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Could the Red Sea’s heat-resilient corals help restore the world’s dying reefs?

Could the Red Sea’s heat-resilient corals help restore the world’s dying reefs?


Corals in the Gulf of Aqaba have a unique evolutionary history that could help them survive the climate crisis. Scientists even hope to breed their resilience into other reefs.


Beneath the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern tip of the Red Sea, lies a bustling city of colorful corals. At sunrise, fish emerge from their coral shelters, joining eels, turtles and octopuses to swim through these teeming waters. 

This vibrant scene is untouched by the mass bleaching that has plagued reefs elsewhere. Most corals can only survive within a narrow temperature range. As oceans get warmer, stressed corals evict their energy-producing algae and lose their color. When corals bleach and die, entire ecosystems can collapse with them. 

Corals, like these on the Great Barrier Reef, have already succumbed to warming waters, leaving a ghostly underwater landscape bleached of once-vibrant life

A recent study found that 14% of the world’s coral reefs were lost in less than a decade. Ravaged by global heating, pollution and habitat destruction, global coral reef cover has halved since the 1950s. Experts predict that up to 90% of corals could perish in the coming decades. 

But some hope is emerging from the northern shores of the Red Sea, as Aqaba’s corals appear unaffected by steadily warming waters. 

“We found that the corals in Aqaba could withstand temperatures far above the summer maximum of 27 degrees [Celsius],”  (80.6 degrees Fahrenheit) said Maoz Fine, a marine biology professor who led research on coral heat-resilience at The Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, Israel.

Map of the location of Gulf of Aqaba

Hope from the Red Sea 

Fine and his team designed an aquarium system to simulate future conditions in the Red Sea and ran experiments on what makes the corals in Aqaba so resilient. 

While most corals will bleach within a degree or two above their normal range, experiments showed that Aqaba’s corals could endure temperatures up to six degrees Celsius higher than the maximum summer temperature they’re usually exposed to. 

“We tested about 20 different species of corals, and all of them showed high tolerance to thermal stress,” said Fine. “Despite rising temperatures, the corals never bleached.”

This resilience to heat is thought to be a product of how corals migrated into the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean during the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago.

To reach the Gulf of Aqaba, corals had to pass through the Gulf of Aden and the southern part of the Red Sea, where water temperatures are much higher. Over generations, larvae of surviving corals moved north and populated areas with significantly lower water temperatures, but they retained their heat resilience.  

The ‘Red Sea Simulator’ allows scientist to study Aqaba’s uniqely heat-resistant corals

“These corals were selected for high temperatures, but they live in temperatures about six degrees below their bleaching threshold,” said Fine. 

Although corals in other regions are adapted to warmer waters, Fine said no other corals have such a large gap between the maximum temperatures of the waters they live in and their bleaching thresholds. “This is one of the few places we know where corals will be able to survive global warming,” he said.

As coral reefs face mass destruction across the globe due to rising temperatures, researchers and conservationists hope the Gulf of Aqaba could become a refuge for the world’s remaining corals. 

Could Aqaba’s corals help other reefs? 

“Aqaba’s corals could be a source to repopulate reefs if corals die everywhere else,” according to Manuel Aranda, a marine biologist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. 

The problem, Aranda said, is scale. 

“The Great Barrier Reef is the size of Italy. We can’t plant reefs the way we spread seeds on land,” he said, since coral plantation requires divers to go into the water and manually fix coral fragments grown in nurseries. 

Coral plantations are too costly and time-consuming, and species introductions are often very challenging. But Aranda is part of a research group at KAUST that is working to identify heat-resilient corals and cross-breed them with coral populations elsewhere to increase their heat tolerance.

Corals support a rich diversity of marine life that’s acutely vulnerable to climate change

“Usually, it takes many generations for corals to adapt,” said Aranda. But the planet is warming faster than this process of adaptation. He hopes to speed up genetic exchanges to give corals a chance of keeping up with rising temperatures: “We hope that with cross-breeding, we don’t have to plant corals, they will reproduce themselves.” 

But this method still takes time and Fine isn’t convinced it will work on a large-scale. He believes the focus should be on identifying and preserving resilient reefs, rather than trying to grow corals elsewhere. 

“What we can offer is knowledge, understanding which genes were selected down south when entering the Red Sea and what that means for thermal resilience,” Fine said.  

‘We owe it to future generations’

About 25% of all marine species live in and around coral reefs, making them among the most diverse habitats in the world. 

“The Gulf of Aqaba has a very diverse ecosystem,” said Jordanian conservationist Ehab Eid. “In Jordan, we have identified 157 species of hard corals and there are over 500 species of fish. More than half of them depend on the corals.”

In addition to providing vital habitats for marine life, coral reefs also provide food and medicines, protect shorelines, and secure the livelihoods of over 500 million people worldwide. 


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UNDERWATER GARDENS BOOST CORAL DIVERSITY TO STAVE OFF ‘BIODIVERSITY MELTDOWN’


Corals are the foundation species of tropical reefs worldwide, but stresses ranging from overfishing to pollution to warming oceans are killing corals and degrading the critical ecosystem services they provide.

WORLD’S LARGEST SEAGRASS PROJECT PROVES “YOU CAN ACTUALLY RESTORE THE OCEANS”


A “game changing” 20-year effort suggests that even severely depleted marine ecosystems can be brought back to life.


Despite their resilience to high temperatures, Aqaba’s corals are vulnerable to pollution and unsustainable urban coastal development, putting at risk the livelihoods of the many people in Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt who depend on fishing and tourism in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Fishermen in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, whose catch depends on the coral ecosystem, say fisheries aren’t as plentiful as they used to be

“The corals are essential for fish here,” said Ibrahim Riady, who has worked as a fisherman in the Jordanian city of Aqaba for over two decades. “Our livelihoods depend on them.” He and other local fishermen said their catches had declined over the last decades. 

