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Securing a future for Seagrass Meadows

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I have known and worked with Dr Peter Macreadie for five years, so it was exciting to be present at his first plenary lecture at the 12th International Seagrass Biology Workshop in Wales last October. The topic of the plenary, seagrass carbon storage, centred on how seagrasses and their mud, or ‘blue carbon’, are important for dealing with our global climate change problem. Yes, we do work with mud, and blue carbon research has turned out to be quite a dirty and smelly job. I personally did not expect to enjoy playing in the mud well beyond my childhood (while getting paid for it!). But in his plenary, Macreadie laid out how much more there is to the story of blue carbon…

Macreadie began his talk with the facts about blue carbon biosequestration – a long word to describe how plants remove the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) into their tissues or into their sediments. Terrestrial habitats are the most well-known ecosystems that biosequester carbon, but we are finding trees cannot take care of all the CO2 we have produced. A decade ago, clever scientists noticed that coastal or ‘blue’ carbon ecosystems can also biosequester carbon at a rate ~40 times higher than their ‘green’ carbon counterparts. These blue carbon habitats, including seagrasses, mangroves and tidal marshes, can also retain this carbon for hundreds to thousands of years without reaching full capacity. Seagrasses, in particular, not only have the power to help mitigate climate change, but their ecosystems are incredibly important for supporting half of the world’s fisheries and stabilising the coast against erosion.

Macreadie went on to describe the main questions in blue carbon research: 1) ‘Where is the blue carbon and how much is there?’ 2) ‘How do blue carbon stocks change under different conditions like habitat loss, sea level rise and increased temperatures?’ and 3) given that blue carbon ecosystems are a powerful tool against climate change, ‘How can blue carbon be incorporated into global carbon off-set initiatives?’

He highlighted a few areas of seagrass blue C research ranging from carbon loss after disturbance to microbes as the drivers of the carbon cycle to how to optimise carbon biosequestration through management. As a self-proclaimed ‘lab rat’ (with the occasional day out in the water), I enjoy researching these detailed dynamics of blue carbon science. And it is these nitty-gritty questions around seagrass biosequestration that we have answered over the last decade that are paving the way for blue carbon to shine on a cross-disciplinary, international platform.

Specifically, seagrass (and other blue C) habitats are gaining recognition for their monetary value. Valuating seagrasses helps translate their ecosystems services to policymakers, management agencies, and industry. While there are some that consider this valuation process to be a form of profiting off of nature, this new frontier is a priority for many blue carbon scientists, including Macreadie and his colleagues, because of the opportunity to see emphasis put on conserving these ecosystems we love and an opportunity for new funding to be put towards blue carbon restoration research. Many government bodies are coming out in support of both green and blue carbon biosequestration for its role in climate change mitigation, providing a great opportunity for blue carbon experts to be involved in blue carbon off-setting development.

At the end of the plenary, Macreadie circled back to answer the open question: Is seagrass blue carbon just mud? He answered with a yes with the hope that others can see the importance of this mud as a way to both mitigate climate change as well as an innovative pathway for seagrass restoration. As it turns out, we are never too old to play in the mud!

 

Invasive species: Can they help restore degrading habitats?

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One of the most destructive invasive species in Europe is the American crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), and in America the most destructive invasive species is the European green crab (Carcinus maenas). You can find this crab in almost every coastline in the world. They are very aggressive in that they can eat every kind of food and they chase and kill native species, which sounds terrible. But…

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Coral microborers starving as CO2 and temperature rise

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We have talked many times about the threats a coral reef has to face, like ocean acidification or global warming. But they don’t affect just the coral itself! A healthy coral has a balance between growth of new parts and erosion of the older ones, which is done by waves, fishes and photosynthetic microborers. Well, these microborers seem to be more effective in warm and acidic oceans.

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The microborers can be algae, blue-green algae or fungi, and they make little holes in the coral skeleton, “eating” the carbonate part, the skeleton. Which is less consistent due to acidification, because it reduces the amount of carbonate in the water. To see exactly what the effects can be of the warm and acidic environment combination, researchers from ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and The University of Queensland (UQ) designed an experiment with three different scenarios: one with present-day conditions as a control, and another two with the predicted conditions for the end of the century, with medium and high predictions. Other coral samples were kept in the dark. They used two kinds of reef-building corals. Porites cylindricaand Isopora cuneata.

Looking at their results, they concluded that microborers were essential in the skeleton dissolution, as the samples in the dark didn’t decalcify. On the high futuristic scenario, the conditions were made thinking that humans won’t do anything to decrease CO2 emissions. And the rate of erosion by the microborers was almost the double compared to the control!

In P. cylindrica the rate was 89% higher than the control, per month! And in I. cuneata it was 46% higher. They also associated enhanced skeletal dissolution with increased endolithic biomass and respiration under high CO2 temperature conditions.

The principal microborer identified is the green algae Ostreobium spp, which inhabits 85% of the world’s corals. That means that maybe these results could be applicable to many corals species.

Everyday we discover new awful threats to the coral reefs, so do you think its time to take this studies more seriously?

The way to a radioactive Great Barrier

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Imagine the perfect underwater location, full of reefs, little fish, sharks, with thousands of different colors,… Most of you are imagining something like the Great Barrier of Reef for sure! And at this time, you know many of the threats it has to face… Here comes another one that you might not expect: URANIUM. Yes! Uranium! There has been a ban in Queensland on uranium mining for 28 years, but last October Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman ended the ban.

The problem is that the Great Barrier is located off the coast of Queensland, so every ship exporting uranium must go travel across the gorgeous sets of coral reefs. They say that it would not only create hundreds of jobs, but it would bring a lot of money to the citizens… they are talking of about $2 billion! The potential of this industry could be $10 billion, according to the uranium businessmen. It looks like a huge amount of money… but the Great Barrier makes $5 billion every year in tourism, employing about 54,000 people, and many argue argue that the Great Barrier Reef is priceless!

The Mining Minister received 40 recommendations by a uranium mining implementation committee investigation. They tried to look for a solution to preserve the Great Barrier while developing the uranium industry. And that was transporting the uranium oxide by truck South to Adelaide or Northwest to Darwin, with existing ports. But the Minister, Mr. Cripps, wants to build a new port in Townsville (the most important touristic city for divers), because it is “necessary!” So the uranium would be exported through the reef. What is funnier, is that the current political party won the elections with a non-mining position. Politicians…Go Figure!?!?!?

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This is not only an Australian problem, is a global one! Even UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) had threatened the Australian authorities, which agree with the uranium project, with taking off the World Heritage status, because of an increase in coastal development and shipment (with the current gas and coal industries expansion, it is estimated that 7000 ships a year will cross the Great Barrier). The UNESCO committee will have a meeting with the Federal Government in June, so we’ll have to wait to what will happen until then.

Politicians are promising strict laws to protect the reef from the uranium, but do you think they will work? It worth it to put at risk a unique place like the Great Barrier, just for a few years of benefits? 

Climate Change: Canadian glaciers on an irreversible mass loss

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It’s usual to find information about Antarctica or Greenland ice melting…but what’s going on with the rest of the world’s glaciers? Canada, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (CAA), has the third largest repository of frozen water, and according to a new study, its melting is irreversible.

The CAA is formed of 36,000 islands, with the 10% of its surface covered by glaciers. Under normal conditions, the CAA glacier mass balance is ruled by the balance between the fallen snow and the meltwater. Well, researchers from Utrech University developed a model recreating the present conditions, and the glacier lost mass in the 99% of the recreations. By the end of this century, the glacier would lose about 20% of its mass, a increase of 75% more of what it was thought to lose before.

Maybe you’d think, ok, it’s a lot, but not THAT much. Think about it this way: this loss of ice mass would result in a rise in the sea level of about 3.5 cm, which is 12 trillion cubic meters of water more in the ocean!

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The worst part is that researchers said that this loss could be irreversible. Its melt rate is going faster, because the ice-loss is exposing the soil, which will retain more heat on the ground, while the sea and the snow surface reflect it. According to Lenaerts, the study director, the worldwide temperature will rise 3ºC, but the temperature around the glacier will rise 8ºC. It already had risen by 1ºC or 2ºC since 2000!

What should be the answer to this study? We have to be really worried about ice melting, not only because of the resulting habitat destruction, but for the rising sea level that will affect a lot of important cities around the world, which are on the coast and lie only meters above the present sea level (some are even below sea level, like New Orleans!).

The major cause of arctic ice melting is increased temperature caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal-fired power plants and burning woods. So by reducing our carbon production, maybe we’ll be able to decrease the melting rate.

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Do you think we can reverse the melting rates of Arctic Ice? Let us know in the comments below and SPEAK UP for the OCEAN!

Whale mass strandings could be a result of broken families

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One of the most mysterious and sad things about marine mammals are mass strandings. A dolphin or a whale can get disoriented and end being washed ashore, but what’s going on when this happens to a lot of them at the same time? A new study give us some light about the long-finned pilot whales strandings, the primary species in these cases.

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Pilot whales are large dolphins, which can reach 20 feet, so it’s really difficult to move them to the sea again. For example, last year in New Zealand, where the mass strandings are usual, volunteers rescued 17 of 100 animals, and all of them returned to the beach and re-strand themselves. It is thought that the stranded whales are always members of the same families, from the same matriline or at least kins. I mean, there are two major ideas that we apply to strandings: they are from the same group, as they stranded at the same time all together, and usually a mother is close to her calf, so when they strand in lines you’ll find the mother and the calf next to each other.

According to researchers from the Auckland University, this is not as true as we thought. Analyzing mtDNA haplotypes (only inherited from your mother) of 486 individuals from 12 different strandings, in 9 of them they found multiple maternal lineages, and in all of them there were no correlation between spatial distribution and kinship. That’s not all, they found a spatial disruption on the proximity between the mother and their dependent calves. This offers another explanation: interactions between unrelated social groups for feeding or mating could break kinship bonds, and probably this is a major cause in stranding events. So, maybe, when a group is separated, they can get disoriented looking for their relatives! The study is quite relevant, as it’s not focused on environmental factors but on the animals and their behavior.

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This discovery needs to be checked with more DNA analysis, and more stranding records. But if it’s true, and it looks like it is, is very important for the future of conservation projects! This helps us to understand the complicated social relationships between marine mammals and how to react to a stranding!

Which factor do you think plays a more prevalent role in marine mammal mass strandings: environmental causes or animal behaviour?Speak Up and let yourself be heard on behalf of marine mammals everywhere!