Somali pirates and roving banditry

Resilience Science just ran a post on a recent AP story that highlights the link between Somali pirates and recovering fish stocks in the region. Basically, increases in pirate activity has scared off the roving bandits –  fishing fleets from mainly from South Korea, Japan and EU – that have previously been exploiting the rich fishing grounds in the region.

Fishermen and sportsmen say they’ve been catching more fish than ever. Howard Lawrence-Brown, who owns Kenya Deep Sea Fishing, said fishing stocks over the last year have been up “enormously — across all species.”

“We had the best marlin season ever last year,” said Lawrence-Brown, who owns Kenya Deep Sea Fishing. “The only explanation is that somebody is not targeting them somewhere. … There’s definitely no question about it, the lack of commercial fishing has made a difference.”

I’m personally not convinced that overexploited fish stocks can recover on such short time-scales, but this is an interesting hypothesis. The story reiterates another interesting facet of the Somali pirate problem: that this phenomenon actually began as a way to protect Somali fishing grounds from foreign fleets. From another, earlier story from Time magazine

Ever since a civil war brought down Somalia’s last functional government in 1991, the country’s 3,330 km (2,000 miles) of coastline — the longest in continental Africa — has been pillaged by foreign vessels. A United Nations report in 2006 said that, in the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international “free for all,” with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen. According to another U.N. report, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year. “In any context,” says Gustavo Carvalho, a London-based researcher with Global Witness, an environmental NGO, “that is a staggering sum.”

In the face of this, impoverished Somalis living by the sea have been forced over the years to defend their own fishing expeditions out of ports such as Eyl, Kismayo and Harardhere — all now considered to be pirate dens. Somali fishermen, whose industry was always small-scale, lacked the advanced boats and technologies of their interloping competitors, and also complained of being shot at by foreign fishermen with water cannons and firearms. “The first pirate gangs emerged in the ’90s to protect against foreign trawlers,” says Peter Lehr, lecturer in terrorism studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and editor of Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism. The names of existing pirate fleets, such as the National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia or Somali Marines, are testament to the pirates’ initial motivations.

Caribbean lionfish invasion

A new Reef Site in Coral Reefs (Green and Cote 2009)  describes the striking densities of non-native lionfish on coral reefs in the Bahamas.  Lionfish (Pterois volitans), a predator from the central and western Pacific ocean, were first sighted in 1992 off Florida and have been spreading rapidly throughout the Caribbean (USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database 2009).

Picture 574

Lionfish in the Bahamas. Photo credit Richard Carey

On deep offshore reefs off of North Carolina, they are now the second most abundant fish (Whitfield et al. 2007).


Mean lionfish and grouper abundances from 17 sites off NC, USA. (from Whitfield et al 2007).

From Green and Cote (2009): At three sites, each separated by more than 1 km, we found >390 lionfish per hectare (mean ± 1 SD; 393.3 ± 144.4 lionfish ha−1, n = 4 transects per site). These densities are more than 18 times higher than those reported by Whitfield et al. (2007) from invaded habitats off the coast of North Carolina, USA (21.2 ± 5.1 ha−1)… Caribbean sightings have now been confirmed as far west as Cuba and the Cayman Islands and southeast to St. Croix.


Read more about lionfish here


Green, S. J., and I. M. Cote. 2009. Record densities of Indo-Pacific lionfish on Bahamian coral reefs. Coral Reefs 28:107-107

Whitfield, P. E., J. A. Hare, A. W. David, S. L. Harter, R. C. Munoz, and C. M. Addison. 2007. Abundance estimates of the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans/miles complex in the Western North Atlantic. Biological Invasions 9:53-64.

Where Does It All Go? The ‘Pacific Garbage Patch’

LA River 2
The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is on a 2 month voyage across the Pacific to study the concentration of plastics in the North Subtropical Gyre.  This area has been known as the “Pacific Garbage Patch” due to the convergence of several ocean currents that drag garbage from all corners of the globe.  Not only is there large floating debris (bottle caps, toothbrushes, plastic bags, etc.) but half of the debris found is small chips of unidentifiable plastics.

Charles Moore, who discovered this garbage patch, found plastic flakes floating 10 meters below the surface like “snowflakes or fish food”.  The more disturbing fact is the weight of plastic far outweighed the plankton in the water.  Consequently there are increasing accumulations of plastic on beaches in the Pacific.  UNEP estimates that plastic is killing a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year.

Scientific American magazine are blogging the voyage (link ), as are the Algalita foundation (link), which makes for a fascinating yet depressing read:

Chrisitana and Jeff each reeled in a mahi mahi today, one right after the other. The fish served a double purpose, science and sustenance. Before we filleted the fish, Christiana took muscle and liver samples of each of the fish and looked in their stomachs. Fish number 3, the mahi mahi that Jeff reeled in, contained what the Captain confirmed via microscope as none other than a piece of plastic film. This now makes 8 species of fish in which we have identified with plastic in their gut.


The never-ending jellyfish joyride


Whilst the media have run with a series of entertaining headlines (“Sea of deadly jelly lurks, scientist warns“, second only to “jellyfish joyride threatens oceans“), University of Queensland scientist Dr Anthony Richardson issued a grave warning as to the future of the worlds oceans (co-inciding with World Oceans Day). Dr Richardson’s research shows convincing evidence that jellyfish aggregations, associated with overfishing of their main predators and increases in nutrient run-off from fertilisers and sewage, are likely to take over large parts of the worlds oceans in the decades to come.

“Small pelagic fish like sardines and pilchards are being fished out in many places and they eat plankton, which is partly made up of juvenile jellyfish,”

“Nutrient run-off on land causes phytoplankton blooms which produce water with low oxygen which jellyfish can survive but fish can’t.

“As well, a warming ocean associated with climate change sees increasing numbers of tiny flagellates in surface waters, and they are a favourite food of some jellyfish.” (Read More)

Amongst the more impressive of these are the giant Nomura jellyfish (over 2m in diameter, weighing over 200kg), which is already causing problems for fisherman in Japan by clogging nets (click through the image above for a higher resolution photograph). Despite the serious topic, I think Dr Richardson is a definite contender for the best paper title of the year (“The jellyfish joyride: causes, consequences and management responses to a more gelatinous future“, with a subsection entitled “Self-enhancing feedback: the never-ending jellyfish joyride“).

Reef Relief: Queensland Government enacts new leglisation on the GBR


In a major step to protecting the inshore reefs of the GBR, the Queensland Government have inacted fairly dramatic legislation on the use of fertilisers and pesticides on farms in the reef catchment. Under the new rules, farmers in the Mackay-Whitsunday, Burdekin Dry Tropics and Far North’s Wet Tropic catchments must keep records on fertiliser usage and apply ‘no more than the optimum amount of fertiliser to their soil’. The use of the pesticides Atrazine, Diuron, Ametryn, Hexazinone or Tebuthiuron are also subject to an array of new rules and regulations.

Although not without controversy, this is great news for the reefs on the GBR. Over 32,000 tonnes of fertiliser (worth $32 million) leaches out into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon every year through overfertilisation on farms. There is strong scientific evidence showing that elevated pesticide and nutrients from the land associated with flood waters induce coral bleaching and mortality during flood years (see here for a great post by Jon Brodie on the subject).

Strict controls on fertilisers and pesticides and close monitoring of large and high-risk farms in north Queensland will help heal the Great Barrier Reef, Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones said today.

Ms Jones, introducing the Great Barrier Reef Protection Bill 2009 to State Parliament, said the legislation would reduce the levels of farm chemicals and sediment harming the Reef.

“The Bill will help detox the Great Barrier Reef and give it a fighting chance,” Ms Jones said.

“The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s most treasured possession and is worth nearly $6 billion to our economy, supporting about 63,000 jobs.

