Aug 15

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is suffering significant damage from agricultural pesticides, according to a new report by the Australian government.

Photo of Acropora florida on coral reef

Acropora florida, just one of around 400 coral species found in the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking at water quality around the Great Barrier Reef, the report found that nearly a quarter of horticultural producers and around 12% of pastoral farmers were using practices considered unacceptable by the industry, causing harmful chemicals to wash onto the Reef.

The report blamed much of the pollution on the sugar cane industry in the wet tropics of northern Queensland.

World Heritage Site under threat

The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is internationally recognised for its incredible biodiversity. It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, which are home to an estimated 400 coral species, together with 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 species of mollusc, and many other marine invertebrates.

The Reef also provides vital habitat for threatened species such as the dugong, green turtle and leatherback turtle, and is used by numerous bird species.

Photo of green turtle swimming over reef

Green turtle swimming over reef.

However, this hugely diverse ecosystem faces a range of threats, particularly from the impacts of climate change. Increased water temperatures are likely to increase coral bleaching, which causes the stressed corals to lose their symbiotic algae and often leads to the death of affected corals.

Harmful chemicals such as pesticides are also impacting on the health of the Great Barrier Reef, and may be lowering its ability to withstand and recover from the effects of climate change. Pesticides have already been found up to 60 kilometres (38 miles) inside the reef, at levels known to be harmful to corals.

Photo of bleached Acropora spp. coral

Bleached Acropora coral.

The pollution caused by these chemicals is thought to have been worsened by the heavy flooding and cyclone that hit northern Queensland earlier this year, flushing pollutants out to sea.

Call to limit pesticide use

The government report says that some farmers need to be more careful with their chemicals, and conservationists have called for a limit on pesticide use, as well as a ban on certain weed killers.

However, the agricultural industry has argued that the report’s findings are based on old data, and that there has been a significant change in the industry. Sugar cane producers have also said that there are no alternatives to adequately protect their crops.

Photo of adult female dugong with calf

The Great Barrier Reef is an important habitat for species such as the dugong, or ‘sea cow’.

While the Australian government agreed that farmers have been using more environmentally-friendly methods, it said that these had been undermined by the effects of Cyclone Yasi.

Read the full story at the BBC – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef ‘at risk from pesticide’.

Find out more about the Great Barrier Reef at the Australian Government Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

View photos and videos of species from Australia on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Jun 21

The world’s oceans are in a “shocking” state and marine species may face an unprecedented extinction event, an international panel of experts has warned.

Photo of bleached Acropora spp. coral

The many threats to the world’s coral reefs include increasing ocean temperatures, which can cause coral ‘bleaching’, as shown in this Acropora species.

The panel was brought together by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and involved scientists from across a range disciplines. It was the first to consider the cumulative impacts of the pressures facing the oceans, including pollution, ocean acidification, ocean warming, over-fishing and hypoxia (reduced oxygen levels).

Rapid pace of change

The findings are shocking,” said Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of IPSO and a professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised… almost right across the board we’re seeing changes that are happening faster than we’d thought, or in ways that we didn’t expect to see for hundreds of years.”

Photo of dead southern bluefin tuna caught in a tuna pen

Overfishing has brought species such as the southern bluefin tuna to the brink of extinction.

These rapid changes include the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, sea level rise, and the release of methane trapped in the sea bed. More worrying is how different threats are acting together in ways that had not previously been recognised, their combined effects being worse than each threat alone.

For example, some pollutants have been found to stick to the surfaces of tiny plastic particles in the ocean, increasing the amounts of these pollutants being consumed by marine creatures. Global climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and overfishing are also working together to increase the pressures on the world’s coral reefs, many of which are now in severe decline.

Photo of a group of common clownfish swimming next to anemone

Coral reefs support a huge variety of other species, including fish such as these common clownfish.

Sixth mass extinction?

The combined effects of these stresses mean that ocean ecosystems are unable to recover, being constantly under attack from multiple threats. The panel concluded that not only are we already seeing significant declines in marine species and habitats, but that we now face losing species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation.

Life on Earth has gone through five “mass extinction” events in the past, and human activities are now thought to be causing a sixth such event. The panel’s report said that the combination of threats to the ocean is creating the same conditions found in every major extinction in Earth’s history. Levels of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the ocean are already far greater than at the time of the last mass extinction of marine life, some 55 million years ago. The rate of the ocean’s degeneration is also far greater than anyone had predicted.

Photo of manta ray entangled in a fishing net

Manta ray entangled in a fishing net.

Conserving the world’s oceans

The panel’s conclusions will be presented in a report at the UN headquarters in New York later this week, when discussions will take place aimed at reforming governance of the oceans. The report calls for urgent measures to better conserve ocean ecosystems, and in particular to improve governance of the largely unprotected high seas.

IPSO’s immediate recommendations include stopping exploitative fishing, especially on the high seas where there is little effective regulation. It also recommends mapping and then reducing pollutants, such as plastics, fertilisers and human waste, which are entering the oceans. In addition, sharp reductions need to be made in greenhouse gas emissions, and research is urgently needed into ways of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Photo of a green turtle, side profile

Like many marine species, the green turtle faces a range of threats. This species is classified as Endangered by the IUCN.

One of the report’s co-authors, Dan Laffoley, Marine Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, and Senior Advisor on Marine Science and Conservation for IUCN, admitted that the challenges were vast. “But unlike previous generations, we know what now needs to happen,” he said. “The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now.”

Read the full story at IUCN – Multiple ocean stresses threaten globally significant marine extinction.

Read more about climate change on ARKive.

View photos and videos of marine species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Apr 12

When many people dream of the perfect summer vacation or holiday, visions of sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and lush forests come to mind. Islands are a home away from home for many travelers around the world but most people are unaware of the amazing biodiversity that island habitats support. This is where our partners at Seacology come in.

Seacology is an environmental nonprofit with the sole purpose of preserving the highly endangered biodiversity of islands throughout the world. In the last 400 years, the majority of the world’s plant and animal extinctions have taken place on islands. By working with indigenous island peoples, Seacology strives to find the middle ground between improving human life while maintaining the environmental integrity of islands habitats and species.

With a favorable year-round climate and isolation from large land masses, tropical islands support some of the most unique species on Earth. Here’s a sample of some of Seacology’s most recent projects, highlighting the endangered species they have helped to protect.

Photo of an Asian giant softshell turtle

In exchange for a new community health clinic in Papua New Guinea, Seacology established a 988-acre no-take coastal marine conservation area providing a permanent sanctuary for many island species including the Asian giant softshell turtle, an easily recognizable species with its broad head and eyes close to the tip of its snout.

Photo of a bowl coral colony

The stunning bowl coral is just one of the many corals, fish, crabs and other marine species safely protected for the next 10 years near the island of Tonga in the South Pacific. Through another agreement between Seacology and local island peoples, 368 acres of a critical marine habitat reserve are protected into the next decade in return for an updated community hall building.

Photo of adult and juvenile Cook Islands fruit-doves on branch

Found only on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, both the male and female Cook Islands fruit-dove take turns incubating their egg until it hatches. By updating a meeting house in Rarotonga’s Muri Village to include a cyclone evacuation center and gymnasium among other important upgrades, Seacology was able to secure protection for a lagoon and surrounding forest habitat of the Cook Island fruit-dove and other species for 10 years.

Both Seacology and ARKive focus on the conservation of endangered species around the globe and by helping each other share our accomplishments, we hope to raise awareness of the species that need the most help. To learn more about Seacology’s work, check out their website, blog, or videos.

Check out some favorite endangered island species films and images in this MyARKive scrapbook!

Liana Vitali, ARKive Science, Education and Outreach Officer, Wildscreen USA

Feb 24

More than three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs are seriously threatened by overfishing, pollution and climate change, according to a comprehensive new report.

The report, entitled ‘Reefs at Risk Revisited’, was compiled by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and 25 other research organisations. It builds on a 1998 analysis of coral reefs, and enables scientists to compare the changing threats to coral reefs around the world.

Photo of damselfish over an Acropora colony

Damselfish feeding above a healthy Acropora colony. Acropora corals are particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change.

Changing threats

The most immediate threat to reefs is overfishing. Since the 1998 report, there has been an 80% increase in the threat from overfishing and destructive fishing, particularly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The pressure on coral reefs appears to be highest in Southeast Asia, where nearly 95% of reefs are threatened.

Photo of dead Acropora colony after cyanide fishing

A dead Acropora colony, several years after the use of destructive fishing methods.

However, by 2030 it is expected that the primary threat to coral reefs will be the effects of climate change. Mass coral bleaching, a stress response to warming waters in which corals expel their symbiotic algae and turn white, is becoming more frequent as ocean temperatures rise. Extreme bleaching events kill corals outright, while less extreme events can weaken corals, affect coral reproduction, reduce growth and calcification (vital for the development of the coral skeleton), and leave them vulnerable to disease.

Photo of boulder brain coral showing bleaching

A partly bleached boulder brain coral colony.

The report suggests that during the 2030s, roughly half of reefs will experience thermal stress sufficient to induce severe bleaching, rising to more than 95% of reefs being affected by the 2050s.

Still hope

Although the ‘Reefs at Risk’ report offers a troubling picture of the world’s coral reefs, it also offers a glimmer of hope. Reefs around the world have shown a capacity to rebound from even extreme damage, while active management is protecting reefs and aiding recovery in some areas.

There are reasons for hope,” said Lauretta Burke, senior associate at WRI and a lead author of the report. “Reefs are resilient; and by reducing the local pressures, we can help buy time to find solutions to global threats that can preserve reefs for future generations.”

Photo of blue rice coral in shallow reef

Blue rice coral is found in many parts of the United States Marine Protected Areas network.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can reduce threats to reefs, often by focusing on managing overfishing and destructive fishing practices, and by reducing pollution from land.

More than a quarter of the world’s reefs are within MPAs. However, only 6% of coral reefs found in MPAs worldwide are currently rated as effectively managed, pointing to the need to designate more protected areas and improve the effectiveness of existing MPAs to protect reefs.

By tackling local threats such as overfishing and pollution head-on and by creating healthy reef systems, we may be able to “ buy time” for coral reefs in the face of climate change, the report concludes.

The report is full of solutions – real world examples where people have succeeded to turn things around,” says Dr Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

Visit the World Resources Institute website.

Read a summary of Reefs at Risk Revisited (PDF 3.9 MB) or view the full Reefs at Risk Revisited report (PDF 6.1 MB).

Learn more about corals on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

Jan 17

Australia has been hit hard by the devastating Queensland floods, but as the murky waters start to recede, what will be the environmental impact to Australia’s major tourist attraction and natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef?

Photo of Acropora coral reef

The Staghorn corals (Acropora spp.) are among the most common type of coral found on the Great Barrier Reef.

Growing concerns over flood impact

Although floods are a seasonal occurrence in this area of Australia, the huge volume of water in this year’s flood could result in major coral bleaching and coral deaths.

Fresh water entering the reef environment lowers salinity, which can bleach the coral (cause it to expel the zooxanthellae that live within the coral tissues), or kill the coral polyp directly.

Flood waters also carry sediment which settles on the coral, blocking sunlight and preventing photosynthesis, while fertiliser and pesticides which have been washed off local farms disrupt the balance between corals and macro-algae, such as seaweeds.

Photo of group of crown of thorns starfish group feeding on coral

The crown of thorns starfish is a predator of corals on the Great Barrier Reef.

Scientists monitoring corals on the reef say they have already seen indications of coral damage, but that it is too early to tell what the long-term effects of the flood will be. The corals of the Great Barrier Reef are also already under threat from overfishing, climate change, disease, pollution, shipping and from coral predators, such as the crown of thorns starfish.

Hope for the future

However, Dr Alison Jones, based at the Centre for Environmental Management in Rockhampton says that there is hope.

Even if some corals are lost from local reefs, pockets of corals will survive, acting as a source for reef regeneration over the next few years.  

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system, stretching for 2,600 kilometres along the coast. It is home to 30 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise, as well as 6 breeding species of sea turtle, 215 species of birds, 17 species of sea snake and over 1,500 fish species, as well as hundreds of corals and other marine species.

Dugong photo

The dugong, nicknamed the ‘sea cow’, feeds on marine plants around the Great Barrier Reef.

Find out more about the research Central Queensland University is doing on the Great Barrier Reef following the floods.

To read more on this story, see the BBC article.

Explore more ARKive species that are found on the Great Barrier Reef.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

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