Archive for the 'Seagrass meadows' Category

Progress in Tela reef conservation in Honduras

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

Some years ago the city of Tela in Honduras was only known for its beaches. No one was aware that underwater additional national heritage could be found. The coral reefs of the Tela Bay are this other treasure.

The Tela Bay in Honduras has coral reefs, the conservation of which needs attention. Photographer and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

The Tela Bay in Honduras has coral reefs, the conservation of which needs attention. Photographer and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Francois Ligeard, The Chamber of Tourism of Tela, says: “The good news is that we can offer a new site for both the national and international tourist. We have to highlight the fact that this place is very beautiful. It has high cover of live coral. We notice that always when we dive on this reef. One easily gets emotional because every time we go the local reef we find something new and more beautiful.”

Dennis Sierra, The Prolansate Conservation Foundation, Tela, sees the “newly discovered” coral reefs in the following way: “The best news is that in Tela we have many people both in the civil society, local government and the business sector who are very interested in the conservation of the coral banks of the Tela Bay. The preservation needs have an acceptance at the community level. Also at the level of the central government there is a lot of interest in declaring a marine park in the Bay of Tela.”

Only fishing was done on the local Capiro Reef in the past. Nowadays, divers come here to see the angelfish and the many species of coral. For example, black coral is found here.

The coral bank of Capiro is the best known reef area in the Tela waters. Photo and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

The coral bank of Capiro is the best known reef area in the Tela waters. Photo and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Dennis Sierra: “Logically we look toward the future generations. We need to implement conservation actions in the Bay area, if we want to leave this ecosystem as a heritage to our children. Tela has been favored by God. We have to remember that the natural richness we have in Tela contributes in a positive way to tourism opportunities here. Tela has its future in the resources of that Bay.”

Francois Ligeard: “The biggest challenge we face is to take care of the reef both for our generation and the future generations. We need to get the fishermen and other local people involved to be able to preserve this reef. We have been working already by installing permanent mooring buoys. In this way, we need not anchor the boats and we can stop the damage that has been caused to the reef by anchors in the past.”

The mangroves of the Bay may not be forgotten as reef conservation is promoted. The mangroves produce nutrition for marine life. In addition, among the roots, many species of coral reef fish live during their juvenile stage. The mangroves also protect the coast from the waves of the sea.

The seagrass beds in the Tela waters have functions similar to those of the mangroves. In addition, many reef fish migrate to the seagrass areas in order to eat.

When forests are preserved, there is only little erosion on land and less mud enters the sea via the rivers. This is crucial in reef conservation as the corals need clean and clear water. Related to the above, it is also necessary to develop the treatment of sewage and waste waters.

In the Tela Bay there are very healthy coral colonies. It is important to take care of the reefs, because climate change threatens them, through the elevated sea-water temperatures and through the acidification of the sea.

Coral reefs will be more resistant to global environmental changes, when at the local level there is no overfishing and when the other pressures are kept at the minimum level. In this way, the coral reefs of Tela will produce economic and environmental benefits to us also in the future.

The following Youtube video was shot and produced by the Coastal Challenges’ Editor. It tells the above story of the Tela coral reefs in Spanish. The original is in high definition; this lower-resolution Youtube version can be best seen be adjusting the image resolution under the Youtube window to 480 p.

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.

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.

Seagrass meadows and environmental impacts

The key reference used for the previous Coastal Challenges’ article on coral reefs was How to assess environmental impacts on tropical islands and coastal areas: South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) training manual. The manual edited by Richard A. Carpenter and James E. Maragos was prepared by Environment and Policy Institute, East-West Center, in 1989. Asian Development Bank sponsored the venture.

The manual (not widely available in these days) presents useful conclusions  for the management of environmental impacts in seagrass meadows everywhere in the tropics.  (Together with mangroves and coral reefs, seagrass beds are the most important marine ecosystems of the tropical coastal zones. In addition, seagrass meadows are key components of shallow-water nature in temperate waters.)

The information presented by Carpenter and Maragos is summarised in a slightly edited form below: 

Sustainable uses and values of seagrass meadows: The biological productivity is high; especially the fish and shellfish production is important. Seagrass beds are nursery areas for reef and mangrove species.  These underwater meadows have useful functions in beach sand replenishment and act as a beach stabilisation area. Seagrass beds are also part of important synergistic interactions with onshore mangroves and offshore coral reefs. In addition, they are feeding areas of sea turtles and dugongs / manatees.

Sensitivity to environmental changes: Chemical pollution, changes in currents (leading to scouring or stagnation), changes in sedimentation patterns (leading to accumulation or burial), changes in longshore sand movements (disrupting the long-term balance of coastal sediment movements), dredging on offshore reefs (leading to lack of protection offered by the reef and resulting in changes in sediment movements), and cutting of onshore mangroves (resulting in loose sediments and lack of physical/runoff protection on the landward side of the seagrass beds).

Development hazards: Dredging, filling and construction of coastal structures commonly put the near-by seagrass beds at risk. Also oil and chemical spills can harm the seagrass meadows.  In addition, damming and blocking the natural water flow and sediment movements may  harm the seagrass communities.

Mitigation: The effects of projects on sediment and water movements need to be understood in advance. Damage to adjacent reefs and mangroves need to be avoided in projects leading to environmental impacts. In causeway construction, culverts and bridge openings help maintain the natural water circulation and sedimentation patterns thus protecting the seagrass meadows. Locating nonwater dependent facilities onshore is part of sound seagrass management.

The following Youtube video by Seagrasswatch.org is an excellent summary of  the global importance of seagrass meadows:


Economic valuation is a key tool in coastal areas

Economic (socio-economic) valuation regularily makes coastal conservation efforts appear more desirable than what they appear when their value is calculated in business terms only.  In the past, the economic value of coastal ecosystems was thought to be approximately the same as their value for tourism and commercial fisheries.  Only the direct benefits to the private economy were considered and the short-term perspective dominated.

As we know, private economic benefits in the form of employment, income sources and attractive investment conditions are important to all of us. Nevertheless, considering only them in decision-making is not the way to a sustainable society, in which benefits are shared equally between today’s citizens and those of the future generations .

When only the private benefits are taken into consideration, for instance coastal mangroves are commonly considered wasteland, which may be converted to more lucrative uses like shrimp ponds and construction sites for coastal hotels. This kind of development has taken place in many Central American and South-East Asian countries.

Crucial benefits of mangroves to the society as a whole have been forgotten when these ecosystems have been converted into uses which favour just a few investors and their employees.  These benefits include the unique protection provided by mangroves to coastal settlements when a hurricane or tsunami hits from the sea.  Mangroves also  stabilise the coastline and prevent shoreline erosion.

To continue with the mangroves & economics example, another benefit offered by these plant communities is the nursery function to commercially important fish and shrimp species.  In addition, mangroves produce organic matter which is an important food source for other marine ecosystems.  In the developing societies without sewage treatment plants mangroves help us by filtering the waste waters and by preventing eutrophication and algal blooms in the sea.

One way to summarise the total economic value of marine and coastal ecosystems is here 1):

  • Direct values: production and consumption of goods such as fish, firewood, building materials, shells, corals, tourism and leisure, transport, etc.
  • Indirect values: ecological services and functions such as shoreline protection, prevention of saltwater intrusion, storm and flood control, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, etc.
  • Option values: premium placed in future possible uses and applications such as those of extractive, leisure, pharmaceutical, industrial etc. character.
  • Existence values: intrinsic significance in terms of culture, aesthetics, heritage, bequest, etc.

In addition, we need to remember that only the on-site / marketed benefits are those traditionally considered in the valuation of coastal zone resources, while those which are off-site / nonmarketed are commonly ignored.  This leads us to another way to summarise the economic valuation of coastal resources by using mangroves as an example 2):

  • Marketed / on-site goods and services: usually included in an economic analysis (e.g. poles for construction, charcoal, woodchips, mangrove crabs).
  • Marketed / off-site goods and services: may be included (e.g. fish or shellfish caught in the adjacent waters).
  • Non-marketed / on-site goods and services: seldom included (e.g. medicinal uses of mangrove, domestic fuelwood, food in times of famine, nursery area for juvenile fish, feeding ground for estuarine fish and shrimp, viewing and studying wildlife).
  • Non-marketed / off-site goods and services: usually ignored (e.g. ecologically important nutrient flows to estuaries, buffer to storm damage).

1) From R.V. Salm, John Clark and Erkki Siirila (2000): Marine and Coastal Protected Areas, A guide for planners and managers. IUCN. Washington DC. xxi + 371 pp.

2) From lecturing material used by coastal management consultant Dr. Peter Burbridge, U.K.

Mangrove and seagrass communities are the underestimated base of marine food chains in the tropics. They are also a place where the juveniles of many commercially important species grow up. Photo from the Florida Keys, (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

Managing key ecosystems for resilience

Managing key ecosystems specifically for resilience is important, when global climate change and other human-induced changes are threatening them. Guidance on these issues is given in recent manuals by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The first two of these manuals were Coral Reef Resilience and Resistance to Bleaching and Managing mangroves for Resilience to Climate Change, both published in 2006. Managing Seagrasses for Resilience to Climate Change became available in 2008.  The important Honolulu Declaration on Ocean Acidification and Reef Management was published that same year.  A recent manual in the series is Resilience Assessment of Coral Reefs, which was completed in 2009.
In spite of being mostly technical expert texts, the IUCN publications also help the layman understand the complexities and importance of key tropical coastal ecosystems and the challenges they are facing around the globe. While a conservationist or natural resource manager cannot stop the effects of global climate change on near-by ecosystems, he or she can help nature by minimising other harmful effects like pollution and overfishing on ecosystems locally.
Especially, mangroves and seagrass beds are underestimated by those without ecological knowledge.  In addition to their individual value, the interactions between mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs, and the organisms living in and around them are crucial for the health of tropical coastal waters and their fish stocks. Luckily, coral reefs have gained new appreciation during the past ten years. Their value as “the rainforests of the sea” has been recognised by more and more people.
The above-mentioned IUCN publications can be downloaded from http://www.iucn.org/cccr/publications , i.e. from here: publications
In this mp3 recording Jerker Tamelander of IUCN tells about the new methodology to assess coral reef resilience:
In a Youtube video, Carl-Gustaf Lundin, Head of the IUCN Global Marine Programme, says a few words about the resilience of that same endangered ecosystem: