling plants and animals increase, Harvell said, "Our goal is to stop measuring things dying and find solutions. Ecosystem services like seagrass meadow habitats are a solution to improve the health of people and the environment. Biodiversity is good for our health."

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Seagrass comeback good news for health of Tampa Bay

08 February 2017, FOX 13 News, Tampa Bay(USA)

It's a big victory for the environment in the Bay Area, but you may not even notice.

Seagrass is making a comeback and biologists say it's a good sign of the health of the area.

Guiding their boat to a spot on the Tampa Bay, Tom Ries and Brad Young see the richness of the bottom first-hand.

"I grew up on Tampa Bay," says Young. "I've personally seen it increase. It makes me ecstatic."

Ries and Young are with Scheda Ecological Associates. They're helping map the the increase of seagrass beds in the bay.

In 2014, scientists announced Tampa Bay had reached levels of seagrass not seen since the 1950s. They say the grasses on the bottom provide habitat for fish, help clean the water, and indicate the health of the bay.

The new 2016 seagrass map produced by the SWIM program of the Southwest Florida Water Management District shows even higher levels than 2014 - a gain of more than 1,300 acres. The new map shows more than 41,000 acres across the bay.

Ries says seagrass beds around Pinellas County may or may not have been affected by big sewage spills in September of 2016.

"It's nitrogen going into the Bay, the very thing we've been trying to take out for decades," says Ries. "So we are concerned to see if there's a decrease in sea grasses."

More information: Click Here



Great Barrier Reef: Coal spillage discovered from ship loader at mining port, Government says

08 February 2017, ABC Online (Australia)

A Queensland Government investigation has found a large spillage of coal at a mining port in waters near the Great Barrier Reef.

The investigation, which found the spillage from a ship loader at the Port of Hay Point, was launched after complaints that coal and fine black dust were washing up at East Point beach near Mackay.

Coal was also found at Louisa Creek Beach near Hay Point's two export terminals.

Hay Point is the largest coal port alongside the Great Barrier Reef, housing two separate export terminals.

Scientists say coal dust can kill coral and damage the growth of seagrasses.

Environment Minister Steven Miles confirmed to the ABC that he has seen photos and video footage sent in by local people.

"I will seek advice about how this coal could be impacting on local marine life," he said.

"The footage I've seen suggests it's in a pretty solid state and is washing up onto the beach."

Officers from the environment department conducted two inspections of the two bulk coal terminals at Hay Point last month.

More information: Click Here



Bay grass restoration threatened by warming, scientists say

14 February 2016, The Chesapeake Bay Journal (USA)

The Bay region is unlikely to meet its underwater grass restoration goals unless it clears up the Chesapeake’s water beyond what is now targeted, scientists warned in a recent journal article.

If more action is not taken, they warn that eelgrass — the primary underwater grass species found in high-salinity portions of the Bay — may face a “catastrophic” decline in the Chesapeake because of a combination of warming temperatures and murky water.

As a consequence, they predict populations of blue crabs and many other fish will also decline as areas with once-lush grass beds convert to muddy bottoms. They project that the resulting economic impacts from that loss of habitat could reach $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion annually.

Nor is it just a problem for the future, the scientists said in a paper published in the Feb. 3 issue of the journal Climate Change Biology. Over the last half-century, eelgrass has been eliminated from nearly half the area it once occupied in the Bay. It rebounded slightly in the late 1980s, but since 1991 — a period when grass beds have come back in many other areas — eelgrass acreage has declined 29 percent.

“It is happening now, and it is happening rapidly,” warned Jonathan Lefcheck, a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and lead author of the paper.

Underwater grass beds are one of the most critical habitats found in the Bay. They provide shelter for juvenile crabs and fish, as well as food for waterfowl. They also protect shorelines from the erosive force of waves, and help filter sediment and nutrients out of the water.

Like all plants, underwater grasses need sunlight to survive. In the wake of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, grass beds suffered dramatic declines as the Bay filled with sediment and nutrient-fueled algae blooms, hitting a low point of 38,0000 acres in 1983.

Since then, they have made a comeback in many places, reaching 92,315 acres throughout the Chesapeake and its tidal rivers in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s about half of the Baywide goal of 185,000 acres, which is based on observations made in the decades prior to Agnes.

