In the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world, SeaWeb's Asia Pacific program is strengthening voices for ocean conservation by bridging the worlds of marine science, journalism, and public policy. We work to amplify and clarify the messages of local scientists and ocean experts, and to connect journalists and decision-makers to ocean issues and specialists.

We envision an Asia Pacific region where all people will act on the belief that a healthy ocean is vital to human life and a sustainable future.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

'Plunder or Protect'

Over on Caspar Henderson's Coral Bones blog, I found this:
WWF Australia is calling for the entire Coral Sea region to be declared a marine protected area. The campaigners are using economics-based arguments:
The resident population of sharks at Osprey Reef, the main dive site in the Coral Sea, is 40 animals, making each shark worth over $250,000 per year. When you compare this figure to $62.50 - the asking price for shark catch by local fisheries, it is more than evident Australian reef sharks are more valuable alive than dead.
News reports include this, this and this.
Sounds like a potential contribution to our socioeconomics panel in Alotau, no?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007



Friday, August 10, 2007

An update from Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at, following up on the bleaching reported around Okinawa. It seems that the situation is very severe.

As I blogged earlier, the reefs off Okinawa are undergoing a severe bleaching event. The latest news from researchers in the region suggest that it may be worse than previously thought:

Coral bleaching is observed in Ishigaki Is. since late July. High SST(>30C) has continued around the southwest Ryukyu archipelago this summer. SST is measured at 35 degree C at the most affected area of bleaching (shallow lagoon) in the daytime. - Takanori Sato

As a result of these high sea surface temperatures, the reefs are beginning to show signs of prolonged bleaching and subsequent mortality similar to that of the mass bleaching event in 1998:

As was quickly reported from Sato-san on 6 August at this ML, Ishigaki Is reef, the most flourished reef in Japan, is now heavily bleached. Shiraho reef known by its large distribution of Heliopora coerulea, is 60-70% bleached and some of the corals were already dead. Sea water temperature at Shirao reef increased over 33 degree centigrade during daytime, and never decreased below 30 degree centigrade even during nighttime since 21 July (measured by Tokyo Institute of Technology), and the bleaching started since 23 July.

50 to 90 % colonies of Porites lutea, Pavona frondifera, various species of Acropora, Pocillopora and Montipora aequituberculata were bleached and some of them were already dead. 70 % of Montipora digitata was bleached. Heliopora coerulea, on the other hand, was rarely bleached. Porites cylindrica was also bleached, but in an area near Heliopora distribution was not bleached.

The species difference was almost the same as that at 1998 bleaching event, except that Porites lutea, which was bleached but recovered its symbiotic algae after one month bleaching was already dead for the colonies along the shoreside. The situation seems to be more severe than that in 1998. Since 5 August, two typhoons passed near Ryukyu Islands, and I hope they reduced seawater temperature to stop the bleaching. -Hajime Kayanne

Mark Eakin from NOAA has been monitoring this for the past few months, and suggests that this bleaching event is likely to impact reefs across the region:

Warming has been seen in the region from the northern Philippines to southern Japan and Korea. NOAA Coral Reef Watch data reveal sea surface temperatures of 30-32 degrees and Coral Bleaching HotSpots reveal water temperatures of up to 2.9 degrees above the maximum monthly mean. The warmest thermal stress accumulation is currently found in the region south of Taipei and northwest of Luzon. Our Degree Heating Week product reveals that the waters off the Luzon coast now exceed 10 degree weeks of thermal stress. Reports, including two on the Coral List, indicate that bleaching is already underway at Kenting National Park, Taiwan, Ishigaki Island, Japan, and the Philippines.

Another large region of heat stress can be seen in the region east of the Mariana Islands and northwest of Wake Island. The SST anomalies and HotSpots are not as high in this region and are currently of less threat to coral reef systems.

