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 (nature.com)

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study (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 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.

The New Seawall of China

December 7th, 2014

By now probably everyone who lives near a coast knows that coastal wetlands can protect us from some of the devastating impact of the wave surge and flooding associated with this new generation of super-storms – like Katrina, Xythia, Sandy, and Haiyan of the last few years.

Typhoon Hagupit blew across the Philippines in early December 2014. Because Typhoon Haiyan did such immense damage in the Philippines in 2013, everyone was much more prepared for Hagupit (nytimes.com)

Typhoon Hagupit blew across the Philippines in early December 2014. Because Typhoon Haiyan did such immense damage in 2013, everyone was much more prepared for Hagupit (nytimes.com)

Three kinds of responses to the threats of super-storms seem to exist. One is to retreat from the edge of the sea, and let the coastal wetlands (or barrier islands) absorb the wave surge and flooding – the wisest response but still the least likely since moving people, let alone communities or cities, can be close to impossible.

A much more common response is to adapt and prepare. Bangladesh is a famous example, for most of the country’s habitable region is the flat coastal delta of the Ganges River and there is no space for the dense coastal population to retreat to. So not only is mangrove reforestation well underway but many farmers are also planting rice that is more tolerant of higher salinity and temperature, others are growing hydroponic floating crops, and many cyclone shelters have been built. The hope is to absorb the wave surge, adapt to the flooding, and keep people alive. Some also propose migration to Canada, a more long-term solution.

The Ganges floodplain of Bangladesh is subsiding as sea level rises, and the only option available is to prepare and adapt (nature.com)

The Ganges floodplain of Bangladesh is subsiding as sea level rises, and the only option available is to prepare and adapt (nature.com)

In fact 50 of the least developed countries, including Bangladesh, now receive assistance in making similar preparations from the Global Environmental Facility’s (GEF’s) Adaptation Program, an apparently independent organization that still somehow retains association with the UN and the World Bank.

The third response is to do nothing. This is certainly the response most of us are most familiar with. Lack of funds, lack of political will or leadership, lack of community action, unfounded optimism, denial that anything serious has happened or might happen – all play their part. But such delusions are diminishing as more and more communities are directly affected by the powerful storms.

And then there’s China.

China has taken a fourth route: it has built and continues to build the longest seawall in the world, about the length of of its other more famous Great Wall.

The wall encloses coastal wetlands, making it possible to replace them with industrial, agricultural and urban development. With each passing decade the rate of wetland loss has increased, and there is no end in sight.

China's seawall extends along much of the mainland coast (red on map in upper right; The Great Wall is in yellow for comparison). The amount of wetland lost has increased in each of the past three decades (red on the graph at the center bottom) and is projected to be greater than ever in the next decade (white on the graph) (nytimes.com)

China’s seawall extends along much of the mainland coast (red on map in upper right; The Great Wall is in yellow for comparison). The amount of wetland lost has increased in each of the past three decades (red on the graph at the center bottom) and is projected to be greater than ever in the next decade (white on the graph) (nytimes.com)

This is astonishing. Wetlands not only provide a protective buffer against the damaging effects of storm surge and flooding. They also are a sink for pollutants and CO2, a nursery for fish of commercial interest, and habitats for a remarkable biodiversity, including large numbers of waterfowl.

China’s reasons for eliminating wetlands are obvious enough. The huge coastal population continues to grow, new coastal land available for development is extremely valuable, the government is obsessed by GDP growth, the conservation ethic is still embryonic, and wetlands have long been considered wasted space.

And it also isn’t as if China lacks some reasonable laws protecting vulnerable wetlands – it just doesn’t enforce them. Economic growth trumps everything. Limiting growth may be the hardest adaptation we need to make on our warming planet.

In any case, against all reason China continues to radically reduced protection for people, property and habitats in its coastal wetlands.

In our new and scary 21st Century world, this is more than odd. It is a disaster.

Living with Sea Otters

November 26th, 2014

A rare and famous success in conservation is the recovery of sea otters in the North Pacific. Of course it is also complicated.

Sea otter raft, floating among the fronds of kelp in a coastal kelp forest (otterproject.org)

Sea otter raft, floating among the fronds of kelp in a coastal kelp forest (otterproject.org)

Sea otters once lived along the kelp coasts from Hokkaido to Baja. Solid colors indicate where some recovery has occurred.(otterproject.org)

Sea otters once lived along the kelp coasts from Hokkaido to Baja. Solid colors indicate where some recovery has occurred.(otterproject.org)

Their story is familiar. Once two to three hundred thousand sea otters lived in inshore kelp beds around the North Pacific from Baja California to Hokkaido in Northern Japan. A market in China for their pelts opened in the early 1700s nourished by Russian hunters, and it later expanded to Europe. By the early 1800s, few sea otters remained on the Alaskan coast, so the hunt continued down the British Columbia coast to Washington, Oregon and finally California until few if any remained there as well. A belated international treaty in 1911 stopped all hunting leaving perhaps 2000 left alive in scattered colonies. Extinction seemed the likely outcome.

The sale of sea otter pelts (here measured in thousands) in London peaked in the 1880s, then crashed rapidly as the supply dwindled from  over-hunting. (en.wikipedia.com)

The sale of sea otter pelts (here measured in thousands) in London peaked in the 1880s, then crashed rapidly as the supply dwindled from over-hunting. (en.wikipedia.com)

It didn’t happen. Instead, natural recovery, a few re-introductions, and a hundred years later sea otters have re-established colonies throughout most of their range, in some places even to pre-hunt numbers.

Hunted almost to extinction along the coast of BC, sea otters were reintroduced on the coast of Vancouver Island in 1989, and new colonies have re-established on the central BC coast (theglobeandmail.com)

Hunted almost to extinction along the coast of BC, sea otters were reintroduced on the coast of Vancouver Island in 1989, and new colonies have re-established on the central BC coast (theglobeandmail.com)

Sea otters are keystone predators. If they are not present, sea urchins thrive, eat all the young kelp shoots, destroy the kelp forests, and create urchin barrens – virtually nothing there but sea urchins. If they are present, they eat the urchins, the kelp forests regrow and biodiversity increases: more fish, more sea birds, more marine mammals, and on the BC and Alaskan coasts, more eagles.

A mature kelp forest results in far greater biodiversity than an 'urchin barrens' (aquariumofpacific.org)

A mature kelp forest results in far greater biodiversity than an ‘urchin barrens’ (aquariumofpacific.org)

But much of the world that the sea otters have recovered into is radically different from the one from which they were almost completely eliminated. In Alaska, after recovering to pre-hunt levels, they crashed once again to about 30,000 animals – probably due to Orca shifting their predatory focus to them from seals which had greatly declined in numbers. Where the Exxon Valdez foundered near Prince William Sound in 1989, about half the newly re-established sea otter population there of 5000 died from the oiling. On the central coast of California, diseases from coastal pollution appear to have kept the recovering population from growing very large.

As well, conflicts with humans increasingly occur, for both species hunt the inshore rocky subtidal for the same shellfish. In California they compete for abalones. There the sea otters have refused to remain in selected regions set aside for them along the coast, and now they roam freely – and are certainly not appreciated by abalone fishermen. In Alaska they are resented, if not hated, by inshore crab fishermen.

A sea otter rests on its back while ripping the legs off the crab it just caught.(seaotters.org)

A sea otter rests on its back while ripping the legs off the crab it just caught.(seaotters.org)

Yet on the west coast of Vancouver Island their reception is different. Along 300km of this coast live the Indigenous peoples of the Nuu-chuh-nulth First Nations. They speak of having shared the sea’s resources with other species, including sea otters, for thousands of years, and they are intent on continuing to live in harmony with them now. They need recognition of their rights as First Nation’s and despite resistance from the Harper Government they are slowly winning them through the courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada. They present a model for successful conservation, as they act to ensure the well-being of this and future generations.

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, traditionally  whale oriented cultures, live on the west coast of Vancouver Island (stoningtongallery.com)

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, traditionally whale oriented cultures, live on the west coast of Vancouver Island (stoningtongallery.com)

Logo for Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (blogs.ubc.ca)

Logo for Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (blogs.ubc.ca)

The Nuu-chah-nulth fishermen also ask how many sea otters are enough. Enough to keep the ecosystem a kelp forest rather than an urchin barrens, certainly. But then? Not so many that few shellfish are left for them to gather. They know they will need to be able to shoot sea otters when they become too numerous.

Not surprisingly, this raises strong reactions from non-fishing humans, for sea otters are considered cute. Cuteness of course is a purely human construct. Though sea otters do look harmless living in the coastal kelp, cracking shellfish on their bellies as they float on their backs, sometimes playing together, they can also be hostile and aggressive. Our coexistence is essential with communities of species whether we like them or not. We just can’t let them deplete the resources we have agreed to share with them.

So the questions remain everywhere along the kelp coasts: How many sea otters are enough? How will we control their numbers? And do the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations provide a model that will work elsewhere?

Conserving Emperor Penguins

November 14th, 2014

A remote-controlled rover that looks like a pile of chick feathers with a chick’s head on top has successfully penetrated the defenses of a colony of Emperor Penguins on Antarctica, getting close to the penguins without stressing them.

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

We know a lot about Emperor Penguin breeding behavior from 5 decades of observations on the colony at Terre Adelie, one of the 45 breeding colonies that ring the continent. There adults have been electronically tagged for id and heart rate and other measurements. That colony gave us the movie March of the Penguins

Alone of all the penguins, the Emperor breeds on the sea ice during the Antarctic winter. As winter descends, each female lays her single egg, gives it to her mate, and leaves for a very long walk out to the edge of the sea ice, as much as 100 km away by then, where she forages for krill before walking back again, arriving two months later just in time for her egg to hatch. During those two months, each male brooded the egg his mate laid, stuffed into a feathery pouch just above his feet. When the female arrives she finds her now starving and very stiff mate in the huddle of males, and he transfers the egg to her and then in turn walks away to the distant ice edge to forage for krill, to return two months later.

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

Of course this has all occurred in weather as extreme as this planet offers – extreme cold, high winds, totally dark almost all the time. A single mistake – an egg unprotected for a minute, a parent lost or delayed, unexpected climate stress – and the breeding effort fails.

As the ice recedes with the spring melt, adults don’t have to walk so far to obtain krill, the chicks grow large enough to be left in huddling creches, and both parents forage for food for their growing chick. By the time fall arrives, the chick is large and agile enough to begin to forage on its own. If by chance it survives its first winter feeding at sea, it has a reasonable chance of making it to adulthood, breeding for the first time when it is about 15 years old.

Meanwhile, environmental stress plays its increasing role. In years with very cold conditions, the extent of the sea ice forces the adults to walk much further, and chick mortality is greater. In years with warmer winters the sea ice is less extensive, the krill feeding on the under-ice algae have less to feed on and the foraging penguins find less food, and again chick mortality is greater. In warm years, sea ice can also break up under the feet of the colony, and then most chicks are lost. Successful breeding is a delicate balance of sea-ice extent, size of krill schools, and parental condition.

So we know that Emperor Penguins grow large, live long, and breed late, with the lowest possible clutch size. Chick mortality is usually very high, around 50%, and the mortality of surviving fledged chicks through their first winter is often just as high.

Altogether a harsh and extraordinary existence.

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be 'quasi-extinct', by orange as  'endangered', by yellow as 'threatened', and by green as 'no threatened' (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be ‘quasi-extinct’, by orange as ‘endangered’, by yellow as ‘threatened’, and by green as ‘no threatened’ (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

What’s ahead? Winter sea ice will, over the next century, continue to recede around much of the Antarctic coast, in some places much more rapidly than others. Of the 45 colonies, probably ten will go extinct, seven on the ice of the Ross Sea will probably persist, and the rest will decline enough to be endangered, vulnerable to extinction. The models indicate 2/3 of the colonies will be less than 1/2 their current size.

Look ahead longer than a century, and few colonies remain. A bleak prospect. Clearly now is the time for enlightened conservation efforts.

Knowing how many birds there are is an essential first step. Colonies were photographed by satellite in 2009 using a variety of filters, identifying 45 – some never visited and others rarely seen. The current total population estimate is around 600,000 birds. Changes that occur in colony size and location will show up clearly in similar future surveys.

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

A penguin reserve – no fishing, no tourists – is the essential next step. The Ross Sea, where sea ice loss is expected to be least, is the obvious choice. It would provide a refuge, though even there colonies are expected to shrink. And of course there is resistance to protecting the Ross Sea from fishing, particularly from the Russians.