Eelgrass, though, has declined. That’s a concern because unlike low salinity area of the Bay that can support multiple species, eelgrass is the only seagrass that can survive in much of the lower Chesapeake. In most high salinity areas of the Bay, there is nothing that can take its place. The paper pins eelgrass loss on two factors: loss of water clarity and warming water temperatures.

In many of the eelgrass-dominated areas, water clarity has generally worsened since 1997, the paper said. Eelgrass was once commonly found at depths of more than 1 meter, but murkier water means plants no longer get enough sunlight to survive at such depths.

Meanwhile, gradually warming water temperatures are adding stress to the plants, which are near the southern edge of their range in the Bay. Eelgrass does not tolerate hot temperatures and suffered sharp diebacks after hot summers in 2005 and 2010.

In effect, scientists say, poor water clarity is squeezing eelgrass into shallower areas, but those are also warmer.

Further, there is not enough shallow water habitat available to restore historic levels of underwater grass in high salinity areas where eelgrass is the dominant — and typically only — species, said David Wilcox, a data analyst at VIMS who was a co-author of the paper.

“Unless we get the deep beds back, it would be hard to drive that up,” he said. “It is hard to imagine getting that deeper grass without the clarity that would support that.”

Scientists say they expect further decreases if past trends continue.

The paper said that the impact of warming temperatures alone in the next 30 years would lead to a further 38 percent decline in eelgrass cover. Similarly, if water clarity trends in the Lower Bay remain unchanged, , eelgrass would decline 84 percent. If both trends continue, 95 percent of eelgrass beds would be lost in the Chesapeake in 30 years, the paper said.

Such a loss would reverberate throughout the ecosystem, as there is no other species that would fill the void, resulting in declines of blue crabs, silver perch and a host of other species highly dependent on grass beds in the lower Bay.

“If you’re a guy who wants to take his son fishing on the weekend, you can expect a lot fewer fish out there,” Lefcheck said. “The eelgrass habitat is going away, so all these critters are going to have no place to live.”

Scientists also worry that a catastrophic loss may not be decades away. Eelgrass suffered huge diebacks after previous hot summers: 55 percent after 2005 and 41 percent after 2010.

In both cases, the beds rebounded, but scientists said that likely would not be the case if there are two consecutive hot years — the odds of which increase as average temperatures continue to rise.

The reason eelgrass might die back permanently with a prolonged hot spell stems from the method by which it reproduces. It has root-like structures called rhizomes, which produce new shoots that spread over the bottom, but if the plant is killed in late summer, when water temperatures are at their warmest, the rhizomes die, too.

Eelgrass beds also produce seeds in the spring, which can still produce a recovery the following year even if the plants die during the summer. But if a plant-killing heat spell hits for a second year in a row, neither the seeds nor the rhizomes would be available to spur a comeback in the third year.

In fact, that appears to be what happened at an eelgrass restoration site in the Piankatank River during two consecutive hot growing seasons in the early 1990s, said Bob Orth, a longtime underwater grass researcher at VIMS and co-author of the paper.

“Because there were no seeds, in that third year there were no plants left in the Piankatank,” Orth said, noting that the eelgrass has been largely absent from the river since. “We had an open window into what could happen if we had significant Baywide heat events back-to-back.”

The paper has significant implications for Bay cleanup efforts. Chesapeake Bay water clarity standards are designed to return underwater grass abundances similar to those observed the mid-1900s throughout the Bay. Meeting those clarity requirements requires nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions to ensure that enough light reaches grasses to allow their return.

But, scientists say, those clarity goals never accounted for the impact of warming temperatures on eelgrass.

Eelgrass can withstand “moderate increases in temperature,” the paper said, but only if water was clearer than in the past, so plants would not have to work as hard to get energy from the sun — thereby offsetting some of the stress on the plant caused by the heat.

“We’re pretty certain that if we want eelgrass to return to its previous habitat, you are going to have to get more clarity,” Orth said. “It is a physiological fact.”

Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office, said that before water clarity standards can be changed, scientists need to determine just how much clearer water would need to be to support the eelgrass restoration in the face of warming temperatures. Then, he said, the state-federal Bay Program partnership would have to determine whether those goals are achievable.

“We may have to rethink what is possible in a Chesapeake that is going to have warmer summers in Virginia’s portion of the Bay,” Batiuk said.

