By Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
José "Josh" Catzim Castillo, a 25-year-old lobster fisher, circles a hollow concrete box resting on the seafloor, just off the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. He slips a snare into the box and shakes it. Three spiny lobsters, or langostas, shoot out and try to flee, but Castillo is too quick.
He surfaces, hoisting his catch. Its tail snaps loudly, and its antennae makes a high-pitched squeak. Castillo's father, Pablo Catzim Pech, 51, hauls the spiny lobster into their fishing boat. The creature is one of most sought after crustaceans in the Caribbean. Marked by its thick antennae and sharp spines that run the length of its body, it can sell for $40 a pound in the United States.
Castillo and his father Pech are part of a collective with exclusive rights to fish spiny lobsters in Maria Elena bay, part of Mexico's Sian Ka'an national park. The lobster fishers of Maria Elena are an ecological success story. Even as the lobsters face increasingly chaotic weather and overfishing around the Caribbean, they are flourishing in the bay, thanks to the efforts of the collective.
Castillo is left behind in the ocean, as his father, Pech, steers the boat away from the rain to keep the lobsters alive. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
When it starts to rain, Pech dips two rags in the ocean and spreads them over the plastic crates attached to the sides of his boat, each one filled with dozens of lobsters submerged in saltwater. Pech steers the boat back to shore, leaving Castillo with only his mask and flippers — and no life jacket — in the ocean behind him.
"Sweetwater kills the lobsters," Pech said.
Climate change is bringing more intense rainfall to the region, flooding the bay with freshwater, menacing the lobsters, which can only survive in saltwater. The fishers say they are finding it harder to understand the weather. To make matters worse, rising seas are eroding the narrow beaches of Maria Elena. Seven years ago, a hurricane destroyed all but one cabana along the beach, while rainwater stagnated in the bay and killed many lobsters.
Then there is overfishing. Since the 1980s, lobster populations have dropped as much as 40 percent across the Caribbean, according to Eloy Sosa, a marine biologist at the research center Ecosur, who works with Castillo's collective to protect the spiny lobster. The crustaceans are diminishing in number and becoming harder to find, so fishers are having to dive as much as 40 meters underwater, weighed down by oxygen tanks, to try to nab them.
That's not the case in Maria Elena, where the lobsters are thriving. The bay's newest lobsterman, Jose Eduardo Uitz, actually came to the reserve because he no longer wanted to risk his life going deeper into the ocean to catch lobsters. In Maria Elena, they lie just under the surface.
Fishers of Maria Elena prepare to go to sea. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
Maria Elena wasn't always a lobster haven, however. The collective was granted special permission to fish in the reserve after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, but it wasn't until a decade later that the collective adopted sustainable fishing practices.
"Nobody knew anything about sustainability back then. Fishermen would take the eggs from a pregnant lobster, go home and scramble them with chicken eggs," Pech said.
Things changed when scientists like Sosa began conducting workshops inside the park, showing the fishers how to protect the lobsters by allowing them enough time to grow and reproduce. Thanks to the collective's efforts, lobster numbers have risen in Maria Elena, though they have yet to return to levels seen in the 1980s.
"The old men say that when they first arrived, there were so many lobsters that they even used to walk up to the shore," Castillo said.
Today's fishers are far more responsible than their forebears. They treat the crustacean like an investment and guard it jealously, hoping to nurture it back to its former glory.
Pablo Catzim Pech measures the tail of a smaller lobster with a 5-inch ruler. If the tail is shorter than the ruler, he will throw the lobster back into the ocean. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
"Being in Maria Elena is a privilege," Sosa said. "If an associate breaks the rules, the punishment is tough. They could expel you from the collective."
A descendant of Maria Elena's founders, Castillo knows this better than most. He is still trying to earn his place in the collective, waiting for a position to open up in the group of 50. For now, he is just an employee of his father, who is a member.
"I hope he will take charge of everything. I am teaching him everything about the lobster fields, the reef, and how to be a good captain," Pech said.
To keep the lobsters healthy, Pech inspects each one that Castillo catches. If it looks too small, he measures it. If the tail is shorter than the five-inch ruler, he throws the lobster back into the sea.
"We also free the biggest lobsters, weighing more than six pounds. The market doesn't pay their value. They are usually females, and they keep the species alive," he said.
Lobster tails, cut from the animals that died during capture, are collected in a bucket to be sold separately from the live exports. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
When the lobster fishers throw a female back into the ocean, they not only protect the local population, they also support lobster populations in other parts of the Caribbean. The females lay millions of eggs that grow into larvae and float along ocean currents to new homes thousands of miles away.
After measuring and sorting the lobsters, the fishers send them to Cozumel to be sold. Occasionally, they keep a few for themselves, to be cooked on a hot skillet in a crowded cabana on the beach. It is a small indulgence for fishers who have nurtured the lobsters back into abundance in Maria Elena bay.
"The biggest threat to this place is us," Pech said. "We are in the lobsters' habitat. It is our livelihood, but we are invading a place we do not belong."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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