Archive for the 'Pollution' Category

Microplastic pollution – a serious threat to marine ecosystems

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

Pioneering research has shown that plastic waste entering the ocean may have more serious negative effects on marine life than what was previously thought. Two studies published in Current Biology concentrate on the ecosystem effects of microplastic fragments less than 1 mm in diameter. The very small pieces of plastic have been polluting the ocean for about half a century.

Previous research has concentrated on the effects of bigger plastic objects in the marine ecosystem. This time the focus is on the fragments, which are produced for example as a result of gradual breakdown of plastic bottles in nature.

The tiny plastic particles are so small that wastewater treatment plants cannot stop them from entering the sea. A serious challenge for waste management is that this pollution does not originate only in what we normally consider plastic. The sources include synthetic textiles e.g. polyester – many of our clothes release a high number of microscopic pieces of plastic fibre when they are washed. Microbeads from cosmetic facial scrubs are one more source of harmful plastic particles. On the shores and in the sea, the microscopic plastic waste sinks into the sediments in high concentrations.

An additional problem with microplastics is that, in addition to the direct effects, they transfer harmful chemicals to marine organisms eating them. This was shown to take place in the case of lugworms by Mark Browne and his colleagues (link to Abstract). Lugworms (Wikipedia Lugworm) are an example of a common North Atlantic species using the sediments as food source. Starfish and sea cucumbers have similar feeding strategies. Mark Browne’s work was completed at Plymouth University, UK.

Plastic waste entering the Atlantic via Rio de la Plata (River Plate), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Plastic waste entering the Atlantic via Rio de la Plata (River Plate), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The harmful substances within the microplastics include antimicrobials, hydrocarbons and flame retardants, which are often persistent and may reduce health and biodiversity. Furthermore, minute plastic particles concentrate substances from the surrounding water on their surface: to name two examples, detergents and pesticides can be detected. The chemicals may be carried over to the next predators in the food chain – lugworms are eaten by flounders and wading birds. The harmful substances could also accumulate in the top predators, perhaps even in us humans. If lugworms are seriously affected, as they are, the whole food chain could be subject to significant adverse effects.

In the study by Stephanie Wright, University of Exeter, UK, and her colleagues, it was found that those lugworms which (in laboratory tanks) were subject to varying levels of plastic contamination, gained less weight than the worms in a clean environment. Consequently, the worms suffering from the consequences of plastic pollution had less energy for growth and reproduction. The worms were also likely to be less efficient in their important ecosystem service, i.e. in eating and keeping the sediments healthy and oxygenated for other animals. The article by Wright et al. is here: http://download.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/PIIS0960982213013432.pdf?intermediate=true .

When interviewed by the BBC, Dr Browne summarised his earlier findings relating to 18 sediment samples from the beaches in several countries: “We found that there was no sample from around the world that did not contain pieces of microplastic.”

Based on these two ground-breaking articles in Current Biology, there seems to be an urgent need to develop the use practices and waste management techniques of plastic products in our societies. This is an important coastal and marine conservation issue.

In addition to the material published in Current Biology, summaries published by the British BBC and The Guardian, were helpful in the preparation of this Coastal Challenges’ article.

 

Ocean state alarming – policy changes are needed

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

Urgent measures are needed to stop ocean degradation related to climate change. The speed and negative effects are greater and more clearly felt that previously thought. These are the most important conclusions of recent work by an international marine scientist panel.

The results of the latest wide-ranging international review were made public by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) at the beginning of October 2013. Behind the work were the experts of IUCN and International Programme of the State of the Ocean (IPSO). The outcomes have also been published in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Evening in the South Atlantic.

Evening in the South Atlantic.

An IUCN press release highlights the contents by telling us the following preoccupying facts: The ocean is absorbing much of the global warming. Unforeseen levels of carbon dioxide are bound by the ocean. The cumulative impact of this, together with other ocean stressors, is much more threatening than past estimates.

The other contributing stressors include decreasing oxygen levels in the sea and runoff of nitrogen from land. Also chemical pollution and serious overfishing are hampering the ocean’s capacity to act as a balancing factor in what is called “carbon preturbations”.