That sets up a tough choice for the region, he added, because losing eelgrass in the Lower Bay would have consequences for the entire ecosystem. For instance, juvenile crabs that find shelter in eelgrass beds later spread throughout the Chesapeake.

“One change there can reverberate around the system, not just in Virginia itself, because it is such an integrated system,” Batiuk said.

Besides Lefcheck, Wilcox and Orth, other authors on the paper include Rebecca Murphy of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Scott Marion, of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

More information: Click Here



Corio Bay healthy despite repeated water pollution

05 February 2017, Geelong Advertiser (Australia)

Environment Protection officers Nigel Nicholls and Greg Trezise tests the water. Photo Credit: Mike Dugdale

MORE than 1.7 million litres of polluted water has leaked into Corio Bay but marine experts say the health of our waters remains sound.

The state’s environment watchdog found water full of sediment and other contaminants above recommended levels gushed into the bay at least five times last year.

Fertiliser supplier Incitec Pivot and woodchip processor Midway, both based in North Shore, are the culprits — fined more than $22,500 for discharging contaminated water.

Environment Protection Authority data shows water quality of the bay dropped slightly in the year to July 2016.

The data reveals the bay’s salt levels were above state guidelines between November 2015 and August 2016, rising again in November last year.

“If we were to see that change for decades there would be certain animals and plants that probably wouldn’t survive,” EPA applied science manager Anthony Boxshall said.

He said water retention in the bay of up to 18 months was a factor in its high salinity level.

Mr Boxshall said the general health of the bay remained sound and water quality at Eastern Beach was among Port Phillip Bay’s best.

Deakin University School of Life and Environmental Sciences senior lecturer Craig Sherman said lush coverings of sea grass in Corio Bay meant it was in good health.

“Lush sea grass is a good indication of good water quality,” Dr Sherman said.

“Seagrass beds are healthy but there is isolated patches where there has been seagrass loss.”

EPA South West Manager Carolyn Francis said there was no “direct evidence” the deluge of

treated wastewater and untreated stormwater into the bay had affected its health.

“The levels of contaminants were above EPA licence limits, which are set to protect the environment,” Ms Francis said.

She said Incitec Pivot will modify its stormwater containment ponds and submit a plan for stormwater management.

In December Incitec Pivot was fined $15,000 for letting about 1.7 million litres of treated wastewater and untreated stormwater into Corio Bay.

The company also sent stormwater with elevated levels of Total Suspended Solids into the bay following a power failure in June.

TSS can include silt, decaying plant and animal matter, industrial wastes and sewage.

In September, Midway Limited was fined $7584 for discharging toxic water into the bay.

Water samples are taken weekly from Eastern Beach during summer and monthly from Corio Bay.

More information: Click Here



Will turtles and tourism always be at loggerheads?

03 February 2017, The Guardian (Greece)

Each turtle nest contains 100-120 eggs, yet only one in 100 or so will survive to adulthood. Photo Credit: Richard Aspinall
"See turtles or your money back,” says the sign on the beach. A smiling local hands out fliers and shakes the hands of passersby; occasionally they stop and a few Euros change hands. Looking across the bay, there are five or six more operations that either rent out small boats with 20hp outboard motors to “visit Marathonisi - Turtle Island” or will book you aboard a glass bottom boat to: “see Caretta caretta”. Saying “no” is quite difficult as the hard sell tactics kick in.

This is Laganas, the main tourist town in the Ionian island of Zakynthos. As the name suggests, Laganas was once a lagoon, and thirty years ago supported one of the largest flamingo colonies in Europe. Now it’s a depressing strip of poor quality apartments and tourist clutter; all moped rental places, tacky bars and run down clubs. The decline of the Greek economy lends a sense of desperation and the turtles are one of the few things the town still has going for it.

Laganas’s sprint to capture the tourist euro and the inspiration it offers to other resorts to cash in runs counter to the more measured development and emphasis on scenery, landscape and culture of the island’s neighbours – Kefalonia being the prime example of an island so far spared the 18-30 treatment. In places though, Zakynthos still offers some wildlife spectacles: good numbers of butterflies, reptiles, birds and, on occasion, a pine marten or two can be enjoyed in some of the more remote and less accessible areas.

