The Partial Recovery of Coral Reefs.

May 27th, 2015

The damage to coral reefs varies of course. It’s greatest in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific – Indonesia, PNG, the Philippines, Guam. It’s least where humans can’t easily get to them – near isolated islands like Pitcairn and Easter, and around atolls scattered in the Pacific, hundreds of km from human communities.

A coral reef in the Philippines, reduced to rubble, similar to many in the Caribbean (wwf.org)

A coral reef in the Philippines, reduced to rubble, similar to many in the Caribbean (wwf.org)

Pristine reefs, with angel fish, healthy corals, even top predators, are now very rare, existing isolated far from human communities (kidsdiscover.com)

Pristine reefs, with angel fish, healthy corals, even top predators, are now very rare, exist isolated far from human communities (kidsdiscover.com)

And that variation is intriguing. If we reduced the stresses we can actually control – pollution, destruction and overfishing – will that make the reefs more resilient to the challenges of climate change? We can find out only by reducing those stresses.

Meanwhile, what happens to a reef, not wrecked by pollution and other destructive events, if overfishing is reduced? Will it recover any? some? all? of its lost ecological complexity? Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that are large, old and isolated are recognized to be the ideal solution, but in much of the tropics where humans live in any abundance they are impractical, even impossible: completely restricting fishing is not an option.

Coral reefs of the world. Far too many people live far too close to far too many of them, for instance in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific (oceanservice.noaa.com)

Coral reefs of the world. Far too many people live far too close to far too many of them, for instance in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific (oceanservice.noaa.com)

Now a new and remarkable study indicates that some limited management can go a long way. We don’t have detailed long-term data on coral reefs to guide us, but we do now have current and recent data on a lot of reefs. A team of coral reef biologists has assessed what is known about the current status and recent history of 832 coral reefs, ranging from the most damaged to the most pristine (only 20 of the 832 are considered to be pristine).

The team compared fish biomass on the reefs – finding 1000 kg or more per hectare on a pristine reef, less than half that amount on overfished reefs, and as low as 10% of that amount on the most overfished reefs.

These illustrations are from the Nature article assessing 832 coral reefs. You will need to go to the article to see the details. a and b: The fish biomass on fished reefs is a small fraction of what exists on unfished reefs (red, extremely overfished; green, unfished). c: The less the fish biomass, the longer the time to full recovery when fishing is completely restricted  - 50-60 years for the most damaged. d: With limited regulations in place, ecological complexity (functional return) gradually increases (nature.com),

These illustrations are from the Nature article assessing 832 coral reefs. You will need to go to the article to see the details. a and b: The fish biomass of fished reefs is a small fraction of what exists on unfished reefs (red, extremely overfished; green, unfished). c: The less the fish biomass, the longer the time to full recovery if fishing is completely restricted – 50-60 years for the most damaged. d: With limited regulations in place, ecological complexity (functional return) gradually increases (nature.com),

Unexpectedly, limited regulations can still have considerable impact. For instance, protecting herbivorous grazers, scrapers and browsers (Parrot Fish come to mind) reduces algal cover, promotes coral dominance once again, and raises fish biomass. Eliminating the most damaging fishing gear, like beach seines, also helps fish recovery. Restricting access to the reef to those with negotiated rights to fish there while excluding external fishers helps even more. Sustainable fishing becomes possible.

Parrotfish (this is the Bicolor Parrotfish) are critical herbivores on a coral reef, sraping back algae (ecology.com)

Parrotfish (this is the Bicolor Parrotfish) are critical herbivores on a coral reef, sraping back algae (ecology.com)

Currently most reefs anywhere near human communities are hardly managed at all. Now we know that with limited regulations, a reef can recover to about half of its pristine fish biomass, and when it does, it is much less likely to collapse.

So sustainable fishing on somewhat recovered coral reefs is a target we can realistically aim for, an outcome so very clearly worthwhile in itself. These are grounds for a little optimism.

Will such changes then also make the reefs more resilient to the stresses of rising ocean temperatures and acidification associated with climate change? Coral reef biologists predict that they will, but though the theory is sound, it is untested.

Let’s find out. It’s the least we can do.

WoRMS

April 30th, 2015

We seem to have a compulsion to name every species that we notice. Whatever the reasons, such knowledge is increasingly important to us.

For example, is there currently a new, 6th Mass Extinction underway and caused by us? To know how quickly species are going extinct, we have to know what species actually exist.