A comment by Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford (also Scientific Director of IPSO) is cited in the IUCN summary paper: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Professor Dan Laffoley, from IUCN, commented the new interdisciplinary findings by saying: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.“

Dead fish on the beach of Bombinhas, Brazil.

Dead fish on the beach of Bombinhas, Brazil.

More in depth, the foreseen challenges and problems include the following:

Oxygen levels in the ocean are expected to decline between 1% and 7% by 2100.  Tropical  oceans and and the North Pacific have had a trend of decreasing oxygen levels during the past 50 years and this will continue because of global warming. In addition, lack of oxygen will be a serious problem in coastal seas commonly affected by eutrophication (sewage and agricultural runoff being the main reasons).

In case CO2 release by us planet Earth inhabitants continues at the current level, acidification of sea water will be a major factor affecting ocean life, marine food production and coastal protection. Acidification would be felt for example on coral reefs, where erosion in the near future could exceed reef formation (calcification). This in turn would degrade the reef habitat and result in the destruction of the natural breakwaters formed by corals – a serious consideration in coastal regions commonly hit by heavy storms.

As to the direct physical and geochemical consequences of global warming in the ocean by 2050, they include: reduced seasonal ice zones, increasing stratification (separation) of ocean layers leading to oxygen depletion, increased venting of methane from the bottom of the Arctic Sea, and more common low oxygen -events in the oceans.

Around the globe, fisheries management is still unable to stop overfishing. The decline of key species and damage to the ecosystems where the fish stock live continue. All this undermines the resilience of the oceans.

Unauthorised fishing in the national economic zone: Argentine coast guard proudly presents the foreign fishing vessels detained by its patrol vessel. Photo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

Unauthorised fishing in the national economic zone: Argentine coast guard proudly presents the foreign fishing vessels detained by its patrol vessel. Photo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

Urgent measures proposed by IPSO and IUCN include:

Reduction of global CO2 emissions to keep temperature rise in less than 2 degrees C.

Implementation of community- and ecosystem-based management and favouring small-scale fisheries. Harmful fisheries’ subsidies resulting in overcapacity would need to be eliminated. In addition, vulnerable ecosystems would need an increased level of protection. Finally, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing would need to to be combated.

Development of a more relevant global infrastructure for high-seas ocean governance is necessary. Especially a new implementing agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is needed (within the United Nations Law of the Sea – UNCLOS – framework).

UN Conference on Sustainable Development: highlights of the Rio+20 final document

At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (June 2012), binding new international agreements were not agreed upon, which was disappointing. Nevertheless, the final document is worth summarising in order to highlight the most important common views of the world´s governments as regards sustainable development and the marine environment. Luckily, in the management of seas and oceans important progress was achieved. The following is a summary – with special reference to coasts, seas and oceansof  the final document “The Future We Want”:

The document states that for sound development in general, holistic, integrated and sustainable management of natural resources needs to be promoted. At the same time, economic, social and human development should be supported.  Also, the international community is asked to move the sustainable development agenda forward, through the achievement of internationally agreed goals including the existing Millennium Development Goals. Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is mentioned as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The achievements of the meeting were minor. Only in the “seas and oceans” action area important progress was achieved. Aerial photo of Rio (c) 2012 copyright Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants recognise the key role that improving energy efficiency plays. This includes the increasing share of renewable energy and cleaner, more energy-efficient technologies. Climate change as a persistent crisis is acknowledged: the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective international response. Naturally, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is needed. Also the related urgent needs of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are mentioned in the final document.

The need for effective, transparent, accountable and democratic natural resources´ management institutions is mentioned in the document. So is the need for contributions towards sustainable development by both the public/private sectors and the scientific/technological communities. We are also reminded of the important role of citizens at the grass-root level, e.g. fishers, in the development of production activities which are environmentally more sound. The valuable contributions by  NGOs in promoting sustainable development are acknowledged.

The establishment of UNEP as a permanent UN organisation (instead of being a non-permanent programme) was not achieved, but it was decided that UNEP would be strengthened. In addition, the participants decided to establish an intergovernmental high-level political forum replacing the current UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

In the final document, the participating states recognise the severity of global biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems: this underlines the importance of biodiversity conservation, enhancing habitat connectivity and building ecosystem resilience.