Scientists are calling for the reef to be protected to ensure the gulf can serve as a refuge for corals that, if they survive local threats, could revive reefs elsewhere. “The Gulf of Aqaba might be one of the last reefs standing at the end of the century,” said Eid. “It’s a treasure. We owe it to future generations to preserve it.”

Source:

Marta Vidal at DW



Shark fishing in Hawaii will be banned beginning New Year’s Day 2022

Shark fishing in Hawaii will be banned beginning New Year’s Day 2022


The act of knowingly capturing, entangling or killing any shark species in Hawaii will be banned beginning Saturday, Jan 1, 2022, which is detailed in Act 51 (House Bill 533).


According to Act 51 (House Bill 533), sharks keep the ocean ecosystem in balance by regulating and ensuring the health of other marine life populations and reefs.

The purpose of the ban is to “protect sharks for their ecological value while not criminalizing the accidental capture and release of sharks that may be captured while fishing for other species as allowed by statute or rule,” as stated in Act 51 (House Bill 533).

“We are well aware of how important sharks are to maintain healthy marine ecosystems. We also recognize their importance in native Hawaiian cultural practices and beliefs.”

BRIAN NEILSON, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE DLNR DIVISION OF AQUATIC RESOURCES, IN A STATEMENT ON THURSDAY, DEC. 30.

The new shark fishing ban does not apply to the following:

  • People with special activity permits issued by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR);
  • Shark fishing for public safety purposes authorized and/or conducted by the DLNR;
  • Sharks taken outside of Hawaii’s marine waters with required documentation;
  • Sharks captured, entangled and/or killed due to self-defense or the defense of another individual;
  • Sharks captured or killed based off a DLNR-issued permit.

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SCIENTISTS FIND THREE NEW SHARK SPECIES THAT GLOW IN THE DARK


The sharks face an environment with nowhere to hide, so they use counterillumination as a form of camouflage, the researchers say.

HAWAII ISLAND DECLARES ITSELF ENTIRELY FREE OF RATS—THAT WERE EATING ITS BIRDS


An island in Hawaii has declared itself free of invasive rats that were blamed for eating local seabirds and destroying native plants.


Act 51 (House Bill 533) states that violations of the new law will be considered a misdemeanor and may result in fines: $500 for the first offense; $2,000 for the second offense; $10,000 for the third and subsequent offenses, among many other penalties.

Additionally, a non-commercial permit for the take of sharks may be issued by the DLNR based on native Hawaiian cultural protocol, size and species restrictions, as well as the ban on endangered or threatened species.

Source:

Ray Anne Galzote at KHON2



Thailand plots sustainable comeback for DiCaprio movie beach

Thailand plots sustainable comeback for DiCaprio movie beach


While travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way.


Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, to the brink of ecological catastrophe.

Now Thailand hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long covid shutdown.

Near a coral islet just a few kilometers from Maya Bay — the iconic cove surrounded by towering tree-clad cliffs that was home to the beach paradise of the DiCaprio film — marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat dives through eight meters of crystalline water and carefully releases a young bamboo shark.

His mission: to repopulate the reefs after years of damage caused by uncontrolled visitor numbers, a crisis that got so bad the authorities were forced to close Maya Bay itself in 2018.

Five small brownbanded bamboo sharks are set free, their striped bodies and long tails flickering through the water.

But after being raised in captivity they are reluctant to swim out among the clown fish, barracudas and turtles.

“They need time to adapt. We waited until they reached 30 centimeters to maximize their chance of survival,” says Kullawit, who is working on the project with the Phuket Marine Biological Center. “The aim is that once they are adults, they will stay and breed here to help repopulate the species.”

Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park, with its white sandy beaches and coral reefs, attracted more than two million visitors a year.

Until it was closed, Maya Bay’s dazzling beauty and Hollywood fame drew up to 6,000 people a day to its narrow 250-meter-long beach.

Inevitably, so many people arriving in noisy, polluting motorboats with so little control over numbers had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.

“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60 percent in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

As early as 2018, Thon raised the alarm and pushed the authorities to close part of the bay.

Then the pandemic hit and visitor numbers dwindled to virtually nil as Thailand imposed tough travel rules, putting the entire archipelago into a forced convalescence.

As a result, dozens of blacktip sharks, green turtles and hawksbill turtles have returned.

And whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have been spotted off the coast.

“Everything suggests that there is more reproduction, especially among sharks, which particularly appreciate calm waters,” says Thon.

As for the corals, “more than 40 percent of the fragments replanted in Maya Bay have survived, a very satisfactory figure obtained thanks to the absence of visitors”.

But recovery will be slow: at least two decades will be needed to restore the coral reef, Thon warns.

Phi Phi is slowly resuming tourism, still mostly local for now, but foreigners are returning as Thailand eases its draconian rules for visitors, and Maya Bay is due to reopen on January 1.

The government has said it wants to move on from Thailand’s history of hedonistic mass tourism, with Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn saying the focus would be on “high-end travelers, rather than a large number of visitors”.

On Phi Phi, national park chief Pramote Kaewnam insists the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

Boats will no longer be allowed to moor near the beach and will instead drop tourists off at a jetty away from the cove. Tours will be limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour.

“Maya Bay used to bring in up to $60,000 a day, but this huge income cannot be compared to the natural resources we have lost,” Pramote said.

The number of visitors will be regulated on other key sites of the archipelago, while boats anchoring on reefs and tourists feeding fish face $150 fines.

Some of the first foreign visitors to return to the area are happy with the new more exclusive approach.

“We didn’t just come to dive in the turquoise water. We also want to help,” says Franck, a visitor who has just arrived from Paris. “It would be fantastic if the island stayed this quiet.”

Local businesses face the challenge of adapting to the new model. For some, the change is welcome.

“We need the revenue from tourism, but we also need to educate them to be good tourists. We all understood that with the pandemic,” says Sirithon Thamrongnawasawat, Singha Estate Vice President for Sustainability and Development.

Singha Estate, which owns a 200-room hotel on the island and has built a marine centre dedicated to the archipelago’s ecosystem, is financing several projects, including the replanting of coral and the breeding of bamboo sharks and clown fish.


Related post:

LEONARDO DICAPRIO HAS RAISED MORE THAN $80M TO SAVE THE WORLD’S WILDLANDS


The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation states its goal as ‘protecting the world’s last wild places’, and has 6 key areas of activity: Wildlands Conservation, Oceans Conservation, Climate Change, Indigenous Rights, Transforming California, and Innovative Solutions.


But the enthusiasm is not shared by all 2,500 inhabitants of the archipelago, many of whom have built livelihoods around tourism and hope to see visitors return soon.

Pailin Naowabutr has been plying the waters of the archipelago for seven years, ferrying tourists on his longtail boat.

“Before COVID, I was making $30 a day. Since then, I’ve had to do a lot of odd jobs for less than $10,” he told AFP.

He gazes wistfully across the sea towards Phuket, Phi Phi’s much larger neighbor which used to welcome millions of tourists.

“They will soon come back, everyone wants to visit Phi Phi,” he says.

But the Omicron COVID variant, which has led some countries to reintroduce travel restrictions, could ruin his hopes — and give the islands’ wildlife a little more time to recover.

Source:

Sophie Deviller and Thanaporn Promyamyai at Japan Today



Florida to feed starving manatees in rare conservation move

Florida to feed starving manatees in rare conservation move


Starving manatees will soon be fed by hand in Florida, a rare wildfire intervention to save the marine mammals whose natural food is vanishing from the effects of pollution, state officials told Reuters.


“Unified Command does have approval to move forward on a limited feeding trial,” said Carly Jones of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email to Reuters ahead of a formal announcement later this week. “Details are still being worked out.”

The move, authorized by the federal government, is highly unusual in conservation, which tends to favor leaving wild animals to their own foraging and hunting lest they become dependent on human handouts.

But manatees have suffered badly in 2021, with 1,017 animals found dead so far this year. The gentle herbivores, also known as “sea cows,” are considered threatened, with fewer than 8,000 left in Florida waters.

Scientists say they are starving to death, thanks to nitrogen-polluted sewage and agricultural runoff. The nitrogen fuels the growth of algae, which then smothers and kills coastal seagrass – the manatees’ main food in their winter grounds.

A manatee is seen near Riviera Beach, Florida, January 7, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

During the trial feedings, wildlife experts could feed the animals romaine lettuce and cabbage, which is what manatees in captivity eat, said marine biologist Patrick Rose, who leads the Save the Manatee Club in Florida.

“The idea behind this experimental supplemental feeding … is that you can give them just enough more food that they can get them through this winter time,” Rose said. “The longer this is delayed, the less likely it can be successful.”

Once the timing is worked out, the trial feeding will begin on private property, Jones said.

It remains illegal for the public to feed manatees.

Source:

Julio-cesar Chavez via Reuters



South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area


South Africans took to their beaches on Sunday to protest against plans by Royal Dutch Shell to do seimsic oil exploration they say will threaten marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seals and penguins on a pristine coastal stretch.


A South African court on Friday struck down an application brought by environmentalists to stop the oil major exploring in the eastern seaboard’s Wild Coast, rejecting as unproven their argument that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, especially migrating hump-back whales. read more

The Wild Coast is home of some of the country’s most undisturbed wildlife refuges, and it’s stunning coastal wildernesses are also a major tourist draw.

At least 1,000 demonstrators gathered on a beach near Port Edward, a Reuters TV correspondent saw.

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you?” said demonstrator Kas Wilson, indicating an unspoilt stretch of beach. “It’s unacceptable and … we will stop it.”

Shell officials were not immediately available for comment, but the company said on Friday that its planned exploration has regulatory approval, and it will significantly contribute to South Africa’s energy security if resources are found.

But local people fear the seismic blasting conducted over 6,000 square kilometres will kill or scare away the fish they depend on to live.

“I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said 62-year-old free dive fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe, after pulling a wild lobster from the ground. “What are we going to eat?”

Environmentalists are urging Shell and other oil companies to stop prospecting for oil, arguing that the world has no chance of reaching net zero carbon by 2050 if existing oil deposits are burned, let alone if new ones are found.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its planet warming carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels, a decision it plans to appeal.

South Africa’s environment ministry referred Reuters to a statement late last month that “the Minister responsible for environmental affairs is … not mandated to consider the application or to make a decision on the authorisation of the seismic survey.”

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

Image 1 of 6

A protestor joins a demonstration against Royal Dutch Shell's plans to start seismic surveys to explore petroleum systems off the country's popular Wild Coast at Mzamba Beach, Sigidi, South Africa, December 5, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

What is seismic blasting?

The process involves blasting the seafloor with highly powered airguns at intervals, and then measuring the echoes, which helps map out oil and gas reserves.

The process can continue for weeks or months at a time. The sound of the blasts can travel for hundreds of kilometers.

Ecologists believe the exploration technique could upset the behavior of marine animals including their feeding, reproduction and migration patterns, especially animals like whales who depend on their sense of hearing.

Why are people protesting?

There are fears the prospecting activity will have a devastating impact on marine life.

The area Shell is planning to explore is known as the Wild Coast along the country’s eastern coastline. It’s a popular tourist area and environmental groups regard it as an ecologically sensitive marine sanctuary. 

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you!” said demonstrator Kas Wilson. “It’s unacceptable and… we will stop it,” he said.

“Seismic blasting on the Wild Coast will not only destroy precious ecosystems but will also impact local communities, all in the name of profit,” Greenpeace Africa said in a tweet.

Local fishermen believe the prospecting will have an impact on their livelihoods. “I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe.

Shell says discoveries will be good for South Africa

However, Shell has said that its exploration had received regulatory approval and that its activity would contribute significantly to South Africa’s energy sector if resources were discovered.

The oil company plans to spend four to five months exploring in the region. Speaking to AFP in November, a company spokesman said: “We take great care to prevent or minimize impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife.”

But environmentalist contend that there will be no chance of meeting net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050 if prospecting for new reserves is allowed to continue.

Sources:

Siyabonga Sishi via Reuters

kb/jsi at DW News



Krill: The Disappearing Backbone of Marine Ecosystems

Krill: The Disappearing Backbone of Marine Ecosystems


Are we that close to krill-ing off biodiversity as we know it? Apparently so, because keystone species are feeling the pressure with every passing day.


When humans think of the “great deep,” outlandish, alien sea creatures come to mind: National Geographic images of anglerfish, vivid apparitions straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, timeless sea shanties depicting the fearsome giant squid. Not often is it that some of the most vital organisms in marine ecosystems, keystone species, are at the forefront of our attention. One such linchpin, krill, is a miniscule, hardly visible, invertebrate that often passes for a shrimp look-alike. These finger-sized crustaceans tend to go unnoticed in modern society, their tangerine hue not bright enough to attract the interest of humans. Despite not being one of the more appetizing types of seafood for mankind, krill are a crucial main dish for animals of the Antarctic. For decades, krill has been harvested by humans without a care for the vital role they hold within the Southern Ocean food webs. Now a new threat has been recognized, as climate change threatens the existence of Antarctic sea ice which krill rely upon for nesting grounds. The key to their gargantuan presence on Earth, krill risk losing more than ever before.

Krill dominate the Antarctic Ocean from the shadows with their massive numbers, grouped together in swarms so dense they can be spotted by satellites in space. With eighty-five currently identified species, researchers estimate that the combined biomass of krill — which are individually no larger than a paper clip — worldwide could range from anywhere between 125 million and 600 million tons. Such swarms can drift through the waters at lengths of four miles, boasting densities of over 10,000 krill per square meter. Naturally, as with any resource present at such a scale on Earth, you’d be inclined to think that the statistical stability of krill would be able to overcome any threats to its population size; how could humans even attempt to jeopardize an organism of such a scope? Unfortunately, even the most abundant organism on the planet hardly stands a chance of escaping the all-encompassing nature of climate change. Direct and indirect anthropogenic influences — reflected in commercial fishing practices and the accelerated melting of sea ice — have developed into two, potent sources of stress for krill populations, signifying the greater doom that awaits these crustaceans.

What exactly makes these pinky-sized invertebrates so irreplaceable within the vast oceans of this planet? To answer this question, we must step back into one of the most fundamental topics of ecology: ecological efficiency. Within a food chain, trophic levels quantify the different stages of energy movement between categories of lifeforms, separated into producers and consumers; notably, only 10% of energy is passed from one level to the next. Sub-categories place primary producers (organisms with photosynthetic capabilities) at the bottom-most level, while top predators take the spots of tertiary or quaternary consumers.

In a typical marine food web, phytoplankton replace terrestrial plants as primary producers, and are considered the most energy efficient. As one of the few species capable of directly feeding upon phytoplankton, krill — categorized under zooplankton — take the spot of primary consumer within the food chain. What makes krill so potent as a food source for all predators alike is (1) sheer numbers, making it available to every Antarctic predator, and (2) its tendency to swarm in densely packed groups, which makes feeding much less work for large predators. Krill is a superfood, allowing even normally tertiary consumers to adopt an energy efficient food source into their diet and essentially gain more for less.

A food web depicting the role of Antarctic krill in Southern Ocean ecosystems. (Image Courtesy of Cool Antarctica)

The most populous species of krill, Euphausia superba, serves as a primary source of food for not one, but seventeen different marine animals, such as baleen whales, seals, penguins, fishes, birds, squid, and cephalopods. If they manage to evade the predation tactics of nearly every Antarctic organism larger than them, krill can persist in the Southern waters for an impressive lifespan of up to ten years. To prevent the rapid depletion of a common food source, the species’ predators have likewise taken steps to ensure that their feeding patterns do not overlap. Baleen whales, for example, stop by plankton blooms in polar waters over the summer before continuing their migration towards warm, tropical regions of the ocean.

With so many organisms dependent on krill for sustenance, what does krill, in turn, depend on? That would be phytoplankton–microscopic, buoyant algae which photosynthesize using chlorophyll at the ocean’s surface. During winter months, live phytoplankton form layers within and underneath Antarctic sea ice, which doubles as both a shelter and constant food source for larval and juvenile krill. Fast forward six months, and the bright polar summers create the perfect set of conditions for phytoplankton blooms: a combination of nutrient-rich waters brought up from the deep via Antarctic upwellings, 24-hour sunlight, and ideal ocean temperature. When the surface sea ice melts, both phytoplankton and krill are free to multiply endlessly. The result? An explosion of krill clouds overtaking the sub-Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, and the perfect rest stop for migrating consumers.

Krill feeding on phytoplankton located on sea ice, grazing the underside of the ice cap to collect the phytoplankton as they go. (Image Courtesy of Ice Stories)

As much as they provide shelter, the presence of sea ice is a figurative Achilles heel for our star organism. In addition to the multitude of predators waiting to eat them, that is. Temperature especially stands out as a weakness in that a fraction of a degree Celsius can make a significant difference for these tiny creatures. In fact, krill provide a concrete example of what exactly the implications of “rising ocean temperatures” — a term loved by media coverage — are. The ideal conditions for phytoplankton survival require ice cover to protect them from the harsh, stormy oceans of the South, as well as cold water, which is richer in nutrients. If the surface of the ocean were to be warm instead of cold, upwelling — the phenomenon in which nutrient-rich water rises from the deep to the surface via ocean currents — would not occur and nutrients would be locked below the surface. The following summer, phytoplankton blooms would be smaller in size, and krill would emerge from the melting ice to a noticeable lack of food and a significant difference of 1-2°C. Though researchers have found it difficult to track increases and decreases in Antarctic krill population due to the sheer scale of the endeavor, studies have theorized that krill populations may have dropped 80% since the 1970s.

Krill are not the sole bearers of this insufferable fate that threatens the collapse of entire ecosystems. Sea otters — regulators of the sea urchin population in coastal marine habitats — have been deemed “climate change warriors”, tasked with keeping kelp and seagrass ecosystems in check and promoting carbon sequestration. Starfish, when removed from their ecosystem, directly resulted in the widespread takeover of the unrestrained mussel population. Alarmingly so, recent research has established a direct connection between the warming of the oceans and sea star wasting syndrome, a term for cases of sea stars dying of hypoxia due to aerobic bacteria buildup at high temperatures.

The effects of the presence and lack of presence of starfish in its ecosystem.(Image Courtesy of Institute for Research for Development, Montpelier)

Looking back on history, it’s always been our old, persistent habits that produce the greatest consequences, and it’s past time we pull the plug on this one — once and for all. Krill serve as a dark example for the extent of influence humans have on this planet. One of the most extensive species in the world, research now shows that krill may one day face the same endangerment as many other species. It’s up to us to ensure that climate change is mitigated before it can topple entire ecosystems and sweep biodiversity from the face of this planet.

In some ways, these global phenomena feel so far from us, a disconnect heightened by sheer distance and the differences between nature and civilization. That doesn’t mean, however, that we get to pretend they are not happening. Spreading awareness is always a safe and easy first step, making sure these issues are felt within the bubbles we place ourselves in before breaking out of them entirely. Climate change communication is difficult, unfamiliar, but so incredibly necessary if anything is to be accomplished. Otherwise, humanity’s insatiable greed and sheer disregard for the Earth’s required natural balance causes us to willfully blind ourselves to the impacts of the climate on the world around us — impacts inherently caused by us. It is essential that we open our eyes and face our actions, before their consequences grow to a size much too large to control.

Source:

Karthy Sajeev at The Climate Change Review



The Enormous Hole That Whaling Left Behind

The Enormous Hole That Whaling Left Behind


The mass slaughter of whales destroyed far more than the creatures themselves.


In the 20th century, the largest animals that have ever existed almost stopped existing. Baleen whales—the group that includes blue, fin, and humpback whales—had long been hunted, but as whaling went industrial, hunts became massacres. With explosive-tipped harpoons that were fired from cannons and factory ships that could process carcasses at sea, whalers slaughtered the giants for their oil, which was used to light lamps, lubricate cars, and make margarine. In just six decades, roughly the life span of a blue whale, humans took the blue-whale population down from 360,000 to just 1,000. In one century, whalers killed at least 2 million baleen whales, which together weighed twice as much as all the wild mammals on Earth today.

All those missing whales left behind an enormous amount of uneaten food. In a new study, the Stanford ecologist Matthew Savoca and his colleagues have, for the first time, accurately estimated just how much. They calculated that before industrial whaling, these creatures would have consumed about 430 million metric tons of krill—small, shrimplike animals—every year. That’s twice as much as all the krill that now exist, and twice as much by weight as all the fish that today’s fisheries catch annually. But whales, despite their astronomical appetite, didn’t deplete the oceans in the way that humans now do. Their iron-rich poop acted like manure, fertilizing otherwise impoverished waters and seeding the base of the rich food webs that they then gorged upon. When the whales were killed, those food webs collapsed, turning seas that were once rain forest–like in their richness into marine deserts.

But this tragic tale doesn’t have to be “another depressing retrospective,” Savoca told me. Those pre-whaling ecosystems are “still there—degraded, but still there.” And his team’s study points to a possible way of restoring them—by repurposing a controversial plan to reverse climate change.


Baleen whales are elusive, often foraging well below the ocean’s surface. They are also elastic: When a blue whale lunges at krill, its mouth can swell to engulf a volume of water larger than its own body. For these reasons, scientists have struggled to work out how much these creatures eat. In the past, researchers either examined the stomachs of beached whales or extrapolated upward from much smaller animals, such as mice and dolphins. But new technologies developed over the past decade have provided better data. Drones can photograph feeding whales, allowing researchers to size up their ballooning mouths. Echo sounders can use sonar to gauge the size of krill swarms. And suction-cup-affixed tags that come with accelerometers, GPS, and cameras can track whales deep underwater—“I think of them as whale iPhones,” Savoca said.

Using these devices, he and his colleagues calculated that baleen whales eat three times more than researchers had previously thought. They fast for two-thirds of the year, subsisting on their huge stores of blubber. But on the 100 or so days when they do eat, they are incredibly efficient about it. Every feeding day, these animals can snarf down 5 to 30 percent of their already titanic body weight. A blue whale might gulp down 16 metric tons of krill.

Surely, then, the mass slaughter of whales must have created a paradise for their prey? After industrial-era whalers killed off these giants, about 380 million metric tons of krill would have gone uneaten every year. In the 1970s, many scientists assumed that the former whaling grounds would become a krilltopia, but instead, later studies showed that krill numbers had plummeted by more than 80 percent.

The explanation for this paradox involves iron, a mineral that all living things need in small amounts. The north Atlantic Ocean gets iron from dust that blows over from the Sahara. But in the Southern Ocean, where ice cloaks the land, iron is scarcer. Much of it is locked inside the bodies of krill and other animals. Whales unlock that iron when they eat, and release it when they poop. The defecated iron then stimulates the growth of tiny phytoplankton, which in turn feed the krill, which in turn feed the whales, and so on.

Just as many large mammals are known to do on land, the whales engineer the same ecosystems upon which they depend. They don’t just eat krill; they also create the conditions that allow krill to thrive. They do this so well that even in the pre-whaling era their huge appetites barely dented the lush wonderlands that they seeded. Back then, krill used to swarm so densely that they reddened the surface of the Southern Ocean. Whales feasted so intensely that sailors would spot their water spouts punching upward in every direction, as far as the eye could see. With the advent of industrial whaling, those ecosystems imploded. Savoca’s team estimates that the deaths of a few million whales deprived the oceans of hundreds of millions of metric tons of poop, about 12,000 metric tons of iron, and a lot of plankton, krill, and fish.

Whaling proponents sometimes argue that whales’ gargantuan appetites threaten the food security of coastal nations, dismissing modeling studies that disprove this idea, according to Leah Gerber, a marine-conservation biologist at Arizona State University who wasn’t involved in the new study. By contrast, the empirical results from Savoca’s study “will be hard to refute,” Gerber told me.

A whaler in Spitsbergen, Norway
Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty

The new study, says Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in California, is an important reminder of how “exploited species are part of a complex web, with many effects cascading from our actions.” Killing a whale leaves a hole in the ocean that’s far bigger than the creature itself.

There are more whales now than there were even a few years ago—in early 2020, scientists rejoiced when they spotted 58 blue whales in sub-Antarctic waters where mere handfuls of the animals had been seen in years prior. But that number is still depressingly low. “You can’t bring back the whales until you bring back their food,” Savoca said. And he thinks he knows how to do that.


In 1990, the oceanographer John Martin proposed that the Southern Ocean is starved of iron, and that deliberately seeding its waters with the nutrient would allow phytoplankton to grow. The blooming plankton would soak up carbon dioxide, Martin argued, and cool the planet and slow the pace of global warming. Researchers have since tested this idea in 13 experiments, adding iron to small stretches of the Southern and Pacific Oceans and showing that plankton do indeed flourish in response.

Such iron-fertilization experiments have typically been billed as acts of geoengineering—deliberate attempts to alter Earth’s climate. But Savoca and his colleagues think that the same approach could be used for conservation. Adding iron to waters where krill and whales still exist could push the sputtering food cycle into higher gear, making it possible for whales to rebound at numbers closer to their historical highs. “We’d be re-wilding a barren land by plowing in compost, and the whole system would recuperate,” says Victor Smetacek, an oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, in Germany. (Smetacek was involved in three past iron-fertilization experiments and has been in talks with Savoca’s group.)

The team plans to propose a small and carefully controlled experiment to test the effects of iron fertilization on the whales’ food webs. The mere idea of that “is going to be shocking to some people,” Savoca admitted. Scientists and advocacy groups alike have fiercely opposed past iron-addition experiments, over concerns that for-profit companies would patent and commercialize the technology and that the extra iron would trigger blooms of toxic algae.

But with Savoca’s new estimates, “we now have a much better idea of exactly the quantity of iron that whales were recycling in the system and how much to add back so we don’t get bad effects,” he said. His goal isn’t to do something strange and unnatural but to effectively act as a surrogate defecator, briefly playing the role that whales did before they were hunted to near extinction. These creatures would still face many challenges—ship strikes, noise pollution, entangling fishing gearpollutants—but at least food supplies would tilt in their favor.

Whaling almost destroyed a thriving food web, “but in the sliver we have left, I see a lot of hope,” Savoca said. He’s not talking about restoring long-lost ecosystems, such as those that disappeared when mammoths and other land-based megafauna went extinct tens of thousands of years ago. “This is a system that was alive and well when our grandparents were alive,” he said. “And we want to bring it back.”

Source:

Ed Yong at The Atlantic



Road to hell for marine life: Shell’s Wild Coast seismic assessment plans meet mounting public protest

Road to hell for marine life: Shell’s Wild Coast seismic assessment plans meet mounting public protest


‘Hell no, Shell must go’ — activists protest against the arrival of the Amazon Warrior in Cape Town on Sunday. This is the ship’s last stop before it carries out a seismic assessment in search of oil and gas off the Wild Coast, starting on 1 December.


Waving banners, beating drums and chanting, an array of protesters — including members of Extinction Rebellion Cape Town, Oceans Not Oil and the Green Connection — awaited the arrival of the Amazon Warrior, a 130-metre seismic blasting vessel hired by oil giant Shell, at Cape Town Harbour on Sunday morning. From the outset, their message was clear: “Shell can go to hell”.

“Hell no, Shell must go!” the protesters chanted. Placards with defaced Shell logos on them bobbed above the crowd.

Shell has appointed Shearwater GeoServices to conduct the survey, which will last from four to five months, and cover more than 6,000km² of ocean surface. The survey area is located more than 20km from the coast, with its closest point in water depths ranging between 700m and 3km, Daily Maverick reported.

Activists protest against Shell’s offshore exploration plan along the Wild Coast at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Sunday, 21 November 2021. Shell’s announcement that it will conduct a seismic survey to probe for oil and gas along the Wild Coast has drawn outrage from the public (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

During this time, the seismic airgun blasts will increase the cacophony of sounds in the ocean, adding to those made by whales, dolphins and other marine life. Scientists and environmentalists alike have raised serious concerns about the “disastrous effects” of seismic assessments on the marine environment.  

shell protest
People protest at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Sunday, 21 November 2021 against Shell’s offshore exploration plan to probe for oil and gas along the Wild Coast. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Climate activist organisation Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cape Town has said that there is increasing evidence that seismic blasting harms marine life. “Environmentalists are extremely concerned that seismic blasting of this scale will hurt our whales during breeding seasons, possibly separating mothers from their calves. But also fishing communities are sounding the alarm since the shockwaves will also scare off and harm their catch for unknown periods,” said XR Cape Town press coordinator, Michael Wolf.

In a statement on Saturday, XR Cape Town demanded that President Cyril Ramaphosa urgently intervene and withdraw the exploration licence from Shell and its partners, and send the Amazon Warrior home. 

People protest against Shell’s offshore exploration plan off the Wild Coast and the arrival of the Amazon Warrior at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Sunday, 21 November 2021. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Shell’s announcement has spurred widespread public outrage and ignited a petition campaign to stop the survey. 

The Oceans Not Oil coalition started a petition calling on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy to withdraw approval of Shell’s application to probe for oil and gas off the Eastern Cape shoreline. By Sunday morning, the petition had received more than 147,500 signatories. 

About 100-150 protesters and activists were at the Clock Tower at the V&A Waterfront when Daily Maverick arrived at around 5.30am on Sunday. From there, the demonstrators marched through the Silo District, eventually arriving at the edge of a pier near Shimmy Beach Club. 

Protesters demonstrate at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Sunday, 21 November 2021 against Shell’s offshore exploration for oil and gas along the Wild Coast. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

For about three hours the protesters waited to “unwelcome” the Amazon Warrior to Cape Town. The ship eventually arrived in the bay at about 8.15am, but remained outside the harbour.

“The reason why we’re here today is because we’re telling Shell to go to hell. We do not approve of their want to do seismic activity across the Wild Coast because it will not only affect marine life but will affect individuals and marginalised communities,” protester and youth coordinator at the African Climate Alliance, Gabriel Klaasen, told Our Burning Planet.

Klaasen said Shell’s plans for the Wild Coast will not only affect marine life, but will have social and economic impacts on communities in the area. 

“This needs to come to an end if we want to make sure our marine life is secure for future generations to benefit from. The ocean is one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world and if we don’t protect it, we are screwing humans over,” he said. 

Strategic lead for the Green Connection, Liz McDaid addresses protesters at Sunday’s action against Shell’s plan to carry out a three-dimensional seismic survey in search of oil and gas deposits from Morgan Bay to Port St Johns off the Wild Coast, starting on 1 December. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Addressing protesters on Sunday, strategic lead for the Green Connection organisation Liz McDaid said that while there are currently groups of environmental lawyers trying to find ways to stop the project, public pressure on Shell is the way forward.  

“It’s us on the ground who have the best chance of public pressure building to stop them and to shut them down,” said McDaid.

McDaid said Sunday’s action was the first in a series of rolling actions planned before 1 December. There have been protests along the Wild Coast and pickets outside Shell petrol stations across the country, she said. 

A silent march from Muizenberg to Kalk Bay harbour to raise public awareness also took place at midday on Sunday. 

People gather at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Sunday, 21 November 2021 to protest against Shell’s offshore exploration plan along the Wild Coast. Demonstrators gathered to ‘unwelcome’ the ship commissioned to conduct the survey, which docked in Cape Town on Sunday. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

“What we are also planning to do — if we can raise the money — is hire a research vessel to shadow and monitor” the Amazon Warrior’s activity on the Wild Coast, said McDaid. 

“What we also think will put public pressure on Shell is to call on all the holidaymakers who are driving around to boycott Shell,” she said. 

“We were at the Paradise Motors Shell garage yesterday and it was very inspiring to see people look at the posters, drive in and then drive out without getting petrol,” she said.

“As long as we can resist and they know we are resisting, it makes their lives harder.”

Source:

Victoria O’Regan at Daily Maverick



20,000 Pounds of Trash Removed From Pacific Garbage Patch: ‘Holy mother of god. It worked!’

20,000 Pounds of Trash Removed From Pacific Garbage Patch: ‘Holy mother of god. It worked!’


“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch can now be cleaned,” announced Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, the wonderkid inventor who’s spent a decade inventing systems for waterborne litter collection.


Recent tests on his Ocean Cleanup rig called System 002, invented to tackle the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic pollution, were a success, leading Slat to predict that most of the oceanic garbage patches could be removed by 2040.

Intersections of ocean currents have created the massive floating islands of plastic trash—five slow-moving whirlpools that pull litter from thousands of miles away into a single radius.

The largest one sits between California and Hawaii, and 27-year-old Slat has been designing and testing his systems out there, launching from San Francisco since 2013.

GNN has reported on his original design for the floating device, but his engineering team improved upon it. System 002, nicknamed “Jenny,” successfully netted 9,000 kilograms, or around 20,000 pounds in its first trial.

It’s carbon-neutral, able to capture microplastics as small as 1 millimeter in diameter, and was designed to pose absolutely no threat to wildlife thanks to its wide capture area, slow motion, alerts, and camera monitors that allow operators to spy any overly-curious marine life.

Jenny consists of two boats dragging a very long net in a U-shape behind them.

They use computational modeling to predict where and at what speed the movements in the water will be shifting the plastic. They then fill up their net, pull it on board, and bring it ashore for recycling.

The team are also turning some of the trash they collect into designer sunglasses—and earnings from the stylish shades will go toward helping support the nonprofit so they can continue cleaning up the ocean. The new glasses are the first product to be created from the recovered ocean debris—but they say it will not be the last.

A timeline of hope

Slat estimates ten Jennies could clean half the garbage patch in five years, and if 10 Jennies were deployed to the five major ocean gyres, then 90% of all floating plastic could be removed by 2040.

There are obvious challenges, like the fact that millions of pieces of plastic flow into the oceans every year, and that investors may believe river cleanup is easier, cheaper, and doesn’t require the use of fossil fuels to power the boats.

And that’s why Slat’s nonprofit has also launched a number of ‘interceptor’ barges to clean up polluting rivers, intercepting plastic before it reaches the ocean.

Nevertheless—this is a huge breakthrough in the cleanup of ocean plastics, and one worth celebrating.

Source:

Andy Corbley at Good News Network



Underwater Gardens Boost Coral Diversity to Stave Off ‘Biodiversity Meltdown’

Underwater Gardens Boost Coral Diversity to Stave Off ‘Biodiversity Meltdown’


Corals are the foundation species of tropical reefs worldwide, but stresses ranging from overfishing to pollution to warming oceans are killing corals and degrading the critical ecosystem services they provide.


Because corals build structures that make living space for many other species, scientists have known that losses of corals result in losses of other reef species. But the importance of coral species diversity for corals themselves was less understood.

A new study from two researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology provides both hope and a potentially grim future for damaged coral reefs. In their research paper, “Biodiversity has a positive but saturating effect on imperiled coral reefs,” published October 13 in Science AdvancesCody Clements and Mark Hay found that increasing coral richness by ‘outplanting’ a diverse group of coral species together improves coral growth and survivorship. This finding may be especially important in the early stages of reef recovery following large-scale coral loss — and in supporting healthy reefs that in turn support fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection from storm surges.

The scientists also call for additional research to better understand and harness the mechanisms producing these positive species interactions, with dual aims to improve reef conservation and promote more rapid and efficient recovery of degraded reefs.

But the ecological pendulum swings the other way, too. If more coral species are lost, the synergistic effects could threaten other species in what Clements and Hay term a “biodiversity meltdown.”

“Yes, corals are the foundation species of these ecosystems — providing habitat and food for numerous other reef species,” says Clements, a Teasley Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. “Negative effects on corals often have cascading impacts on other species that call coral reefs home. If biodiversity is important for coral performance and resilience, then a ‘biodiversity meltdown’ could exacerbate the decline of reef ecosystems that we’re observing worldwide.”

Clements and Hay traveled to Mo’orea, French Polynesia, in the tropical Pacific Ocean, where they planted coral gardens differing in coral species diversity to evaluate the relative importance of mutualistic versus competitive interactions among corals as they grew and interacted through time.

“We’ve done the manipulations, and the corals should be competing with each other, but in fact they do better together than they do on their own,” says Hay, Regents Professor and Teasley Chair in the School of Biological Sciences. Hay is also co-director of the Ocean Science and Engineering graduate program at Georgia Tech. “We are still investigating the mechanisms causing this surprising result, but our experiments consistently demonstrate that the positive interactions are overwhelming negative interactions in the reef settings where we conduct these experiments. That means when you take species out of the system, you’re taking out some of those positive interactions, and if you take out critical ones, it may make a big difference.”

Under the sea, in a coral-growing garden, in the shade

Coral reefs are under threat worldwide. Hay notes that according to the EPA, the Caribbean has lost 80 to 90 percent of its coral cover. The Indo-Pacific region has lost half of all its corals over the last 30 years. During the bleaching event of 2015-2016 alone, nearly half of the remaining corals along the Great Barrier Reef bleached and died.

“The frequency of these big bleaching and heating events that are killing off corals has increased fairly dramatically over the last 20 to 30 years,” he says. “There are hot spots here and there where coral reefs are still good, but they’re small and isolated in general.”

In their coral gardens in French Polynesia, Hay and Clements manipulated the diversity of the coral species that they planted on platforms resembling underwater chess tables, to try and see if species richness and density affected coral productivity and survival.

Hay notes that many previous, similar experiments involved bringing corals into a lab to “pit species against each other.” But he points out, “We do all of our experiments in the real world. We’re not as interested in whether it can happen, but whether it does happen.”

An experimental setup suggested by Clements involving Coke bottles helped the scientists arrange their garden. The end tables “have Coca-Cola bottlecaps embedded in the top of them,” Hay says. “We can then cut off the necks of Coke bottles, glue corals into the upside-down necks of these things, and then screw them in and out of these plots.  This allows us to not only arrange what species we want where, but every couple of months we can unscrew and weigh them so we can get accurate growth rates.”

The researchers found that corals benefitted from increased biodiversity, “but only up to a point,” Clements notes. “Corals planted in gardens with an intermediate number of species — three to six species in most cases — performed better than gardens with low, or one, species, or high, as in nine, species. However, we still do not fully understand the processes that contributed to these observations.”

Clements says their research demands more investigation. Why do corals perform better in mixed species communities than single-species communities? Why does this biodiversity effect diminish — rather than continue increasing — at the highest level of coral diversity?
“We need a better mechanistic understanding of how diversity influences these processes to predict how biodiversity loss will impact corals, as well as how we may be able to harness biodiversity’s positive influence to protect corals,” says Clements.

Source:

Georgia Institute of Technology