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction The Sixth Extinction - a terrific and disturbing book (grist'org)

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction The Sixth Extinction – a terrific and disturbing book (grist.org)

This is not always easy, and trying to identify the species that live in our oceans has been particularly difficult. There we have mostly cared about species of commercial interest or unusually large or exotic species, yet most marine species are small, cryptic, buried, and/or in deep water.

And other questions about marine communities also now absorb us: Are marine coastal communities shifting to higher latitudes as the sea around them warms? How does over-fishing, eliminating the top predators, restructure communities? How much does coastal development and pollution modify coastal communities? How are changes in sea currents and temperatures affecting prey species for migrating fish, marine mammals, sea turtles and sea birds?

To even start to answer questions like these, questions whose answers are critical to our own long-term stability and well-being, we need to know what species actually exist, and we need to have confidence in the accuracy of their identification. This requires a lot of energy, patience and expertise.

Enter WoRMS, the fine acronym for the World Registery of Marine Species. For the past few decades scientists have been confirming the identity of all 420,000 marine species that have been described as species since the 1700s. 190,400 turned out to be duplicates – leaving 228,450 legitimate species.

The rough periwinkle Littorina saxatilis lives in the high intertidal of temperate rocky shores, and was known by 113 different names: now just by one (aphotomarine.com)

The rough periwinkle Littorina saxatilis lives in the high intertidal of temperate rocky shores, and was known by 113 different names: now just by one (aphotomarine.com)

Of the legitimate species, 18,000 are fish, 816 are squid, 93 are whales and dolphins, the list goes on and on. Since 2008, 1000 new species have been added to the lists, including 122 species of shark and rays.

The Australian Humpbacked Dolphin Sousa saholensis was recently discovered (marinespecies.org)

The Australian Humpbacked Dolphin Sousa saholensis was recently discovered (marinespecies.org)

That all sounds impressive – but marine scientists estimate that between half a million and 2 million marine species have yet to be described.

We obviously are not going to describe everything before it goes it extinct, though it seems a pity not to know what we’re losing. What WoRMS is offering us though is reliable data, knowledge we can use with confidence as we try to conserve the marine communities that exist and as we try to understand and perhaps mitigate the impact of the global changes that are upon us.

WoRMS is a huge asset. We need to ensure a new generation of experts will be trained to keep the work going.

There is no substitute for accurate knowledge.
For evidence.

The Ruby Seadragon, a new species of a very odd  fish that lives between Australia and new Guinea (marinespecies.org)

The Ruby Seadragon, a new species of a very odd fish that lives between Australia and new Guinea (marinespecies.org)

Older Females as Leaders

April 22nd, 2015

A killer whale pod is a spectacular, complex, cooperative hunting group.

Cooperative hunting as a way of getting food is hard at best, and demands considerable intelligence and a good memory. It has evolved in a few mammals, and among these are killer whales and the closely related pilot whales.

A resident killer whale pod on the coast of BC (bcwhalewatchingtours.com)

A resident killer whale pod on the coast of BC (bcwhalewatchingtours.com)

The theory of natural selection long ago was extended to include cooperative behavior, where individuals could increase their own fitness by helping close relatives. In every case, each hunting group consists of close relatives. As with most animals, adults die not long after they reproduce for the last time, but killer whales, at least in their ‘resident’ eco-morph, are the a remarkable exception: though they are able to reproduce until about 40 years old, and males rarely live much past that age, females may live for decades after the end of their reproductive lives.

Resident pods of killer whales hunt for salmon in the Salish Sea - the coastal interior waters of southern BC and northern Washington (timescolonist.com)

Resident pods of killer whales hunt for salmon in the Salish Sea – the coastal interior waters of southern BC and northern Washington (timescolonist.com)

The best data come from a resident pod that hunts mostly for Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea (BC/ Washington State) and that has been followed intensively since 1976. Every individual and its relationships to all the others in the pod is well documented. Though the age of the oldest female is not definitively known, it is in the range of 103. And that is amazing.

What aid might she and other older females provide to her pod that younger and possibly stronger adults could not more easily provide? An enticing possibility is that older females might be able to provide ecological information about when and where to hunt for fish, particularly in times of environmental stress when fish are hard to find. In hopes of testing this hypothesis, a group of scientists studied pod leadership over the years, in times of both salmon abundance and salmon scarcity. They found that in times of salmon scarcity, older females were more likely to lead the hunt.

When fish are scarce, older females (red in this cartoon) are more likely to lead the hunt to find them (cell.com/current-biology)

When fish are scarce, older females (red in this cartoon) are more likely to lead the hunt to find them (cell.com/current-biology)

This isn’t exactly proof, but it provides tantalizing support for the hypothesis that older females are valued and useful as repositories of ecological knowledge. Of course older females may help the pod in other ways – perhaps assisting others in the pod, mediating conflicts among pod members, providing familiarity with other groups – but these hypotheses are so far too hard to test.

In any case, the more we know about resident pod behavior, including the roles of older, post-reproductive females, the more we can ensure we don’t wreck the ecosystem the killer whales depend on. We should at least be able to do that.

And yes, there is one other species we know of where older post-reproductive females play a critical role in the social success of the group: us. Let’s hear it for grandmothers.

Killerwhales_jumping

k

Eating Octopus Alive

March 30th, 2015
A couple of young, live octopus experiencing there last moment together (weirdasiannews.com)

A couple of young, live octopus experiencing there last moment together (weirdasiannews.com)

A Japanese restaurant in Toronto has recently begun to offer live octopus on its menu. I didn’t know anyone anywhere would eat octopus live, but apparently it is a not-uncommon dish in South Korea, where it is called San nachi or Sannakji.

Those of us who are carnivores eat a lot of cooked seafood, probably some raw – sushi, for instance, and perhaps on occasion some newly shucked and still living oysters, or even perhaps some raw sea urchin gonads.

But live octopus?

Only young, small octopus are eaten alive – you don’t need to imagine some huge monster in a bowl of water in front of you, ready to eat you back. And you don’t need to imagine how you are going to cut it up while it is roaming around the bowl – it is small enough that you can stuff the whole animal into your mouth and chew it up there.

What does this really look like? Here’s a video of someone eating one for the first time, and she clearly needs more practice at it. And then this video of someone somewhat more experienced.

Some places just offer freshly amputated and still writhing arms.

There is at least a very small risk that the suckers of one of the octopus arms will latch onto your palate, and when you try to swallow the rest of it, you will choke to death. But that isn’t why I have such a problem with the whole event.

The common octopus , Octopus vulgaris - intelligent, solitary predator (sites.google.com)

The common octopus , Octopus vulgaris – intelligent, solitary predator (sites.google.com)

An octopus isn’t an oyster or a sea urchin. It has eyes very similar to ours, a bigger brain for its size than any other invertebrate, and a habit of changing colors according to its probable emotional state. It is a stealthy, solitary, intelligent predator. When a female lays her eggs, she sits and guards them until they hatch, and then she usually dies. Altogether, an alien life-form to admire and co-exist with. Not to eat.

So, though I love to eat lobsters and fish, I don’t intend to eat any octopus, dead or alive. I also really don’t want to eat any animal that is still alive, even though octopus, or lobster, or fish or other non-human predators obviously eat their own prey still fresh and alive.

Famous blue ringed octopus, small and lethally toxic (marinebio.org)

Famous blue ringed octopus, small and lethally toxic (marinebio.org)

To make my hypocrisy even more blatant, lobsters usually die an ugly death before when they are cooked, fish have probably suffocated slowly to death after capture, and we know far too much about what most of our chickens, pigs and cattle go through before we eat them, yet still I eat them all with enthusiasm.

Faced with a young octopus in a bowl of seawater in front of you looking at you looking at it, eager to make a run for it, would you wrap it up on your fork and eat it?

Revenge of the octopus: beardart. (dailymail.co.uk)

Revenge of the octopus: beardart. (dailymail.co.uk)

Old Dominion Leads the Way

March 21st, 2015

Old Dominion University is in Norfolk, Virginia, a small city right on the edge of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. It is part of a metropolitan area of almost 2 million people called Hampton Roads that also includes Newport News and Virginia Beach.

Hampton Roads is one of the two most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the US to rapid sea level rise (the other is New Orleans).

Sea level is rising at about twice the rate of the global average along the coast north of Cape Hatteras, centered on Chesapeake Bay (sciencenews.org)

Sea level is rising at about twice the rate of the global average along the coast north of Cape Hatteras, centered on Chesapeake Bay (sciencenews.org)

Hampton Roads , a complex metropolitan region at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (hamptonroadsof.org)

Hampton Roads , a complex metropolitan region at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (hamptonroadsof.org)

Global sea levels rise as a result of the melting land-based glaciers of Greenland and the West Antarctic Peninsula as well as the thermal expansion of warming waters – an average of 22 cm (8 in) since 1930. What makes Hampton Roads of special interest is that sea levels there are rising twice as fast as the average.

