In a remote part of the Gulf of Mexico, the ocean still teems with life. The under-explored reefs there are still rich, something that many other coral reefs around the globe can no longer say. Now, Oceana is working to protect these biodiversity hotspots before it's too late.
On Aug. 23, the nonprofit conservation organization completed its first-ever expedition to investigate and document the condition of two reefs in the Gulf of Mexico using cutting-edge technology. Project Alacranes focused on Scorpion Reef (Arrecife Alacranes in Spanish) and the Bajos del Norte National Park, which contain some of the greatest biodiversity in the Gulf.
Mariana Reyes, oceans and fisheries scientist at Oceana in Mexico, told EcoWatch, "These two sites are ecologically and economically relevant for the region." According to Oceana, Scorpion Reef is the largest reef in the southern Gulf of Mexico and is a designated marine protected area (MPA). Numerous endangered and commercial species reproduce within the MPA and migrate beyond that to fishing grounds when mature. The waters also support the important red snapper and grouper fisheries, and more than 15 percent of spiny lobster catches in the Yucatan are from Scorpion Reef and its surrounding area, Reyes added.
Diver and soft coral in Bajos del Norte. Rodrigo Friscionne
Expedition leader Mariana Reyna also shared Scorpion Reef's importance to a planet increasingly confronted by the climate crisis and warming oceans. The reef is included on a 2018 list by Conservation Letters of coral reefs that are "healthy and diverse enough to have a better chance of surviving the effects of climate change," said Reyes.
In the case of Bajos del Norte, the reef has been identified as a possible important connection between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, Reyes said.
Reyes pointed out that, in theory, these remote areas should be "relatively undisturbed" by the impacts of human activities — thanks to their distance from the coast. Nevertheless, Scorpion Reef shows signs of being affected by human impacts including tourism and Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Luckily, Reyes said, Bajos del Norte shows very few signs of human impact. Scientists want to understand why this is and how to prevent further degradation of both reefs.
Branching coral in Alacranes. Rodrigo Friscionne
"Our objective is to collect scientific information that allows us to determine the current status of this marine protected area (MPA), and to use this information to promote the changes needed to protect and guarantee the future of this important ecosystem," said Renata Terrazas, leader of Oceana in Mexico.
"That is why it is so important to explore these places where few expeditions have been and with technology that has never been used in these areas to collect the evidence necessary to protect and preserve this habitat," Reyna said.
While Scorpion Reef is an MPA, "In the case of Bajos del Norte, the risk is greater because it has no legal protection, and very little research has been done on its status, nor on the species that live there," Terrazas added.
Over the 15-day expedition, scientists explored the two areas. They were happy to report that the reefs were "full of life with an abundance of fish, invertebrates, and other animals that are signs of a healthy reef," Reyes said. They also observed many corals with disease and mortality in two species. They will continue analyzing their findings.
Juvenile Bluehead Wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum) in Scorpion Reef (Arrecife Alacranes). Rodrigo Friscionne
The researchers also completed environmental DNA analysis and photomosaic modeling. The latter will be used to create 3D maps of the reefs and enable a census of species located thereon. This information can help managers evaluate current management tools for these reefs and determine how best to preserve them, Reyes said.
"The recovery and conservation of marine habitats in Mexico translate into greater economic and social benefits, especially for local fishermen. Adequate protection of these reefs ensures that future generations can enjoy their beauty and resources," said Miguel Rivas, director of habitat campaigns at Oceana.
- Sea Shepherd and Peruvian Government Intercept Illegal Fishing ... ›
- Reducing Our Emissions Is the 'Only Hope' for Coral Reefs, Study ... ›
- Coral Reefs Could All Die Off by 2050 - EcoWatch ›
- Oceana Mission to Mexico Uncovers Invasive Species and Coral Diseases on Pristine Reefs - EcoWatch ›
The relationship between coral and algae is hugely important: the coral provides algae with shelter, while the algae provides the coral with energy and color.
However, scientists have never before observed the moment when coral cells envelop single-celled algae to begin this partnership, until now. In a study published in Frontiers in Marine Science Wednesday, researchers describe watching coral swallow algae for the first time.
"It was amazing to see -- it was almost a dream!" senior author and professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University Noriyuki Satoh said in a university press release.
The reason this had not been achieved before is that coral cells are very difficult to culture. In the past, researchers had relied on the cells of similar species, like sea anemones. But, in a paper published in Marine Biotechnology in April, the Japanese research team announced they had managed to culture a sustainable cell line Acropora tenuis, a type of stony coral, in the lab.
Stony corals are the most common type of corals found in tropical and subtropical reefs, making them especially relevant to study, the press release explained.
To observe the coral cells' interaction with the algae, the researchers chose a cell line called IVB5, which has properties similar to the endodermal coral cells that engulf algae in the wild. They then added microscopic algae called dinoflagellates to the petri dish.
Once the algae were added, around 40 percent of the corals formed long, finger-like appendages that reached out to the algae. The corals then "swallowed" the algae within 30 minutes. Within 24 hours, almost half of the coral cells had completely engulfed the algae, according to the study.
"Coral cells that harbored algal cells gradually became round and less mobile, and the algal cells sometimes settled in vacuole-like structures in coral cell cytoplasm," the study authors wrote. "This symbiosis state was maintained for at least a month."
The study isn't only important because it is the first time that the phenomenon has been observed. It also has significant conservation implications.
The relationship between coral and algae is under stress like never before, from factors such as pollution, ocean acidification and warmer waters caused by the climate crisis, UPI explained. In the last two decades, scientists have observed an uptick in coral bleaching events, in which these stressors cause the coral to expel their algae. Stony corals are particularly susceptible to these events.
"For coral reef conservation, it's vital for us to fully understand the partnership between stony coral and the algae that live inside these animals, at the level of a single cell," co-first author and Kochi University professor Kaz Kawamura said in the press release.
Next, the researchers hope to encourage the algae and coral to reproduce together in the lab so that they can better study their partnership to combat bleaching.
"This would be very exciting as then we can ask new questions, like how the corals react when placed under stress," Satoh said in the press release. "This could give us a more complete understanding of how bleaching occurs, and how we can mitigate it."
See how you can save money on solar panels in Florida.
Florida is well-known as the Sunshine State because of its year-round sunny weather that draws millions of tourists each year, but historically, Florida hasn't actually been a national leader when it comes to solar energy generation. That said, financial incentives like Florida solar tax credit and rebate opportunities have played a huge part in its rise to become one of the top states for solar energy.
To the glee of clean energy advocates across the state, various Florida solar incentives have succeeded in bringing solar power throughout the state. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, in 2020, Florida ranked third in the nation for solar energy capacity, and it had the second-most installations during the second quarter of 2021.
This progress in the solar field comes from many different sources, not the least of which is Florida solar incentives. For any homes or businesses feeling left behind while the rest of the state goes solar, these types of solar tax credits are still widely available across Florida, which will be discussed in this article.
For most homeowners, the decision to go solar comes down to cost. To see how much you'd pay for a home solar system (and how much you can shave off that price with Florida solar tax credit and incentive opportunities), you can get a free quote from a top solar company near you by using this tool or filling out the form below.
Florida Solar Tax Credits and Solar Rebates
As much as transitioning to clean energy is the best thing for the environment and the fight against climate change, the reality has always been that such changes would be slow to happen (if they happened at all) unless they made sense financially. When solar energy systems are proven to save money for those who pay the high upfront costs to install them, those purchases are better considered a worthy investment.
As such, some of the most effective policies encouraging solar installations have been those making the decision a no-brainer from the budgetary perspective. Let's take a look at some of the top Florida solar incentives.
|Florida Solar Incentive||Program Overview|
|Florida Net Metering Programs||Credits homeowners when their solar panels produce extra electricity and it is exported to the local power grid|
|Florida Tax Exemptions||Property tax exemptions and sales tax exemptions for solar and other renewable energy equipment|
|Local Incentives||Incentives, rebates and low-interest financing programs at the town, city, and county level that encourage local solar installations|
Florida Net Metering Programs
Regardless of the state, one of the most critical types of energy policy for solar panels is known as net metering. Through net metering, homeowners can feed excess electricity produced by their solar panels into the power grid in exchange for utility credits. These credits can be used to pay for the energy a home uses when panels aren't producing (such as at night).
Net metering tends to be a state-by-state policy, as there is no federal policy regarding net metering. Florida is one of the states where there is, in fact, a statewide net metering program, applicable for homeowners regardless of which utility serves their area.
The specific net metering provision covers up to 2 megawatts (MW) of capacity for any customers who generate electricity with a renewable energy source. Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy have the largest net metering programs in the state.
The availability of such net metering serves as an incentive for Floridians to install solar panels on their property. Not only do they benefit by reducing their power bills from pulling energy from the grid less often, but they can even profit when the utility pays them for generating more power than they consume, bringing their solar payback period down.
Florida Solar Tax Exemptions
Another financial mechanism that the Florida state government offers to solar system owners is solar tax exemptions. To start, Florida doesn't want to make the upfront cost to purchase and install solar equipment to be any higher than the open market says it should be, so since 1997, all solar energy systems have been completely exempt from Florida's sales and use tax.
Once a solar photovoltaic system is purchased and installed, there is a statewide property tax abatement that further helps homeowners avoid paying taxes on it. Most home additions, such as a new shed or outdoor patio built in a home's backyard, would be appraised to determine the value it added to the property and thus increase the overall property tax. However, the added home value of solar panels is excluded from the property's taxable value.
Florida is also a large, diverse state, so in addition to the state solar incentives, many local jurisdictions enact their own policies to encourage and support installation of solar energy systems. At the town, city or county level, Floridians will commonly find low-interesting solar financing options, specific solar incentives or rebates, and more.
You can determine whether your locality offers such incentives by investigating your local government websites or talking to utility company representatives. When you do, you may come across such successful programs as Jacksonville's $2,000 rebate for solar battery installations, Boynton Beach's Energy Edge Rebate Program, or the Solar Energy Rebate Grant Program offered by Dunedin.
Federal Solar Tax Credit
Floridians, of course, can also benefit from all the tax incentives, rebates and credits that are offered at the federal level. Over the past two decades, the federal solar investment tax credit (ITC) has attributed largely to the rapid growth in solar energy across business sectors, geographies and customer types.
For systems installed and operational before the end of 2022, the federal solar tax credit is equal to 26% of the value of the installation, dropping to 22% for systems installed in 2023. It is currently set to expire afterward, though the idea of extending the ITC beyond its current expiration date, as has been done in the past, has been a part of active clean energy policy debates.
FAQ: Florida Solar Incentives
Does Florida have a solar tax credit?
State-wide, there is no specific Florida solar tax credit. However, all utilities in the state of Florida do offer customers the ability to utilize net metering, Florida solar homeowners are eligible for the federal solar tax credit, and some local jurisdictions in Florida may offer their own tax credits.
Is solar tax exempt in Florida?
In Florida, the purchase and installation of a home solar system is exempt from all sales tax, and the value of renewable systems are excluded from 100% of residential property taxes.
How much is the solar tax credit for 2022?
For any solar panel system installed before the end of 2022, the federal solar investment tax credit is equal to 26% of the value of the system.
Is Florida a good state for solar?
Florida is a great state for solar from the perspective of having year-round sunny weather, higher-than-average solar irradiance and a policy landscape conducive to solar installations. Because of these factors, Florida ranked third among all states in terms of solar capacity installed in 2020 (rising to second when looking at the third quarter of 2021), per the SEIA.
How much do solar panels cost in Florida?
Based on market research and data from top solar companies, we've found the average cost of solar panels in Florida is $2.53 per watt. However, this is only an average, and prices can vary widely depending on where you live, the number of solar panels you need and more.
To get a free estimate for your own home solar system, you can get connected with a pre-screened local installer by using this tool or entering your home's information below.
The idea behind the 'Marine Cloud Brightening for the Great Barrier Reef' project is to reduce the risk of coral bleaching in the short term while global greenhouse gas emissions are cut and temperatures stabilized.
"If we do it over an extended period of time for a few weeks to a couple of months when the corals are experiencing a marine heatwave we can actually start to lower the water temperature over the Reef," project director Dr. Daniel Harrison told Reuters Tuesday.
Coral bleaching is currently the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, the project website explained. It occurs when water temperatures rise past what the corals have adapted to. This causes the corals to expel the algae that provide them with food and color, weakening the corals and potentially killing them. During back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, two-thirds of the reef was severely bleached. During 2016, 29 percent of the reef's corals died. However, the situation could get even worse if nothing is done to halt the climate crisis. Under current trends, half of today's Great Barrier Reef could be lost by 2021.
To help prevent this, researchers are trying out cloud brightening. The brightness of a cloud is determined by how many aerosols, or airborne particles, it contains. The more aerosols, the brighter it is, and the more sunlight it reflects back into space.
