Climate Change, Acidification, & the Oceans, Conservation & Sustainable Management, Ocean Ecosystems

What the GBRMPA chair DID NOT say about my coral bleaching article

In April 2016 I submitted an article to The Marine Professional – a publication of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST) focusing on the mass bleaching event that had hit the Great Barrier Reef at the time.  In their September 2016 issue, The Marine Professional featured a comment from a reader, in which he stated that he shared the article with Dr. Russell Reichelt – chair of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.  The reader alleged that  Dr Reichlet told him that the article “contains some accurate things mixed with half truths and alarmism”.

A number of  coral reef, marine biology, and climate scientists have been in touch to express their concern about Dr Reichelt’s alleged comments on my article.  After liaising with Dr Reichelt’s office*, I am pleased to be able to set the record straight on what he did – or rather did not say.

*I did contact Dr Reichelt directly, but he replied via his office not directly.

After corresponding with Dr Reichelt’s office to determine where the “half truths and alarmism” were in the article, I have been informed that, whilst Dr Reichelt recalls the article being brought to his attention, he never made any such comments about the article.  In fact, he hadn’t even seen the article to comment on in the first place.  He has since read the piece and agrees that it is factual.

I have not attempted to contact the reader to find outwhere his comment came from.

Below is a copy of the article I submitted to The Marine Professional.   For those who want to see the article after it has been through their editorial process, please see the June 2016 edition of The Marine Professional.

Continue reading “What the GBRMPA chair DID NOT say about my coral bleaching article”

Conservation & Sustainable Management, Fisheries, Aquaculture, & Sustainable Seafood

Old fishing line hints at fishing levels inside no-take marine protected areas

Dealing with overfishing and destructive fishing practices are a huge issue for marine conservation and management.  Tackling this problem, and trying to repair some of the damage is no easy task.  We know that if they are done properly, no-take marine protected areas can make an impact, not only reducing habitat degradation by removing damaging fishing techniques, but also increasing the density and even the individual size of species targeted by fisheries.   The benefits these no-take zones provide can spill over to fishers too.  And that’s not just a scientist point of view either – take a look at this short (5 minute video) focusing on lobster potter Geoff Huelin who fishes around Lundy Island – the UK’s first no-take zone.

There are many factors that can make or break a no-take zone.  In the video Geoff touches on just one of those factors – policing the zone to make sure that people are abiding by the regulations.  This is important.  It’s no good having regulations to protect an area from fishing if fishing happens there anyway.  It is the action of people – not the designation itself per se, that makes an appreciable difference to marine biodiversity recovery.  Geoff tells us that for the Lundy Island no-take zone enforcement isn’t a huge challenge because the no-take zone is viewable from the shore.  There is, Geoff tells us, usually somebody watching.  But this can’t be said for all no-take zones.  It’s not just distance from the shoreline that can impact on enforcement capabilities. Lundy’s no-take is small.  Some no-take zones are huge, and very often manager’s budgets and resources are limited.  Take the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park for example, which suffers hundreds of infringements of its regulations each year.  Sure both commercial and recreational fishers who break the regulations inside the Park are successfully caught every year using a host of different surveillance techniques, but many more are likely to go unnoticed.  Getting a handle on the scale of non-compliance is the very issue explored in this recent paper by David Williamson from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and fellow researchers.

The research team focused their efforts on several fringing coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – those around the Palm Islands, the Whitsundays, and the Keppel Islands. You may have heard of these places.  Beautiful and fairly accessible from the mainland, these areas are popular with tourists and locals alike.  Although all managed by the Park authority, the fringing reefs around these Islands aren’t all no-take, and the Aboriginal people’s of the Palm Island group have fishing and hunting rights across the whole Park – including inside the no-take zones.  The researchers needed a way to estimate fishing effort inside the no-take parts of these reefs, and for this they needed some evidence… evidence in the form of derelict fishing line from hook and line fisheries.  The first thing to do was to calculate the density of derelict fishing line both inside the no-take zones and outside.  So in the water they went and surveyed the derelict line.  Some statistical analysis later, and the team had an estimate of hook and line fishing activity both in and outside no-take zones on the reefs across the three island groups.

In the Whitsundays and the Palm Island, the no-take zones that had been around for over 20 years had the lowest density of fishing line within them compared to zones established 5 years before the surveying, and ‘normal’ sites.  Interestingly no-take zones that had been established for only 5 years didn’t show any significant difference in line density when compared to ‘normal’ sites.  But fishing line is typically made from hardy stuff, and doesn’t easily break down.  The researchers note that 99% of the fishing line found had accumulated algae and sessile organisms on them, and/or become partially embedded in the reef matrix itself.  This indicates that most of the line had been there for months or even years, but ascertaining just how long is difficult.  Some of the line likely was there prior to establishment of the no-take zones but just how much… well that is a difficult question to answer.