In the Oceans and Seas chapter of The Future We Want, important progress can be observed. To begin with, the participating states commit to protect and restore the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, and to maintain their biodiversity for the conservation / sustainable use by the present and future generations. Furthermore, the participants agree to apply an ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle in marine management.

The Rio conference delegations recognise the importance of UNCLOS (Law of the Sea) in advancing sustainable development and they emphasise the need for cooperation in marine scientific research. The states also support the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment (established under the UN General Assembly) and look forward to the completion of its first global integrated assessment by 2014.

In Rio de Janeiro, the participating states supported the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment. The states look forward to the completion of the first global integrated assessment by 2014. The marine image was taken off Callao, Peru, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

In the seas and oceans chapter, the importance of the conservation / sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction is recognised. Building on the work of an international working group (and before the end of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly) the Rio participants commit to address this issue on an urgent basis.

The states also note with concern that the health of the oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution. The final document mentions marine debris, plastic, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and nitrogen-based compounds. The sources mentioned include marine and land-based sources, including shipping and land runoff. The participants commit to take action to reduce the incidence and impacts of such pollution on marine ecosystems. The relevant measures would include implementation of IMO conventions and the follow-up of relevant initiatives such as the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities. With the help of scientific assessments, the states further commit to take action to significantly reduce marine debris by 2025.

In the seas and oceans chapter the participants note the significant threat which alien invasive species pose to marine ecosystems, and commit to implement measures to prevent their introduction. The management of the adverse environmental impacts will be improved including those alien species adopted in the framework of IMO.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion are noted as serious threats for many coastal regions and islands particularly in developing countries. International action to address these challenges is called for in the final document.

The participating states also call for support to initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources. They reiterate the need to work collectively to prevent further ocean acidification, as well as to enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems and of the communities whose livelihoods depend on them. The importance of marine scientific research, monitoring and observation of ocean acidification and of particularly vulnerable ecosystems through international cooperation are mentioned.

In the Rio final document the participating states stress their concern about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization. They recall the decisions related to ocean fertilization adopted by the relevant intergovernmental bodies, and decide to continue addressing ocean fertilization with utmost caution. The precautionary approach will be applied.

In Rio the participating states promised to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis. The photo of the fishing vessel is from the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants commit, on an urgent basis, to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. The foreseen time frame is “the shortest time feasible”. To achieve this, the states commit to urgently develop and implement science-based management plans. Fisheries reduction and suspension are listed as management methods. The importance of by-catch reduction and the control of destructive fishing practices are mentioned as well as the importance of impact assessments.

Relating to UNCLOS, the Rio delegations urge states to fully implement the 1995 Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. Furthermore, all States are called upon to implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the corresponding FAO International Plans of Action and technical guidelines.

The final document acknowledges that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing deprives many countries of a crucial natural resource and remains a persistent threat to their sustainable development. A recommitment to eliminate IUU fishing is presented. Reference is made to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which aims at preventing and combating these practices in the following ways: a) by implementing national and regional action plans in accordance with FAO’s international IUU combat plan, b) by identifying vessels engaged in IUU fishing, c) by depriving offenders of the benefits accruing from IUU fishing, and d) by cooperating with developing countries to systematically identify needs and build capacity (monitoring, control, surveillance, compliance and enforcement systems).

The Rio delegations recognise the need for transparency and accountability in fisheries management by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). The efforts already made by those RFMOs that have undertaken independent performance reviews are recognised. A call is presented on all RFMOs to regularly undertake such reviews, publish the results and implement the recommendations.

Furthermore, the Rio final document reaffirms the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation as to elimination of subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and overcapacity, mentioning the importance of this sector to developing countries. Reference is made to the WTO Doha Development Agenda and the Hong Kong Ministerial mandates for more vigorous control of fisheries subsidies. Prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing is mentioned as a control measure. States are also encouraged to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, to refrain from introducing new such subsidies and to refrain from extending or enhancing existing subsidies.

A commitment to ensure access to fisheries and corresponding markets by fishers (subsistence, small-scale, artisanal) and women fish workers and indigenous peoples is also presented, highlighting the needs of these communities in developing countries and small island developing states.

The importance of coral reef conservation and marine protected areas is highlighted in the final document of the Rio conference on sustainable development. Image from a Red Sea coral reef in Egypt, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

As to coral reefs and mangroves, the Rio delegations recognise the significant economic, social and environmental contributions of coral reefs, in particular to islands and other coastal states, as well as the significant vulnerability of the reefs and mangroves to impacts including from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, destructive fishing practices and pollution. Support for international cooperation is expressed in order to conserve coral reef and mangrove ecosystems and to realise their social, economic and environmental benefits. Facilitation of technical collaboration and voluntary information sharing are mentioned as supporting measures. Surprisingly, sea grass beds are not separately mentioned in the Rio final document. (The importance of healthy sea grass beds as carbon sinks in fighting global climate change has recently been acknowledged by the marine science research community).

In the seas and oceans chapter of The Future We Want, the delegations reaffirm the importance of area-based conservation measures, including marine protected areas, consistent with international law and based on best available scientific information. The participants note decision X/2 of the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, that by 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are to be conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Finally, it may be considered surprising that the importance of managing the sea-land interface as a special area was not mentioned in The Future We Want. As the coastal zone is an area of many opportunities, user conflicts, resource degradation and lost opportunities, it would have been natural to say something in the Rio final document about the need for integrated coastal zone management.

Coral conservation in Honduras: building on local roots is important

“We have got one of the best coral reefs in the Caribbean”, says Nelbin Bustamante from the Prolansate Foundation and Amatela reef conservation group of the Town of Tela, Honduras.  More in detail, Mr. Bustamante summarises the good news of a recent underwater study on the Tela reefs in the following words: “The live coral cover on our reefs is nearly 70 per cent per square metre”. This high number was registered on the Capiro Reef just seven kilometres from the city centre.

Image

An offshore reef near Tela, Honduras. Photographer and copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

Nevertheless, all the evaluation results were not positive. Mr. Bustamante says: “It could also be observed that the number of herbivorous and commercial fishes had reduced. Their biomass had gone down.”

As regards the threats, two main threats were identified in the study. One was the loss of forest cover. The other one was the lack of wastewater treatment. The Tela wastewaters flow directly into the sea and coral reefs. In addition to soil, the runoff contains many chemicals including fertilizers. The nutrients in the runoff may facilitate algal growth on the reefs as, at the same time, the levels of herbivorous fishes consuming the algae are lower than normal. Overfishing is an additional threat which needs to be controlled in Tela.

In any case Tela is a good and encouraging example in a world where the coral reefs are threatened by high fishing pressure, global climate change and other side effects of the growth of human societies. Off Tela, fairly healthy coral reefs can still be found and new awareness is creating motivation to protect the reefs.

Mr. Marcello Dicunta Servellón, who operates a dive centre in Tela, is satisfied: “Healthy coral reefs represents incredible opportunities. One of the most obvious ones is recreational diving. A well-managed dive industry on healthy reefs can result in high economic growth for the community.”

A Spanish-speaking documentary (Corales para amar – Tela protege sus arrecifes) with the above-mentioned content can be watched on Youtube:

Human wastewaters infect elkhorn coral

A human pathogen has been shown to contribute to the degradation of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) colonies in the Caribbean Sea. The pathogen Serratia marcescens is known to be present in human wastewaters, which enter the coastal marine areas untreated in many parts of the Caribbean. In the recent study by K.R. Sutherland et al., strain PDR60 of the pathogen was shown to cause disease signs in A. palmata colonies in as little as four or five days, when the surrounding waters were polluted with S. marcescens.

In the Caribbean the lack of wastewater treatment is a common problem. This colony of elkhorn coral looks healthy in spite of the fact that raw sewage enters the sea 100m from the reef. Photo taken in Utila, Honduras, copyright (c) 2011 Erkki Siirila.

In 2003 there was an outbreak of this coral disease called acroporid serratiosis (APS). During the episode, the corallivorous snail Coralliophila abbreviata and stony coral Sideastrea siderea were noticed to be play a role in the development of the disease. Now, in aquaria experiments, wastewater has been demonstrated to be a definitive, direct source of the disease, while C. abbreviata and S. siderea are known to act as vectors and reservoirs, which may also to contribute to the infection of A. palmata.