I’m in Zakynthos to talk to Yannis Vardakastanis, the director of the charity Earth, Sea and Sky, to learn more of the plight of the island’s loggerhead turtles. We arrange to meet the following day at 7am to watch his team excavate a turtle nest. A signpost, erected by the National Marine Park Authority, warns that limited numbers of people are allowed on the beach at any one time, but according to Vardakastanis, this is rarely enforced. At least a newly built fence stops vehicles driving directly onto the sands.

The Mediterranean hosts three of the world’s seven turtle species: the green, the leatherback and the loggerhead, though the latter is the only species that nests in Greek waters. All turtle populations in the Mediterranean have been under pressure for decades and suffered outright persecution and hunting through the first half of the 20th century. Whilst actual hunting has pretty much ceased (at least in European waters), populations remain low – a common state of affairs for species that take many years to reach sexual maturity.

The Mediterranean loggerhead population is estimated to be in the low thousands, with 50-70% of the total number visiting the southern and sheltered eastern side of Zakynthos to mate and lay eggs. Roughly 1,300 nest are recorded each year, each containing 100-120 eggs, yet only one in 100 or so will survive to adulthood. The odds are not with the turtles, and such a large concentration of animals in one area is more at risk than a widely-dispersed population that is better able to cope with localised disturbance.

Turtles world-wide face multiple threats to their survival, from direct hunting and international trade (despite protection from the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), to entanglement in fishing nets and long-line fishing hooks. In the Mediterranean (and indeed in many other places around the world) not only do local economies benefit directly from turtle/human interactions, but so does the wider environment and ultimately so do communities reliant on the fishing industry.

In recent years conservationists and policymakers have focused more attention on seagrass beds. Often overlooked, seagrass habitats are remarkable places where turtles play a significant role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds.

Seagrasses are not “true” grasses in the biological sense, but more closely related to lilies and are true flowering plants. The most important and abundant species in the Mediterranean is the endemic Posidonia oceanica, which forms dense stands of vivid green strappy leaves that will die off in the cooler winter months. Sea grass beds may be thousands of years old according to recent DNAS studies.

Posidonia builds “reefs” by trapping sediment (and the remains of calcium-depositing algae), within its rhizomes, creating structures that help protect the coast from erosion. They also provide complex habitats that support a wealth of specialised species, as well as the larvae and juveniles of many commercially important fish.

Seagrass beds provide more than shelter, and for turtles they offer easy grazing, which acts to “rejuvenate” individual plants and increases growth rates to create a more diverse structure. Whilst it may seem counterintuitive, a little disturbance can often benefit the habitat overall.

On an ecosystem-wide level, grazing increases the nutrient uptake of the beds and speeds nutrient cycling throughout the habitat, making them more productive, and better able to support other species.

Not only do turtles benefit the underwater habitat, evidence suggests that turtle eggs transfer nutrients into coastal dune systems as well as providing eggs and hatchlings for a range of predators.

Earth Sea and Sky work with the National Marine Park to monitor specific beaches. Every morning in the season, before the beach is opened to tourists, volunteers look for nesting sites, log them and mark them. As the season continues ( anything from 45-70 days after laying) the teams switch to looking for emergent hatchlings by their tracks.

I join the volunteers to look at a nest that hasn’t yielded any hatchlings yet; such failed nests are not uncommon, sadly. As we slowly dig the soft sand away with bare hands, locals put up the sun beds that they are forced to remove from the beach every night. Such arrangements are often hard won; physical violence and intimidation are not unheard of when government staff try to impose restrictions on business owners.

The sand is warm and moist (the temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings) and is more compact than ideal; we soon find a few hatchlings that have perished as they attempted to dig their way out. It is looking as though this will be recorded as a “failed nest” – one less mature adult to return in 20-30 years. That is until we see a hint of movement and slowly, with far less energy than they should have, a few tired, dark grey hatchlings emerge.

We shade them from the already harsh sun and help them reach the waters, but they are tired and weak. The hatchlings switch to their swimming motion as the sea frees them from the effects of gravity, and we wish them well as they head out in to the Mediterranean. With luck, they will live to drift towards North Africa where they will feed and grow. Typically, loggerhead hatchlings spend their first few days simply floating in the currents before starting to feed more actively. It’s at this point that they face one of their most well-known threats: plastic bags, which are easily mistaken for their main prey, jellyfish. Whilst loggerheads are omnivorous, it is when they are away from the coasts that they rely more on jellyfish.

