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.
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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.
The COVID-19 Delta variant has left businesses and schools across the country backpedaling from their goals for more integrated, in-person participation.
In many areas, virtual learning and remote work are becoming the norm once again, and often, this comes with a significant increase in residential energy consumption. For those concerned about increased electric bills and a greater carbon footprint, however, researchers say solar energy could prove effective in offsetting the costs of working and learning from home.
Turning Back to Virtual Learning
Although most school districts across the country opened back up with the intention of holding 100% in-person classes, spreading of the Delta variant has already forced many classrooms into stints of remote learning.
As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, "a cluster of three or more potentially linked cases at one school over 14 days could represent an outbreak and could lead to having a group of students or even a class quarantine at home."
As of August 24, at least 80 school districts have been forced to halt in-person instruction in some capacity due to viral outbreaks.
At the end of the last academic year, an elementary school teacher in Marin County, California, who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 infected at least 12 students while experiencing mild symptoms, according to a recent CDC report. The majority of her class was ineligible for vaccination, due to their age.
Cases like this illuminate the obstacles that schools are facing in their efforts to protect students. Eight states have passed laws banning mask mandates in public schools, and because students younger than 12 years of age are ineligible for vaccination, classrooms can quickly become hotspots. This forces students to quarantine and learn remotely, which raises energy consumption within homes.
A Bright Future for Remote Work
Some of the most successful companies in the world have maintained and refined opportunities for remote work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these corporations are moving toward permanent implantation of remote and hybrid working models, especially in industries like software, finance and media.
Studies suggest that these models could prove wildly successful, even in a post-pandemic era, not only because they expose employees to fewer health risks, but also because they promote higher productivity and greater mental wellness.
According to LinkedIn's 2020 Workforce Confidence Index, about half of the country's working professionals believe that their industry can operate successfully in a remote setting.
Minimizing Energy Costs and Environmental Impacts of Virtual Meetings
Increased use of home appliances, electronics, heating and air conditioning all contribute to higher electric bills and a greater carbon footprint for those working and learning from home.
At the onset of the pandemic, residential energy consumption increased by up to 10% and energy bills for remote workers increased by up to $50 per month, according to a study by Dr. Steve Cicala, a research fellow for the National Bureau of Economic Research and associate professor at Tufts University.
"The relative energy intensity of heating and cooling the entire homes of employees rather than a single office suggests that the future of working from home is not as green as one might think based on reduced commuting alone," Cicala writes in the study.
Drawing from solar panels could actually be the cleanest, most energy-efficient and cost-effective strategy to offset the energy costs of working from home. But is it worth installing solar panels on your home to offset increased energy costs due to COVID-19 quarantining?
"If people think they might be working from home and using more electricity long term, this would be a good time to think about prospective efficiency improvements," Cicala says in an interview with Tufts, "LEDs instead of old bulbs and plasma TVs, rooftop or community solar to spin the meter back a bit, or perhaps updating some old power-hungry appliances around the house."
Although market barriers and soft costs limit the expansion of the solar industry, the average cost of solar panels has dropped by more than 70% in the last decade. Federal solar tax credits can further reduce the cost of installation by 26%, and some states also offer their own incentives.
Beyond slashing costs, powering homes with solar energy can support the electric grid through net metering. This credits residences that produce more energy than they consume and allows them to export excess energy to the grid, providing surrounding consumers with clean energy.
While the barriers for entry are higher in certain states, solar panels are becoming more universally accessible. As remote work and schooling become the "new normal" once again, solar energy could be vital in preventing further financial and environmental crises related to the pandemic.
Ocean acidification and pollution are well-known threats to the world's coral reef ecosystems. But in a recent study, scientists have uncovered an entirely new threat: human fecal bacteria.
Two extreme flooding events in Texas in 2016 and 2017 carried human waste more than 100 miles offshore to the Gulf of Mexico's "secret" coral garden, also known as the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, new research from Rice University has found.
Usually, extreme flooding is expected to impact just nearshore ecosystems, such as salt marshes and oyster beds. That's why when scientists began to trace terrestrial runoff from extreme flooding to off-shore coral reefs they were "pretty shocked," marine biologist Adrienne Correa, co-author of a new study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, told Rice News.
"One thing we always thought the Flower Garden Banks were safe from was terrestrial runoff and nutrient pollution. It's a jolt to realize that in these extreme events, it's not just the salt marsh or the seagrass that we need to worry about. Offshore ecosystems can be affected too," Correa added.
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, one of the 14 marine protected areas managed by NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, is home to manta rays, sea turtles, hammerheads and whale sharks, as well as "boulder-sized" brain and star corals, according to NOAA. Scientists at Rice University were originally inspired to conduct their study after recreational divers reported "murky waters" and "dead and dying organisms" in the sanctuary, Rice News reported.
In 2016, 2017 and 2018, scientists took sponge samples and found that samples from 2016 and 2017, after flooding events, contained E. coli and other human fecal bacteria. "This shows perhaps they aren't protected from severe events. And these events are increasing in frequency and intensity with climate change," lead author Amanda Shore said, according to ABC13. When exposed to terrestrial runoff, coral reef ecosystems can face decreased salinity and increased levels of contaminants and turbidity, the scientists wrote.
Over the past few years, Houston has not been a stranger to extreme flooding events. During the 2016 Tax Day flood, for example, 17 inches of rain fell in some places in less than a day. Hurricane Harvey also dumped an estimated 13 trillion gallons of rain over southeast Texas in August of 2017, making it the most intense rainfall event in U.S. history, ABC13 reported.
While sampling their sponges across these various flooding events, scientists found something peculiar. Although Hurricane Harvey dumped more water and was much more damaging than the Tax Day flood, the reefs fared better after Hurricane Harvey.
"We got lucky with ocean currents," Shore said about the Hurricane Harvey floods, according to Rice News. "Instead of going straight out from Galveston Bay and over the Flower Garden Banks, the water ended up turning a bit and going down the Texas coast instead."
As extreme flooding becomes more common in Texas due to climate change, scientists at Rice University hope to continue researching how terrestrial runoff will threaten the reefs in the long term. Correa and her team also stressed the importance of further "investment in research that follows the health and microbiomes of individual sponges and corals on the reef over time," Rice News reported.
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Despite pledges to improve its environmental record, the company behind the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster is planning to dig the deepest natural gas field to date in Africa, right beside what experts believe is the largest coldwater coral reef in the world.
"We can't excuse a company like BP, at a time when it seems to be taking climate change more seriously, simultaneously bankrolling a project that may end up having a big impact on Africa's carbon footprint and future," Mohamed Adow, director of the think tank Power Shift Africa, told The Independent of the project.
The Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA)
The project, officially called the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA), will be a natural gas field 2.7 kilometers (approximately 1.7 miles) beneath the ocean surface, according to Unearthed. It will be located off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania, and BP has promoted it as an opportunity for growth in the region, calling it "the first step in establishing the basin as a world-class gas province," according to Unearthed.
Construction has already begun, and it has been approved through 20 years by the governments of Senegal and Mauritania. The first gas from the field is expected within two years.
However, BP's promises for the future of gas in the region stand in contrast to its stated goals for limiting carbon pollution. The company has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. But a major study from the International Energy Agency said there could be no new investments in fossil fuel projects if the world wanted to meet a 2050 net-zero emissions target.
The GTA project, though, would be just the beginning of a plan to produce around 40 trillion cubic feet of gas from the region in the next 30 years, according to Rystad Energy figures reported by The Independent. This would burn the equivalent of 2.2 billion tonnes (approximately 2.4 billion U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide. This is almost double the current yearly emissions for all of Africa and about 0.3 to one percent of the carbon that can still be burned if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
A BP spokesperson told The Independent that any emissions from the GTA would be included in the company's climate targets. But Greenpeace Africa oceans campaigner Awa Traore said those pledges amounted to "greenwashing."
"More fossil fuel production is only going to expose communities to more harm, undermining the renewable energy investment which can effectively lift millions of people out of poverty," she told The Independent.
The plan also threatens a unique marine ecosystem, according to Unearthed. The reef off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania stretches for 580 kilometers (approximately 361 miles), is 100 meters (approximately 328 feet) tall and took around 200,000 years to grow. It is an important habitat for endangered species of whales, turtles and sharks and a stopping point for migratory birds.
The GTA could threaten this ecosystem and the communities that depend on it in various ways:
- A pipeline dug through the reef could throw up sediment that would choke certain species.
- The field infrastructure could reduce local access to fishing grounds.
- A spill of the hydrocarbon condensate, which also exists in the gas well BP is drilling from, could harm the area's biodiversity.