Old Dominion University has established the Center of Sea Level Rise and the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI). It has chosen to be in the thick of it all.

Why such rapid sea level rise? And why there?

Partly it is because the land in that region is also sinking – the mile thick glaciers of the last glaciation did not reach so far south, but they compressed the land they did cover, forcing the land beyond them to bulge up. Since the glaciers withdrew, the land they compressed has risen again, while the bulge to their south is still falling back to its pre-glaciation state. Along with subsidence of the land from extraction of groundwater, this accounts for about half of the current rapid rise of sea level.

Sea level rise north of Cape Hatteras is about half due to recent climate change, and about half due to the land level readjustments following the retreat of the glaciers (americanroads.us

Sea level rise north of Cape Hatteras is about half due to recent climate change, and about half due to the land level readjustments following the retreat of the glaciers (americanroads.us

So Hampton Roads has immediate challenges, finding ways to adapt to the sea level rise sooner than most coastlines elsewhere. Coastal beaches and wetlands will certainly deteriorate, and the low lying parts of the coastal cities will be flooded. Norfolk is especially vulnerable. Pretty well everyone living there now knows this.

Old Dominion has taken the lead in a pilot project aimed at developing a comprehensive government and community cooperation in preparing for further sea level rise in Hampton Roads. In the past couple of weeks MARI has hosted seminars involving residents and state officials, focusing on resilience and environmental engineering and on perceptions of climate change and sea level rise, encouraging a willingness to address change.

In the past year it held a Rising to the Challenge Conference on sea level rise with strong bipartisan support from Congressional ans State politicians – in itself a rare and extraordinary event.

And everything, in the context of preparedness and resiliency, is on the table: tide gates, levees, flood walls, raised buildings and roads, marshes created to absorb storm surge, abandonment of low lying areas, elimination of subsidized flood insurance – the list is very real and very serious. The cities of Washington,D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia all have reason to be watching closely.

Part of the US navy of 2012 at Norfolk Naval Base - which covers 4 miles of coastline and has 7 miles of piers (wikipedia.org).

Part of the US navy of 2012 at Norfolk Naval Base – which covers 4 miles of coastline and has 7 miles of piers (wikipedia.org).

And then there is the military. Nearby is the Norfolk Naval Base, the world’s largest naval base. Old Dominion has also recently hosted discussions by the military on how to prepare the naval base for the tidal flooding and extreme storm surges associated with sea level rise, while contemplateing the immense upheaval of having to move.

Meanwhile, home owners in the lowest parts of Norfolk can find no buyers for their homes, and as one pastor says
“I don’t know many churches that have to put the tide chart on their Web site so people know whether they can get to church.”

So: Go, Old Dominion. The whole world isn’t watching, but probably should be.

(iawrestle.com)

(iawrestle.com)

Seabed Mining is Real

February 26th, 2015

Seabed mining is a new frontier and the payoff for the miners is going to be huge. This is mining beyond the continental shelves, beyond 200m depth, on the continental slopes and beyond, down to the deep hydrothermal vents that occur around the widening rifts where tectonic plates slowly separate. The mining will be industrial scale, and it will be out of sight.

The mineral deposits, particularly around deep sea vents, are extraordinarily rich in copper, gold, iron, cobalt, and invaluable rare earth metals. They are irresistible.

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface.   (nautilus.com)

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface. (nautilus.com)

Seabed mining has been a dream of the rich nations and corporations for decades. Figuring out how to govern it in international waters almost scuttled the Law of the Sea in the early 1990s, but the community of nations eventually agreed to postpone those decisions until seabed mining became a reality, and most of the remaining reluctant nations ratified the Law (pretty well all did except for the US).

Well, now instead of being decades off in the future, seabed mining is real, imminent, and the governance by the UN International Seabed Authority is weak. We are not prepared.

Though a number of countries or companies are licensed to explore sites in the Pacific to begin mining, the first to hit the seabed will be Nautilus Minerals, whose regular press releases provide a drumbeat for its accumulating progress. It’s worth checking out the company, for it provides a sense of the scale of interest and the inevitable exploitation that lies ahead. Though it is exploring opportunities in international waters, this first actual mining will be at a depth of 1600 m in EEZ of Papua New Guinea – a rare site where hydrothermal vents occur in national waters.