Even if these hatchlings do beat the odds to return, they will face more battles. It’s hard to feel for their survival as we watch them on their way.

A failed example of ecotourism?

For decades, conservation projects have flagged up the “dollar value” of habitats and species. This relationship hasn’t always been an easy one;ecotourism has as many detractors as it does plaudits. Each “tourist species” is at risk of exploitation – and this is surely the case with turtles in Zakynthos.

The hordes of tourists who flock to the waters every summer to see the turtles are, in the main, entirely ignorant that their activities place a great deal of stress on the turtles. For the turtles they are so eager to see, this means that breeding success is lowered and females are often stressed and too tired to lay high enough up the beach, leaving their nests prone to flooding from storm surges and high tides.

With the economy in crisis, the competition to see turtles is ever greater.

Vardakastanis tells me of his childhood when the lagoon was rich with birds, terrapins and lizards. “They don’t realise,” he tells me. “They just want to make money, but the more development occurs, the fewer people will come that care about the island.”

The next day I join a group of German scuba divers and enjoy the underwater scenery. On the boat afterwards, as I removed my kit I chat about the island’s wildlife and several of my fellow divers express incredulity that the turtles are allowed to be exploited to such a degree. Several of them had enjoyed boat trips themselves, unaware of their role in the turtles’ decline.

And that’s the rub of it. Who wouldn’t want to see such charismatic creatures at such close quarters? Tourists assume that as the activity is so widespread and clearly legal that it can’t be doing any harm.

It is a simple fact that the turtle population in the Mediterranean would fare better if human activity on the coast was curtailed. Exhausted turtles and beaches that are expected to see more storm surges and erosion as sea level rises and the oceans warm will not help the turtles survive.

The following day, with irony in his voice, Vardakastanis tells me that he’s had a complaint from a boat operator, disappointed that there were too few turtles for his guests to see. What, the boat operator demanded, was Vardakastanis going to do about it?

What indeed? I suspect all he can do is to carry on educating tourists. Boat operators and beachside taverna owners will all reconsider their offers if tourists demand a different.

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Scientists hope wetland carbon storage experiment is everyone's cup of tea

03 February 2017, The Guardian (Australia)

Deakin University researcher Peter Macreadie and PhD candidate Katy Limpert bury the first of 50,000 teabags which will be placed in wetlands around the globe as part of a world-first project to monitor carbon sequestration and breakdown. Photo Credit: Simon Peter Fox

Australian scientists have launched a project to bury tens of thousands of teabags in wetlands around the world. They are hoping others will sacrifice a few cups of tea and join in to discover how efficient different wetlands are at capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Lipton green tea and red tea “rooibos” varieties will be used in the project, which already involves more than 500 scientists in every continent except Antarctica.

Leader of the project, Peter Macreadie from Deakin University’s Blue Carbon Lab, said wetlands were important for carbon capture and storage, a process known as carbon sequestration, holding up to 50 times as much carbon by area as rainforests.

“But some wetlands are much better at carbon storage than others, and some are in fact carbon emitters, so they’re not all fantastic,” Macreadie said.

“We need to find out the best wetland environments for carbon sequestration so we know where we should invest our energy.”

That’s where scientists have come up against barriers in the past. There are hundreds of thousands of wetlands around the world. A standardised technique for monitoring the carbon is needed for accurate comparison, and monitoring devices can cost thousands of dollars to install.

But Macreadie had been reading scientific research about teabags being buried and used to measure the rate at which carbon was being released from soil into the atmosphere.

Fast decay of the tea inside the bag meant more carbon was being released into the atmosphere, while slower decay meant the soil was holding the carbon.

“I thought, ‘Jeez this is a bloody good idea. Why aren’t we using it in wetlands?’” Macreadie said.

“People think of innovation as involving fancy new technology, but sometimes the best ideas are the most simple ones.”

Lipton teabags are being used because they are already favoured by international researchers studying terrestrial carbon sequestration. They also have a fairly standard rate of decay in wetlands and the required tea varieties are sold around the world.

Lipton are giving the researchers 50,000 teabags. Macreadie and his team this week began burying the bags at Gardiners Creek wetlands and Western Port Bay in Victoria.