“But its health has been deteriorating from a number of factors, including damaging run-off from sugar cane fields and beef cattle farms in Reef catchments.

“We must do all we can to ensure this natural wonder of the world survives long after us and that means minimising man-made harm. This Bill is good for the Reef and it makes good business sense for farmers.

“While many farmers are doing the right thing and have minimised their impact, we must go further than the voluntary approach to get the results we need faster.

“Our Reef is too precious so we have no option but to act now and act decisively.

“The Bligh Government told Queenslanders last election that we would regulate to reduce the amount of fertiliser and pesticides entering the Reef by 50 per cent in four years.

“The Bill makes good on that commitment. It’s backed by strong scientific evidence and it gives the Reef every chance of recovering from the damage inflicted by over-fertilising, toxic pesticides and soil run-off.”(Link to media release)

Question and answer session on the new Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill


I thought this was well worth posting – a comprehensive ‘who, how, what and why’ answer session by the government that neatly answers most common concerns over the new reef protection amendment.

Question – Who and where will the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 affect? When will regulation and Bill commence and come into effect?

Question: Who will the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 affect?


•    Around 4,500 farmers are likely to be affected.

•    Around 1,000 farmers will initially be required to prepare Environmental Risk Management Plans (ERMPs).

•    The level of regulatory impact on individual farmers can vary considerably depending on the hazards, problems, and management practices on each property.

•    ERMPs will be required for cattle graziers with a property greater than 2,000 hectares in the Burdekin Dry Tropics and sugarcane farmers with properties greater than 70 hectares in the Wet Tropics catchment.

Question: Where does the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 and regulations apply?


•    All cattle grazing of more than 100 ‘standard cattle units’ and all sugarcane farming in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin Dry Tropics, and Mackay Whitsunday catchments.

Question: When will the new regime come into effect?
•    The initially targeted high risk farmers who must prepare and implement an Environmental Risk Management Plan will have nine months in total from 1 January 2010 to submit their ERMP which will be implemented over a number of years depending on their circumstances.
•    If further ‘hot spots’ are identified, farmers and graziers in these areas will be required to submit a Plan within three months of being notified.
•    Farmers will be notified by the Department of Environment and Resource Management either directly, by media advertising or by the Department’s other communications channels.

Question – How will the new regulations improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef?

•    The major threats to the health of the Reef are ocean acidification and coral bleaching due to climate change and reduced water quality due to agricultural pollution.
•    The new threat from climate change means it is now even more critical to reduce the existing damage from land runoff of nutrients, sediments, and pesticides to improve the Reef’s water quality and its resilience to the new impacts of climate change.
•    Reducing all of the threats is essential to a healthy Reef, however regulating agricultural runoff is the most immediate and efficient response to halt the decline of the Reef’s health.
•    Therefore, the new regulation focuses on catchment-scale reduction of water pollution from agriculture to increase the health of the Great Barrier Reef by improving the water quality in our waterways generally.

Question – How do we know that agricultural activities are impacting on the Great Barrier Reef?

•    There is substantial and credible scientific evidence that indicates the Reef’s health is suffering long-term decline from the nutrient, pesticide and sediment runoff from broad-scale agriculture in adjacent river catchments.

•    In 2008, the Scientific Consensus Statement on Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef was released by 13 leading scientists after reviewing 500 technical papers.

•    It confirmed the presence of sediment, nutrients and pesticides in the Reef—up to 60 km offshore—in amounts that will cause it harm. In catchment waterways these contaminants were found at levels proportional to the land under agriculture—there were more contaminants where there was more agriculture.

•    Also in 2006 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s annual marine monitoring report found high concentrations of the agricultural pesticide, diuron, at many river mouth sites.

•    Peer reviewed science in 2006 by leading Reef scientists documented the marked decline in the richness of coral for 400 kilometres south of Cooktown—right next to the catchments dominated by these industries.

•    We know that new science, recently or about to be published, reiterates the growing problem of pesticides and herbicides in freshwater and marine environments.  A paper published this year by Robert Packett and others indicates serious atrazine contamination in the Reef catchment.

