Archive for the 'Endangered species' Category

Carbon sink and diversity oasis – Kelp forests are abundant in the coastal waters of all continents

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. 

Orange garibaldis, the “official” fish of California, are the first thing I see while entering the undersea kelp jungle of Santa Catalina Island outside Los Angeles. In front of me 50-60-meter long stalks of Macrocystis pyrifera rise from the depth of 20 meters to the surface. They get their buoyancy from gas filled bladders called pneumatocysts. When a diver explores the forest formed by the biggest kelp species in the world, not only the size amazes. Also the growth speed, which in the favorable conditions of southern California may reach 45-50 cm in 24 hours, seems unbelievable.

Diving in a kelp forest is an unforgettable experience.

Diving in kelp forests provides unforgettable experiences.

Even though most kelp areas in California are protected, some others are being utilized for kelp harvesting. Harvesting takes place also in the kelp beds of Baja California, Mexico. Algin, the chemical extracted, is used for getting the right smoothness and thickness, when chemical, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food processing industries make products for you.

A garibaldi in the waters of Santa Catalina.

A garibaldi in the waters of Santa Catalina.

Charles Darwin highlighted the biodiversity of Macrocystis habitats in the following words: “If in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would from the destruction of kelp.” In spite of being a statement before the ultra high diversity of the tropical rains forests was known to scientists, the comment still indicates something very basic about the importance of the kelp communities.

Gas-filled pneumatocysts give the kelp stalks buoyancy.

Gas-filled pneumatocysts give the kelp stalks buoyancy.

After the dive, together with diver colleagues we summarize our underwater experiences: the peak moments included encounters with a spiny lobster, horn shark and hawksbill turtle. From the shore I see an American blue heron searching for food on top of the floating kelp. Around the Macrocystis communities I also observe harbor seals and California sea lions. In the undersea jungles of Southern California at least 750 species of fish and invertebrates are known to live. A single kelp stalk may be the home to half a million critters.

Holdfasts anchor the kelp to the sea bottom.

Holdfasts anchor the kelp to the sea bottom.

The same kind of examples from the ocean´s forests are being told around the world. So it is no wonder that the environmental organization Oceana has started to defend the kelp beds, which are found close to shore in regions where the waters are cool – each continent, except the Antarctic, has thousands of kilometers of coast where kelp is an important part of undersea nature (see Kelp forest distribution map). In spite of this, internationally there is little environmental legislation protecting these undersea habitats. Of course all the underwater forests are not as mighty as those built by Macrocystis. In Europe, the kelp communities are formed by Laminaria species, which are common in Norway, to give one example. There they reach a height of two to five meters.

My dive continues with photography of sea urchins, which can be found under rocks at daytime. The urchins are the main enemy of Macrocystis. They eat and destroy Macrocystis´ holdfasts, the “roots” of the giant kelp. In the Santa Catalina waters there are only few urchins. In consequence, the kelp forest looks healthy. When I see a 60-centimeter California sheephead in the viewfinder, I feel grateful to it. The urchins are part of its diet. The fish, which regularly approaches divers and gives the impression of being intelligent, is well known to the Catalina visitors. This exceptionally big individual is easily recognizable and has gotten the name Oscar.

California sheephead keep the sea urchin populations under control.

California sheephead is a fish species which controls the sea urchin populations.

Like Oscar also Californian divers have supported the survival of kelp by removing sea urchins from key bottom areas. The urchin numbers had grown much higher than normal. This lack of balance had mostly resulted from the hunting and overfishing of their natural enemies. In addition to urchin control, in California techniques have been developed to help young and drifting kelp attach to the sea floor. The support actions have resulted in the return of kelp to areas where Macrocystis had disappeared.  For Santa Catalina, healthy kelp forests have become a major attraction which draws thousands of tourists to the island every year.

In Monterey I photograph the graceful sea otters. Here the good news is that the otter population of central and northern California, which was practically destroyed by fur hunters, has significantly grown. In 2013 an estimated 3,000 sea otters live in the region. The animal prays on sea urchins and, when abundant, keeps their numbers at an environmentally sound level.

When sea urchin populations grow in an uncontrolled manner, they can destroy entire kelp forests.

When sea urchin populations grow in an uncontrolled manner, they can destroy Macrocystis forests.

The value of the sea otters and kelp forests off the Pacific coast of North America got a new recognition some time ago. In the October 2012 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Christopher C Wilmers, James A Estes, Matthew Edwards, Kristin L Laidre, and Brenda Konar presented a study which covers the Macrocystis-dominated kelp forests from Vancouver Island to the western edge of Alaska´s Aleutian Islands.

Sea otters feed on sea urchins and can be extremely useful to kelp forest wellbeing.

Sea otters feed on sea urchins and support the survival of kelp communities.

The main conclusions include that in areas where the otters are abundant and at their natural levels, they suppress the sea urchin populations significantly, i.e. so much that the kelp forests flourish. Every year the additional kelp is estimated to capture as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the CO2 production of three to six million passenger cars in 12 months. In ideal conditions, the kelp forests’ capacity to store carbon equals that of a tropical rain forest of the same size.  Thus the kelp forests (especially those dominated by Macrocystis) are an important carbon sink slowing down climate change and global warming.

Manatees, a challenge for coastal management

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. (The article below is a short version of a more complete magazine article published elsewhere.)

There were about 2,500 manatees in Florida 30 years ago. In 2013 the number is approximately 5,000. “We have learned to live together with these animals”, says Visitor Services Specialist Ivan Vicente from the Crystal River office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The conservation measures have lead to visible results in spite of the fact that boat propellers, fishings gear and toxic algal blooms (red tides) still threaten the population of the West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus, in the U.S.

As manatees do not have any thick layer of blubber (unlike whales) under their skin, in autumn the U.S. manatee population migrates to the warm water areas of Florida. All the animals spend in the State the months between November and March. In spring and summer, some manatees migrate to other states while others stay in Florida most or all of the year.

A Florida manatee leaving  the strictly protected zone in the Three Sisters' Springs protected area. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

A Florida manatee leaving the strictly protected zone in the Three Sisters’ Springs protected area. Photo from Crystal River, copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Of the 2,800 manatees on the West Coast of Florida during wintertime, about 550 stay in the Crystal River wetlands. The reason is the underwater springs, the water temperature of which is higher than that of the sea and rivers in winter. Another 2200 manatees stay on the East Coast of Florida during the coldest months. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico populations never mix in spite of the fact that together they are considered the Florida manatee, a subspecies (Trichechus manatus latirostris) of the West Indian manatee.

Even in winter, the manatees sometimes leave their favorite warm-water spots. They do this in order to feed on sea grass, which does not grow in fresh water. Processing sea grass results in a lot of gas in the digestive system. This is one reason why the manatees look so fat.

On the West Coast of Florida, manatees have become an important attraction for nature tourism. In the Crystal River area, 34 companies have a license to arrange paddling or snorkeling tours to the protected areas. The number of customers per year is around 150,000. Numerous boats of the tour companies can be observed in the most popular destination Three Sisters’ Springs from early morning to late afternoon. Most of the time there are 20-50 snorkelers in the water. An approaching manatee may be touched, but disturbing a sleeping manatee may result in a fine. Boaters are fined when they do not respect the manatee-related speed restrictions while navigating the rivers and canals. Still, accidents do happen and it is common to see propeller cuts on the backs of manatees.

Outside the Crystal River wetland parks, many of the  Florida manatees spend the winter months in the warm-water discharge spots of power plants. As some of the State´s power plants will be shut down in the near future, there are plans to continue discharging warm water into the wetland areas where the manatees are used to spending the coldest months. If this is not done, manatee deaths from exposure to cold water could be expected. There is a problem even in the natural wintering areas: the growing human population of Florida consumes so much groundwater that the freshwater outflow in the “manatee” springs is adversely affected.

A manatee resting in a freshwater spring in the Crystal River wetlands. Photo copyright (c) Erkki Siirila.

A manatee resting in a freshwater spring in the Crystal River wetlands. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

An additional challenge for the Florida manatees is that genetically they are not well-equipped for future challenges. Their genetic heritage is narrow and diversity low, because the whole population has its origin in just a few West Indian manatees which swam to Florida from the Caribbean. In spite of the threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects the endangered U.S. manatee population to double another time during the next 20 years. In 2033 there would be 10,000 individuals of these aquatic mammals in the U.S. waters if everything goes well.

The three species of manatees and their relative the dugong are a specific coastal management challenge in the tropical and temperate waters of our planet. When the populations of these friendly animals are well managed, they have a high potential of becoming a major attraction for nature-oriented tourism.

Important progress in shark conservation

In the past, sharks were not appreciated because their importance as ecosystem top predators was not understood. As a result of that and global over exploitation of marine fauna, most shark populations declined to low levels. What contributed to the decline of sharks specifically, were their reproduction levels, which are much lower than those of other fish, i.e. from 2 (two) to 300 (three hundred) juveniles per pregnancy and female shark. Several other fish species produce hundreds of thousands of eggs. Of course, all of these eggs do not get fertilised.

Lately, shark conservation has been slowly advancing, as the value of sharks, approximately 400 species in total, has been understood. Finally, real steps to save the remaining sharks are being taken. Especially the cruel fishing of sharks for fins only, up to 73 million sharks annually, had resulted in a lot of bad publicity. This negative publicity together with pressure from environmental groups made governments and inter-governmental bodies speed up shark conservation measures. Now there is new hope for the sharks worldwide.

As the global species conservation agreement CITES only prohibits the international trade (not fishing) of three shark species, i.e. the white, whale and basking shark, there has been much need for more efficient protection measures. For example Shark Conservation Trust has done a lot of lobbying lately to improve the management measures at the national and international levels. The Trust is a cooperation body of more than one hundred conservation organisations.

Finally there is new hope for the declining shark populations. The image is from Namibia, photographer and copyright (c) 2011 Erkki Siirila.

The recent advances include the following:

Palau, Honduras, Colombia, Mexico, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, the Bahamas, and the Federated States of Micronesia signed during the UN General Assembly in September 2011 a declaration in which they promise to establish shark conservation areas in their national waters.

In China and Taiwan, where shark fin soup is a highly regarded speciality of the local kitchen, progress also took place. In September a campaign against shark finning started in China. It features Yao Ming, a local basked ball hero, and Richard Branson, a British millionaire. As to Taiwan, towards the end of 2011, the country passed a law which will end shark fishing for fins only at the beginning of January 2012.

In the U.S., the legislative loop holes in the management of shark fisheries were eliminated in 2011. This followed the example given by Australia, where the legislation had been tightened earlier. The Australian observation has been that when the law forces the fisherman to bring to port the entire shark with the fins attached, the interest in shark finning nearly disappears.

Positive news have been heard also from the European Union countries. On 21 November, the European Commission proposed to prohibit, with no exemptions, the practice of shark finning aboard fishing vessels. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said: “I very much look forward to the Council and the European Parliament accepting our proposal, so that it becomes law as soon as possible.” The proposal strengthens the existing EU legislation banning shark finning: member states will not be able to issue special fishing permits, which earlier have made the continuation of shark finning possible.

Days of Eastern Caribbean reefs are numbered

The West Indies’ coral reefs will disappear in a few decades. This is the shocking result of a new scientific study. Individual coral colonies will survive in the region even in the future, but the coral reef ecosystem as we currently know it will disappear. All this will lead to significant economic losses, particularly for island and coastal people whose livelihoods are closely linked to coral reefs and the ecosystem services they provide.

Global climate change is the main reason for the dramatic changes. The powerful adverse effects were shown in the Eastern Caribbean already in 2005, when the health of the region’s reefs weakened and live cover dropped during an extensive coral bleaching.

The study by Buddemeier et al. tells that it is already too late to stop the reef death. The big changes in the coral reef environment will take place even if substantial emission cuts of greenhouse gases are implemented in the coming years.

Coral reefs of the Caribbean are facing difficult times: efficient conservation measures are needed urgently. In addition to global emission cuts of greenhouse gases, innovative local conservation actions would be important. Photo copyright (c) 2011 Erkki Siirila.

The study published in the journal Climate Change in 2011 focuses on Eastern Caribbean reef health and especially the Virgin Islands’ area. The COMBO (COral Mortality and Bleaching Output) model was used for the predictions. Three realistic emission scenarios for greenhouse gases were the basis for the simulation.

The results indicate that future bleaching episodes will be followed by the reduction of live coral cover on the reefs. (Most of the damage will be caused by the warming of sea waters and related bleaching. The decline in reef condition will take place even if the adverse effect of ocean acidification is calculated as minor.)

If there is no adaptation by the corals to the elevated mean water temperatures, the live coral cover on the West Indies’ reefs will decrease to less than 5% already by the year 2035. In a scenario where corals develop an additional 1–1.5 degrees Celcius of heat tolerance (through a shift in the symbiotic algae that live in the coral tissues) coral cover above 5% could last until 2065.

The researchers did not include reefs which are located more than 30m underwater. Live coral cover between 5 and 10% was considered a limit where the reef would not be able to regenerate itself and could not be called a real coral reef any more. For several of these modeling scenarios, the researchers used starting levels of coral cover of 7%, 15%, and/or 30%. These values are realistic values in the Eastern Caribbean.

Buddemeier et al. summarise their study by saying that “coral reef communities are likely to be essentially gone from substantial parts of the Southeast Caribbean by the year 2035, given the current low cover values following the 2005 event” and that “the conversion of coral reefs to fundamentally different systems will have large implications for the provision of ecosystem services”. The authors add: “Given the modeling results presented here, urgent efforts are needed to identify and protect what appear to be the most resilient coral reefs in the Caribbean.”

The whole study (R. W. Buddemeier, Diana R. Lane and J. A. Martinich, Modeling regional coral reef responses to global warming and changes in ocean chemistry: Caribbean case study, Climatic Change, 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0022-z) can be found here: Study by Buddemeier et al.

Living Planet Report and the fisheries’ footprint

“Living Planet Report 2010 – Biodiversity, biocapacity and development” is an important conservation document published in 2010.  As regards coastal zone management, the report presents alarming information of world fisheries.

