Australia suffers not only the loss of coral reefs.

Research just in reveals that extreme events from climate change (2011-2017) have damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitats, including coral reefs, mangroves, kelp forests and seagrass.  These habitats provide food and shelter for a huge range of marine and estuarine species, including large fish, turtles and dugongs.  Vital for fisheries, these key habitats are also used and much loved by local and international visitors. 

The rate of their loss is extremely worrying, especially given that these changes have essentially occurred during an increase in global temperature of 1°C above the preindustrial era. As we go towards warming of 1.5oC, these serious impacts are more than likely to be amplified.

Extreme weather likely behind worst recorded mangrove dieback in northern Australia (Photo: Norm Duke)

Much of the damage has been driven by unusually long and hot underwater heat waves.  Other changes have been due to knock-on effects.  For example, large amounts of kelp forests have disappeared from the south-east coast of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species as higher latitudes warm.

The future is of concern.  The authors used ecosystem models to evaluate long-term outcomes from changing extreme events, which are predicted to become more frequent and intense with return times diminishing rapidly.  In the latter case, this means that many ecosystems are failing to recover in time prior to the next extreme event.

Check out the peer-reviewed study here.

Human being and fish can coexist peacefully

… or at least that seems to be what Australia’s Opposition leader thinks would happen if he stopped the expansion of marine protected areas in Australian waters:

In a policy aimed at marginal Queensland seats, Mr Abbott said a Coalition government would ”immediately suspend the marine protection process which is threatening the livelihoods of many people in the fishing industry and many people in the tourism industry”.

”All of us want to see appropriate environmental protection, but man and nature have to live together,” Mr Abbott said as he toured the seat of Dawson, in Mackay, which is held by Labor by 2.6 per cent.

Citing “Real action to protect our marine environments and fishing communities” , Mr Abbott wants to balance environmental protection with economic growth by first suspending the marine protected area process. But doesn’t tourism in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park  generate billions of dollars for the Australian economy annually?

The GBRMP re-zoning that resulted in an increase in strict protection from 4.5% to over 30% was of course intiated under the previous Howard government, and undertaken through a comprehensive research and consultation process. According to Mr Abbott, things have  gone awry since then, although so far the details on this are scanty.

Coalition policy would require consideration of peer reviewed scientific evidence of threats to marine biodiversity before future decisions are made about marine park establishment:

“We would not be interested in just putting lines on maps. If there’s something out there that needs to be protected, if it’s iconic and needs protection, we’d want to see the science and that science would have to be peer-reviewed.”

Fortunately, there is already a lot out there to suggest that the marine environment is under threat, fishing kills fish and that marine parks have benefits for biodiversity and maintaining fish stocks. Conservation planning software used world wide, and developed in Queensland, is used to assist in the creation of marine parks  in a way that seeks to achieve protection for biodiversity while balancing socio-economic objectives.  The science is light years ahead of lines on maps (although, this can be helpful as part of the community consultation process).

It’s encouraging to see the high regard that Mr Abbott places upon peer reviewed science on this issue, so for someone who gets his ‘facts’ about climate change from Heaven + Earth, perhaps a bit of consistency wouldn’t go astray?

Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) gazetted in resource-poor areas of the seascape


Theres a new paper out by Edgar et al in Ecological Applications that tracks the ecosystem effects of 14 MPA’s, and exploited companion sites, in southern Australia and Tanzania over a 16 year period.

The effects of the MPAs are interesting: biomass of large predators is on a steep increasing trend, while prey-species such as grazing molluscs and urchins are on a downward slope. I wonder what this will lead in terms of macroalgal abundances?

Another interesting finding is that

recently declared MPAs across Australia have been systematically located in areas with few fishery resources. Stakeholders with fishing interests presumably lobbied successfully against the “locking up” of exploitable fish stocks in SZs

I’ve stumbled upon many ecologists who tend to think that MPA’s are almost always designated in pristine areas, thus confounding interpretations of whether they are effective, i.e “the protected sites are healthy, not because they’re protected, but because they were healthy in the first place”. Those with more insights into how local resource users think and work will probably disagree on this, and usually claim the contrary, i.e. “people are pretty darn good at maneuvering the MPA-creation process so as not to include their best fishing grounds”. This study provides compelling evidence of the latter:

The abstract summarizes things nicely:

Tasmanian reef communities within ‘‘no-take’’ marine protected areas (MPAs) exhibited direct and indirect ecological changes that increasingly manifested over 16 years, eventually transforming into communities not otherwise present in the regional seascape. Data from 14 temperate and subtropical Australian MPAs further demonstrated that ecological changes continue to develop in MPAs over at least two decades, probably much longer. The continent-scale study additionally showed recently established MPAs to be consistently located at sites with low resource value relative to adjacent fished reference areas. This outcome was presumably generated by sociopolitical pressures and planning processes that aim to systematically avoid locations with valuable resources, potentially compromising biodiversity conservation goals. Locations that were formerly highly fished are needed within MPA networks if the networks are to achieve conservation aims associated with (1) safeguarding all regional habitat types, (2) protecting threatened habitats and species, and (3) providing appropriate reference benchmarks for assessing impacts of fishing. Because of long time lags, the ubiquity of fishing impacts, and the relatively recent establishment of MPAs, the full impact of fishing on coastal reefs has yet to be empirically assessed.