Question – What do farmers need to do under the new regime?


The bill applies to cattle and sugarcane production located in the priority catchments of the Burdekin Dry Tropics, Mackay-Whitsunday and the Wet Tropics.

Cattle grazing and sugarcane growing will now be designated agricultural environmentally relevant activities under the Environmental Protection Act.

What farmers will be required to do under the bill:

•    Record and report as required on such things as use of fertiliser, weed poisons and farming management practices.

•    If applying fertiliser, they must calculate the optimum amount for application using a soil test and other information and not apply more than the optimum amount, so as to prevent over-fertilisation and reduce run-off.

•    Some specified high risk Farmers will need to prepare and implement an ERMP to entrench the adoption of best management practices and continuous improvement.

•    They will need to be aware of the change to the restrictions on the use of key damaging pesticides in the Chemical Usage (Agricultural and Veterinary) Control Regulation 1999.
Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009

Question – How are you choosing who needs to prepare and keep Environmental Risk Management Plans?


1.    Cattle graziers in the Burdekin Dry Tropics catchment with a property greater than 2000 hectares.


•    This will capture most large-scale and extensive cattle grazing properties that contribute the majority of sediment runoff to the Reef.

•    This property threshold will also ensure that coastal pasture and dairy operations that are considered lower priority contributors to runoff do not initially fall under the requirement.

2.    Sugarcane farmers in the Wet Tropics catchment with property greater than 70 hectares.


•    The average size of sugarcane farms in the Wet Tropics is 60 to 70 hectares which will capture a large proportion of the catchment with proportionately fewer producers, hence allowing the most pollution reduction for the least cost.

•    The Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research report for the State of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef Protection Package states that: ‘The Wet Tropics generates large amounts of harmful nutrient and pesticide runoff from sugarcane that is directly harming the Great Barrier Reef.  Seventy-eight percent of all nitrogen pollution from human activities comes directly from sugarcane in the Wet Tropics.’

Question – How will you make sure farmers are doing the right thing? How will you know they are not keeping wrong records?


•    Farmers’ records, management plans, and chemical and fertiliser use will be audited on risk targeted basis and compliance enforced if necessary.

•    Online advice, tools and forms will be provided free to farmers to help them keep records and improve management practices. This will be supported by ‘how to’ guidance that explains why the information is being collected and what form the records should take.

•    Farmers without access to the internet will be provided with local access to online reporting systems and regional staff.  There will also be training courses available.
•    To save farmers work, the required records will as far as possible align with current automated record keeping systems such as AgDat.  Industry organisations will be invited to help design the tools to ensure the maximum practicality and benefit to farmers and the Reef.

•    There will also be regional reviews where the Department will write to farmers and request their records. This will be risk-based focussing on catchments where poor performance is hindering achievement of Reef Plan targets.

Question – How did the government identify which agricultural chemical to control?

•    Key agricultural chemical products to be restricted are: diuron, atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone and tebuthiuron
•    The herbicide residues most commonly found in Reef’s surface waters are diuron, atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone. They come from areas of sugarcane cultivation.
•    Residues of tebuthiuron come from the use of ‘grassland’ on grazing lands for woody weed control.
•    Strong scientific evidence shows the presence of pesticides in the Great Barrier Reef, which have been detected at harmful concentrations up to 60kilometres offshore during the wet season.
•    A recent report noted that river water plumes entering the Reef contain a profile of diuron, atrazine, and hexazinone residues.  Contrary to general belief, these pesticides were not removed by natural physical or biological progress like mixing or dilution with seawater.
•    The study found that exposure to high diuron concentration for four days will hinder the coral’s ability to produce energy, causing bleaching.

Question – Will there be a cost burden on farmers?

•    The level of regulatory impact on property owners will vary considerably depending on the level of risk to the Reef of the activity and what current management practices are in place.
•    It is expected that the cost of the regulatory measures are likely, in many instances, to be offset by cost savings from increased productivity and reduced input costs.  Those whose risks are greatest will usually have most to gain by reducing the loss of fertiliser and pesticides, which are increasingly expensive.
•    Many farmers are already doing the right things by keeping a management plan, applying the correct level of fertiliser, using pesticides responsibly and taking measures to minimise Reef run-off.  These farmers will not be greatly affected.
•    For example, a cattle grazing operation implementing a land management agreement under the Delbessie arrangement for leasehold land is likely to be able to satisfy relevant requirements for sediment management on grazing lands without significant additional work.
•    Those who have a plan to implement management practices equivalent to an ERMP will not have to duplicate their effort.
•    The cost of record keeping, preparing plans and reporting under the legislation will vary according to the level of risk of the activity.  Low risk activities will only incur small costs and take very little time.
•    Property owners classified ‘low risk’ will not be required to have an ERMP.
•    For a medium level risk activity an ERMP may cost around $3,500 to prepare.
•    Grazing property owners with an ERMP may need to fence erosion hazard areas, provide off-stream watering points and manage vegetation cover to reduce sediment loss. These measures will vary greatly in cost, but may average around $5,000 a year over three years.  There are major economic benefits in applying these improved management practices.
•    However, ERMPs will be flexible to allow for the spread of investment in new practices over a reasonably long period.
•    There is evidence that optimal application of fertiliser possibly using precision farming equipment (possibly costing about $30,000) might save about $3,000 per year in reduced fertiliser costs for each farmer.  Farmers can use contractors to apply fertiliser or share costs of equipment between a number of farmers.
•    A worst case scenario relates to property owners who perform poorly and:
o    have done no training relating to the use of atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone, diuron, and tebuthiuron handling and application
o    have no property plans relating to environmental management
o    use the atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone, diuron, and tebuthiuron across all areas of their operation
o    do not do any soil testing
o    have not implemented practices that minimise environmental impact
o    do not access any subsidy or grants for training or implementation.
•    The upfront cost to such an operator would be approximately $6,000, consisting of: training ($500); soil testing ($320) and preparation of an ERMP ($5,000 assuming a specialist is employed.  For a simple low risk activity, the farmer should be able to prepare the ERMP without paying for assistance, utilising online and other support provided free by the government).
•    The implementation cost would vary depending on the property and costs would need to be traded off against the benefits in productivity and profits as a result of lower input costs and increased yield.

Question – Will the new laws affect food quality?

•    The new laws will not affect food quality.

•    The new laws encourage adoption of better management practices that improve water quality.  It does not require farmers to change practices with respect to production of food that would impact on quality.

•    Food crops will take up the nutrients they need from the soil. Fertiliser that is excess to the crop’s requirements will run off properties to the Reef.

•    The use of atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone, diuron, and tebuthiuron will be restricted in waterways and drainage lines and within certain distances from waterways.  As these are herbicides, there will be no impact on the quality of food.
•     A concern may be around the security of the food generated for local and export markets. The new laws may have some implementation costs for farmers but these costs should be weighed against the benefits in productivity and profits as a result of lower input costs or increased yield. Therefore there should be no impact on security of food supply.

Question – How will we know if Reef run-off has been reduced in four years and the legislation’s objectives have been achieved?

•    There will be a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation program to effectively measure the legislation’s progress towards its targets.
•    Program monitoring and evaluation will focus on identifying what effect the regulation has on the level of land practice change and pollution reduction.
•    This data will be modelled to estimate the likely improvement of the quality of water entering the Reef.
•    Monitoring and evaluation will be done collaboratively between Queensland and Australian Government departments, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and regional groups.
•    Development and design of the monitoring and evaluation program is underway in conjunction with statistical experts. The program will be thoroughly peer reviewed.

Question – What else are Governments doing to protect the Reef?


•    Since the commencement of Reef Plan in 2003, the Queensland Government has invested about $125 million on natural resource management in Reef catchments, including reef water quality related projects.
•    This is an investment in the health of the entire catchment that is ultimately essential to a healthy reef ecosystem.
•    Earlier this year, the Queensland Government introduced a moratorium on the clearing all native re-growth vegetation within 50 metres of identified watercourses in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay/Whitsunday.
•    The Delbessie land management agreement between rural leaseholders and the Government commenced in 2008 offering extended leases to landholders in Reef catchments who improve the condition of their land.
•    Water Quality Improvement Plans are being completed by regional natural resource management groups to identify regional targets for water quality improvement and the management actions needed to reach those targets in specified timeframes.
•    Under the Reef Plan, nutrient management zones were identified to focus water quality investments on the critical ‘hot spots’.
•    The Australian Government’s out a $200 million Reef Rescue Plan which is supporting farmers, regional groups and industry groups to help make management practice change to protect the Reef.
How the programs fit together

•    The Australian Government’s Reef Rescue program will deliver an immediate improvement in management practices. This will be locked in for the long term by the Queensland Government’s regulatory package through its extension support services and regulatory measures.

•    The key issue is the need to significantly reduce pollutant loads of up to 90,000 tonnes year of nutrient mainly from cane farming and up to 66 million tonnes of sediment mainly from cattle grazing.

•    The targets announced as part of the Reef Protection Package by the Queensland Government in 2009 aim is to reduce nutrient and pesticides by 50 percent in four years.

•    Achieving Reef Plan targets will require the permanent adoption of management practices, compatible with Reef health, by farmers of about 80 per cent of cane land and over half of cattle grazing land.  It is likely that less than 10 per cent of this land is currently managed at the necessary standard.

•    While it will be impossible to determine the individual contribution to water quality improvement from any program, the outcome will be better, faster and more permanent with both programs operating together in harmony.

•    This is because Reef Rescue grants mainly help farmers to purchase equipment while the regulation ensures equipment is used to achieve the required outcome and continues to be used and replaced when it depreciates. It locks in the benefits of Reef Rescue for the long term and prevents the waste of the Reef Rescue investment.

•    Furthermore, the regulation is performance based so it drives innovation and continuous improvement, further reducing the call on Commonwealth resources for future Reef protection.

‘Reef beef’ – Great Barrier Reef pesticide controls anger farmers


Conservationists are anticipating a victory in their long running battle with farmers over the effects of runoffs from pesticides and fertilisers on the Great Barrier Reef.

Legislation has been introduced into the Queensland Parliament that would restrict farmers’ use of the chemicals. Failure to comply could trigger a $30,000 fine.

But farmers say there’s no proven links to coral bleaching and infestations of the crown of thorns starfish, and it’s just part of Green preference deals.

(Link to ABC Radio, click below for audio)


“Oyster reefs among hardest-hit ecosystems”


‘Oyster reefs among hardest-hit ecosystems’ – Washington Post, May 21st 2009

Overfishing and unchecked coastal development have resulted in the disappearance of 85 percent of all oyster reefs, making the ecosystem one of the most severely affected marine habitats in the world, according to a study released Thursday.

The Nature Conservancy study found that several reefs in China have seen drastic declines over the past 30 years, while those in Europe have almost entirely disappeared. Half of the shellfish populations in South America are under threat, while flat oysters have been virtually wiped out in Australia.

Native oyster reefs _ essentially mountains of the bivalves cemented together _ were once dominant features of many temperate estuaries around the world. Much as coral reefs are critical to marine habitats, the bivalve shellfish are vital to bays and estuaries, creating habitats for a variety of plants and animals, the study said.

Oyster reefs provide important benefits by filtering water, providing food and habitat for fish, crabs and birds, and serving as natural coastal buffers from boat wakes, sea level rise and storms, it said.

If you’re sucking down a wild oyster, it most likely came from one of only five regions on the east coast of North America, and in most of these regions, oyster reefs are in poor condition, the study said.