The project coordinator, Stacey Trevathan-Tackett, said the green tea aroma and the slight hint of spice in the rooibos masked the smell of the mud as she embedded the bags in the swamp. She inserts a shovel into the ground at about 10cm depth and creates a wedge to drop the teabags into. The teabags are numbered and labelled, and a GPS point is taken down.

Between 40 to 80 teabags are buried per site.

“We’re using the green tea and red tea because they’re made of different components, with green tea degrading more quickly and so we expect it not to last as long, while the red tea is made of tougher components and will break down more slowly,” she said.

“If we have these two teas out there in the same environment we can examine how they degrade comparatively to each other and also in comparison to other environments.”

The bags will be monitored over a three-year period and will be dug up and measured at intervals of three months, six months and each year after that.

Once researchers can establish which wetlands are most effective at carbon sequestration, work can begin on protecting those types of wetlands, restoring them and ensuring they are not disrupted, Macraedie said. Destruction of wetlands could see thousands of years worth of ancient carbon released into the atmosphere in just a few months.

“Wetlands to many people are the armpits of our environment,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t like these environments of mangroves and seagrasses, and we’ve drained them for aesthetic and agricultural reasons, we’ve built roads, airports and football ovals on top of them, and we’ve removed tens of thousands of them without knowing their importance.”

Those who contact the Blue Carbon Lab wanting to participate and who have a wetland near them will be sent a kit containing teabags and information on how to bury them. Currently the researchers leading the project are doing the work without funding – aside from the cost of the teabags being covered by Lipton. They hope as their work goes global more funding will be forthcoming.

“We also hope that by encouraging professional and citizen scientists to contact us and spread word about this project, other people will begin to understand the importance of wetlands to biodiversity, in carbon sequestration, and in mopping up pollution,” Macreadie said.

The executive director of the Global Carbon Project and scientist with the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, described the initiative as “a great idea”.

“Wetlands are extremely threatened around the world, so anything we can do to highlight their benefits to society will certainly give us more ammunition to convince agencies, and government and non-governmental groups to put resources towards their conservation,” he said.

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Tampa Bay sea grass saw gains, but that was before the recent sewage crisis

01 February 2017, (USA)

A key indicator of the health of Tampa Bay is the spread of sea grass, which has shown more improvement in the past year — although those measurements were taken before tens of millions of gallons of sewage was dumped into the bay since last summer.

Sea grasses in the bay have increased by more than 1,360 acres, or nearly 3.3%, since 2014, according to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, a bay science and advocacy group first created by the Environmental Protection Agency but now operating independently.

Decades of pollution had wiped out thousands of acres of sea grasses in the bay, which is Florida's largest open-water estuary, stretching 398 square miles at high tide. When the estuary program was created in 1991, it set a goal of returning the bay to at least 38,000 acres of sea grass, the amount it had in 1950.

The bay has now surpassed that goal. Sea grasses cover 41,655 acres of bay bottom.

However, the aerial surveys that form the basis of this latest sea grass estimate were conducted during the winter of 2015-2016 — before last summer's torrential rains caused St. Petersburg and other municipal sewage systems to release waste into portions of the bay.

The largest gain, 874 acres, occurred in Old Tampa Bay, in the north end of the estuary, which has historically lagged behind the rest of the bay in water quality.

The only section of the bay that lost any acreage was in the so-called "middle bay," south of the Gandy Bridge, including Hillsborough's South Shore to the Manatee County border, and coastal St. Petersburg to Coquina Key. It lost 42 acres between 2014 and 2016.

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Eau Gallie River dreding gets underway

01 February 2017, Florida Today (USA)

Dredging has begun in the befouled Eau Gallie River

Dredging has begun in the befouled Eau Gallie River to remove a half-century of muck, a carpet of black gunk known to strand even canoes.

"You can go, but your outboard motor will just turn thick sludge," said Matt Culver, Brevard County's boating and waterways program coordinator. "It's like going through pea soup."

By the end of 2018, the ambitious $24 million dredging project will remove at least 632,000 cubic yards (about 42,000 dump truck loads) of muck from the main stem of the Eau Gallie River, as well as the southern branch of its tributary, Elbow Creek. That will remove 1,200 tons of nitrogen and 260 tons of phosphorous from the river, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District, which is overseeing the project.

Scientists say dredging out muck could vastly improve the lagoon, and better land-use practices are needed to prevent more muck from entering the estuary.

Brevard floats $302.8 million lagoon cleanup plan

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in muck trigger algae blooms that kill fish and seagrass habitat for shrimp, crabs and other marine life. Biologists also find higher incidence in Brevard County's muck-laden hot spots than elsewhere in Florida of a strange cancer in redfin needlefish — an important bait fish.

Muck harms seagrass growth and the fish and organisms that need seagrass to survive. It contributes to bacterial decay, which consumes oxygen, causing fish kills. It also produces noxious chemical compounds, such as the hydrogen sulfide that creates the lagoon's occasional rotten-egg smell.

The river's bottom muck resembles "black mayonnaise" that in some spots is more than 12 feet thick. It's mostly soil runoff from sod, construction sites, farming and erosion but also rotting algae and dead plants.

The dredged-up muck will be pumped on property owned by Brevard County next to the Sarno Road landfill, where the water content will drain out, then the muck will be transported (off-road) directly to the landfill property for disposal.

During the permitting process, tests hazardous materials found the muck poses no health risk, water management district officials said.

Residents lobbied for decades to get the Florida Legislature to fund the project.

Indian River Lagoon panel recommends $23.6M in projects

Wind, boat traffic and storms stir muck in the water, clouding the water and killing seagrass.

The dredging project is contracted to Blue Goose Construction, based in Fort Pierce.

The dredging will happen from the confluence of the Eau Gallie River with the Indian River Lagoon to the river's Control Dam to the west and in Elbow Creek, from the confluence with the river to the Magnolia Avenue Bridge and the Laurie Street Bridge.

The project permit requires dedicated manatee observers be on site. They must alert workers to stop the dredge whenever a manatee swims within 50 feet of any in-water activity.

To protect manatees further, no dredging will occur within the Eau Gallie River or Elbow Creek from March 1 through April 30, and restricted portions of the lagoon – where manatees could become trapped – are closed to dredging from Nov. 1 to May 31.

A 2013 study estimated muck deposits will take a minimum of 40 years to return to current levels, absent any maintenance dredging. The study recommended periodic maintenance dredging and upstream erosion control to prevent muck building up again.

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New analysis supports mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows as effective climate buffers

01 February 2017, Phys.Org

This figure illustrates the efficiency of (L-R) mangrove forests, salt marshes and seagrass beds as reservoirs for carbon. More carbon dioxide is taken up from the atmosphere (green arrows) than is re-released (black arrows), while a substantial amount is stored in soils (red arrows) for hundreds to thousands of years if left undisturbed. Credit: Howard et al., 2017, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

In the global effort to mitigate carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, all options are on the table—including help from nature. Recent research suggests that healthy, intact coastal wetland ecosystems such as mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows are particularly good at drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it for hundreds to thousands of years.

Policymakers are interested to know whether other marine systems—such as coral reefs, kelp forests, phytoplankton and fish—can mitigate climate effects. A new analysis co-authored by a University of Maryland scientist suggests that, while coastal wetlands serve as effective "blue carbon" storage reservoirs for carbon dioxide, other marine ecosystems do not store carbon for long periods of time.

The research paper, published February 1, 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, also notes that coastal wetlands can help protect coastal communities from storm surges and erosion. Coastal wetland areas are easier for governments to manage compared with ecosystems that reside in international waters, further adding to the strategic value of coastal wetlands in the fight against climate change.

"We compared many different coastal ecosystems and have made a clear case for including coastal wetlands in discussions about greenhouse gas mitigation," said Ariana Sutton-Grier, an assistant research scientist at UMD's Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and a co-lead author of the research paper. "Coastal wetlands store a lot of carbon in their soils and are important long-term natural carbon sinks, while kelp, corals and marine fauna are not."

The research paper integrates previous data on a variety of coastal and marine ecosystems to determine which systems are best suited to mitigate climate effects. To make this assessment, Sutton-Grier and her colleagues evaluated how effectively each ecosystem captures carbon dioxide—for example, by plants using it to build their branches and leaves—and how long the carbon is stored, either in plant tissues or in soils.