The research results by K.R.Sutherland et al. published in 2011 demonstrate for the first time that a human pathogen can be passed from us humans to marine invertebrates and infect them. The authors of the study “Human Pathogen Shown to Cause Disease in the Threatened Eklhorn Coral Acropora palmata” say that “these findings underscore the interaction between public health practices and environmental health indices such as coral reef survival”.

A direct link to the article is here:  Elkhorn and sewage

Plastic pollution threatens marine life and us

Plastic is everywhere. It is difficult to buy anything without also buying plastic. If the product is not made of plastic, the packing material is.

Plastic is strong, versatile and inexpensive. It is also lightweight and moisture resistant. Being so durable and so widely used, plastic materials ultimately become waste which is present everywhere and which degrades very slowly.

Plastic bottles floating in the river. Photo from the Rio de la Plata waterfront, Buenos Aires, Argentina, (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

In the ocean, plastic debris is believed to kill 100,000 marine mammals every year, as well as millions of birds and fish.  Nevertheless, the most dangerous aspect of the plastic debris is hidden from our eyes: it is the microscopic fragmented plastic particles, which float in the sea and are transported thousand of nautical miles in the ocean currents.

There are more and more of this kind of microscopic plastic particles everywhere. These particles cannot be removed from the ocean and they are believed to be more toxic than previously thought.

In the sea, the microscopic plastic particles are ingested by the small animals of zooplankton at the bottom of the food chains. Through fish and other larger marine animals these food chains lead to us humans. When we do not manage the plastic waste in a sustainable manner, we are polluting not only the oceans but also ourselves.

The plastic material entering the world oceans is an increasing problem around the world. Photo from Buenos Aires, Argentina, (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

An excellent Coastalcare summary (written by  Claire Le Guern Lytle) of plastic pollution and its consequences in the marine environment can be read here:

http://coastalcare.org/2009/11/plastic-pollution/

The worst oil spills are unpleasant memories

Oil is one of the most significant driving forces behind the modern society. Nevertheless, all the consequences of oil exploration cannot be defined as progress.  In addition to global climate change, oil disasters have adverse effects on our well-being.
Here is a list of the worst oil accidents in history (list updated on September 1, 2010):
  • Torrey Canyon (oil tanker), Europe/Atlantic, March 1967: 100,000-119,000 tons
  • Amoco Cadiz (oil tanker), Europe/Atlantic, March 1978: 223,000 tons
  • Ixtoc I (drilling platform), Gulf of Mexico, June 1979 to March 1980: 454,000 tons
  • Atlantic Empress (oil tanker), Caribbean, July 1979: 287,000 tons
  • Nowruz (drilling platform), Persian Gulf, February 1983: 260,000 tons
  • Castillo de Belver (oil tanker), Southern Africa/Atlantic, August 1983: 252,000 tons
  • Odyssey (oil tanker), North America/Atlantic, November 1988: 132,000 tons
  • Exxon Valdez (oil tanker), North America/Pacific, March 1989: 35,000-40,000 tons
  • The Gulf War (intentional spills from several sources, altogether the worst oil spill in history), Persian Gulf, January 1991: 1,000,000-1,500,000 tons
  • Haven (oil tanker), Mediterranean, April 1991: 144,000 tons
  • ABT Summer (oil tanker), Southern Africa/Atlantic, May 1991: 260,000 tons
  • Deepwater Horizon (drilling platform of British Petroleum), Gulf of Mexico, April 2010 – July 2010:  671,200 tons = 4,900,000 barrels. Of this total, 109,600 tons = 800,000 barrels were captured on-site and 561,600 tons = 4,100,000 barrels leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon spill is surpassed only by the intentional oil spills in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. As to accidental spills, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the worst of them.
All figures are approximates.  There are differences between information sources:  in many cases the information obtained is not 100 percent reliable. The sources used were YLE, BBC, AFP, Reuters, MSNBC, Wikipedia, Washington Post and ITOPF.
The amounts of oil listed above were mostly spilled; in some cases, like the ABT Summer accident and the Gulf War, a significant proportion of the oil was burnt.
The following Youtube video is a short additional introduction to marine oil spills: