Monthly Archives: March 2011

Renewed Focus on Trash in Our Ocean – Marine Debris

Project AWARE and the 5th

International Marine Debris


As Project AWARE nears its organizational re-launch, World Oceans Day, 8th June 2011, a new approach on the issue of trash in our ocean – marine debris – is at the core of its focused ocean protection strategies. During the 5th International Marine Debris Conference (5IMDC), Honolulu, Hawaii, March 20th – 25th, Project AWARE, a conference sponsor and presenter, represented 18 years of underwater marine debris cleanups and data collection efforts by volunteer scuba divers.

“The conference was a turning point for marine debris issues, convening all sectors involved – government, industry, marine researchers and NGOs,” says Jenny Miller Garmendia, Executive Director, Project AWARE Foundation. “During a time when climate change, ocean acidification and many other ocean issues are of global concern, it was clear that it’s time heighten the marine debris issue internationally and develop a comprehensive approach to the problem.”

The IMDC, organized by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United National Environment Programme (UNEP), was an effort to advance initiatives to combat economic and environmental impacts of marine debris, globally and locally.

Serving as Rapporteur for the conference, Project AWARE was involved in the creation of the Honolulu Commitment calling on citizens, government and industry to take responsibility for the contributions and solutions to the marine debris problem. The Commitment marks the first step in the creation of the Honolulu Strategy, a strategic framework for addressing the issue globally. Project AWARE will support the development of the Honolulu Strategy by UNEP, NOAA and other marine debris experts.

“It was very evident that Project AWARE volunteers are a critical component to the overall strategy underway. Only we can provide a global view of the underwater state of marine debris and our new program at launch will be a valuable contribution to the global effort,” says Garmendia.

Over the last 18 years, Project AWARE Foundation has partnered with scuba divers in more than 100 countries to remove and prevent marine debris underwater. Scuba divers are uniquely positioned to tackle this global ocean issue, to take action every day and prevent debris from entering the ocean.

View Project AWARE Foundation’s International Cleanup Day Snapshot 2010 detailing the global debris removal and data collection efforts of scuba diving volunteers in 669 locations worldwide.

For more information on the 5th International Marine Debris Conference and the Honolulu Strategy in progress, visit

First whale shark satellite-tagged in India

The satellite tag being deployed on the whale shark in Sutrapara

Sutrapada (Gujarat), March 16, 2010: A whale shark was satellite-tagged for the first time in India, earlier this week, as part of research to understand behavior, ecological preferences and migration of this species.

The first set of data received this morning indicated that the tagged individual, a 6.5 m long male rescued off the Gujarat coast, had reached the coast of Maharashtra.

The satellite tag was deployed by a team of researchers under the Whale Shark Conservation Project, a joint venture of the Gujarat Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), and the Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL).

“This individual was caught in a fishing net offshore Sutrapada. As with other such individuals in the past, the local fishermen along with the Project team, freed the whale shark. There were several rescues last week, but this case was favourable for tagging as the tail was suitably exposed and the tag could be deployed efficiently and swiftly,” said Anita Karn, Deputy Conservator of Forests – Junagadh.

Satellite tagging is the latest development in the Whale Shark Conservation Project that had earlier initiated photo-identification, genetic analysis and visual tagging of whale sharks in India.

“Few years ago, while discussing with WTI & other partners on how the scientific study on whale sharks should go forward, satellite tagging was identified as an important tool,” said Alka Talwar, Head – Communities Development, TCL. “To now see the first tag in place and receive data from the tag is to know that all that we had planned and dreamt is now being realised. For us at Tata Chemicals, this is an achievement of another milestone. We hope that the data from this tag as well as many others that will subsequently be deployed will provide the world with new scientific data and information on this beautiful “Vhali” and help us ensure the long term survival of this species.”

“The spot tag was attached to the caudal fin of the fish” explains Manoj Matwal, Assistant Field Officer, WTI. “This tag is expected to last for about six months and give us data related to movement of the fish.”

The top priority for the team was to carry out the rescue and tagging operation with minimal possible disturbance and stress to the fish. WTI Veterinarian, Dr Minla Zangmu Lachungpa, who also collected tissue sample of the individual for genetic analysis, closely monitored the animal during the course of the operation.

The first signal from the animal was received early this morning, 68 hours after the tag was fixed on the animal. The signal was received 250 kms west of the coast of Mumbai, revealing that the fish has travelled southwards along the western coast.

Over the coming months, more tags are planned to be deployed and researchers from WTI will be closely following the movement patterns of these tagged whale sharks, giving unprecedented insight to the lives of this elusive species along the Indian coast.

The whale shark is the largest fish in the world and was once brutally killed across the shores of Gujarat for its liver oil used to water-proof boats. Made aware of the plight of the fish through the Whale Shark Campaign, the local fishermen began voluntary release of whale sharks accidentally caught in their nets. The fish was listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 in 2001, according it with the highest level of protection in the country.

Since its inception in 2008, the Whale Shark Conservation Project has been working with the support of the fishing communities, involving them in the conservation of this largest fish in the world.

The rescue team comprising of fishermen, Gujarat Forest Department and WTI staff

Call to Heal the World’s Coral Reefs

Toxic algae rapidly kills coral

Coral doesn't survive for long under a green cloud

Harmful algal blooms have the potential to lay waste to coral reefs.

Scientists studying coral reefs in the Gulf of Oman have issued the warning after being shocked by the impact of one large-scale bloom, which destroyed a coral reef in just three weeks.

Around 95% of the hard coral beneath the algae died off and 70% fewer fishes were observed in the area.