Coastal wetlands outperformed other marine systems in just about every measure. For example, the researchers estimated that mangrove forests alone capture and store as much as 34 million metric tons of carbon annually, which is roughly equivalent to the carbon emitted by 26 million passenger cars in a year. Estimates for tidal marshes and seagrass meadows vary, because these ecosystems are not as well mapped globally, but the total for each could exceed 80 million metric tons per year.

All told, coastal wetlands may capture and store more than 200 metric tons of carbon per year globally. Importantly, these ecosystems store 50-90 percent of this carbon in soils, where it can stay for thousands of years if left undisturbed.

"When we destroy coastal wetlands, for coastal development or aquaculture, we turn these impressive natural carbon sinks into additional, significant human-caused greenhouse gas sources," said Sutton-Grier, who is also an ecosystem science adviser for the National Ocean Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The researchers' goal is to help inform resource managers and policymakers where to focus their limited resources to have the greatest impact on climate mitigation. The new analysis acknowledges that other ecosystems, such as coral reefs and kelp forests, provide valuable storm and erosion protection, key fish habitat and recreation opportunities, and thus deserve protection. But their capacity to store carbon over the long term is limited.

"A common question I get from coastal managers and other stakeholders is whether oyster reefs, coral and kelp are effective 'blue carbon' habitats," said Stefanie Simpson, a co-author of the paper and manager of the Blue Carbon program at the nonprofit organization Restore America's Estuaries. "This paper highlights the role all of these ecosystems have in the carbon cycle, while calling out our coastal habitats—marsh, seagrass and mangroves—for their role as significant and long-term carbon stores."

Researchers have often looked to terrestrial forests as carbon sinks as well. But most forests do not store substantial amounts of carbon in their soils. As such, the researchers believe that coastal "blue carbon" habitats may stand alone as the most efficient biological reservoirs of stored carbon on Earth.

"The concept of 'blue carbon' has focused scientists and stakeholders on the tremendous potential of managing marine ecosystems for climate mitigation," said Patrick Megonigal, associate director for research at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, who reviewed an early draft of the manuscript but was not directly involved in the work. "This analysis takes a big step forward by explaining why coastal wetland ecosystems are particularly attractive for carbon-based management."

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Planning work continues for Nowra marina

01 February 2017, South Coast Register (Australia)

SHOALHAVEN City Council is currently carrying out detailed design work on the final layout of a proposed marina in the Shoalhaven River in Nowra.

Council placed 13, 11.5m long and 2.5m wide pontoons, in the river as part of the Shoalhaven River Festival last October with the plan to leave them in place on a permanent basis and form the area's first marina.

However, in mid November council was ordered to remove the pontoons by the Department of Primary Industries.

A DPI spokesperson said council’s use of the pontoons was a temporary installation for the marine expo at the river festival event only and it had not gained approvals to situate the pontoons at the site on a permanent basis.

Director Corporate and Community Craig Milburn said detailed design work was now being carried out.

“Last week we had divers in the Shoalhaven River to examine the condition of the wharf’s pylons,” he said.

“This is all part of the design work.”

Mr Milburn said council was continuing to get the application prepared for the relevant authorities for approval, however it may still be “a couple of months” before it was lodged.

“I’m happy with how it is progressing,” he said.

One of the biggest issues DPI raised with council at the time the pontoons were ordered to be removed was around possible damage to seagrass in the area from shading.

The Register was told the pontoons were situated on Crown Land and over seagrass, which was an important nursery ground for juvenile fish, playing a vital role in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems and conserving fish stocks.

A DPI statement said seagrass was a key fish habitat and nursery and shading from the pontoons being in the river on a permanent basis could have a considerable impact.

“Seagrass beds in the Shoalhaven are vital to support local recreational and commercial fishing industries,” a DPI spokesperson said.

“Harm to seagrass is an activity that is regulated under the Fisheries Management Act, and requires approval from DPI Fisheries.”

Mr Milburn said council was taking into account concerns about the seagrass in its application.

“We will address all things as needed going through the process,” he said.

“The question of seagrases is one of those issues.”

Shoalhaven City Council purchased the pontoons ahead of last year’s festival with the plan to have them permanently in the river and becoming a public asset.

As well forming a permanent marina area, there were also plans to make the pontoons available to the public or anyone who wants to hold an event.

In the meantime they have been removed from the river and placed in storage at Greys Beach until their permanent future can be decided.

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