New Proposal Aims to Protect One-Third of Australia’s Waters

The Australian government has plans to turn one-third of the country’s waters (approximately 1.2 million square miles) into protected marine reserves, more than doubling the number of marine parks already in existence. What is more, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—the country’s most notable marine reserve, located off the northeastern coast—will be afforded even greater protection as the Coral Sea which surrounds it will be under greater protection as well. Once the plan is implemented, explained Tony Burke, Australia’s Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities, “The Coral Sea Marine national park…combined with the Great Barrier Reef area, becomes the largest marine protected area in the world.”

Timing could not have been any more perfect for the plan to make its debut. The announcement arrived merely a week before more than 130 government representatives from around the world were set to meet in Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 summit, a meeting hosted by the United Nations in order to discuss sustainable development around the world. A follow up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the goal of Rio+20 has been to map out global progress in the way of sustainable development while pushing for even more future improvements.

Coming into the meeting, there is no doubt that Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard will have some valuable talking points when in Brazil. And skeptics believe to the dismay of the Australian government that the plan is simply all about bragging right.  “It’s time for the world to turn a corner of our oceans. And Australia today is leading that next step,” said Burke. “This network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations.” A powerful statement that when handled correctly can make a huge impact on the rest of the world.

Despite the excitement surrounding the news, many activists and laborers are not completely sold on the idea. Environmental activists believe that the amount of proposed marine sanctuaries is just not enough. Furthermore, that the additional marine expansions purposefully avoid areas that would impede on oil and gas companies—and thus, gets on the wrong side of sustainability. “The boundaries the minister has determined have been very strongly determined on oil and gas prospectivity [sic], and clearly determined by lobbying from the oil and gas sector,” said Rachel Siewert of the Australian’s Greens Party—a minority party dedicated to green politics.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the issue the fishing industry is crying foul against these new marine reserves, claiming that it is actually too much—that these reserves will severely affect and restrict businesses in the area. According to Dean Logan of the Australian Marine Alliance, a group that acts on behalf of commercial and recreational fisheries, the expansion of protected areas is “devastating and those that will suffer most will be coastal communities.” To help alleviate these financial worries, the Australian government has proposed compensation package of $100 million—an amount the fishing industry considers no more than a drop in the ocean.

With the push and pull over the matter, it is clear that the proposed plan could use some work. Even so, such a progressive plan as this is it should not be ignored, but rather be seen as a benchmark to the world’s stepping in the right direction. To encourage Tony Burke, Australia’s Minister of the Environment, to keep up the good work sign the petition here.


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Increasing Amount Of Bacteria Found In Warming Global Ocean

A 200-page paper produced by Project CLAMER suggests that the rising temperatures of the global ocean could cause serious illnesses. With the oceans becoming increasingly warmer, a genus of bacteria called Vibrio is becoming is spreading. The Vibrio genus causes food poisoning, cholera, septicemia, and gastoenteritis.

The spread of bacteria in the ocean puts many people at risk for contamination, which will then cost a large amount of money in health costs. The paper, which is the result of more than 100 projects funded by the European Union since 1998, suggests that “millions of euros in health costs may result from human consumption of contaminated seafood, ingestion of waterborne pathogens, and, to a lesser degree, through direct occupational or recreational exposure to marine disease. Climatic conditions are playing an increasingly important role in the transmissions of these diseases.”

Carlo Heip, the director of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research, told the Associated Press that the Vibrio genus of bacteria has been observed since the 1960s, and that “when the temperature in the North Sea began to increase at the end of the 80s, the Vibrios began to increase. One of those Vibrios is the cholera species.” Heip went on to note that although the evidence is “anecdotal,” a large number of people in the Baltic region were afflicted with gastroenteritis in 2006. Even though there is no solid proof that the gastroenteritis is due to bacteria in the ocean, Heip indicates that it is a strong possibility that Vibrio is the reason. Heip also noted that “things are changing in the ocean much more rapidly than we thought was possible.” He uses an example of a changing fish population in the North Sea; larger species are moving towards the Arctic, while smaller species are taking their place in the North Sea.

Katja Philippart, a marine scientist who was involved in the study, noted that “what was striking to me was the enormous pile of evidence that things are already happening. There is so much happening already. We are just in the midst of it.” In an ironic twist, Philippart stated that effects of global warming, such as acidification, could further contribute to the phenomenon, creating something of a vicious cycle. As acidification of the ocean increases, algae loses the capacity to store carbon dioxide, which means there will be more carbon dioxide in the air- something that leads to global warming.

In addition to the research about bacteria spreading in the ocean, the paper also highlights several other concerns about global warming’s effects on the ocean. Risks include melting ice, which contributes to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. In addition, the risk of storms is increasing, both in frequency and intensity. Finally, the chemical balance of sea water is changing; acidification and deoxygenation are two chemical changes that are already occuring in the water. Global warming has long been a concern of the ocean; as glaciers continue to melt, sea levels rise, which could potentially be disastrous in years to come for coastal residents. The latest information about bacteria concerning public health draws attention to the fact that global warming is extremely harmful to not only the environment, but the people who inhabit it as well.

The paper was produced by Project CLAMER, which is a collaboration of 17 European ocean institutes. The paper was released in advance of a two-day conference in Brussels, which will further discuss the problems the ocean is facing due to the advance of global warming. The latest news of global warming’s harmful effects will continue to shed light on a problem in dire need of a solution.

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Beach-Lovers Join Hands for Clean Energy

On Saturday, advocates for renewable energy across the US and around the world joined hands at hundreds of events to call for an economy free of fossil fuels.  At events in thirty-nine states and in places as far away as South Africa and New Zealand, people gathered on beaches and in other iconic spots for the second annual Hands Across the Sand Event.

At noon in whatever time zone they were in, members of Hands Across the Sand groups joined hands to form a human line, which in many cases paralleled the edge of the ocean.  For fifteen minutes each group stood holding hands as if protecting the beach from harm, making a visual statement of opposition to offshore and other types of fossil fuel extraction.

“We are joining hands to say No to offshore oil drilling and Yes to Clean Energy,” said Hands Across the Sand founder, Dave Rauschkolb.  “We are joining hands to end our dependence on oil and coal and embrace a clean energy future for a sustainable planet.”

More than a year after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Hands Across the Sand serves as a reminder that the United States and most other countries remain nearly as dependent on fossil fuels as they were at the time of the disaster, and that coastlines around the world are still endangered by risks associated with oil drilling and other activities related to the fossil fuel industries. 

According to the mission statement for Hand Across the Sand, event participants were determined “To convince our State Legislators, Governors, Congress and President Obama and world leaders to adopt policies encouraging the growth of clean and renewable energy sources in place of oil and coal.”

Though the BP spill is the best-known recent example of how fossil fuel extraction threatens coasts and beaches, the original idea for Hands Across the Sand predates the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  The first Hands Across the Sand day of action was a statewide event held in Florida on February 13th, 2010.  On that day 10,000 Florida residents joined hands on more than ninety beaches around the state to protest moves by Congress and the state legislature to remove a ban on near and offshore oil drilling in Florida waters.

Mere months after the Florida event, the BP disaster catapulted debates about offshore drilling into the public spotlight.  By late May environmental groups had decided to try to replicate the Florida campaign at a national level, and within four weeks more than 1,000 groups signed up.  On June 26, 2010, the first international Hands Across the Sand event saw people join hands against oil, and for clean energy, in all fifty US states and in 42 other countries.

A year after that first event Congress hasn’t done much to increase offshore drilling oversight or reduce US dependence on oil, but the movement to shift away from fossil fuels is still strong.  To take one instance, at TradeWinds Island Resort in Florida, more than 400 people joined hands and formed a line along the beach at a popular tourist destination that could be irreparably harmed by an offshore drilling spill.

On the opposite side of the North American continent a few hours later, beach supporters came together for a similar event at another spot important to the tourist industry: Angel Island, California.  These are just a couple of hundreds of Hands Across the Sands actions that spanned the United States and the world on Saturday.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Rauschkolb at a Hands Across the Sands event in Seaside, Florida.  “We’ve had events all across the world that started in New Zealand, swept across Europe, then the East Coast, and now all the way on to Hawaii.  We’ve got thousands of people joining hands to embrace clean energy, to compel our leaders to embrace clean energy and steer away from the dirty fuel money that is influencing our energy policy.”

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Belize to Hold Referendum on Offshore Oil Drilling

In the small Central American country of Belize, a spectacular stretch of the Northern Hemisphere’s longest coral barrier reef system is under threat from oil development.  The Belizean government’s proposal to begin offshore oil drilling near the heart of the Belize Barrier Reef poses both long-term and short-term dangers to the underwater paradise the helps sustain Belize’s tourism industry. 

In the short term, oil drilling would destroy sections of reef, while raising the specter of a catastrophic oil spill that could wipe out huge swaths of coral and the aquatic animals that depend on it.  In the longer term, adding more oil to the international market would contribute to climate change that threatens coral reef systems everywhere

It’s for these reasons conservationists in Belize have partnered with international environmental groups to stop offshore oil drilling from ever occurring in Belize waters.  These groups want to see the question of whether to begin offshore drilling put on a national referendum, which would let the people of Belize decide the fate of what may be their greatest natural resource.

Part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the Belize Barrier Reef reaches for nearly 200 miles along the coast of Belize.  It is home to around 500 recorded species of fish, dozens of spectacular coral species, and hundreds of other marine invertebrates.  It also supports what may be the world’s largest population of West Indian manatees, as well as endangered hawksbill, loggerhead, and green sea turtles.  In 1996 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put the Belize Barrier Reef on the World Heritage Site list of places deemed to be of extraordinary global biological or cultural importance. 

The reef is also important to the tourism industry, which is a mainstay of the Belize economy.  The Belize Barrier Reef is the most popular tourism destination in the country, drawing thousands of scuba divers, snorkelers, and aquatic wildlife enthusiasts each year.  The principle attraction of the reef is the diverse plant and animal life it supports, meaning any threat to the reef environment is also a threat to tourism.  An offshore oil spill near the Belize Barrier Reef could be even more devastating to water-dependent businesses than last year’s horrendous spill in the Gulf of Mexico.   

However despite significant public opposition, government officials have proposed beginning offshore oil drilling along the Belizean coast.  Last year news surfaced that the government was giving concessions to oil companies interested in offshore oil exploration.  This sparked a national outcry, as conservationists and tourist industry associations became concerned about potential devastation to the barrier reef environment.  These groups came together to launch the Coalition to Ban Offshore Oil Drilling in Belize, with the goal of stopping offshore drilling proposals in their tracks.

More than one year later, the coalition has collected the 17,000 petition signatures it needs from Belize voters to trigger a referendum on the drilling ban.  This ensures ordinary Belizeans will have a chance to vote on whether or not drilling occurs, and now coalition efforts are going into turning out pro-reef voters.  Meanwhile the international conservation group Oceana has launched a petition to Belize’s prime minister in support of an offshore drilling ban, which residents of any country can sign online.

A ban on offshore oil drilling would protect the Belize Barrier Reef from an industry that could literally destroy it in the short term.  At the same time the move would help reduce climate change by keeping oil firmly locked up underground.  Over the long term climate change my pose an even worse threat to Belize’s reef than oil drilling, as rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification threaten the survival of the world’s coral reefs.

If the national electorate votes to ban offshore oil drilling, it will be a victory for conservationists that serves as an example of growing environmental awareness and activism in the developing world.  It will also mean hope for one of the most spectacular aquatic ecosystems on the planet, and the hundreds of tourism jobs which the coral reef supports in Belize. 

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Threatened Coral Reefs in the Philippines

Coral Reef-Ocean-FishThe Philippines is a tropical archipelago in Southeast Asia with direct access to some of the most diverse marine life in the world. Located on the western part of the Pacific Ocean, the islands of the Philippines have thousands of miles of coastline and plenty of beaches to explore the underwater ecological life. Because of its prime location in the warm waters of the Pacific, coral reefs are able to grow and thrive. Some famous reefs in the country include the Apo Reef in Puerto Galera, Mindoro and Verde Island Passage near Batangas. Unfortunately, the pristine waters that surround the Philippines are also under constant strain by both natural and man made threats. The coral reefs found in the Philippines are rapidly declining in size, which has affected the marine wildlife as a whole.

Coral reefs are popularly known as the rain forests of the sea for hosting thousands of diverse animals. The actual structure of the reef is formed when corals secrete calcium carbonate, which slowly turns into large systems that provide housing and protection for fish. 25% of underwater species live and flourish in these coral reefs. Thousands of different fish, crustaceans, worms, and sponges can be found within its structures. Coral reefs are mainly found in tropical areas of the world where water is warm and shallow. The coral reefs located off the coast of the Philippines are part of a larger system often known as the coral triangle. This wide triangle stretches from the Philippines to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and the Solomon Islands. The area is home to an abundance of animals. In the Philippines alone there are over 2,000 types of fish. 

In the Philippines, these unique reefs have been suffering for the past 30 years. An overwhelming 97% of the coral reefs in the country are threatened, mainly because of harmful human activities and a lack of correct treatment towards the reefs. One large reason for the negative impact on the ecosystems has been because of disruptive fishing tactics. The majority of Filipinos live very close to the ocean and have used its natural resources for centuries. Fish and seafood are a healthy and common part of the Filipino diet. Because of the proximity and easy access, over-fishing has been a huge threat to the marine wildlife. Cyanide poisoning has harmed the reefs dramatically. Over one million kilograms of cyanide poisoning has been sprayed over the coastlines of the Philippines since the 1960’s. This type of drastic fishing gives fishermen much larger live reef catches, which has become a $1 billion annual industry. 

The Philippines has combated the issue of dangerous cyanide poisoning, becoming one of the only countries in Southeast Asia to do so. The government has created the Cyanide Fishing Reform Program in collaboration with the International Marinelife Alliance. The program’s main purpose is to educate local fishermen on other proper fishing techniques, instead of using cyanide poisoning to catch fish. Fishermen learn how to use wide scaled nets and different hook and line techniques, in hopes of protecting the area’s waters from poison. 

The increase in population in the country has played a large role in the declining amount of healthy coral reef. Only about 5% of the reef in the country is considered to be in good condition. Much of the reason why the reefs are suffering is because of pollution made by humans. Because much of the country’s population lives near the ocean, pollution easily runs off into the water and destroys the life under the water’s surface. Coral reefs thrive in areas where the water is clean and clear, which has reduced since the increase in population.  

Aside from the destructive human impact on the reefs, there has also been an unavoidable natural weather pattern that has effected the area. El Nino has destroyed 20% of the reefs in the Philippines, and has caused coral bleaching. Global warming has become a negative influence on the coral structures. With the warming temperatures in the ocean, more algae are able to grow on top of the coral, which in turn blocks the amount of direct sunlight the coral receives. And like many living organisms, survival becomes much harder without sun. 

A combination of harmful human activities and natural occurrences have severely damaged some of the most remarkable forms of nature in the world. There has been widespread education campaigns in schools across the country that teach children the importance of keeping the natural reefs clean. Media efforts have been a useful way to promote the crucial information to keep the coral reefs safe from harm. Organizations have been created to combat this destruction, in hopes of preserving the beauty and uniqueness in the ocean. The Planetary Coral Reef Foundation and the Coral Reef Foundation are two such organizations where people can donate some time or money to help make sure the coral reefs in the Philippines, and around the world, don’t disappear forever.

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Unexpected Biodiversity Encountered in Southern Ocean

For many, the words “Antarctica” and “Southern Ocean” conjure up images of vast icy wastelands and chilly waters where few creatures but penguins would be expected to survive.  Even many scientists have long assumed the Antarctic, because of its very cold temperatures, was much less rich in species than the world’s temperate and tropical regions.  However a new survey of marine life around South Georgia Island, which is part of one of the southernmost large island chains in the world, has revealed waters that are actually full of life.  The continental shelf around South Georgia may harbor even more species than that surrounding tropical islands long recognized for their plentiful biodiversity.

In a study recently published in the online peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, scientists working for the British Antarctic Survey catalogued marine organisms found on South Georgia Island’s continental shelf.  By systematically sampling the waters around the island, the researchers made records of over 17,700 individual organisms belonging to 1,445 species.  Together these species represented twenty-two phyla, or major groups, of animals.  The authors of the study say their findings show the marine biodiversity of South Georgia rivals or surpasses that of tropical islands like the Galapagos.

Though north of the Antarctic Circle, South Georgia Island and the surrounding South Sandwich Islands are located in the Southern Ocean where marine life was once thought to be much less diverse than in warmer waters farther north.  The island is roughly parallel to the southernmost tip of South America, and slightly further south than the Falkland Islands.  The only human inhabitants of South Georgia, which remains a British territory, are scientists, researchers, and government overseers.  The island serves largely as a base for marine research the importance of which has increased with the realization that the Southern Ocean is feeling the effects of climate change more quickly than most other parts of the world.

The fish and invertebrates that comprise most of the newly-encountered species around South Georgia Island are as a rule neither cute nor cuddly—but what they lack in traditional wildlife charisma they more than make up for with their intriguing strangeness.  Creatures found on the continental shelf include giant spider crabs, elegant cold-water corals, pearly-shelled sea snails, and bottom-dwelling fish with enormous mouths.  Many of these species are probably endemic to South Georgia Island and the surrounding area, meaning they are found nowhere else and are particularly vulnerable to environmental change.  

Over the last fifty years water temperatures in the Southern Ocean have increased an average of one degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.  This may not sound like much, but the warmer temperatures are already wrought changes on the environment, causing sea ice to melt and species distributions to shift.  Tiny crustaceans that serve as an important food source for many larger animal species have declined, while warmer waters have allowed invasive species to move into new areas and displace marine animals adapted to very cold temperatures.  Like the much more famous polar bear in the Arctic, many Southern Ocean species now stand to go extinct unless climate change can be quickly halted.

The extraordinary biodiversity around South Georgia Island can be attributed to a variety of factors that gave rise to a unique assemblage of species through evolution.  The island is far from any large land mass, and scientists believe it has been so for a very long time.  This has given many groups of marine animals a chance to evolve endemic species in the continental shelf area round the island.  South Georgia is also located at the intersection of major ocean currents flowing away from Antarctica and the tip of South America.  Both currents carry nutrients that have created a rich feeding ground for marine life.

As further exploration of life in the Southern Ocean proceeds, South Georgia Island is likely to continue to stand out as an area particularly rich in marine animals.  However today it is also something more: South Georgia’s newly discovered biological riches are a reminder of how much remains to be learned about Southern Ocean habitats, and how little we know about an area that’s rapidly changing because of human activities.

Researchers Explore Waters off Easter Island and Sala y Gomez Island

February 26, 2011 – By Jen Noelken

Oceana and National Geographic scientists, along with the Chilean Navy launched a scientific voyage to the waters off the Chile coast.  The collaboration effort aims to research the waters of Easter Island and Sala y Gomez Island.  The islands are considered two of the remotest islands in the world.  Researchers hope to collect data in these little studied waters using innovative technology and knowledgeable experience.

A team of eighteen scientists and filmmakers, setoff from the Chile coast on February 22.  The team will collect data from all aspects of the water’s ecosystem including algae, coral, fish, and sharks.  Using robots that can descend hundreds of meters into the ocean, scuba diving and remote imaging the team will collect never before seen images.  The most exciting equipment is Dropcams.  These unique high-definition cameras are an internal aspect of a large glass sphere which can reach depths of 12,000 feet (3,657m).  A National Geographic team-member exclaimed the group will be the first to record life off the islands at those depths.

The first leg of research will focus on the waters off Easter Island.  Researchers expect to find very few fish and most of the fish to be small.  It is said that sharks and lobsters are almost non-existent in the island’s waters.  Easter Island is inhabited meaning, like other inhabited areas, fishing is prevalent leading to a vast decline in large fish populations.

Easter Island’s history is one of mystery and speculation.  Founded by Admiral Roggeveen on Easter Day in 1772, natives refer to the island as Rapa Nui.  Located over 2,000 miles from the nearest population center of Tahiti or Chile, the island is known for stone monoliths called Moai.  Speculation swirled of whom or what built the massive stone faces.  Some believed the Moai(s) had a Peruvian descent, while others believed they were remnants of a lost continent or a result of extra-terrestrial influences.  However, archaeological data suggests the island was discovered by the Polynesians in around 400 AD. 

The island is believed to have flourished under Polynesian direction reaching a peak of around 10,000 people.  Rapa Nui islanders possessed the only written language in Oceania, the Rongorongo script; a hieroglyphic form of writing.  Easter Island became home to many petroglyphs (rock carvings), traditional wood carvings, tapa (barkcloth) crafts, tattooing, dance and music.  Sadly, the island overwhelmed itself and resources became scarce.  Palm forests were destroyed, social order declined and a civil war broke out, followed by cannibalism.  Because of Rapa Nui’s internal destruction, the island became a metaphor of ecological disaster.

After collecting data from Easter Island waters, the team will head 250 miles east to Sala y Gomez.  Waters around the island are home to a new 150,000 square kilometers (about 57,916 square miles) marine park.  Currently, less than 2% of global ocean waters are protected.  However, Parties of the UN convention on Biological Diversity agreed to protect 10% of their exclusive zones by 2012.  Marine parks act as preserves to prevent overfishing, and give plants (and other life-forms) a chance to recover declined numbers.    

Baseline surveys will be conducted on the park’s marine biodiversity.  In contrast to Easter Island, Sala y Gomez is uninhabited.  Marine ecologist and National Geographic Ocean Fellow, Dr. Enric Sala, called the small island, “one of the last undisturbed and relatively pristine places left in the ocean.”  Researches expect to see large fish activity, along with sharks and lobsters.  The study will be the first systematic survey of life in the island’s waters.

The collaboration voyage offers insight into a world of ocean unknown.  But, more so collected data will focus the islands’ current state of conservation and assess the need for new protection measures.  The team hopes to inspire and reinforce the need for protected ocean areas.

Updates on the crew’s voyage can be followed at Natgeo newswatch blog.   

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