The rapidly growing patches of microscopic marine plants starve coral of sunlight and oxygen.
Coral reefs are increasingly under threat from environmental stress in the form of climate change, coastal development, overfishing, and pollution.

The toxic algae starves coral of light and oxygen

Climate change is suspected of causing a number of coral bleaching events, as rising sea temperatures stress coral communities.

But the latest study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, suggests that algal blooms could pose another significant threat.

Researchers from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health undertook studies of coral reef environments at two locations in the Gulf of Oman.

After their initial study, a large-scale algae bloom measuring over 500 square kilometres occurred in the area.

When the researchers returned three weeks later they found the coral beneath the bloom had been almost completely destroyed.

In one area, cauliflower (Pocillopora damicornis) and table top (Acropora arabensis) corals died off completely.

The sudden loss of the reef habitat had a knock on effect for the fish communities living there.

The researchers found an overall reduction of 70%, with 83% of the most abundant species severely reduced or completely eliminated from the survey site near Dibba.

The reef was rich in life before the algal bloom

Gulf parrotfish (Scarus persicus), pearly goatfish (Parupeneus margaritatus) and blackspot snapper (Lutjanus ehrenbergii) were among the affected species.

Analysis showed that hard corals were particularly vulnerable to the presence of the algae Cochlodinium polykrikoides.

“We were surprised at the extent and speed at which changes to the coral reef communities were affected,” says marine ecologist Andrew Bauman.

In recent times, the increased occurrence of rapidly growing areas or ‘blooms’ of algae have been attributed to human activities.

Eutrophication, excess nutrients in coastal areas caused by run-off from agricultural fertilisers and human sewage, is often cited as the trigger for these phenomena.

Certain species of algae, referred to by scientists as harmful algal blooms, have adverse effects on marine ecosystems as they clog fish gills, reduce water quality and starve other species of oxygen.

The presence of large patches of algae close to the water’s surface reduces the sunlight accessible to underwater plants for photosynthesis.

Although classed as animals, corals depend on a symbiotic relationship with microscopic marine plants (zooxanthellae) in their tissues for energy and oxygen.

When put under stress by changes in their environment, corals are known to expel their zooxanthellae.

The photosynthetic algae give corals their colour, so after this expulsion only the white ‘skeleton’ remains. This is known as coral bleaching.

If the symbiotic algae does not return the coral dies, with fatal consequences for the fishes dependant upon it for food and shelter.

Climate change affects turtles

The “turtle and dugong capital of the world”, the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and Torres Strait region, faces increased pressure under climate change from human actions such as fishing, hunting, onshore development and pollution.

“Depletion of turtle and dugong numbers increases their vulnerability to other threats and lowers their ability to cope with climate change,” Dr Mariana Fuentes of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University will tell the Coral Reef Symposium in Canberra today.

Dr Fuentes says that turtles in particular are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which include decreases in hatching success, loss of nesting areas and overheated beaches, which will decrease the turtles’ reproductive output and may significantly alter the sex ratio of their offspring.

Dr. Fuentes’ research into the green, hawksbill and flatback turtles and well as dugongs in the northern GBR and Torres Strait is seeking to establish priorities for the management of marine megafauna to increase their resilience to climate change.

“Managers face the challenge of addressing the direct effects of climate change, as well as ongoing threats that dugongs and sea turtles face throughout their geographic range,” she explains. “For logistical, financial and political reasons, managers cannot address all threats simultaneously, and so need to prioritize their actions.

Of particular concern is the effect of climate change on the gender balance of turtle population, Dr Fuentes says: “The temperature of the beach sand determines the gender of the hatchlings – warmer sand produces more females while cooler sand produces more males.”

“Under current conditions the nesting grounds are already producing more females. With an increasing temperature, these turtles are at risk of stretching out the ratio, though we can’t yet predict exactly when it will cause an unbalanced population.”

“While sea turtles have survived large climatic fluctuations during their evolutionary history, modern rates of climate change are much faster, and are coupled with additional human pressures,” says Dr Fuentes. “We still do not know whether turtles can adapt to modern rates of climate change.”

Dugongs may experience indirect effects of climate change and human activity through impacts on their main food source, seagrass. Seagrass diebacks are linked to lower reproduction, increased mortality and emigration of dugongs.

Dr Fuentes has been working closely with indigenous communities in the Torres Strait region and northern GBR to monitor turtle numbers and condition and to track the movements of dugongs.

She says it will be important to take a range of short-term and long-term measures to protect turtles and dugongs from climate change, including:
1) reducing the negative stresses that they are currently subject to
2) actively trying to change the habitat they use (e.g. by shading nests, re-vegetating beaches and replacing lost sand), and
3) protecting areas that seem to offer the best conditions as refuges in the future.

“Turtles and dugongs have numerous roles – apart from their cultural and spiritual significance to the indigenous community, they are important for the tourism industry. Being at the top of the food chain also means that they have high ecological significance.”

The loss of these species would have a huge impact on the northern Australian marine environment and on indigenous communities, she warns.

“There are still many uncertainties over how turtles and dugongs will be impacted by climate change. For the time being the best prospects for their survival are to mitigate climate change (by reducing carbon emissions) and to reduce negative pressure on turtles and dugongs from activities such as hunting and coastal development.”

“However, as the impacts of climate change become more extreme, more ‘active’ adaptation strategies may be necessary. The success of each adaptation option will depend on climatic impact and local social, economic and cultural conditions, and therefore needs to be considered on a case by case basis, and at a local scale,” Dr Fuentes explains.

A turtle in Raine island, Great Barrier Reef. Image: Mariana Fuentes

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