The third step? We’re back to the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, and this week the US and China have given us cause for at least some slim hope.

Now, adding even more detailed and reliable information to support effective conservation, the rover-chick has arrived. It has its own camera peeking out in the middle of its chest, and it can get close enough to adults to read their electronic ids and download physiological data. It creates little stress among the adults, unlike a human creeping into the colony to gather the data, and it can roll right into creches where it appears to be accepted. We’ll know more about the state of the penguins as global warming stresses increase.

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

Perhaps some of the colonies of Emperor Penguins will adapt to the loss of sea ice. Four colonies have apparently moved back onto the glacier ice shelf, well above sea level, as sea ice has receded. But they may not be able to adapt to diminishing schools of krill.

The other too-famous movie ostensibly about Emperor Penguins, ‘Happy Feet‘, includes concerns about the effects of global warming. Its solution? Humans and penguins dancing enthusiastically together as a call for action. Absurd and mindless fantasies are not helpful.

Emperor Penguins are a worthy icon for illustrating the stresses and effects of climate change and global warming. Their long-term survival is anything but certain, probably even unlikely, but they seem to intrigue us enough to care about them. Successfully conserving them conserves so much more of what we could lose.

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

Ocean Heat

October 30th, 2014
Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Argo Floaters are technological wonders.

Each one, when set, sinks to 1000 meters below the ocean surface where it drifts with the current for 9 days. On day 10 it sinks to 2000 meters, then over a 6 hour period it rises to the surface, recording temperature and salinity. When it reaches the surface, it signals its position to a GPS satellite, and it transmits its data to a data bank. Then it sinks again to 1000 meters to start the cycle over again.

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data.  (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data. (argo.ucsd.edu)

Since the Argo project started, funded by NOAA, in 2000, more than 3500 floaters have now been set, about 300 km apart, with 30 countries participating. The US has set about half of them, but Canada has set almost 400, and China nearly 200. They now produce about 120,000 temperature and salinity profiles from all parts of the ice-free oceans each year.

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

It gets better. That transmitted data uploaded to a data bank is made available to internet users around the world within the next 24 hours, providing an almost real-time view of ocean temperatures and salinity down to 2000 meters.

We have been measuring ocean temperature and salinity at many depths and many places for decades, but never like this. With so much data, uncertainty decreases, and a detailed picture of the climate of the oceans emerges. We are documenting in remarkable detail the heat accumulating in the ocean and how it is transferred within the ocean on local, seasonal, annual and now decade scales.

The graphs are unequivocal, updated almost daily, there for all to see.

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

A recent commentary in Nature emphasizes that no one indicator of global climate change is sufficient. Just as the measurement of multiple vital signs give a clearer sense of a human’s health, so multiple indicators give us an increasingly clear image of the planet’s climate change. We have relied a lot on the calculation of the global average surface temperature of our atmosphere, which is variable in every way imaginable. Other indicators are greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations, high-latitude temperatures, and sea level rise.

And now we also have the finest data we could hope for, measuring the relentless increase in the heat of the oceans. Oceans absorb 93% of the extra energy being added to the climate system, in turn heating the atmosphere. The rising levels of ocean heat is our best indication – and warning – of the long-term global warming that has just begun.

We may be documenting global warming with increasing accuracy and confidence, but denial by powerful politicians remains an immense obstacle to action. For instance if the Republican Party wins the US Senate in next week’s election, Senator Inhofe is in line to Chair the Committee on Environment. He’s the one who wrote the book about global warming called The Greatest Hoax

Meanwhile, school programs scattered around the US are following the Argo project, learning about the rising heat content of the oceans, even adopting Argo Floaters.

Hope lives.

Talking About Climate Change.

October 15th, 2014

In his new book ‘Don’t Even think About It’ George Marshall raises a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

Marshall is an environmentalist, certainly is convinced of the seriousness of the impact of climate change, and considers himself a communicator.

His book, however, is not what you might expect. Instead of a defense of the science, he presents a strong case that climate change scientists and environmentalists have failed in their job of communicating.

George Marshall's book (climateconviction.org)

George Marshall’s book
(climateconviction.org)

It is a discouraging list. We have failed to explain ‘uncertainty’, we use language that turns off listeners, we lack engrossing narratives, we pile on more and more evidence that further turns people away, we buy into the confrontational approach of the extremists at both ends, and we do not honestly face up to our own energy-consuming habits that others find hypocritical.

And there’s a lot more. Marshall explores why it is that most of us avoid talking about climate change, or even thinking about it – hence the title of his book. He suggests that we find the topic too complex, with too many aspects, what he calls ‘multivalent’. It seems to be an issue of the future, not the immediate present. No single solution can possibly solve it. Thinking about it only provokes anxiety. We avoid thinking and talking about it the way we do about death, for some of the same reasons.

This isn’t a book that attacks the climate change deniers – in fact Marshall seeks to understand them and to find some common ground with them. This is an attack on the rest of us for our poor communications skills and for our silence and unwillingness to truly confront the issue.

Marhall has talked with a large number of people, and quotes a lot of them – this is book of many voices. Through it all is a sense that we as humans are deeply imperfect, filled with contradictions, our opinions a product of our biases and the views of our peers and society, struggling still to do the right thing. And that we need to acknowledge our imperfections.

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

So Marshall calls on us to talk about climate change with each other – not expecting everyone to agree since that will never happen, but to seek ways to cooperate, ways to deal with the issue together.

This is a scary book. It is scary because the problem ultimately is us. We are all responsible, and yet we are silent. Our limitations are too clearly on display. You may not read this book, but if you get a chance, at least visit his websites: www.climateconviction.org and www.climatedenial.org .

Let’s talk, not fight, about climate change.
Let’s talk about global warming.

Civil Disobedience

September 30th, 2014

Sixteen months ago two environmental activists anchored a lobsterboat in the path of a coal freighter, preventing it from unloading its coal at the Brayton Point Power Station on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were quickly charged with conspiracy and disturbing the peace, as they expected to be, and they left without being arrested.

Environmental activists Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara on the boat named the Henry David T (bostonglobe.com)

Environmental activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara on the boat named the Henry David T (bostonglobe.com)

Their jury trial was set for early September 2014, drew the attention of other environmental activists, and Bill McKibbon agreed to be an expert witness on their behalf. Their defense was going to be that they had to act because the threats of climate change are so great. Henry Thoreau would have approved.

Politics as usual, you might think.

Instead, the most unusual happened. At the last minute, the prosecuting DA, Sam Sutter, dropped the charges. He is quoted as saying: “Climate change is one of gravest crises our planet has ever faced.,,,the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”

Sutter, also a ‘fervent environmentalist’, took a risk, acted boldly, and gives us if not a precedent, at least a model. The two activists didn’t get their day in court, but they also didn’t get prison time, and the event got wide publicity in the press, so they are pleased.

D.A. Sam Sutter talking to the crowd gathered outside the courtroom (bostonglobe.com)

D.A. Sam Sutter talking to the crowd gathered outside the courtroom (bostonglobe.com)

Civil disobedience has been an effective tool in bringing about major social change – for instance in civil rights, women’s suffrage, and more recently in climate change issues – but it is a tool not to be used lightly.

A civil disobedience handbook summarizes its use, constraints, and risks:
– it is employed only after other means have failed
– it is non-violent
– it is undertaken openly
– its participants are willing to submit to prosecution and punishment for breaking the law
– it is aimed at publicizing and challenging injustice
– it is not employed for coercive or intimidating reasons

Environmental activists like Tim DeChristopher, Bill McKibben, and now Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara have the courage required for non-violent civil disobedience, for the risks are very real.

Henry David Thoreau (huh.harvard,edu)

Henry David Thoreau (huh.harvard,edu)

Such civil disobedience is a tricky business, but it remains crucial where injustice is great or when the threat is dire. The objective remains to force leaders to acknowledge the climate change crisis and to take action.

The threat is dire.

What Coral Reefs Can Teach Us

September 30th, 2014

On many coral reefs, the living corals have died, the reef has turned to rubble, and diverse algae have overgrown the rubble. So far, about 80% of coral cover on Caribbean reefs has been lost, and about 50% has been lost on the reefs in the tropical Pacific. Ecologists call this shift in ecosystem structure a phase shift, or ‘regime change’.

This global coral reef disaster is not a new and sudden response to some new stress. The shift to algae has been coming for 3 or 4 decades, and the stresses responsible include overfishing of both predators and herbivores, pollution, demolition, hurricanes, diseases of both corals and sea urchins, along with ocean warming and coral bleaching. Sea level rise and ocean acidification pose ever greater threats in the decades ahead.

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

If we could stop the fishing, the pollution, and the habitat destruction, as we do in no-take Marine Protected Areas, and assuming for the moment that the ocean is not going to get too warm, too high, or too acidic too quickly, what kind of coral reef recovery is then possible?

If herbivores like parrot fish and sea urchins return to a reef, they can clear the algae off pieces of the substrate, and coral larvae have a chance to colonize. Whether they succeed depends on many factors: light, current, predators, competition, chance, and even the ‘taste’ of the reef. But recovery is at least possible.

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

Of course we cannot pretend that climate change will not devastate coral reefs, no matter how resilient they might be now. Even under ideal conditions, recovery would take decades, and time is something we don’t have much of.

But coral reefs may still have a lot to teach us. We know now that shifts from one stable phase to another stable phase of an ecosystem can take decades, and is likely to be the result of accumulating and interacting stresses. Such a shift may start without our recognizing it for decades, and once we finally recognize it, there may then be little we can do about it. As the climate warms, we are likely to see this play out repeatedly in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Can it also occur at a planetary scale, shifting us from a cool and dry planet to a hothouse planet? It has happened before. Perhaps it has already started, a result of accumulating stresses that we have caused, passing a tipping point we have not noticed.

Or perhaps we have not reached that point, and we can recover some of what we have lost, like no-take zones in MPAs. Perhaps we can still slow the process enough so that the outcome is one we and most of our co-existing species can tolerate as we too explore the limits of our resilience.

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Lost Sea Stars

August 9th, 2014

Sea stars – we used to call them starfish – are truly alien beings, at least to us.

We and all other vertebrates, arthropods, worms, most mollusks and sundry others, are all bilaterally symmetrical, with a head and a brain and a bunch of sense organs at the front end. But, except when they are minute planktonic larvae, this isn’t true for sea stars and the rest of the echinoderms.

Early bipinnaria larvae of a sea star are ciliated, drift with the plankton, and are extremely small (bio.rutgers.edu)

Early bipinnaria larvae of a sea star are ciliated, drift with the plankton, and are extremely small (bio.rutgers.edu)

They are radially symmetrical, meaning they are more or less the same on every radius from their midpoint. They don’t have a head at one end and a tail at the other. They haven’t got either. They have a mouth in the middle on their ventral side, which is the side they attach to things with.

On that same side of each radial arm they have hundreds of little extendable and sticky tube feet, supported by a hydraulic system that also keeps their bodies relatively firm but quickly leaks out if they are removed from water. A sea star feeds mostly on bivalve mollusks which it opens by pulling on the two shells with its tube feet until the exhausted bivalve can no longer stay shut, and then it pushes its stomach out through its mouth and digests the bivalve in its shell.

The northern sea star, Asterias vulgaris, feeding on a small mussel bed on the coast of Maine (visualphotos.com)

The northern sea star, Asterias vulgaris, feeding on a small mussel bed on the coast of Maine (visualphotos.com)

It has a ring of nervous tissue around its mouth, not a central brain at all. It has simple vision using a light sensitive eye spot at the end of each radial arm. If a healthy sea star loses a few arms to a predator, it just grows new ones, tube feet, eye spots and all.

Could anything be much more alien to us as bilateral vertebrates? If we ever find complex life on another planet, it could be just as alien, quite a challenge to interspecies communication.

Sea stars have yet another very dramatic feature. If a sea star is unhealthy, gets infected with a pathogen of some sort, it turns to mush, and its various legs walk off in different directions, tearing it apart. Just now we’re seeing a lot of this.

Ochre sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, are often exposed at low tide on rocky parts of the Pacific coast (biology.fullerton.edu)

Ochre sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, are often exposed at low tide on rocky parts of the Pacific coast (biology.fullerton.edu)

A disease, or a bunch of diseases, has hit most sea star species on the Pacific coast of North America from Southern California to British Columbia, and something similar has hit some of the sea stars on the Atlantic Coast as well – in Maine, New Jersey and Florida.

Disease has hit sea stars before, just as it has other echinoderms such as sea urchins, and their populations have recovered after a while. But nothing like what has happened on the Pacific Coast has ever been seen before. There are a lot of sea star species there. The mortality of five species is huge, resulting in local extinctions. Some mortality has been documented in seven more. And seven further species are probably infected, but we lack documentation.

Sunflower seastars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, have also beed devasted by disease (en.wikipedia.org)

Sunflower seastars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, have also beed devasted by disease (en.wikipedia.org)

Dead sea stars on the Pacific coast are hard to miss, and the press has covered this event well. A particularly useful web site keeps everyone updated and allows them to add their observation of the growing mass of mush. It’s worth visiting.

The disease has a name: Sea Star Wasting Disease. But that doesn’t mean anything. We have no idea what is killing the sea stars. It could be a virus, or it could be bacteria, or a fungus, or a ciliated parasite, or pollution, or all of these, or none of these.

We simply haven’t got a clue.

A few labs are looking, but the search is slow at best. In any case, experience tells us that if pathogens are eventually identified, it will still be uncertain, and far too late.

Have we somehow caused this? We will probably never know.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that the sea stars recover, returning to their keystone status in their communities, and reminding us again how radically different a living being can be.

The Great Barrier Reef : We Barely Knew You

August 6th, 2014

We are going to lose our coral reefs within the next century – including the greatest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification will kill them. This is without the overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution that already seriously stress them. Some very tolerant and adaptable coral species will probably persist, but the reefs will crumble.

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

Coral reef biologists continue to have depressing annual meetings. Individuals, scientists, NGOs and other organizations all continue to search for ways to protect reefs and give them more time to adapt to what lies ahead. But what lies ahead is bleak indeed.

What to do? Just accept it and watch it happen? Find some way to prevent it? Though much has been written about this, Ian McCalman’s new book The Reef is an intriguing contribution.

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook's imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook’s imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

It is, to start with, a very fine book. It tells the history of our emerging understanding of the Great Barrier Reef through the journals and accounts of 20 people, in 20 chapters, starting with Captain Cook’s trip up the GBR Inner Passage in 1770, one he was lucky to survive with his repaired ship still floating.

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Then some of the naturalists on board subsequent navigating trips by other ships used the opportunity to get to know the Aborigines and the geology and some of the biology of the reef. The naturalists mainly counted species, all well known long before that by the coastal Aborigines.

Some castaways from ships wrecked on various parts of the reef at the north end near Torres Straight were saved and adopted by Aborigines, and lived to tell their remarkable stories about the people who were radically different from their popular reputation as savage, violent and ignorant cannibals.

And then in the early 1900s came the trained naturalists and scientists who began more serious study of the reef. Maurice Young’s year long expedition in 1929, leading a team of 14 scientists (amazingly for its time, 6 were women) revealed a lot about corals and their commensal and possibly symbiotic algae (known as zooxanthellae).

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

Yonge and the team wrote extensively about the year, drawing attention to the great uniqueness of the GBR – and unintentionally attracted hordes of tourists with all their collateral damage. So close to the mainland, the unprotected reef became stressed by resorts, pollution, uncontrolled fishing, destructive dynamiting, and growing interest by oil and gas companies.

All of this provoked the increasing concern of the conservationists and ecologists emerging over the past half century. In 1979, after great conflict among the players, the GBR Marine Park was finally created. In 1981 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

McCalman concludes the personal narratives with an account of the naturalist and coral expert, Charlie Veron, who early on recognized the growing threats to coral reefs from climate change. He published his own fine book in 2009 with the sobering title A Reef in Time: the GBR from Beginning to End.

Charlie Veron's book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

Charlie Veron’s book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

At the very end of his book, McCalman tries not to leave us in fatalistic despair about the reef by sharing the anecdotes of some very resilient humans, determined to not give up.

But that is not enough.

The only real hope for any kind of coral reef survival is rapid reduction of CO2 emissions. We need to dispel the myths that prevent the US, Canada and other nations from taking action. And we need to nourish plausible new ideas, like the cap-and-dividend proposal of US Congressman Chris Van Hollen which even libertarians seem to like.

But all of this has happened far too quickly. Just under three centuries will have passed from our ‘discovery’ of the GBR to its probable destruction at our hands.

We thought we would have more time together.