More reports are coming in from around the region:

Starting from mid-late June, high SST (30C) is observed around the area of Southeast Taiwan, northern Philippine, and northern South China. Coral bleaching starts to develop in the mid July along the fringing reef at the Kenting National Park, Taiwan. Corals at shallow water (<5m)>

The coral bleaching can be ranked as the most serious bleaching event in the Kenting reef sincr the mass coral bleaching in 1998-1999. - Allen Chen

Thursday, August 2, 2007


Thursday, Aug. 2, 2007

ISHIGAKI, Okinawa Pref. (Kyodo) About 50 environment-minded residents of the Shiraho district on Ishigaki Island — whose livelihoods depend on marine life — have taken the initiative in trying to save endangered coral reefs through their own conservation measures.
"The coral reef is rapidly becoming emaciated. The number of species caught is also on the decline," said Tsunekazu Yamashiro, 75, leader of the Shiraho Sakana-Waku Umi (Sea Rich in Fish) Council. "Many marine animals depend on coral."
The council has drawn up a set of guidelines for local tourism companies on use of the sea, to be followed by similar rules for fishermen and researchers. The group also sponsors an event to teach local children the traditional fishing method called "kachi," in which fish are caught when they come within a rock fence set up in a reef's shallow waters to eat seaweed.
"The children were delighted with the traps. . . . They enjoy catching fish there and the rock fences will remind them of the richness of the sea," Yamashiro said. The son of a farming couple, Yamashiro would dive for moray eels and large white-spotted parrot fish in his youth, using a set of wooden goggles he made himself and wearing only a loincloth.
Back then, everyone thought the catch was inexhaustible. But since the rapid development of the subtropical island following Okinawa's return to Japan in 1972, locals have watched the marine paradise come under threat. A spate of construction projects and an abrupt increase in the population of crown-of-thorns starfish had heavily damaged the coral reef habitat.
When it was announced in 1979 that an airport — aimed at increasing the number of tourists — was to be built on an artificial island off the Shiraho district, local residents and environmentalists across the nation were outraged. "We cannot allow the authorities to reclaim land from this sea," Nae Keinou, 93, said. "No matter what anybody says, I'm 100 percent against the plan."
Keinou said she was taught the importance of the sea habitat by her parents. Then the sea saved her family, who faced hunger due to poor crops during World War II, with marine products such as seaweed, shellfish and small crabs. Her husband was bedridden and there were children to feed. "We were able to live without a lot of money. The first wealth is the sea. We cannot thank the sea enough, as our ancestors well knew" she said.
News reports showed Keinou crying out in anger and excitement and clasping the legs of one of the riot policemen sent to line the seashore where prefectural officials were to conduct a preparatory survey. The opposition movement lasted more than a decade.
In 1988, the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources unanimously adopted a resolution saying the airport construction would cause irreparable damage to the coral habitat and urged the central government to take protective measures. The airport site was changed in 2000 to another location on the island, only 2 km north of the sea area.
Shigekazu Mezaki, 61, a professor of environment policies at Nanzan University in Nagoya, went diving in the area for the first time in 1986 when he was making a map of coral reefs in Okinawa. "This sea is a miracle!" he thought as he saw coral reef like a dense forest and large schools of colorful fish.
Studies and surveys by Mezaki and other scholars at private bodies have determined that the finger-tree or milk-bush coral communities are the largest and oldest in the Northern Hemisphere. The independent habitat retained its original form because its bottom topography kept the sea protected from foreign invaders.
"The coral reef off Shiraho is particularly splendid," an official at the Environment Ministry said. "We plan to preserve it by designating the area a national park." However, the designation, planned for this month, guarantees no protection of the coral reef.
Although the site has been moved, the airport's impact on the coral habitat is an unknown. Some say the construction could contaminate groundwater. "There is no way to save coral reef except by terminating development of nearby land and by not tampering with nature," Mezaki said.
The International Coral Reef Initiative, made up of 40 organizations from 44 countries, is to launch a worldwide campaign next year for protection and conservation of coral reefs, which are also threatened by global warming.
"The higher sea temperature will enhance the risk of coral disease," said Hideyuki Yamashiro, 50, a professor of coral reef habitat at Okinawa National College of Technology. "Coral is a sensor of deterioration in the sea environment."
Coral reef accounts for only 0.2 percent of the world's sea area but one-fourth of marine fish depend on coral habitats.
Endozoic algae, which live within coral bodies and provide coral with nutrition by photonic synthesis, are disappearing due to an increase in sea temperatures, making the coral "white," or dead, a phenomenon that has been notable worldwide in the past 10 years.
Along with "white syndrome," about 20 kinds of diseases affecting coral have been discovered. To combat the global threat, the Ishigaki islanders are doing their part to "think globally, act locally."

Monday, July 23, 2007


James Randerson, science correspondent
Saturday July 21, 2007
The Guardian

A mystery disease is destroying rare coral populations around the UK coastline, according to marine biologists. The disease, which has similarities with infections that have decimated tropical reefs, is the first ever identified in cold water corals and the first to be seen in British waters.

The researchers have established in laboratory experiments that it is caused by a bacterial infection which seems to be prompted by increases in water temperature. That has fuelled speculation that the recent spate of outbreaks is due to rises in the sea temperature around Britain due to climate change.

"Many people know about tropical coral reefs, but are completely unaware that British waters contain a huge diversity of life, including these corals," said Jason Hall-Spencer at the University of Plymouth. "Diseases increasingly affect tropical corals and this is the first record of disease affecting cold-water corals."

He first heard reports of the disease occurring around Lundy island, off north Devon, from divers in 2002. They were seeing pink sea fans (a coral species, Eunicella verrucosa, that forms colonies up to 80cm high and a metre across), that had lost their colour and were covered in other marine organisms such as barnacles and seaweed. "When you look more carefully while you are diving you see the pink tissue on the outside has started to slough away, exposing the hard skeleton," he said. Between 2003 and 2006 he and his team surveyed 13 sites known to biologists as strongholds for the species. His team found evidence of the disease at seven of the sites. Damage to the pink sea fan is significant because it is already listed as "vulnerable" by the international conservation Red List. It is also one of the few marine species protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

"They are special because ... they create habitats for other living organisms. They form quite dense communities, a bit like a forest, and that provides hiding places and feeding places for lots of other different organisms," said Brian Zimmerman, a coral expert at London Zoo who is not part of Dr Hall-Spencer's group. The team, which reports its work in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms this month, also identified the bacteria that cause the coral's demise. On their own the bacteria are harmless, but as the water temperature is increased the corals become more vulnerable to attack.

Monday, July 16, 2007


By Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007; P04

The reef looked small from the boat, but once I plunged into the Caribbean I found myself gazing at what looked like a vast and intricate community, which was oddly dead and alive at the same time. In one section of Glover's Reef, which surrounds an atoll 55 miles off the coast of Belize, delicate spiny corals jutted out fiercely, surrounded by vibrant green and silver fish; in other places, only ghostly white corals remained, a testament to how warmer water temperatures had wreaked ha-voc deep beneath the sea.

When people think of habitats collapsing from rising global temperatures, they tend to think of frigid climes where polar bears have been frolicking on snow and ice for centuries. Think again. Coral reefs rank as one of the ecosystems most vulnerable to climate change: Recent scientific studies suggest global warming has already destroyed 20 percent of the world's reefs, and an additional 50 percent are in danger of disappearing.

Two aspects of global warming -- hotter and more acidic oceans -- threaten corals the most. In seven tropical regions where most coral reefs occur, waters have warmed between 1.3 and 3 degrees in the past century. Though that might not seem like much, a seawater temperature rise of 1.8 to 3.6 degrees above the summer maximum can trigger bleaching on many reefs. When bleaching occurs, the single-celled algae that live in symbiosis with a coral are expelled, and if the coral does not take up other algae within a certain period of time, it dies. Scientists call this bleaching because the living tissue of a coral is white; if the algae leaves, the coral loses its color because it no longer has a living creature inside. At that point the white limestone skeleton shows through.

At the same time that seawater temperatures are on the rise, absorption of human-generated carbon emissions has altered the oceans' pH level, making it more difficult for reefs and other marine organisms to construct their calcium skeletons.

"Climate change has and will continue to permanently alter the ecology of a large number of reefs throughout the tropics, particularly in the Caribbean," said Tim McClanahan, a senior conservation zoologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who has studied reefs from Belize to Kenya. "But there still are -- and will be -- some reefs in good condition for diving, particularly if we can manage them well in terms of fishing and other human uses."

Since coral reefs are scattered around the world and exist underwater, it's hard for researchers to say precisely how they're doing. In addition, some reefs host the kind of algae that can tolerate higher temperatures, which means those corals can survive even when the oceans get warmer. But a 2004 study of coral reefs worldwide estimated that since the 1950s, 20 percent of them have been destroyed and show no prospect of recovery; 24 percent of reefs are under imminent threat of collapse; and another 26 percent face collapse over the long term.

Protected areas like Australia's Great Barrier Reef do not face the same fishing pressure as an unprotected reef, for example, but even that reef could suffer from hotter and more-acidic seas. (Fishing poses a serious risk to reefs because it tends to damage the coral structures themselves, and because it deprives the reef of the fish and plant life that maintain the ecosystem's balance.) And just as scientists are seeking ways to preserve reefs in the face of these environmental pressures, travelers are exploring these habitats while they still exist.

A Stressed Environment

Few ecosystems exemplify this phenomenon better than Glover's Reef, part of a World Heritage Site and marine reserve. A patchwork of more than 800 reefs covering 90 square miles, the site is home to both a WCS marine research station and a smattering of small resorts. Although it's not the most luxurious place to vacation, it provides a way to witness both how climate change has damaged coral reefs and how they have resisted it.

With so many "patch reefs" scattered throughout the area, each amounts to a world of its own. In May I saw for myself, diving and snorkeling with shark scientist Ellen Pikitch, who directs Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science; WCS senior conservationist Archie Carr III; and Carr's 20-year-old daughter, Jenny. I was researching an upcoming book about sharks and wanted to see how these ancient creatures were faring in an environment that's under stress.

For an hour we dove around a reef that stretched for what seemed like a dozen yards. Despite its small size, the reef serves as home to an array of corals and fish, including a silvery barracuda, a gray nurse shark and parrotfish whose glowing colors indicate each one's sex and stage of development.

Two severe bleaching events in the 1990s, when water temperature spiked suddenly, have taken their toll on Glover's Reef, however. I swam past bleached reefs that resembled ghost towns, providing no sustenance to the tropical fish. Corals, whose limestone skeletons make them resemble rocks more than living organisms, help shelter young fish and provide a home for the plant life many fish need to survive.

Some types of coral -- such as staghorn, with its long, spindly branches -- are making a comeback at Glover's Reef. Scientists don't exactly know why, except that they are increasingly finding that some species are more resilient than others.

"That's what we look for here, signs of recovery," said Carr, who now serves as the research station's interim manager. Carr said that he and other scientists have been stunned by how global warming has affected the local habitat. "More than half of the corals of the Belize barrier reef are bleached white," Carr said. "They appear lifeless. Will they recover? It is a deeply troubling question, because it highlights the scary notion that we do not know what will happen next. Coral bleaching is linked to global warming. We don't know the consequences of this phenomenon. We humans now live on a strange planet whose atmosphere and ecology we no longer comprehend."