Under the heading “Focus on our footprint: marine fisheries” the report reminds us of certain key facts:

  • Wild fish is an important food source for billions of people. Nearly 3 billion people get 15% or more of their crucial animal protein intake from fish.
  • Most stocks of the top 10 commercial species – this corresponds to about 30% of marine catches – are either fully exploited or overexploited.  No significant  increases in the catches of these stocks can be expected in the near future.
  • 52% of all marine fish stocks are fully exploited already.
  • 28% of marine fish stocks monitored in 2007 had serious problems. Of these endangered stocks 19% were overexploited, 8% were depleted and only 1% recovering from depletion.
  • The habitats that support the fisheries are important areas to conserve. These areas are not only fish nurseries and spawning grounds. They are important also from the biodiversity point of view.  In addition, they provide coastal protection during storms and support marine-related tourism.

Bad governance is an expression which is used in the Living Planet Report to describe the state of the world fisheries – these two words are likely to be a good summary.

School of small barracudas in the Red Sea. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

What does the Report propose in order to make our fisheries better managed? These are some of the suggestions found in the publication, which concentrates on the human footprint on our planet:

  • Science-based fisheries management can help increase fisheries production in the long term. It also makes the fisheries and marine ecosystems more resistant to pollution, ocean acidification and climate change. Other benefits include safeguarding important food supplies for coastal communities.
  • In order to make fisheries management sustainable, the following needs to occur in specific activity areas: Drastic catch reductions in many marine fisheries need to accepted now in order to have benefits in the long term. Fishing governance needs to be improved especially in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Expansion of aquaculture needs to be balanced with the protection of wild fish stocks, biodiversity and habitats.
  • Overall, fisheries’ biocapacity needs to be increased. This means maintaining fish stocks at optimal population and age levels to maximize growth. At the ecosystem level this means better habitat conservation by establishing protected areas, controlling coastal pollution and curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

The WWF Living Planet Report 2010 can be downloaded from here:

Living Planet Report 2010

Marine ecology suffers at CITES meeting in Doha

Coastal zone conservationists did not achieve their goals at the 15th meeting of the CITES Parties in Doha, Qatar, in March, 2010. The meeting was not a complete failure as positive results saw daylight in the protection of terrestrial plants and animals. Nevertheless, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, did not manage to increase the protection of key marine and coastal animals.

175 member countries are parties of CITES. The level of protection offered is related to the three CITES Appendices. Listing on Appendix I is an agreement to ban international commercial trade in the species (including its parts and products). Inclusion in Appendix II means that Parties agree on trade regulation in order to prevent overexploitation. An Appendix III listing means that Parties record and report trade levels.

Since 2002, whale sharks are protected under Appendix II of CITES. Image from La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

At the meetings governments vote for maintaining, decreasing or increasing protection. Changes to the protocals can be made if there is a 75 percent majority supporting a change in the status of the species. Scientific studies are used as background material. In the decision-making commercial and other national interests play a decisive role: those proposals which make sense from the conservation point of view often lose in the voting.  This is what happened to the proposed marine and coastal conservation reforms in Doha. 

Sharks: Several shark species were included in the four proposals aiming at better conservation of these marine predators. The scalloped hammerhead shark, the oceanic whitetip shark, the porbeagle shark and the spiny dogfish were among the candidates for more sustainable policies. The goal of the conservationists was to add in total eight shark species to Appendix II of CITES. This would have helped in cutting the international trade in shark meat and fins. The desired result was not reached as the commercial interests won.

Corals: There is an international demand for pink and red corals, which are endangered. In this situation it would have made sense to at least regulate the trade by listing these corals under Appendix II. (Currently, no international trade control or management mechanisms are in in place.) In Doha, the proposal concerning the pink and red coral species of the Coralliidae family and their listing under Appendix II, was rejected.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: Overexploitation has resulted in a population drop of this species. Inclusion on Appendix I of CITES was sought by the conservation-minded delegates. This would have given time for the recovery of the stock, as the international trade of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna would have been banned. Japan and its allies, which were against the new rules, were able to reject the proposal.

Polar Bear: There was a proposal to have the polar bear listed under Appendix I. In this way the international trade of polar bears (300 individuals a year die as a result of hunting) would have been stopped. The U.S. was for the inclusion but Canada was against it. As climate change is complicating the life of the remaining 20,000-25,000 polar bears, the stopping of hunting would make sense. Nevertheless, the proposal to include the polar bear on the species list of Appendix I was not approved.

We have to live with the above CITES decisions until 2013, when the next meeting of the CITES Parties will take place in Thailand.

This article is partly based on excellent summaries of the developments at the Doha meeting by the Humane Society International, http://www.hsus.org.