Tropical Storms Ana, Bil and Hurricane Guillermo mark the late onset of the Hurricane season in the Caribbean

Hurricane season has started late this year. NOAA are issuing advisories on Hurricane Guillermo (Category 3) affecting the Pacific Baja Penninsula and heading towards Hawaii, and Tropical Storms Ana and Bill are heading straight towards the Dutch Antilles.


Quite a few commentators are describing this as an ‘odd‘ season – usually the first ‘named’ storm occurs around the 10th of July. By this time last year, five ‘named’ storms had crossed the Caribbean, including Hurricanes Bertha and Dolly.  Keep watching this space though, as the last time the Caribbean had a similair dry spell was back in 1992. Then, the first hurricane of the season (Hurricane Andrew) formed  on the 17th of August, and made landfall on Florida a week later as a Category 5 Hurricane – the second most powerful to hit the US in the last century!

In other hurricane related news, Michael Mann (the author of the infamous hockey-stick curve, not the director of Miami Vice) published an interesting paper on the history of cyclones in the journal Nature (‘Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years‘, but see ‘Research to rock you like a hurricane‘ for best news article title). In a nutshell, Mann argues that the peak in Hurricane activity in the past decade is not unique, with a similar peak in Hurricane activity back in 1000AD across the tropical Atlantic. Whilst we know that in increase in sea surface temperatures as a result of global warming will trigger more hurricane activity, if climate change doesn’t increase El Nino activity, then this increase may be tempered. More from the Hurricane season and the impacts on both coral reefs and the 2009 bleaching season as it comes.

SeaSponge SmartPants

barrel_sponge_ngDr Bernie Degnan and his team have been sequencing the genome of the simple sea sponge here at the University of Queensland and have made some pretty astonishing findings in regards to humans and stem cells:


CARLY LAIRD: For anyone who thought the cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants, was a bit far fetched, think again. Bernie Degnan is a professor of marine biology at the University of Queensland. He says although sea sponges certainly can’t talk and don’t have their own apartments under the sea, they are indeed clever marine animals.

BERNIE DEGNAN: Sponges just by their natural biology do things that we only wish we can engineer in a biomedical laboratory.

CARLY LAIRD: Professor Degnan and his colleagues have just completed the first genome sequence of the squelchy organisms. They found that sponges are very similar to our own gene make-up.

BERNIE DEGNAN: Turns out this sponge is the first marine organism in Australian waters to have its genome fully sequenced, assembled and annotated which means it’s been analysed to completion.

By having all that genomic information we’ve been able to start to tease apart the ways sponges actually work and funny, try and relate that back to our own condition. So even though sponges and humans have kind of split off from each over at least 600 million years ago, we can find a whole range of molecular characteristics, genes that are shared between sponges and humans.

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.

Management effectiveness of the world’s marine fisheries

UPDATE: Camilo Mora, the lead author of the study, posted a comment about the test of expert opinions.   “I would like to clarify that one of the tests we did in this paper was to compare the expert’s opinions with actual empirical data collected by one of us (i.t. Tony Pitcher). We found that experts’ opinions match very well the reality of the management of each country and if anything the people inquired actually tended to be more positive about the situation (figure 1c in the paper).  The test you refer to that compared the responses of different experts was intended to assess the precision of the data while the comparison of experts’ answers with empirical data was intended to assess their accuracy. – Camilo”

I wanted his clarification to come up in the main blog post.  Ill look at this issue tonight and will comment/reply if appropriate ASAP.  – “Bruno”

journal.pbio.1000131.g004A new paper (Mora et al. 2009) published in the high profile, open access journal PLoS Biology, documents the management effectiveness of the world’s marine fisheries.  The international team based the analysis on questioners filled out by 1,188 fisheries experts.  The experts were asked to assess the current effectiveness of fisheries management around the world.  The study also calculated “probable sustainability of reported catches to determine how management affects fisheries sustainability”.

One neat aspect of the study is that it asked the experts to evaluate a variety of aspects of management effectiveness including capacity to implement regulations.  However, the weakness, in my opinion, is that the study relied on expert opinion, rather than data. The authors argued that the fact that the experts largely agreed with each other was evidence of the correctness of their opinions: “Experts were mostly fisheries managers, university professors, and governmental and nongovernmental researchers. Despite these diverse backgrounds, responses were highly consistent within each country (i.e., where multiple responses were given, 67% of experts chose the same answer to any given question and 27% chose the next closest response”.  To me, this assertion seems dubious at best.   (There are a number of beliefs held by most my coral reef colleagues that are demonstrably false or only weakly supported by empirical science.)

Our survey shows that 7% of all coastal states undergo rigorous scientific assessment for the generation of management policies, 1.4% also have a participatory and transparent processes to convert scientific recommendations into policy, and 0.95% also provide for robust mechanisms to ensure the compliance with regulations; none is also free of the effects of excess fishing capacity, subsidies, or access to foreign fishing. A comparison of fisheries management attributes with the sustainability of reported fisheries catches indicated that the conversion of scientific advice into policy, through a participatory and transparent process, is at the core of achieving fisheries sustainability, regardless of other attributes of the fisheries. Our results illustrate the great vulnerability of the world’s fisheries and the urgent need to meet well-identified guidelines for sustainable management; they also provide a baseline against which future changes can be quantified.

Authors Summary: Global fisheries are in crisis: marine fisheries provide 15% of the animal protein consumed by humans, yet 80% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed. Several international initiatives have sought to improve the management of marine fisheries, hoping to reduce the deleterious ecological and socioeconomic consequence of the crisis. Unfortunately, the extent to which countries are improving their management and whether such intervention ensures the sustainability of the fisheries remain unknown. Here, we surveyed 1,188 fisheries experts from every coastal country in the world for information about the effectiveness with which fisheries are being managed, and related those results to an index of the probable sustainability of reported catches. We show that the management of fisheries worldwide is lagging far behind international guidelines recommended to minimize the effects of overexploitation. Only a handful of countries have a robust scientific basis for management recommendations, and transparent and participatory processes to convert those recommendations into policy while also ensuring compliance with regulations. Our study also shows that the conversion of scientific advice into policy, through a participatory and transparent process, is at the core of achieving fisheries sustainability, regardless of other attributes of the fisheries. These results illustrate the benefits of participatory, transparent, and science-based management while highlighting the great vulnerability of the world’s fisheries services.

From the concluding remarks:  “Current projections suggest that total demand for fisheries products is likely to increase by approximately 35 million metric tonnes by 2030… This contrasts sharply with the 20% to 50% reduction in current fishing effort suggested for achieving sustainability, and implies that regulators may face increasing pressures towards unsustainable catch quotas. Given that the demand for fish lies outside the control of conventional fisheries management, other national and international institutions will have to be involved to deal with poverty alleviation and stabilization of the world’s human population (to soften fisheries demand), if pressures on management are to be prevented and sustainability achieved.”

Citation: Mora C. et al. (2009) Management Effectiveness of the World’s Marine Fisheries. PLoS Biol 7(6): e1000131. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000131

Sylvie Earle – living legend and hero for the planet

TED, a nonprofit devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ hosts an annual conference bringing together ‘world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives’. I’ve watched quite a few incredible talks (Al Gore, Tierney Thys, & Jane Poynter to name but a few), but the one that stood out for me was the incredible Sylvia Earle, who is due to host a seminar on marine ecology and conservation in Brisbane in August (link). See below for her bio from the TED website:

Why you should listen to her:

Sylvia Earle, called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and the New York Times, “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress and “Hero for the Planet” by Time, is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer with a deep commitment to research through personal exploration.

Earle’s work has been at the frontier of deep ocean exploration for four decades. Earle has led more than 50 expeditions worldwide involving more than 6,000 hours underwater. As captain of the first all-female team to live underwater, she and her fellow scientists received a ticker-tape parade and White House reception upon their return to the surface. In 1979, Sylvia Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any other woman before or since. In the 1980s she started the companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies with engineer Graham Hawkes to design and build undersea vehicles that allow scientists to work at previously inaccessible depths. In the early 1990s, Dr. Earle served as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. At present she is explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

Sylvia Earle is a dedicated advocate for the world’s oceans and the creatures that live in them. Her voice speaks with wonder and amazement at the glory of the oceans and with urgency to awaken the public from its ignorance about the role the oceans plays in all of our lives and the importance of maintaining their health.

“We’ve got to somehow stabilize our connection to nature so that in 50 years from now, 500 years, 5,000 years from now there will still be a wild system and respect for what it takes to sustain us.” – Sylvia Earle

“National targets give virtually no chance of protecting coral reefs”

A study published in Nature Reports Climate Change on 11 June 2009 reports on the consequences of the emission targets being set by countries, including the US and Australia, in the lead-up to the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December.

Joeri Rogelj and colleagues conclude, “National targets give virtually no chance of constraining warming to 2 °C and no chance of protecting coral reefs.”


Citing recent publications of Jacob Silverman and colleagues, they note in relation to ocean acidification and coral reefs:

Acid test
While we have focused on global mean temperature increase here, it is increasingly clear that independent of its effect on temperature, growing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will also threaten the world’s oceans owing to acidification. The latest research indicates substantial risk to calcifying organisms at atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 450 ppm, with all coral reefs halting their growth and beginning to dissolve at concentrations of 550 ppm. The best Halfway to Copenhagen emissions pathway would result in CO2 concentrations above this level shortly after 2050.

Unless there is a major improvement in national commitments to reducing greenhouse gases, we see virtually no chance of staying below 2 or 1.5 °C. Coral reefs, in addition, seem to have certainly no chance if the work of Jacob Silverman and colleagues is correct.