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Nautilus Minerals is registered in Canada, its main office is in Brisbane, the surface ship is being built and will be outfitted in Fujian Province on the coast of China, the three huge mining machines/vehicles are being built in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the UK, the motors for the ship are under construction in Norway, and the major investor is Oman. PNG is of course well paid for the license. The ore will be stock-piled in PNG and then sent to refineries around the world. A cyber attack from an unknown source very recently cost the company $10 million. This is as global as it gets.

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter the to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The Nautilus video tells us that the payoff of mining the 11 hectares under license will be a billion dollars, that there really are no fish there to worry about, and the environmental damage will be negligible. Believe what you like.

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The questions are now urgent.
– How much of the seabed should we protect from mining?
– How do we fairly govern mining in international waters?
– Can we give the International Seabed Authority the vision and power it needs, or do we need new organization?
– How do we enforce any agreements that are made?
– How do we monitor what we can’t see except through very expensive remote sensing?

And there’s more. Will the profits be shared only by the nations and investors who can afford to mount the efforts? Surely that is not fair. But then how will the profits be shared by the world’s less affluent nations?

The existing UN Law of the Sea, ratified by almost all the countries of the world except for the US, is by far the best tool available to address these questions. It can be modified, expanded, used to prevent the potential huge abuse of the seabed mining initiative that is now upon us.

This time it should be guided by the Precautionary Approach, by agreement that the seabed, at least in international waters, is a world resource, and the US should finally ratify the Law of the Sea so that it can play a real part in the emerging agreements.

Meanwhile we can all watch what Nautilus Minerals does. With everyone watching, they may truly try to do it right.

The famous, giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

The famous giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

Eating Dead Jellyfish

February 13th, 2015

Eating living jellyfish is hard enough to imagine – they are mostly water, they usually have piles of sting cells, and seem neither nourishing or appetizing. Unusually, Loggerhead Sea Turtles and Ocean Sunfish eat them out of choice. Even some people claim to: there are quite a few recipes for things like jellyfish crisps to go with your beer. But really, who really would eat them if there were decent alternatives around?

Jeelyfish blooms appear to be occurring more frequently. Ocean Sunfish and Loggerhead Sea turtles are among their predators (fao.un.org)

Jeelyfish blooms appear to be occurring more frequently. Ocean Sunfish and Loggerhead Sea turtles are among their predators (fao.un.org)

Jellyfish usually come in blooms, a nice name for the immense aggregations that frequently occur in coastal waters around the world. So what happens when a bloom of jellyfish matures, sheds its eggs and sperm, and dies? The dead mass of jellyfish sinks to the bottom of the sea and we have assumed it decays there, slowly consumed by bacteria, smothering the sea bottom, rendering it unfit for most other organisms.

Periphylla, the jellyfish used in the bottom feeding experiment, is a deeper water species that occurs in large blooms world wide p(planktonportal.com)

Periphylla, the jellyfish used in the bottom feeding experiment, is a deeper water species that occurs in large blooms world wide (planktonportal.com)

We’re wrong. An elegant study published several months ago has surprised everyone. Dead jellyfish were fastened to 50x50cm ‘landers’ and sunk, along with similar landers laden with yummy bits of mackerel, to the bottom of Sognefjord in southern Norway, 4000 feet below the surface. The results were filmed.

Surely the community of bottom scavengers would selectively eat the mackerel, and pay little attention to the jellyfish carcasses.

Atlantic Hagfish scavenging on the dead jellyfish (natureworldnews.com)

Atlantic Hagfish scavenging on the dead jellyfish (natureworldnews.com)

Instead, dense aggregations of scavengers moved in on the jellyfish just as quickly as they did on the mackerel. First came Atlantic Hagfish, attractively know as slime eels, which burrowed into the mass of dead jellyfish and selectively ate the spent gonads.

Atlantic Hagfish, also called slime eels (seasky.org)

Atlantic Hagfish, also called slime eels (seasky.org)

Then came the crustaceans – particularly a long-clawed crab called a galatheid which in the video look to be aggressive, each protecting its piece of jellyfish from others, spaced out over the lander. Then came a decapod shrimp and lyssianasid amphipods. The scavengers eliminated the jellyfish in 2 1/2 hours, which is extraordinarily fast.

When the hagfsih leave the jellyfish carcasses, galatheid crabs move in (natureworldnews.com)

When the hagfsih leave the jellyfish carcasses, galatheid crabs move in (natureworldnews.com)

Galatheid crabs are common members of the deep water scavenging community (marlin.ao.uk)

Galatheid crabs are common members of the deep water scavenging community (marlin.ao.uk)

In fact the whole event is quite extraordinary.

When a whale dies and sinks the bottom – we call it a whale fall – it becomes a major source of nourishment for the bottom scavenging community. Now it seems that when a jellyfish fall occurs, the same thing happens. The dead jellyfish contribute to the food web in ways we did not expect – and carbon is transported from pelagic organisms near the sea surface to the scavengers foraging on the sea bottom.

This is all good to learn. In recent years jellyfish blooms appear to be larger and more frequent, often in places already stressed by low oxygen or overfishing. But they remain part of the food web instead of smothering part of it when they die, and we did not know this. It makes them less of a threat to marine ecosystem stability than we thought.

By why any crab – or hagfish for that matter – would pass up mackerel flesh for dead jellyfish jelly remains a mystery.

Caring for Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

January 28th, 2015

Sea turtles are endangered for all the reasons you might imagine, including pollution, plastics, propellers, nest destruction, egg poaching, disease, global warming, and bycatch from trawls, seines and long-lines. Through a lot of effort over the past 3-4 decades, their crash toward extinction has been slowed, and in some places some recovery has occurred – of course not to past population sizes, but at least away from the brink.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle, the smallest of sea turtles,  lives mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, reaches sexually maturity at 10-15 years old (marinelife.about.com)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, the smallest of sea turtles, lives mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, reaches sexually maturity at 10-15 years old (marinelife.about.com)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles may have come the closest to extinction. They mostly live in inshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico where they forage for crabs. For a long time no one seemed to know where they nested, but in the mid 1940s a single nesting beach on the Mexican coast, Playa de Rancho Nuevo, was discovered. There possibly 120,000 females hauled themselves up the beach over a period of several days, dug their nests and laid their eggs, an extraordinary and tumultuous event we call an ‘arribada’. Several arribadas appear to have occurred on that one beach each summer, the same females returning to lay more eggs.

Females come ashore in large numbers over a few days, an arribada. Arribadas occur several times during the summer, involving the same renesting females (noaa.com)

Females come ashore in large numbers over a few days, an arribada. Arribadas occur several times during the summer, involving the same renesting females (noaa.com)

We know now that females nest every second year, so the total adult population at that time must have been about half a million. The beach was so crowded that females arriving on the second or third day often inadvertently dug up and destroyed the eggs of their predecessors as they scooped out holes to lay their own eggs.

Though the arribadas were unknown to biologists until then, they were certainly well known to people living along that coast who quickly dug up most of the nests and distributed the eggs among the coastal communities. Those were not the days of regulations.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle numbers plunged. Though protected by the US Endangered Species Act in 1970, only 700 females arrived to nest in the summer of 1985. But the arribada beach became tightly protected and monitored; many nests were moved to concentrated sites where they could be watched more easily; other nests were dug up, their eggs transplanted to other beaches along the Texas coast, hatchlings allowed to crawl to the surf, then recaptured and raised in captivity for 9-11 months to plate-sized juveniles, and then released in the Gulf of Mexico.

By 2010 about 7000 females once again nested, not just on the arribada beach, but also in small numbers where the eggs had been translocated. Not the numbers of the 1940s, but enough to think recovery was underway. A rare success, it was the result of huge coordinated effort by untold numbers of volunteers as well as biologists, communities, and government agencies from two countries.

Numbers of nests on the arribada beach in Mexico increased remarkably after prolonged efforts to protect the beach (esasuccess.net)

Numbers of nests on the arribada beach in Mexico increased remarkably after prolonged efforts to protect the beach (esasuccess.net)

Transplants of eggs to Texas beaches began in 1978. Now there are about 200 nests scattered among a number of protected beaches (esasuccess.org)

Transplants of eggs to Texas beaches began in 1978. Now there are about 200 nests scattered among a number of protected beaches (esasuccess.org)

Since 2010, things have not been so good. The BP oil spill damaged the main foraging region along the north shore of the Gulf, oiling and killing around 5000 of the foraging turtles. Causal or not, nesting numbers flatlined and now have declined despite all the efforts to protect them: in 2014 only 11500 nests were counted, indicating a drop to around 3-4000 nesting females and so an adult population of about 12,000.

Number of nests increased impressively until 2010, but not since (seaturtles.org)

Number of nests increased impressively until 2010, but not since (seaturtles.org)

To complicate the picture, many juveniles drift and swim out of the Gulf and head north with the Gulf Stream along the East Coast. Some of them reach Cape Cod Bay and even further into the Gulf of Maine, a risky venture since at sea temperatures less than 17-18 degrees C (65 degrees F), they are stunned and tend to die if they are not somehow soon rescued and warmed up again.

Until recently, each autumn only a few washed up stunned on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay where searching volunteers found them, warmed them up, and sent survivors back to Florida often through informal connections with air pilots. But this past autumn more than 1200 stunned juveniles washed up on those beaches, swamping local abilities to recover and transport them back south. Many more volunteers became involved, searching the beaches through the autumn months; stunned turtles were sent to a wide assortment of aquariums to recover them; transporting them back to the Gulf of Mexico was much more challenging.

Two no longer stunned  juveniles getting ready to travel back to the Gulf of Mexico

Two no longer stunned juveniles getting ready to travel back to the Gulf of Mexico

Once again, this has involved a huge labor-intensive and expensive effort by volunteers, biologists, and government agencies.

Now with declining numbers of nesting females and increasing numbers of stunned juveniles, we are nagged by the question of whether all the effort is making a difference. Comparable efforts of course struggle to protect and conserve the other species of sea turtles as well. They all remain endangered.

The case of Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles though is not reassuring. It has involved such huge effort to protect one species, with every conservation ingredient one could hope for. People truly care, and still recovery may fail, and fail because we cannot protect the animals from catastrophic oil spills or from the increasing and unpredictable stresses of climate change.

Hatchlings rush to water's edge. Much effort has been invested to help Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles recover, but has it been effective? (seathos.org)

Hatchlings rush to the water’s edge. Much effort has been invested to help Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles recover, but has it been effective? (seathos.org)

Though few marine species, including seabirds, marine mammals, fish, shellfish and other invertebrates have actually been reduced to extinction, population sizes of so many of them have declined precipitously, and local extinctions are common.

As a recent major review of marine ‘defaunation’ establishes, we are on the cusp of developing inshore waters in the ways we have developed terrestrial ecosystems over the past few millennia, development that has resulted in the extinction of so many terrestrial species. The review concludes that although much damage has already occurred, it is not too late to prevent marine extinctions on a similar scale – through protected areas, enlightened management and careful development.

But there is so much that is threatened, even in the rosiest of scenarios. We have hard choices ahead. How do we decide how much effort to invest in trying to recover one species, like Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, when whole communities and ecosystems are at risk? Can somehow we protect both?

Either way, our energetic and global effort is essential.
And a world without sea turtles is a world immeasurably reduced.

The Shift North in the Gulf of Maine

January 14th, 2015

The Big Shift North continues unabated in the Gulf of Maine.

In November 2014, cod fishing in the Gulf was banned. Some cod are still there but they are concentrating in colder, deeper water. Fishermen think this is just another conspiracy among scientists and regulators to keep their jobs, and think there are plenty of fish out there. There aren’t. Whatever cod are left from hundreds of years of overfishing and mismanagement, most have left, moving north.

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

That wonderfully sweet Northern Shrimp, Pandalus borealis, has also again failed to show up in the Gulf this winter in any numbers, cancelling the winter fishing season for them. They too have shifted north to colder waters.

Then there are the lobsters, living in unprecedented numbers in the Gulf of Maine – partly because their predators like cod have mostly vanished, partly because of the warmer coastal waters. Their region of greatest abundance on the Maine coast has also shifted north from the central coast to close to the Canadian border.

And Green Crabs, still considered invasive and inedible, have exploded in numbers on the shores of the Gulf which just a few decades ago was its northernmost range. They eat soft-shelled clams, decimate eel grass beds, and really need now to be harvested for something.

Meanwhile species from the warmer waters south of Cape Cod are extending north at least seasonally into the Gulf.

Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles drifted north of Cape Cod in the autumn in far larger numbers than ever before – where they then still got stunned by the cooler waters of the Gulf, making the rescue effort by beach walking volunteers a far greater challenge.

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

More dramatic is the seasonal arrival of Black Sea Bass that live along the coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Cod, separated into northern and southern stocks by Cape Hatteras. The fish forage along rock piles and ledges, pilings and jetties, quite easily caught by pots and by hook and line. They mature first as females, and then as they grow larger some shift to become males – they are protogynous hermaphrodites. They supported thriving commercial and recreational fisheries until they were almost fished out. Then amazingly serious regulations limiting quota, season, and sizes were enforced and the stock, especially north of Hatteras, has recovered reasonably well.

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Now Black Sea Bass have become common enough in summer in the Gulf of Maine as far as mid-coast Maine for fishing to be regulated there as well. They eat anything they can from the seafloor, including small juvenile lobsters, but enthused recreational fishing will probably prevent them from becoming a major lobster predator.

And of course the list goes on – starfish, Blue Crabs, algae, puffins – species shift north within and out of the Gulf, following the colder water, and they shift north into the Gulf, following the warmer water. A major reorganization of the entire ecosystem is well underway.

Where is all this heading? The community may not stabilize until sometime after ocean temperatures stabilize, if that ever happens.

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster, now at about 2 degrees per decade, than almost anyplace else besides the polar regions, so the rate of change in the community is unusually rapid. But it does let us think about the kinds of global changes we will expect to face everywhere else.

At the least we can recognize that complex, unpredictable community shifts are occurring and will continue to occur, and that we need now to plan for the changes. We will have to adapt our regulatory practices for managing species of both commercial and recreational interest, finding ways to respond rapidly.

For what the Gulf of Maine is telling us is that we must expect everything to change. Soon.

The MPA Solution

December 18th, 2014

More and more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being created around the world, but do they make a difference? Do they actually help depressed fisheries and their communities recover?

Sometimes yes, often no: it depends on a suite of features. So the question becomes not just how much coastline should we protect, but also how do we do it right.

Early in 2014 an extraordinary study published in Nature compared 87 MPAs from the shallow water coasts of 40 nations and showed us just how hard it is to create an effective MPA.

MPAs fail to be effective for a few reasons. The greatest problem of course is illegal harvesting, but inadequate regulations that allow harvesting also occur in far too many MPAs. And if the MPA is too small or it isn’t isolated, mobile species simply emigrate to quick capture elsewhere.

Five different features critical to the success of an MPA emerged from the study. Their acronym is NEOLI.

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful MPAs that are pictured below. (nature.com)

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful successful MPAs that are pictured below (nature.com)

– The MPA must be No-Take: no harvesting at all can occur. (N)
– Protection must be well-enforced. Otherwise illegal harvesting wrecks everything. (E)
– It must be at least 10 years old. Obviously that isn’t actually old, but this is a young business, and things take time. (O)
– It must be large, at least 100 km2. (L)
– And it must be isolated – surrounded by sand or deep water. (I)

No-Take, Enforced, Old, Large and Isolated: NEOLI.

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

The kicker is that an MPA must have 4 or 5 of these features, or it is ineffective, no different than adjacent unprotected fished areas. Of the 87 MPAs assessed, only 4 had all 5 features, and only 5 others had 4. So 90% had three or less.

These 9 sites, though, point the way. They had considerably more fish, larger fish, larger fish biomass, and included top predators like sharks, groupers and jacks.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

The good news here is that recovery is possible, that restoring fish communities to levels of biodiversity and biomass perhaps not that different from past historical levels is not just another impossible dream.

Less encouraging is just how difficult reaching the NEOLI standard can be. The four MPAs with full NEOLI status are pictured above. All four are extremely isolated and almost completely uninhabited. They hardly represent our real and over-crowded world.

Still, knowing what is needed we may be able to rehabilitate many currently ineffective MPAs. Perhaps small ones can be made larger and more isolated. Certainly they can be made No-Take, enforcement can be ensured, and they will of course get older.

Other studies point out more that should be obvious. For instance, coastal fishing communities need to be included in the decisions to create No-Take MPAs, for they know where the MPAs should be placed, and enforcement is more successful if it comes from the community. Comanagement is critical to MPA success along inhabited coasts, and it works a lot better than any alternative.

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

Also, rehabilitation of existing failing MPAs is only part of the solution. Currently there are about 6500 MPAs around the world, which sounds like a lot, but in fact they barely cover 2% of the world’s oceans, far from the 20-30% that is probably necessary.

Of course creating new protected No-Take space is difficult, humans will still fish illegally, bottom trawlers still unfortunately exist, and enforcement is always a challenge. But knowing how successful a well designed and truly protected MPA can be makes a huge difference.

We can do this.