Small Sacrifices to Make

Belize, home to the second-longest coral reef in the world, ranks as a popular diving and snorkeling destination. Most marine-oriented tourists visit Ambergris Caye, which boasts larger reefs, many more hotels and a humming night life. But it has not escaped the damage that has affected Glover's Reef and other parts of the Caribbean.

Glover's Reef does not fit the definition of a mainstream tourist attraction. The atoll comprises several islands called cayes (pronounced "keys"). Southwest Caye features Isla Marisol, a small resort, and Island Expeditions, a kayaking operation. Long Caye has Off the Wall Dive Center and Resort, and Slickrock Adventures, a kayak and snorkeling tour operation that has private island beach cabanas as a base camp. Northeast Caye boasts Glover's Atoll Resort, a rustic retreat with thatched huts, composting toilets and no electricity. The resort includes a dormitory with two rooms boasting four beds each, as well as a camping site and private huts. (The WCS marine research station, where I stayed, lies on Middle Caye, but only scientists can stay there.)

The resorts vary in style, though none is particularly glamorous. Isla Marisol is a slightly upscale, pleasant resort run by Eddie Usher, a Belizean whose family owns the island. A charming bar overlooks the ocean, and there are two-person air-conditioned cabanas as well as a couple of secluded four-person cabanas with ocean views. Usher also runs dive tours to see whale sharks and other marine life, and he allows Island Expeditions to launch from his resort.

If you're affiliated with a scientific organization and pursuing research, the WCS station is the area's best bargain. Like Glover's Island Resort, the research station lacks indoor plumbing, air conditioning and hot showers. Aside from that it's fabulous: The island offers gorgeous views of the ocean, and taking a dip simply involves walking down to the dock and jumping into the wonderfully warm water. (There is one downside: Sharks swim right up to the dock, so you need to stay alert while swimming.) At night the scientists and I sat out on the balcony of our building and watched the full moon shine on the sea, a view that rivaled the scenery of any elegant beach resort.

If you're willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort, Glover's Reef offers a way to see firsthand a secluded reef that is on the front lines of climate change. And since it's unclear how this ecosystem will fare in the rising temperatures the globe is likely to experience in years to come, you might want to get down there while it lasts.

Juliet Eilperin, The Post's national environmental reporter, is writing a book on sharks, to be published in spring 2009 by Knopf-Pantheon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Fishy logic

From our friend Nick Atkinson, who runs the excellent blog

Fish fills in the gaps about unknown rivals

Astatotilapia burtoni

Published in: Natural History Magazine
Reference: Nature
DOI: 10.1038/nature05511

“Pick your battles wisely” is sound advice that people forget all too often. We could learn a thing or two from Astatotilapia burtoni, a little cichlid fish from the shallows of Lake Tanganyika in central Africa.

New research shows that A. burtoni possesses surprising powers of logic—for a fish. The males can deduce the pecking order among their rivals after watching only some of them fight each other.

Logan Grosenick and his adviser, Russell D. Fernald, a biologist at Stanford University, along with a colleague, placed “bystander” fish in the central part of an experimental tank. There the bystanders could watch staged, one-on-one fights between five rival males in compartments around the tank’s perimeter. To establish a dominance hierarchy among the rivals, the investigators predetermined the outcome of each fight by handicapping one contender—removing it from the water to stress it, then placing it in the other’s home tank. Only closely ranked rivals were pitted against one another. Thus the bystanders watched fish A fight and beat fish B, B fight and beat C, and so on through fish E.

After exposing eight bystanders to either two or four of the fights each day for eleven days, the investigators tested whether the bystanders had been able to infer the complete hierarchy despite the gaps in their knowledge. Each bystander was shown two males that had never fought—A and E or B and D—in compartments on opposite sides of the tank. In nearly all the trials, the bystander clearly identified the lower ranking of the two males, visiting him first and spending longer near him (a sensible preference, considering a bystander’s improved odds at beating a low-ranking rival). That cognitive leap is roughly equivalent to the reasoning abilities children attain around age four. Not bad for a fish!