"This area is incredibly sensitive and largely unexplored – there are potentially novel species and there is a significant potential for biodiversity discovery there," University of Georgia marine sciences professor Dr. Mandy Joye told Unearthed. "There are all kinds of issues with gas projects, but condensates in particular make me really nervous. It's hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario in terms of clean up than a condensate spill as it's almost invisible."
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But scientists at the University of Hawaii and Michigan State University are looking for answers beyond just "why." They are seeking solutions that could help coral reefs endure these threats now and into the future.
Between 2014 to 2017, a global ocean heatwave bleached coral reefs around the world. During this period, about 75 percent of the planet's tropical coral reefs experienced this bleaching, BBC reported. Places like Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii were also hit especially hard, bleaching nearly half of its corals, Michigan State University reported.
"It was kind of horrifying," Crawford Drury, a coral biologist who researches at the UH Manoa's Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology, or HIMB, according to MSU. "It's disheartening to watch, but I try to think of it as an opportunity," Drury added.
Coral reefs thrive in a symbiotic relationship with algae, according to NOAA. While the algae grow inside the corals, using the coral tissue as shelter, the algae also provide the corals with food, turning them into their familiar, vibrant colors. But when corals become stressed from high temperatures, they will often discard their algae, turning them white, according to NOAA. While bleaching does not necessarily kill the corals, it does make them vulnerable to disease and death, according to MSU.
But, among the damaged corals in Kaneohe Bay, following the heatwave, some still bore their "healthy golden hue," according to MSU.
Looking to answer why some corals were vulnerable to a warmer ocean while others were not, the team of scientists analyzed the biochemicals of corals. Their findings, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, could help inform future coral reef restoration.
The scientists found that two different communities of algae lived within the corals. Inside the algae cells were compounds known as lipids. Corals with saturated lipids resisted bleaching, while corals with unsaturated lipids were more vulnerable, MSU reported.
"This is not unlike the difference between oil and margarine, the latter having more saturated fat, making it solid at room temperature," Robert Quinn, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, told MSU.
Coral reefs are important for more than just marine life and ocean biodiversity. According to NOAA's Office for Coastal Management, 500 million people worldwide depend on reefs for food and livelihoods. Reefs also protect against flood damage, saving communities nearly $94 million each year.
"Coral reefs are biodiversity reservoirs and significant sources of food, income, and pharmaceuticals. We have a small window of opportunity remaining to apply science to rescue the world's degrading reefs," Karine Kleinhaus, a professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, told BBC in April.
In one rare and unique case, coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea have resisted bleaching, despite warmer ocean temperatures, BBC reported.
"Unless we uncover what exactly happens biologically in the corals of the Gulf of Aqaba that allows them to withstand warming temperatures, we don't know how or if this knowledge can be applied elsewhere," Kleinhaus added.
Now with more answers regarding their biological processes, the University of Hawaii and Michigan State University scientists' findings could help inform future projects to protect coral reefs.
"This work provides insight into the biochemical mechanisms of coral bleaching and presents a valuable new tool for resilience-based reef restoration," the authors of the study wrote.
Their research can also help conservationists choose more climate-resilient species to seed when restoring reefs, MSU reported. "We can use natural resilience to better understand, support and manage coral reefs under climate change," Drury told MSU. "Hopefully, we're just getting started."
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When we think of the Super Bowl — America's most popular sporting event, according to Arcadia Publishing — ocean conservation and military veterans usually aren't top of mind. But, for the last two years, a unique collaboration ahead of the annual game has placed coral restoration at the forefront of the world's attention.
For almost 30 years, NFL Green, the NFL's environmental and sustainability program, has managed community greening initiatives for the sports league. Each season, these culminate with "Green Week" before the big event, with projects undertaken by the NFL and Super Bowl Host Committee benefitting each host community, explained NFL Green Associate Director Susan Groh.
"The goal of NFL Green is to reduce the environmental impact of our events and to go well beyond that to leave a positive green legacy," Groh told EcoWatch. Efforts include recovering food, recycling and waste management, donating used event and building materials and offsetting energy for events.
This green legacy has also included a touch of blue in the last two years, meaning conservation efforts focused on the waters of host cities Miami in 2020 and now Tampa in 2021. Miami Green Week activities for Super Bowl LIV entailed planting 100 endangered staghorn corals in Biscayne Bay in honor of the NFL's 100th season, Groh said.
In the past year, the effort expanded to "100 Yards of Hope," a football field-sized coral restoration project. The end zones and center of the field-sized reef were placed in fall 2020, followed by divers planting thousands of staghorn and mountainous star corals from The Florida Aquarium (FLAQ), the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science SECORE International and Frost Science, explained FLAQ Senior Vice President of Conservation Debborah Luke.
Military veterans and coral scientists team up to outplant endangered corals as part of the NFL's 100 Yards of Hope. Force Blue
"This critically important project is helping to restore Florida's Coral Reef, the third-largest barrier reef in the world, which is in crisis," Luke told EcoWatch.
Florida's Coral Reef provides key nursery areas that support the oceanic ecosystem and protect coastlines from storms and erosion, Luke said. It also provides significant economic benefits by pumping $3.4 billion annually into the U.S. economy through jobs, tourism, seafood and medicine, NFL's Groh added.
"Over 90 percent of [the reef's] corals have died... restoration of Florida's Coral Reef is imperative if we are to continue reaping [its] benefits," Luke said.
100 Yards of Hope intends to reverse this trajectory on a single showcase reef, explained Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the Rosenstiel School, whose team spearheaded restoration efforts. This is the first large-scale restoration project to combine thousands of sexual and asexual multi-species coral transplants, along with disease tracking and mitigation, urchin relocation and high-resolution mapping. These actions all increase coral cover, diversity and recovery, Hesley noted.
"100 Yards of Hope is a symbol. It is a symbol of what passionate, hopeful individuals can accomplish when working towards a shared vision," Hesley told EcoWatch. "What started as a celebration of the NFL's 100th season has transformed into a fight for the future of our coral reef."
Last week, 150 elkhorn corals, another threatened coral species, were added to the field. The Rosenstiel School provided 55 of the endangered corals, in celebration of Super Bowl 55, this past weekend. FLAQ provided the remaining corals. A final planting of massive brain and star corals in the spring will complete 100 Yards of Hope, Groh said.
Military combat veterans from Force Blue assisted with the plantings. The nonprofit retrains and deploys former special operations veterans and military-trained combat divers to work alongside scientists and environmentalists on marine conservation work, explained Executive Director Jim Ritterhoff.
55 divers remove marine debris from Tampa Bay as part of the NFL's Green Week. Force Blue
"If we can do something good for veterans by giving them a new mission to save the planet and provide a highly skilled workforce to the scientific community, all the better," Ritterhoff said. "But, maybe the [touchdown] of it all is how this effort uses Navy SEALS and the NFL, people you don't traditionally see talking about conservation, to reach an audience who wouldn't necessarily pay attention to coral reef scientists. People listen because these guys are their heroes."
Noting that this is more of a world project than a local Florida project, Ritterhoff added, "I think it's imperative that everyone be cognizant of these issues. The Florida Coral Reef is a national treasure, and it could be 100 percent gone in our lifetime. If we don't behave differently, it will be gone."
NFL Green Week included planting the Reed Park community garden in Tampa Bay. Michael Farrant / Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee
In addition to the coral restoration efforts, NFL Green completed traditional community greening projects. These involved creating pollinator gardens, planting mangroves, restoring shoreline and adding sand dunes to prevent erosion and storm damage.
NFL Green also connected land and sea with an underwater cleanup called Dive 55 at the mouth of Tampa Bay. For this, Force Blue team leaders led 55 divers to retrieve more than 1.5 tons of waste, not limited to old fishing traps, rope, netting, plastics and beach debris, Groh said. Some of the recovered items will be used by local students to create art projects that will be displayed at FLAQ to increase marine debris awareness.
"It's all about leadership and legacy," Groh said. "Large events have an opportunity to not only offset the environmental impact of their events but to go well beyond that and leave the communities hosting events better than they found them. The world faces significant environmental challenges and it's going to take all of us to address them."
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Thousands of years ago, glacial runoff from Mount Kilimanjaro formed a deep basin off the coast of East Africa. Today, this oasis of deep, cool water provides coral reefs and marine life with a sanctuary from the rising temperatures of the climate crisis, allowing biodiversity to thrive.
"This area off the coast of Tanzania and Kenya is a small but vibrant basin of marine biodiversity," study author and lead WCS coral scientist Dr. Tim McClanahan said in a press release. "Our study shows that while warming waters may devastate surrounding reefs, this area could become an incredibly important sanctuary where marine species big and small will flock to find refuge from climate change. If well protected, this key transboundary marine ecosystem will remain a jewel of biodiversity for the entire East African coast."
The newly discovered refuge is teaming with marine life. Spinner dolphins swim there, and the coast has the highest density of dolphins in East Africa, The Guardian reported. Rare dugongs have been spotted there, and the deeper reaches are home to coelacanths, a prehistoric fish once believed to be extinct.
McClanahan did not immediately understand why so much life was drawn to this spot, which stretches from Shimoni, Kenya, which is 50 miles south of Mombasa, to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
"I thought 'why are all the animals here?' And I realised it was because of Kilimanjaro," he told The Guardian.
The sea surface temperatures of the tropical Indian Ocean have risen about one degree Celsius on average between 1950 and 2015, according to an Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region. In addition, the ocean has been subjected to greater and more frequent marine heatwaves, WCS explained. In this context, the cooler waters off of Kenya and Tanzania could provide an increasingly vital habitat for threatened species like sharks and rays.
To test whether this was indeed the case, McClanahan installed temperature gauges along the coast that he could then monitor by satellite, according to The Guardian. Once a warming event occurred and the temperatures began to rise, he entered the water to observe how the corals were impacted, and found that they were indeed preserved.
"Outside that area, the corals are bleached and dying. But inside the area, of around 400 sq km [150 sq miles] they retain their colour and their health. They are reds and brown. My research partner likes to call them: 'happy corals'," McClanahan told The Guardian.
He explained to InsideClimate News exactly how this works.
"It would be like running hot water into a cold bathtub; if the bath is cold, it would take a long time to warm up," he said. "By the time these hot water events pass, they haven't really raised the temperature of the water all that much. So you maintain these coral sanctuaries where the water is cool."
However, the area's role as a coral sanctuary will depend on its being protected from other threats. Coastal development, including a new port planned in northern Tanzania to serve a new oil pipeline, is one, WCS said. Another is unsustainable fishing practices like dynamite fishing, McClanahan told InsideClimate News. This is when fisherpeople drop a stick of dynamite into the water to kill massive amounts of fish in one go. Unsurprisingly, this also destroys coral.
"Some of the reefs that I've been studying suggest they can't recover for many, many years after the dynamite fishing," McClanahan told InsideClimate News.
By Ian Urbina
About 100 miles off the coast of Thailand, three dozen Cambodian boys and men worked barefoot all day and into the night on the deck of a purse seiner fishing ship. Fifteen-foot swells climbed the sides of the vessel, clipping the crew below the knees. Ocean spray and fish innards made the floor skating-rink slippery.
Seesawing erratically from the rough seas and gale winds, the deck was an obstacle course of jagged tackle, spinning winches and tall stacks of 500-pound nets. Rain or shine, shifts ran 18 to 20 hours. At night, the crew cast their nets when the small silver fish they target — mostly jack mackerel and herring — were more reflective and easier to spot in darker waters.
This was a brutal place, one that I've spent the past several years exploring. Fishing boats on the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fleet, had for years been notorious for using so-called sea slaves, mostly migrants forced offshore by debt or duress.
Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water and much of that space is ungoverned. Human rights, labor and environmental crimes occur often and with impunity because the oceans are vast. What laws exist are difficult to enforce.
Arguably the most important factor, though, is that the global public is woefully unaware of what happens offshore. Reporting about and from this realm is rare. As a result, landlubbers have little idea of how reliant they are on the sea or the more than 50 million people who work out there.
Forced labor on fishing ships is not the only human rights concern. Hundreds of stowaways and migrants are killed at sea annually. A multibillion-dollar private security industry operates at sea, and when these mercenary forces kill, governments rarely respond because no country holds jurisdiction in international waters. Somewhere in the world, at least one ship sinks every three days, which is part of the reason that fishing is routinely ranked as among the deadliest professions.
And then there's the environmental crisis. Oil spills aren't the worst of it. Every three years, ships intentionally dump more oil and sludge into the oceans than the Exxon Valdez and BP spills combined. Acidification is damaging most of the world's coral reefs.
Most of the world's fishing grounds are depleted. Some research predicts that by 2050, the sea will contain more plastic than fish. Overfishing, often boosted by government subsidies, means smaller catches closer to shore and an industry becoming more desperate. One out of every five fish on American plates comes from pirate fishing vessels.
Recent events have reminded the world of its dependence on maritime commerce. In the Port of Los Angeles, a COVID-induced bottleneck of dozens of cargo ships left consumers with shipping delays and deckhands idling, unable to reach the shore. In the Suez Canal, one sideways-turned ship led to a $10-billion traffic jam.
Despite occasional news coverage when calamity strikes offshore, reporting from this untamed frontier is generally scarce. Many news outlets have pulled back from international reporting because it is time-consuming and expensive.
The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization, is working to fill this gap. A report we published last year with NBC News revealed the largest illegal fishing fleet ever discovered: more than 800 Chinese fishing boats operating in North Korean waters in violation of UN sanctions. These ships were accelerating the collapse of the squid stock while violently displacing local and smaller North Korean ships, with deadly consequences, as hundreds of these local fishermen were getting stranded too far from shore and dying.
But even with striking stories — about the oceans or anything else — journalism is struggling to reach younger people, who increasingly are turning to alternate sources of information from online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. And unless the public is engaged and interested, very little will change in terms of international policies or enforcement.
As much as we are devoted to the urgency of these ocean issues, it is clear that our investigations need to reach broad and new audiences to have impact. That's why we combined our traditional journalism with an experiment in using music to bring people to our work.
We created The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, an effort to help disseminate and financially support the reporting. More than 480 musicians from over 80 countries have joined the project to make albums in their own style and in a variety of genres, each inspired by the stories. The music has been published on more than 200 digital platforms (including Apple Play, YouTube and Amazon), with the streaming revenue funding more reporting.
Several artists from Seattle, Washington including Quackson, Petey Mac, and Hello Meteor, have participated in the project and share a common goal of creating EPs that tell the often-overlooked stories of the sea.
The musicians use audio samples from the video footage captured during the reporting, integrating sound clips such as machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea. This music has had a combined reach of more than 90 million people, many of whom move from the songs to the videos and to the written reports.
The oceans are existentially important. They are the circulatory system of global commerce, as 80 percent of the world's commercial cargo is carried by ships. They are also the lungs of the globe, serving as a carbon sink helping to clean the air while also producing half of the oxygen we breathe.
But for all its importance and breathtaking beauty, the sea is also a dystopian place, home to dark inhumanities. Too big to police and under no clear international authority, immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation. The only way to better govern this offshore frontier, and to counter the human rights and environmental problems occurring out there, is to shine a continuous light on them. And for that, journalism — with an assist from music — has an urgent role to play.
Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, DC, that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.
Reposted with permission from DeSmog.
A team of scientists has created the first-ever aerial map of the coral reefs surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands, in a breakthrough researchers hope will assist reef conservation in the islands and beyond.
The map, written up in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article Monday, was able to show the geographic distribution of live coral around the island chain at 16 meters (approximately 52 feet) of depth and also pinpoint where the corals were more or less impacted by human activity.
"Never before has there been such a detailed and synoptic view of live corals at this scale," study co-author Jamison Gove of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told ASU Now.
The research was led by the Arizona State University's (ASU) Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science (GDCS). The scientists sought to resolve several challenges with mapping coral reefs as they face unprecedented challenges.
Because of ocean acidification and coral bleaching caused by the climate crisis, as well as problems like runoff from coastal development, 75 percent of the world's coral reefs could face critical threats by 2050. But, in order to protect these reefs, it is important to know where they are. On-the-ground mapping is inherently limited in scope, while satellite images do not provide enough detail.
This is the problem GDCS researchers sought to solve with their Global Airborne Observatory. This is an airborne lab that combines two processes to create detailed maps, Courthouse News Service explained. These techniques are laser-guided imaging spectroscopy, which is often used to map complicated landscapes like forests, and artificial intelligence.
"We undertook this first-ever mapping of a large archipelago to determine where corals live in Hawaiian waters despite repeated heatwaves and problematic coastal development issues," lead study author and GDCS Director Greg Asner told ASU Now. "It's this basic information that is needed by partner organizations to drive more cost-effective protections, restoration activities, and public engagement."
Hawaii's reefs, like reefs worldwide, face major challenges. Marine heatwaves in 2015 and 2019 caused bleaching events, while coastal development and fishing have also harmed reefs through factors like pollution and sedimentation. The mapping found that on Oahu, for example, only 12 percent of the island's reefs still had live coral. There was likely three times as much living coral surrounding the island 200 years ago, Asner told Honolulu Civil Beat.
The study found that around 60 percent of the presence or absence of living coral could be explained water depth, wave power or coastal development. Overall, the biggest human impacts on Hawaii's coral were nearshore development, water quality, sea surface temperature and non-commercial fishing, in that order, Asner tweeted.
The distribution of live corals in the main Hawaiian Islands was determined by mapping and AI-driven analyses. In d… https://t.co/X8H6nIsmcj— Greg Asner (@Greg Asner)1607988030.0
But the mapping also turned up places, known as refugia, where coral proved to be resilient to human impacts, ASU Now reported. Asner told Honolulu Civil Beat that the map could be used to help policymakers determine which reefs, like the refugia, to protect; which areas would be ideal for restoration; and which were so degraded that perhaps it is not worth the effort to restore them given limited resources.
"Operational mapping of live coral cover within and across Hawaii's reef ecosystems affords opportunities for managers and policymakers to better address reef protection, resilience and restoration," study coauthor and head of Hawaii's Division of Aquatic Resources Brian Neilson told ASU Now. "With these new maps, we have a better shot at protecting what we have while focusing on where to improve conditions for corals and the myriad of species that depend upon corals."
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"The big picture with this is the modern day coral reef can build an island even though the sea level is rising," study coauthor and University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr. Murray Ford told Stuff.
Atolls are islands situated on top of rings of coral, with a lagoon in the center. Past studies have indicated that several of these islands have actually been growing, despite the threat of rising sea levels. A 2018 analysis of 30 Pacific and Indian Ocean atolls including 709 islands found that none of the atolls had lost land area in the preceding decades and that 88.6 percent of the islands had either increased their size or stayed the same.
"That started a bit of a goldrush in terms of studies," Ford told CNN. "The signal was kind of consistent -- there's no widespread chronic erosion of atoll islands in the Pacific."
To understand what was going on, Ford and his team focused on Jeh Island in the Marshall Islands, where sea levels have risen by 0.3 inches a year since 1993. They used aerial photographs to confirm that the island had increased in size by 13 percent between 1943 and 2015. In fact, sediment had actually caused two separate islands to merge and a spit at the island's western end to grow longer, Stuff explained.
The researchers also used radiocarbon dating to confirm that much of the new sediment was deposited after 1950. This is an important finding, because scientists had previously been unsure if the islands were increasing in size because of new material or recycled reef pieces.
"This is the first time we can see the islands form, and we can say the stuff making that island is modern ... so it must be coming from the reef around the island," Ford told CNN. "It's entirely the skeletons of the reef and the organisms that live on it."
Ford told Stuff that more research was needed to discover if the same process was taking place on other growing atolls. Further, it isn't certain if coral reefs will continue to protect the atolls from sea level rise in the future. Increased flooding could still damage fresh water supplies, CNN pointed out. A 2018 study found that the contamination of fresh water supplies with salt water could make atolls uninhabitable by 2050. And the climate crisis threatens reefs themselves with coral bleaching and ocean acidification.
"It's all about the reef health, being able to produce sand and gravel to help make these islands and maintain them," Ford told Stuff.
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A new study is shedding light on what lies in the deep.
This first-ever deep-sea survey of both ends of the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges has revealed unique and fragile species. It also spurred a call for the protection of deep-sea habitats.
Using baited underwater camera systems, scientists targeted deep-sea communities at depths down to 2,400 meters, said Daniel Wagner, ocean science technical advisor for Conservation International and the study's co-author. They focused on seamounts located on the two ridges. The ridges are adjacent, underwater mountain chains that stretch across 2,900 kilometers in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, between Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Peruvian Coast.
Researchers recorded over 120 species along the seafloor — including corals, sponges, shrimp, sharks, fishes, eels and more. The location actually has "significant" marine biodiversity and one of the highest rates of unique species on Earth, a Conservation International press release said. According to the organization, that makes these ridges one of the most ecologically important areas on the planet, and there are still deeper waters in this remote region to explore.
Wagner explained why these underwater mountain ranges are so diverse and what is it about the geography of the area that allows life to flourish.
"Despite its geographic proximity to the South American continent, the biodiversity of the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges is isolated from South America by the Humboldt Current System and the Atacama Trench, creating a very unique marine fauna," he said. "For many groups of organisms, nearly half the species found in this region live nowhere else on our planet. This makes the region a top priority for conservation globally since if we lose their habitats and species, they will essentially be lost from our entire planet."
The ocean waters in this region are also uniquely clear — among some of the clearest in the world. This allows sunlight to reach greater depths than in other parts of the ocean, perhaps supporting more deep-sea corals and other photosynthetic animals, Wagner said. Unrelated recent scientific explorations of seamounts on the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges indicate photosynthetic marine communities in this region can occur below 300 meters depth, one of the deepest recorded on Earth, Wagner shared.
Wagner also called many of the species found "particularly fragile." He offered deep-sea corals and sponges as an example because they are slow-growing and long-lived. As a result, he told EcoWatch, "if their habitats are disturbed, it takes these species a very long time to recover, if they can recover at all."
"The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges are one of the most unique biodiversity hotspots on Earth, and we've only just begun to explore it," Alan Friedlander, lead author of the study and chief scientist for National Geographic Pristine Seas, said in the press release. "This region needs to be protected using the best available conservation measures if we hope to preserve its extraordinarily unique biodiversity."
Currently, the biggest threat to the region is a jurisdictional issue. Over 73 percent of the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges lie in areas beyond any national jurisdiction: they lie in the high seas, where they are unprotected and under threat from overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change, and potential deep-sea mining in the near future, Wagner said.
Luckily, the remoteness of the region has protected it from many human impacts so far. Scientists worry that future climate change impacts in the region will be substantial. They also fear that extractive and destructive practices will continue unregulated on the high seas.
Wagner recommended the below actions to conserve this unique, biodiverse area:
- Closing this region to fishing activities regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.
- Closing this region to seabed mining activities regulated by the International Seabed Authority.
- Establishing a high seas marine protected area in this region once the United Nations Agreement on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction is finalized and comes into force.
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally to offer these special places the best chance of thriving in the future.
Other places like these ridges remain unexplored. In fact, according to Wagner, the deep sea (200 meters and below) covers over 95 percent of the volume that is inhabitable to life, encompasses the largest portion of our planet and harbors extraordinary biodiversity, Wagner said. He implored the global community to protect the few relatively pristine places that remain — including deep-sea habitats — for the health of the planet and its people.
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More than a third of shark and ray species are directly threatened by extinction, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned on Saturday.
The revelation came in the IUCN's updated Red List assessment on endangered wildlife, which was released at the body's World Conservation Congress in Marseilles, France.
The most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of sharks and rays found that 37% of 1,200 species evaluated now fall into one of three categories: "vulnerable," "endangered," or "critically endangered."
The IUCN blamed overfishing for the threat — roughly 800,000 tons of shark is caught each year — intentionally or opportunistically, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Other research suggests the true figure is up to four times greater.
Komodo Dragon Under Threat
Meanwhile, the Komodo dragon — the world's largest living lizards — was also moved into the IUCN's endangered category.
The Komodo is found only in the World Heritage-listed Komodo National Park and neighboring Flores, in Indonesia.
The species "is increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change" said the IUCN: rising sea levels are expected to shrink its already tiny habitat at least 30 percent over the next 45 years.
"The idea that these prehistoric animals have moved one step closer to extinction due in part to climate change is terrifying," Andrew Terry, conservation director at the Zoological Society of London, said, calling for action to protect nature at the Glasgow climate conference in November.
Survival Watchlist Growing Fast
Nearly a third of the 138,000 plant, animal and fungi species assessed by IUCN for its survival watchlist are now at risk of vanishing in the wild forever.
The findings chime with a 2019 warning from the UN's biodiversity experts that a million species are on the brink of extinction.
The IUCN said it was also stepping up monitoring of marine species such as coral and deep-sea snails to see how they are impacted by climate change and threats including deep-sea mining.
In more positive news, the conservation body said catch quotas and efforts to target illegal fishing have shown positive signs, adding that the outlook for tuna appears to be improving.
Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is prized for sushi and can be sold for thousands of dollars, jumped three categories from "endangered" to "least concern" on the list, although some regional stocks remained severely depleted.
The southern bluefin also improved from "critically endangered" to "endangered" while albacore and yellowfin tuna were classified as "least concern" in the latest report.
Reposted with permission from Deutsch Welle.