(Read more at the Washington Post)

Widespread coral mortality associated with river flood discharge in the Great Barrier Reef

Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Image 1: Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Heavy rainfall has been occurring in northern Queensland since December causing widespread flooding of coastal rivers (Burdekin, Haughton, Bohle, Herbert, Tully, O’Connell and others) as well as inland catchments. In some places all-time records were broken, especially around Townsville, and the flows in the Herbert and Burdekin were both far above average (more rain may occur as well).

The river discharge events are being tracked by satellite imagery in collaboration with Arnold Dekker’s group, CSIRO, Canberra and Lachlan McKinna in Michelle Devlin’s flood plume project at JCU. The plumes are noticeable as sediment rich in the early stages (January – image1) and extending out to near Dunk Island but colour rich (chlorophyll and coloured dissolved organic matter) in the latter stages (February – image 2) extending completely across the main reef and into the Coral Sea.

The plumes are being sampled via the GBRMPA – Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Marine Monitoring Program run by the Catchment to Reef Group, ACTFR, JCU (Michelle Devlin coordinator) and AIMS (Britta Schaffelke). Sampling from both fixed installations and vessel surveys have been going since December.

Satellite image from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Image 2: from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Incidentally to the plume monitoring, reports from many scientists working on the reef in the area between Mackay and Cooktown have been coming in of coral ‘bleaching’ and mortality, ‘fresh’ water layers, turbid water layers, green water and stratified water. Corals in poor condition have been reported by Katharina Fabricius (Dunk Island and surrounds), Sheriden Morris (Frankland group), Angus Thompson (Pandora, Palms, Whitsundays), Michelle Devlin, Jane Waterhouse and David Haynes (Dunk and surrounds), Britta Schaffelke (Franklands, High, Fitzroy, Pandora and others), Ray Berkelmans (Magnetic Island), Stephen Lewis and Brett Baker (Burdekin plume).


Image 3: Coral mortality at Russell Island (Franklands group) 24 February 2009. Photo: Britta Schaffelke, AIMS.

Images of white/dead coral from Franklands can be seen in image 3 and white bommies from surface near Dunk Island and the Family Group in image 4. Ongoing monitoring is being coordinated by David Wachenfeld and his team at GBRMPA.

Coral mortality and ‘bleaching’ is widespread on inner-shelf reefs in the above region. I put ‘bleaching’ in commas as this event is probably not mostly normal bleaching i.e. expulsion of zooxanthellae, but rather actual death of the coral organism. This is obviously somewhat speculative but consistent with observations of coral mortality in low salinity water by van Woesik and others after similar events in 1991 in the Keppel Islands.


Image 4: White coral bommies at Coombe Island (Family Group) 5 March 2009. Photo: Jane Waterhouse, ACTFR.

The coral mortality is no doubt associated with the long period (more than 8 weeks) of low salinity flood water but other factors such as elevated suspended sediment, nutrients and pesticides may also be important. Water temperatures were also above average in the period before the floods and an element of combined stress may also be important. Disentangling the separate and combined effects of the multiple stresses and their role in the coral mortality will be a major challenge.

The aftermath of Cyclone Hamish: Moreton Bay oil slick is Queenslands worst environmental disaster


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Miles of coastline in Australia have been declared a disaster zone after a large oil spill from a storm-damaged cargo ship.

At least 40 miles (60km) of the southeastern shore of Queensland were contaminated as an estimated 42 tonnes of oil spilt into the ocean from the MV Pacific Adventurer on Wednesday night. The ship, which had sailed into cyclonic weather, lost 31 containers, one of which pierced the hull and a fuel tank.

“It may well be the worst environmental disaster Queensland has ever seen,” said Anna Bligh, the state premier. She has declared Moreton Island, Bribie Island and southern parts of the Sunshine Coast disaster zones. The northern tip of Moreton Island, where the worst of the spill damage occurred, was declared a marine national park only two weeks ago. The island is noted for its populations of dugong, green turtles and bottlenose dolphins. (Read More)