"Marine cloud brightening is a technology designed to increase the brightness of clouds by mimicking natural processes, in this case the generation of aerosols by sea spray," the project website explained. "It requires the generation of small salt-water droplets which evaporate in the planetary boundary layer to give a nano-scale grain of salt."
Harrison and his team conducted their latest trial of this process in March of 2021, Nature reported, using a mist machine to blow sea water off of a boat. The trial plume of mist was not enough to actually alter the clouds, but it did successfully reach the sky, and field results indicate the process might work better than models suggest, Harrison told Nature.
"We are now very confident that we can get the particles up into the clouds," Harrison told Nature. "But we still need to figure out how the clouds will respond."
In theory, Reuters reported, reducing the light over the reef by six percent could reduce heat stress by 50 to 60 percent. However, some scientists have expressed concerns that the Australian team is moving ahead with what amounts to geoengineering without considering the implications.
"One could say that there should have been some level of consultation with the outside world," Janos Pasztor, who leads the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, told Nature.
Harrison said his team consulted with the proper authorities, as well as Indigenous groups with historic claims to the area, and that the project was closer to cloud-seeding than true geoengineering, designed to be purely local in effect.
However, the project's success depends on world leaders acting to reduce emissions and global temperatures. The cloud brightening is a stop-gap measure, not a replacement for broader action.
"If we do have really strong action on climate change then the modelling shows that the cloud brightening is enough to stop the reef declining and to actually see it through this period while we reduce our carbon emissions," he told Reuters.
- 2020 Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Event Is Most Widespread to ... ›
- Australia Throws Great Barrier Reef a $300 Million Lifeline, but Will It ... ›
PADI (Professional Association of Scuba Divers) is inviting you to dive in (literally) to make positive changes for our ocean. The scuba diving behemoth and PADI AWARE Foundation, a non-profit public charity driving change for our ocean at the local level, are celebrating the fourth annual AWARE Week from Sept. 18 - 26 this year.
During this event, PADI dive centers, resorts and professional divers from around the world host local events to advance conservation awareness and engagement.
"Aware Week started in 2018 to bring together divers all over the world to be a voice for the ocean and act for change," said Kristin Valette Wirth, chief brand and membership officer for PADI Worldwide. "PADI and PADI AWARE Foundation believe in the power of people to help address threats facing our ocean today and that large-scale transformation starts with individuals acting locally for global impact."
This year's explicit conservation mandates include advancing PADI's Conservation Blueprint, an initiative encouraging conservation action in direct support of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, Valette Wirth told EcoWatch. According to PADI, the focus will be on how to take PADI's existing Vulnerable Species Protection and Marine Debris programs "to the next level" by also addressing critical marine issues such as climate change, marine protected areas and coral reefs. These represent the five key components of PADI's Blueprint for Ocean Action and directly align with and support UN efforts.
On the marine debris front, PADI is inviting ocean enthusiasts and divers to collect trash from the shorelines and seafloor through its signature citizen-science diving program, Dives Against Debris. Everything collected is sorted, weighed and then added to a global database that can be used by marine researchers and policymakers for conservation action. The scuba organization hopes to use this data about what is entering our ocean to positively influence upstream policy changes to curb this flow.
"As divers, we have the skills and vantage point to gather data that no other community can," Valette Wirth explained to EcoWatch. "Around the world, more than 90,000 PADI Divers and Torchbearers for the ocean have removed and reported marine debris from underwater environments since 2011, representing the largest underwater citizen science database and movement for marine debris on the planet."
A diver removes a discarded face mask floating in the ocean during a dive. PADI
The impressive scale of data collected by the recreational dive community and its global nature allow for PADI AWARE to collaborate with scientists, researchers and independent research organizations to broaden and strengthen their data. In this way, marine debris trends and potential solutions can be addressed more quickly and effectively, Valette Wirth added.
Recently, data submitted from 118 different countries by PADI divers has been used in a global analysis of marine debris to identify marine debris hotspots and how they came to be. As different policy solutions are proposed, recreational scuba divers can help "in real time" through continued data collection that will speak to the effectiveness of any policies implemented, Valette Wirth said.
Essentially, PADI wants to galvanize the global diving community to clean our seas and put pressure on key decision makers to increase protections for the ocean, Valette Wirth said. Through the collective impact of their efforts, PADI believes global ocean impact can be achieved.
"Protecting the ocean requires the actions of everyone around the globe working together," said Valette Wirth. "Together with PADI AWARE Foundation, Seiko and our other partners in conservation, we recognize that anyone with passion for the ocean can become an ocean ambassador and contribute to worldwide efforts to save the ocean... AWARE Week 2021 will inspire people with a clear and effective path to action for the planet."
A novice Dive Against Debris participant removes and coils ghostline found on a coral reef during a Dive Against Debris. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
- 14 Countries Commit to Ocean Sustainability Initiative - EcoWatch ›
- Ocean Plastic: What You Need to Know - EcoWatch ›
- 44% of Ocean Plastics Are Linked to Takeout Food - EcoWatch ›
By Kelly Heber Dunning
As summer approaches, reports of the return of leisure travel are beginning to emerge following the unprecedented shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the world's most popular tourism destinations have begun to plan an eventual reopening, exploring what their "new normal" will look like.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused most of these sites to fall silent, including one of the world's busiest cruise-ship ports: the docks on Grand Cayman Island. In April 2020, the global pandemic shut down the island's port, which normally saw the arrival of dozens of cruise ships and thousands of tourists every month. The Cayman Islands was the only Caribbean nation to voluntarily halt its cruise economy, prioritizing the safety of its residents. Local businesses, hurt by the loss of tourism dollars, have already started going under; iconic local spots that make up much of the community's social fabric, for tourists and locals alike, are being lost.
A cruise ship visits Grand Cayman in 2019. David Reber / CC BY-SA 2.0
Soon, though, the ban on cruise ships will undoubtedly lift, and tourism will slowly return. And when that happens, the residents of Grand Cayman and nearby islands may find themselves worrying about another major threat posed by these cruise companies, one that runs the risk of being drowned out by the disruption caused by the pandemic.
In 2019 the Cayman Islands government announced a plan to move forward on a massive new port project in George Town Harbor, supported by two major cruise-ship operators. Without this project, cruise ships visiting the island must anchor offshore and shuttle passengers back and forth with smaller vessels — an important aspect of the local economy with historic roots in the coastal community.
The new project, estimated to cost $200 million, would allow cruise ships to come all the way to shore by building deep new docks capable of accommodating four cruise ships at a time, each of which could bring thousands of additional visitors to the island, according to the cruise companies and government supporters.
But getting to this point would require dredging 22 acres of George Town Harbor's seabed, destroying 10 to 15 acres of fragile coral reefs in the process.
If that happens, another vital part of the fabric of Grand Cayman life would be lost.
Coral vs. Corporate Influence
Given its role in the global financial industry, the Cayman Islands may seem like the last place in the world where rule of law and good governance would be a problem. Yet even here, the ever-growing power of multinational corporations to transform environmental policy is starting to be felt.
It didn't used to be this way.
As I wrote in my recent scientific study on the Cayman Islands, their effective marine park system has stood out as a model for coral-reef management since it was put in place in the 1980s. This area is known for its vibrant coral reefs, well-protected through the ever-expanding network of marine parks. The Cayman Islands have strict constitutional provisions and laws for protecting coral reefs, as well as international environmental policy commitments. Caymanian history and culture are also closely tied to the reefs. The first dive tourism spots in the Caribbean blossomed from Bob Soto's little backwater dive shop on "Cheeseburger Reef" into today's multimillion-dollar dive tourism trade.
Despite the history and good governance, the cruise industry — notably Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines — had, prior to the pandemic, announced plans to move ahead with their plans to build the new docking facility on George Town Harbor.
Fragile Reefs, Questionable Science, Vague Promises
Those docks would devastate the local ecology. A 2015 environmental impact assessment estimated that the project would not just destroy 15 acres of reef but also negatively affect another 15 to 20 acres of adjacent habitat and pose risks to the 26 coral species in the harbor — two of which are critically endangered.
Coral disease and bleaching from elevated surface temperatures have already put the Cayman Islands' coral reefs on the ropes; this could be the knockout punch.
R9 Studios / CC BY 2.0
The cruise companies pushing the infrastructure project have argued that there's a way to mitigate this damage, but their proposed solution doesn't hold much water.
They worked with the government on a plan that would pay an engineering company and a Florida-based NGO to relocate every coral lost or replant lab-grown corals in place of the ones they can't relocate. By my estimation, the partners would need to replant and grow more than 3 million corals to make up for this destruction — triple the stated replanting goal.
The government's replacement goal is based on the absurd notion that a reef is simply an independent collection of corals humans can easily re-create — a bold assumption, and one yet to be supported at the proposed scale.
The reality is that reefs are slow-growing, highly complex assemblies of living and non-living things that take centuries to develop. This promised "replanting" technology is scientifically unproven at best and greenwashing at worst — meant to soothe the conscience of those troubled by the grave choice to destroy a beloved coral reef with deep meaning to its community.
The government has promised vague jobs and economic benefits if the project is built. And the CEO of Royal Caribbean, Michael Bailey, promises no taxpayer money will be used to pay for the dock.
This is not true. The Caymanian government will hand over $2.32 in tourism taxes per passenger to the cruise lines that it would otherwise collect for the citizens of Cayman. Caymanians are, therefore, paying for this infrastructure, despite mounting environmental problems on the island including a trash pile so large that locals call it "Mount Trashmore."
Votes and Courts
There is some hope in this case, thanks to Caymanian community organizing.
Two years ago, Caymanian citizens successfully organized and secured a referendum through a robust people's movement. Community groups like Cruise Port Referendum Cayman (CPR Cayman) implemented an aggressive ground campaign with no outside financial backing, organized only by volunteers. They focused on educating the public on the risks and uncertainties underpinning this project. Their efforts triggered a public referendum, originally scheduled for Christmas 2019, the first in Caymanian history.
The status of the referendum is currently being worked out in the courts, and it's important that we pay attention. Currently, prominent members of CPR Cayman are acting as watchdogs to ensure the referendum, if it is ultimately held, will take place in a fair and impartial way. Before the court challenge, activists protested the original referendum, which was intentionally scheduled at the holidays, a time when many are simply not on the island — an incredibly cynical move, since under the Cayman constitution a missing vote counts as a de facto "yes" for the port.
Despite community opposition, cruise corporation leaders are actively speaking out in support of this project's resumption, with Michael Bayley, the CEO of Royal Caribbean, saying that they will make a decision to resurrect the pier project in the coming months.
That's why it's so important that we follow this ongoing case — CPR Cayman makes regular updates to their Facebook page — as local community activists continue to contest the project in court. Should our "New Normal" following the COVID-19 pandemic allow companies to break environmental laws for private gain?
Why do these reefs matter so much? They're what we would call "democratic reefs," easily accessed from the shore by the public using free parking lots and open stairs. Multiple generations of Caymanians have taken the quick swim out and snorkeled with their children. One man who spoke up at a 2019 community meeting told the story of how his father, he, and now his son all took the name "Eden" after the iconic Eden Rock Reef, which will be wrecked by this project.
For people like Eden and his family, this isn't just an environmental issue — this is about social justice. Coral reefs come with benefits for communities. They protect islands from hurricanes, provide food, attract tourism dollars and have deep cultural meaning. Lower-income people feel the loss of these services more intensely than those with more. Will the "replanted" reefs replace natural ones effectively? Or will low-income communities bear the consequences while foreign companies and scientists-for-hire sail home with increased profit? The losses for locals will stack up with eroding beaches erode, exposed homes, empty fishing grounds empty, and an end to their snorkeling trips with their children.
The number of people standing up to this project continued to grow in 2020, even during the pandemic. This drew scorn of powerful government leaders such as McKeeva Bush, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who called community organizers "rascals" in public.
What happens next? Premier Alden McLaughlin hinted back in mid-April 2020 that he had grown weary of this dispute, suggesting that the vote will not happen during the current political term due to the pandemic.
That doesn't mean the port project is dead. It's just been pushed down the line for the next people who take office. "It will be another government that deals with that," McLaughlin said. Given the support expressed by leaders in the cruise industry, many believe this project will resume when cruise tourism resumes.
It may seem odd to talk about this while the world is just beginning to emerge from the pandemic, but the attention we pay to COVID-19 may distract us from closely watching corporations that stand to gain from the proposed destruction of coral reefs. This may be the window of opportunity the government needs to quietly move ahead while we're distracted with recovery.
We must unify as "rascals" to oppose corporations that continue to push their anti-environment agendas forward around the world. We must reject the false promises of scientists-for-hire.
If being a "rascal" means opposing the immoral destruction of coral reefs, consider me a rascal.
When and if the vote happens, I encourage the people of the Cayman Islands to vote no on the referendum. Likewise, I urge the people of the Cayman Islands to unite against companies violating their environmental laws. The returns are not worth the risks, namely the loss of their iconic reefs.
I encourage the U.S. public, and the wider world, to hold the cruise industry accountable for these types of immoral bypasses of domestic and international environmental policy. The industry's shocking record of customer safety amidst the pandemic remains in the news, but this is hardly its only sin. You only need to look to the industry's poor environmental record in the Bahamas to see what might happen in the Caymans moving forward.
If the reefs are destroyed and the restoration fails or even partially succeeds, the Caymanian people will be left to clean up, while the cruise industry continues to rake in record profits.
It is unethical to destroy coral reefs because they do not belong to us. They belong to everyone, and that includes future generations. If the project goes ahead, I hope that corporate leadership from the cruise industry will explain to young Eden, and other young Caymanians, why they cannot snorkel the reefs that their parents once did.
Kelly Heber Dunning is an assistant professor of conservation governance at Auburn University and a 2020 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Early Career Fellow. She received her Ph.D. in Natural Resources from MIT and MSc in Environmental Policy from Oxford and is the author of Managing Coral Reefs (2018), a scientific book on coral reef management.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or its employees.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
- Florida Gov. DeSantis Prohibits Cities From Banning Sunscreens ... ›
- Dominican Republic: Saving Coral Reefs From Tourism, Climate ... ›
That's the warning from a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday, which analyzed how the world's reefs would fare under a low, medium and high emissions scenario.
"Our work highlights a grim picture for the future of coral reefs," study lead author and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington marine biologist Christopher Cornwall told ABC News.
Scientists have long known that the climate crisis threatens coral reefs in two major ways. First, the increase of carbon dioxide in the ocean leads to a process called ocean acidification, which makes it harder for corals to form calcium carbonate skeletons, a process known as calcification. Secondly, warming ocean temperatures increase the risk of coral bleaching, when corals expel the algae that give them food and color. The warming can also interfere with the calcification process.
But there's more. A certain type of algae known as calcifying red algae, or coralline algae, acts as adhesive binding reefs together and can even form its own reefs, Cornwall explained in a Victoria University of Wellington press release.
"While corals are highly susceptible to ocean warming, coralline algae are more vulnerable to ocean acidification. Coral reef growth is also dictated by the removal of this calcium carbonate through either bioerosion — living organisms eating the reef — or the dissolution of sediments that help fill in the cracks between larger pieces of calcium carbonate," Cornwall explained. "Both processes are likely to accelerate under ocean acidification and warming. However, no one study had put these processes together quantitatively previously."
Monday's study sought to fill in this research gap by looking at calcification, bioerosion and sediment erosion rates for 233 areas on 183 reefs worldwide. Forty-nine percent of the reefs studied were in the Atlantic Ocean, 39 percent in the Indian Ocean and 11 percent in the Pacific Ocean. The researchers then used models to determine what would happen to the reefs in 2050 and 2100 based on low, medium or worst-case emissions scenarios.
The news is grim. By 2100, the rate of carbonate production on the reefs will decline by 76 percent under a low emissions scenario, 149 percent under a medium emissions scenario and 156 percent under a high emissions scenario, the study found.
While 63 percent of reefs would continue to grow under a low-emissions scenario by 2100, 94 percent of them would begin to decline as soon as 2050 in the worst-case scenario. Under both the medium and high emissions scenario, reef growth would not be able to keep pace with sea level rise by the end of the century.
This would be a devastating blow for the marine biodiversity and human livelihoods that reefs support, ABC News pointed out. Furthermore, the decline of reefs would deprive coastal areas from an important protection against rising sea levels and surges from more extreme storms.
"The only hope for coral reef ecosystems to remain as close as possible to what they are now is to quickly and drastically reduce our CO2 emissions," Cornwall told ABC News. "If not, they will be dramatically altered and cease their ecological benefits as hotspots of biodiversity, sources of food and tourism, and their provision of shoreline protection."
The research also looked at which reefs would be most vulnerable, and found that Atlantic Ocean reefs, which are already more damaged, would be worse off compared to Pacific Ocean reefs. The researchers also predicted that coral bleaching would be the lead cause of these declines.
"We are already observing global shifts in coral assemblages and severely reduced coral cover due to mass bleaching events. It is very unlikely corals will suddenly gain the heat tolerance required to resist these events as they become more frequent and intense," Cornwall said in the press release.
- The Climate Crisis Has Already Cost the Great Barrier Reef More ... ›
- Report Details Climate Crisis Impacts on Coral Reefs, Warns of ... ›
- Coral in Crisis: Can Replanting Efforts Halt Reefs' Death Spiral ... ›
- Ocean Warming Threatens Coral Reefs and Soon Could Make It ... ›
- Climate Crisis Threatens Three Reef-Building Atlantic Corals ›
- Could Lobsters Help Save Florida's Corals? ›
- Oceana Completes First Scientific Expedition to Protect Gulf of Mexico Reefs ›
- First-Ever High Resolution Map of World’s Coral Reefs Is Complete ›
- Meet 'Sponge Bobbie,' the Marine Biologist Using Sponges to Save Coral Reefs ›
Greenpeace Australia called Friday's World Heritage Committee vote "a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history."
By Jake Johnson
An intense lobbying campaign by the pro-fossil fuel Australian government succeeded Friday in keeping the Great Barrier Reef off a list of World Heritage Sites considered "in danger," despite experts' warnings that the biodiverse ecosystem is increasingly imperiled by the global climate emergency.
The 21-nation World Heritage Committee — organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) — voted down a push to categorize the Great Barrier Reef as endangered, an effort that the right-wing Australian government fervently opposed with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other oil-friendly countries.
Instead of designating the Reef as "in danger," the World Heritage Committee on Friday instructed the government of Australia to produce a progress report on the structure's condition by February 2022.
David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia, said in a statement that Friday's vote "is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history."
"Under the UNESCO treaty, the Australian government promised the world it would do its utmost to protect the Reef — instead it has done its utmost to hide the truth," said Ritter. "This is not an achievement — it is a day of shame for the Australian government."
Lesley Hughes, a spokesperson for Climate Council, an Australia-based advocacy organization, slammed the government lobbying blitz and said lawmakers "must stop censoring science."
"The science is clear: climate change is accelerating and is the single, greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef. In the past five years it has been repeatedly and severely damaged by three marine heatwaves," said Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University in Sydney. "Until we see credible climate action, and the phasing out of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, this situation will worsen, not improve. The Great Barrier Reef is in danger, and trying to hide the facts won't change a thing."
Relentless lobbying by the Fed Gov has once again seen UNESCO back away from placing the #GreatBarrierReef on its “… https://t.co/COPmAAlR0A— Climate Council (@Climate Council) 1627040227.0
Home to hundreds of types of coral and more than 1,000 species of fish, the Great Barrier Reef has been badly damaged in recent years by mass coral bleaching fueled by warming ocean temperatures — which is why scientists have been pushing Australia and the international community to formally recognize the system as endangered.
The World Heritage Committee's vote Friday came a month after UNESCO issued a report warning that the Great Barrier Reef's condition has "further deteriorated from poor to very poor" due to human-caused climate change. The U.N. body advised that the reef be listed among the world's "in danger" sites — a call endorsed by scientists around the world.
UNESCO's recommendation sparked furious backlash from the Australian government, which launched an aggressive lobbying push to prevent the listing.
As The Guardian reported, "More than a dozen ambassadors flew from Canberra to Cairns, Queensland, for a snorkeling trip on the reef," and "Australia's environment minister, Sussan Ley, was dispatched to Europe on an RAAF diplomatic jet to visit Budapest, Madrid, Sarajevo, Paris, Oman, and the Maldives."
"Australia — a major producer and exporter of coal and gas — initially won support from oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both members of the committee, to delay any decision on the danger listing until at least 2023," the outlet noted. "But after an interjection from Norway, the committee decided instead the reef's health would be considered again at next year's meeting."
Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian senator with the Greens Party, warned following Friday's vote that "the decision to delay the 'in danger' listing for the Great Barrier Reef is ridiculous and will cost Australia in the long run."
"Everyone knows the climate crisis is threatening the Reef," she added. "Delay is denial, and a sop to fossil fuels."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
Australian Government Expresses 'Bewilderment' Over UNESCO's Threat to Downgrade Status of Great Barrier Reef
The World Heritage Committee is a group of 12 nations, chaired by China.
If the status of the reef is downgraded, it can affect the tourism revenue for Australia, as tourists aren't as interested in seeing dead coral, according to AP News.
In a draft report, the committee said "there is no possible doubt" that the once colorful coral reefs off the coast of Australia are "facing ascertained danger," according to AP News.
UNESCO plans to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger." The question of status is to be considered in China this July, according to AP News.
"The recommendation from Unesco is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change," said Richard Leck, head of oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia according to the BBC.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said that she and Foreign Minister Marise Payne called Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay to communicate Australia's "strong disappointment" and "bewilderment" about the proposal.
Ley said Australia will oppose the listing.
Imogen Zethoven, Australian Marine Conservation Society environmental consultant, embraced the committee's notion that "Australia hasn't done enough on climate change to protect the future of the reef," according to AP News.
Of the list of World Heritage reefs, the Great Barrier Reef could be the first to be listed as "in danger," primarily due to climate change reasons, Zethoven said, according to AP News.
Unesco pointed out that targets to improve the water quality in the reefs had not been met, according to the BBC.
"This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it," Ley told reporters, according to AP News. "Clearly those politics have subverted a proper process and for the World Heritage Committee to not even foreshadow this listing is, I think, appalling."
The 2,500 reefs have been World Heritage-listed since 1981, but the health of the coral reefs has been in danger because of rising ocean temperatures and climate change.
The 134,000 square miles of reefs have suffered coral bleaching events as a result of exceedingly warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and 2020.
Australia's own reef authority downgraded the reef's condition from poor to very poor in its five-year update in 2019.
If the reef is listed as "in danger" it can potentially increase publicity and help unlock access to funds, according to the BBC.
Audrey Nakagawa is the content creator intern at EcoWatch. She is a senior at James Madison University studying Media, Art, and Design, with a concentration in journalism. She's a reporter for The Breeze in the culture section and writes features on Harrisonburg artists, album reviews, and topics related to mental health and the environment. She was also a contributor for Virginia Reports where she reported on the impact that COVID-19 had on college students.
- 'Existential Threat to Our Survival': See the 19 Australian ... ›
- Australia Lobbying Thwarts Push to List Great Barrier Reef as Endangered ›
For the first time ever, short and longer term commitments from world leaders could put the world on track for less than two degrees Celsius of warming.
The findings are the result of a snap analysis from Climate Resource, which found that major new announcements in the first week of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow would limit global warming to 1.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
"For the first time in history, the aggregate effect of the combined pledges by 194 countries might bring the world to below 2°C warming with more than a 50% chance," the report authors wrote.
This prognosis is much better than the UN Emissions Gap report released ahead of the Glasgow talks. This report found that the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) announced by nations at the time would put the world on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. That number fell to 2.2 degrees Celsius of warming if net-zero pledges were taken into account.
The difference between the UN's estimate of 2.7 degrees and the Climate Resource analysis comes down to two major factors, the organization said.
- Their analysis includes the longer-term, net-zero goals.
- It includes new NDCs from China and a few other countries, as well as India's pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2070.
However, the report only estimates what could happen if countries actually do what they say they will.
"The huge, huge 'if' here is if countries' [climate pledges] are met, if they are implemented with actual domestic policies," Professor Malte Meinshausen of the University of Melbourne and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who helped write the analysis, told The Independent.
The other major caveat is that the pledges that would limit warming to 1.9 degrees have deadlines decades from now.
"Any progress is welcome but we need extreme caution about declaring success on the basis of vague and often vacuous net zero targets three or more decades hence," Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary for the UK's Labour Party, told The Guardian. "For example Australia has a 2050 net zero target but its 2030 plans are in line with 4 degrees of warming."
Reducing emissions this decade is also crucial for limiting warming further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, something the IPCC warns is essential to protect coral reefs and low-lying islands, and keep hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. To reach this target, emissions must fall to 45 percent of 2010 levels by 2030.
"The combined pledges of countries, both the conditional ones, and certainly the unconditional ones, are not yet sufficient to halt warming at around 1.5°C. Using probabilistic projections, the exceedance probability for 1.5°C is still around 90%, meaning wide scale increases of extreme climate events and the demise of the coral reefs, unless the pace of transition to net-zero emissions continues to accelerate rapidly," the report authors wrote.
A 20-Foot Sea Wall Won’t Save Miami – How Living Structures Can Help Protect the Coast and Keep the Paradise Vibe
By Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos and Brian Haus
Miami is all about the water and living life outdoors. Walking paths and parks line large stretches of downtown waterfront with a stunning bay view.
This downtown core is where the Army Corps of Engineers plans to build a US$6 billion sea wall, 20 feet high in places, through downtown neighborhoods and right between the Brickell district's high-rises and the bay.
There's no question that the city is at increasing risk of flooding as sea level rises and storms intensify with climate change. A hurricane as powerful as 1992's Andrew or 2017's Irma making a direct hit on Miami would devastate the city.
But the sea wall the Army Corps is proposing – protecting only 6 miles of downtown and the financial district from a storm surge – can't save Miami and Dade County. Most of the city will be outside the wall, unprotected; the wall will still trap water inside; and the Corps hasn't closely studied what the construction of a high sea wall would do to water quality. At the same time, it would block the water views that the city's economy thrives on.
Much of Miami is built right up to the water's edge. On average, it's 6 feet above sea level. Ryan Parker / Unsplash
To protect more of the region without losing Miami's vibrant character, there are ways to pair the strength of less obtrusive hardened infrastructure with nature-based "green" solutions. With our colleagues at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the College of Engineering, we have been designing and testing innovative hybrid solutions.
Natural Storm Management
Living with water today doesn't look the same as it did 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. Parts of Miami now regularly see "sunny day" flooding during high tides. Salt water infiltrates basements and high-rise parking garages, and tidal flooding is forecast to occur more frequently as sea level rises. When storms come through, the storm surge adds to that already high water.
Hurricanes are less common than tidal flooding, but their destructive potential is greater, and that is what the Army Corps is focused on with its sea wall plan.
If Miami Beach were an undeveloped barrier island, and if thick mangrove forests were still common along the South Florida shoreline, the Miami area would have more natural protection against storm surge and wave action. But most of those living buffers are long gone.
There are still ways nature can help preserve the beauty of Miami's marine playground, though.
For example, healthy coral reefs break waves, dissipating their energy before the waves reach shore. Dense mangrove forests also dissipate wave energy with their complex root systems that rise above the water line, dramatically reducing the waves' impact. In areas where coastal flooding is an increasing problem, low-lying communities can be relocated to higher ground and the vacant land turned into wetlands, canals or parks that are designed to manage storm surge flooding.
Coral reefs like these in Biscayne National Park have struggled with warming waters. National Park Service
Each area of coastline is unique and requires different protective measures based on the dynamics of how the water flows in and out. Given Miami's limited space, living shorelines alone won't be enough against a major hurricane, but there are powerful ways to pair them with solid "gray" infrastructure that are more successful than either alone.
Hybrid Solutions Mix Green and Gray
Nobody wants to look at a cement breakwater offshore. But if you're looking at a breakwater covered with corals and hospitable to marine life, and you can go out and swim on it, that's different.
Corals help the structure dissipate wave energy better, and at the same time they improve water quality, habitat, recreation, tourism and quality of life. For a lot of people, those are some of Miami's main selling points.
By pairing corals and mangroves with a more sustainable and eco-friendly hard infrastructure, hybrid solutions can be far less obtrusive than a tall sea wall.
For example, a cement-based breakwater structure submerged offshore with coral transplants could provide habitat for entire ecosystems while providing protection. We're working with the city of Miami Beach through the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge to implement three hybrid coral reefs just offshore that we will monitor for their engineering and ecological performance.
Closer to shore, we're experimenting with a novel modular marine and estuarine system we call "SEAHIVE." Below the water line, water flows through hollow hexagonal channels of concrete, losing energy. The top can be filled with soil to grow coastal vegetation such as mangroves, providing even more protection as well as an ecosystem that benefits the bay.
We're currently working on testing SEAHIVE as a green engineering alternative for North Bay Village, an inhabited island in the bay, and as the infrastructure of a newly developed marine park where these "green-gray" reef and mangrove designs will be showcased.
What About the Rest of Miami?
The Army Corps of Engineers' draft plan – a final version is expected in the fall – would give nature-based solutions little role beyond a fairly small mangrove and sea grass restoration project to the south. The Corps determined that natural solutions alone would require too much space and wouldn't be as effective as hard infrastructure in a worst-case scenario.
Instead, the Army Corps' plan focuses on the 6-mile sea wall, flood gates and elevating or strengthening buildings. It basically protects the downtown infrastructure but leaves everyone else on their own.
Sea walls and flood gates can also affect water flow and harm water quality. The Corps' own documents warn that the sea walls and gates will affect wildlife and ecosystems, including permanent loss of protective corals, mangroves and sea grass beds.
Mangrove roots rising above the water help break up the energy of waves at the shoreline. Florida Guidebook / Unsplash
We would like to see a plan for all of Miami-Dade County that considers the value that green and hybrid solutions bring for marine life, tourism, fishing and general quality of life, in addition to their protective services for the shoreline.
Both types – green and gray – would take time to build out, particularly if the sea wall plan were challenged in court. And both run a risk of failure. Corals can die in a heat wave, and a storm can damage mangroves; but storms can also undermine engineered solutions, like the New Orleans levee system during Hurricane Katrina. To help build resilience, our colleagues at the University of Miami have been breeding corals to be more resistant to climate change, investigating novel cementitious materials and noncorrosive reinforcements and developing new designs for coastal structures.
Miami in the Future
Miami will be different in the coming decades, and the changes are already starting.
High ground is at a premium, and that's showing up in real estate decisions that are pushing lower-income residents out and into less safe areas. Anybody looking back at Miami will probably think the region should have done a better job of managing growth and maybe even managing some form of retreat from threatened areas.
We don't want to see Miami become Venice or a city walled off from the water. We think Miami can thrive by making use of the local ecosystem with novel green engineering solutions and an architecture that adapts.
Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos is an Assistant Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Miami.
Brian Haus is a Professor of Ocean Sciences at the University of Miami.
Disclosure statement: Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos receives funding from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis (IDEA) for the research and development of the SEAHIVE - Sustainable Estuarine and Marine Revetment.
Brian Haus receives funding from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis (IDEA) for the research and development of the SEAHIVE - Sustainable Estuarine and Marine Revetment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- 410 Million People at Risk From Sea Level Rise by 2100, Study Finds ›
- The Surfside Condo Collapse and Its Environmental Warning Signals ›
- Sink or Swim: Miami's Perilous Future Facing Climate Change ... ›
Hawaii is on its way to banning more reef-damaging sunscreens.
On Tuesday of last week, its state Senate approved Senate Bill 132, which would ban all sunscreens containing the chemicals avobenzone or octocrylene. The bill then moved to the House, where it passed its first reading on Thursday, March 11. If approved, it would build on a 2018 law that banned sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which went into effect this January.
Coastal Oahu, Hawaii and the Kualoa Ranch. Hawaii is considering banning more reef-harming sunscreens to protect its unique coral reefs. Art Wager / E+ / Getty Images
"This is great news for our imperiled coral reefs and marine life," Maxx Phillips, Hawai'i director and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in response to the Senate vote. "People can protect their skin without harmful petrochemicals while Hawai'i protects public and environmental health."
The bill comes amidst growing scientific awareness of the impact of common sunscreen chemicals on marine life. These chemicals can make corals more susceptible to viral infections and bleaching, as well as disrupting the reproductive systems of fish and other animals, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported.
In particular, octocrylene can disrupt human hormones and harm marine animals, according to the CBD. A soon-to-be-published study has found it can break down into the carcinogenic benzophenone, which also kills plants and disrupts reproduction. Avobenzone, meanwhile, is also an endocrine disruptor and can make coral less resilient to the high temperatures caused by the climate crisis.
"Studies show fish exposed to octocrylene exhibited endocrine disruption, brain deformities in larvae and reproductive toxicity," ecotoxicologist Craig Downs told the CBD. "Because octocrylene bioaccumulates, what does that mean for people eating these fish, especially pregnant women and keiki? Avobenzone may cause a dysfunction with the powerhouse of the cell, which may kill cells and induce a bleaching effect in corals."
The CBD has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban these chemicals on the national level, but for now it falls to Hawaii to protect its unique ecosystems: Around one fourth of all of the plants, fish and invertebrates found on Hawaii's reefs are native to the archipelago.
If it passes, the bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2023. It will ban the sale or distribution of any sunscreen containing the targeted chemicals unless the buyer has a valid prescription. For those looking to protect themselves from the sun without harming ocean life, scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommend products containing non-nanoized titanium dioxide and non-nanoized zinc oxide, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported.
- Coral in Crisis: Can Replanting Efforts Halt Reefs' Death Spiral ... ›
- Island Paradise Palau to Be First Country to Ban Reef-Killing ... ›
- Key West Bans Coral-Damaging Sunscreen - EcoWatch ›
- Hawaii Becomes First U.S. State to Declare Climate Emergency ›
By Hannah Thomasy
On its own, a single sea cucumber may not be very impressive. But get enough of these floppy, faceless creatures together, and they—or, more specifically, their poop—can physically and biochemically reshape a coral reef habitat.
In a recently published study, an Australian research team used drone surveys, satellite imagery, and observations of individual sea cucumbers to estimate how much poop the sea cucumbers of Heron Island Reef produced per year. Heron Island Reef is part of the southern Great Barrier Reef system off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
Historically, one of the major problems scientists have faced when trying to assess the importance of sea cucumbers (and their excrement) in the reef ecosystem is the difficulty in assessing just how many sea cucumbers there are in a given area, said Jane Williamson, the study's lead author and head of the Marine Ecology Group at Macquarie University.
Previous research used footage from boats or information collected by divers to estimate sea cucumber numbers, said Williamson. But boats stir up the water, making it difficult to see the animals, and divers can collect information over only relatively small areas, resulting in a high degree of uncertainty when their observations were used to extrapolate the population of the entire reef.
So Williamson and her team, which included coral reef geomorphologist Stephanie Duce, remote sensing expert Karen Joyce, and marine ecologist Vincent Raoult, wanted to try a different method. Using images captured by drones, the team surveyed sea cucumbers over tens of thousands of square meters in two different geomorphic zones (the inner and the outer reef flats). Researchers then used satellite imagery to determine the area of each of these geomorphic zones to extrapolate the number of sea cucumbers present on the entire reef. These methods indicated that there were more than 3 million sea cucumbers on the reef flats surrounding Heron Island Reef.
The team also collected dozens of individual sea cucumbers to observe their bioturbation rates—that is, how much each sea cucumber pooped in a given day. On average, each sea cucumber produced about 38 grams of poop in 24 hours. Using this information, along with their estimates of the reef's sea cucumber population, researchers determined that on a single reef, sea cucumbers produced more than 64,000 metric tons of poop per year—more than the weight of five Eiffel Towers.
By measuring how much individual sea cucumbers pooped per day and estimating the number of sea cucumbers on the reef using drones and satellite images, researchers determined how much poop sea cucumbers contributed to the Heron Island Reef. Credit: Associate Professor Jane Williamson et al., 2021, Macquarie University; Dr. Stephanie Duce, James Cook University; Dr. Karen Joyce, James Cook University; and Dr. Vincent Raoult, University of Newcastle. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-021-02057-2
The Importance of Excrement
Scientists think that all of that poop plays an important role in ecosystem health as well as in the biogeochemical cycles of the reef.
"Sea cucumbers can be considered like a long sausage, almost," said Williamson. "Sediment goes in and sediment comes out.… By eating the sediment and then pooping it out again, they're actually aerating the sediment, which makes the sediment a healthier place for other animals to live, like small crabs or polychaetes, which are worms, or small mollusks that live inside the sediment in the surface layer."
Sea cucumbers are also involved in the nitrogen cycles of the reef ecosystem. As sea cucumbers eat and excrete sediment, "they're releasing nitrogen that's trapped in between the sediments," said Williamson. "So this is really important because nitrogen in particular is a limiting nutrient on coral reefs.… The corals need nitrogen, and the algae need nitrogen, everything sort of locks it up really quickly when it's available, so the sea cucumbers are doing them a big favor in terms of the growth rate of these organisms."
Sea cucumbers could even help protect coral reefs against one of the harmful side effects of climate change: ocean acidification. "The oceans are becoming more acidic, which means that the calcium carbonate which makes the skeletons of the corals and things is less available and in some cases is actually dissolving off the corals." In addition to releasing nitrogen, sea cucumbers also increase the availability of calcium carbonate as they eat their way through the sediment, said Williamson. "So for the sea cucumbers to release more calcium carbonate that's been trapped in the sediments into the environment that the corals and other animals can use is super important."
"These little sausages are playing a really key role that people just don't think about," said Williamson.
Steven Purcell, a marine scientist at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, who was not associated with the study, said that more than 70 countries harvest sea cucumbers. Because these animals are of great ecological value, it's important to keep tabs on their numbers to make sure they're not being overharvested. He noted that drone surveillance techniques like the one used in this paper could also be used to assess populations of other exploited shallow-water reef species, like giant clams.
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.