The team did not stop with simply working out the density of fishing line though.  Around the Palm Islands the researchers used the assistance of Reef Check Australia – a citizen science organization that is heavily involved in marine monitoring – to remove derelict fishing line from both no-take zones and monitored the sites to see just how quickly fishing line accumulated in the no-take zones and in the areas outside them for some 3 years.  Here the rates of line accumulation between the no-take zones and the other cleaned ‘normal’ sites were, statistically speaking, “marginally non-significant”.  In arguably more real terms, the researchers note that the rate of fishing line that accumulated inside the cleaned no-take zones was 32.4% of that accumulated inside the ‘normal’ cleaned sites. And 32.4%, say they researchers, is worrying for a zone that is supposed to be a no-fishing area.  But what about those Aboriginal fishers that have a right to fish inside the no-take zones – couldn’t some of the line be from them?  Well yes, though the authors note that at least from personal observations not all of the no-take zones they cleaned and monitored were regularly used by Aboriginal fishers.  What all this points to, the researchers argue, is that non-compliance with no-take zones isn’t just an issue in the more remote parts of the Great Barrier Marine Park.  They also note that when assessing how effective a no-take zone is in restoring marine biodiversity, it is worth taking into account the level of non-compliance with regulations as best one can.

This paper (including an open access link to their data) was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.  You can read it here

Image:  The Whitsundays.  Credit Richard Rydge/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Conservation & Sustainable Management

Are marine protected areas protecting the places that need protecting?

Marine protected areas (MPAs).  They sound like a pretty good thing for biodiversity conservation…right?  As always the devil is in the detail.  It first starts with what a MPA actually is.  Well we have already stumbled into slightly tricky ground here, because there is not one single globally recognised definition of MPAs.  For arguments sake we’ll go with the International Union for Conservation of Nature definition:

“A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”

Ok… seems pretty straightforward, but look carefully – it’s a little vague isn’t it.  What are these ‘other effective means’ that you can manage the area?  What about the phrase ‘long-term’ – what scale are we talking here?  What do we do if there is conflict between ‘ecosystem services and cultural values’?  The IUCN have categorised MPAs into seven different types, based on the primary management objective of the area.  These range from fully protected areas where no extraction of any kind is allowed, right down to “sustainable use” zones.  If you want full details including the sorts of activities that are allowed in each MPA type, I’d recommend reading the ‘Guidelines for Applying the IUCN Protected Area Management Categories to Marine Protected Areas’.

So to sum up, MPAs differ if how much protection they offer, and some may in reality not offer much more protection than you get in the rest of the ocean anyway.  This might seem a little daft – after all, why bother setting up a MPA if it really isn’t adding any substantial conservation value – to biodiversity of cultural values?  The answer, as it often does, may lie in politics.  There is a wealth of transnational and international agreements set in place through which nation states have agreed to implement MPAs – and with good reason.  MPAs are one of several excellent tools we have through which we can manage our interactions with the ocean, reducing our footprint on it.  The problem comes when nations set MPAs that are meaningless in terms of conservation purely to meet targets.  This includes placing MPAs in areas where even under strict protection, the conservation benefit is minimal.

Rodolphe Devillers of Memorial University of Newfoundland and colleagues in the USA and Australia have recently analysed the motivation behind the placement of MPAs.  The areas of the ocean under the greatest threat are by virtue the areas of the ocean that are most highly utilised – and not just by fishers.  There are a number of human activities that take place in and around the ocean that harm the ocean environment including oil and mineral extraction, and dumping.  Understandably, these are the areas where MPA placement will receive the most resistance.  Conversely, placing MPAs in areas that aren’t really used – and thus not necessarily as threatened as other places – would likely meet less resistance.  Such areas are ‘residual’ to commercial purposes.  The placement of the MPA has little to no impact of stakeholders.  In other words, it’s business as usual.  So which is it?  Are managers going for the path of least resistance, or are they battling to protect the areas which need the most protection?

The researchers assessed this question from a decidedly Australian perspective.  First, the looked at MPAs located across the globe.  They then took a much more regional approach, looking at MPAs within Australian waters.  Finally for a more local look, they assessed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  What they uncovered was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a little damning for managers.  At both a global and regional scale, MPA placement was largely done following the path of least resistance, placed in the areas where human activities were not so prevalent.  This includes all of these very large MPAs that we see being set up across the world.  Whilst large in scale, different parts of the protected areas allow different activities (known as multiple use).  The areas that are the most restrictive tend to be located in the places where we aren’t busy extracting resources.  But all is not lost.  The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – a multiple use zone – was called ‘exemplary’ by the researchers for its planning and zonation.  Although there were some discrepancies between bioregions (large-scale areas defined by features and processes ) covered by the Park, overall protection was placed at a scale for the area it covered.  It might be worth noting here that the research for this paper and it’s acceptance by the journal for publication occurred before the recent ‘dumping fiasco’ within the park boundaries.

An argument can be made that protecting areas not currently heavily exploited, and thus not as threatened as areas heavily exploited is a form of pro-active management.  Pro-active management is a good thing – and should be encouraged.  Pro-active management means that we aren’t sitting around waiting for an ecosystem to be so severely damaged (sometimes with no chance of recovery) before trying to do something about it.  It may very well be that some of the ‘residual’ MPAs are placed under the goal of pro-active management, but this is not the case for the majority.  Balancing social, political, economic, and ecological needs and concerns is a difficult business.  Invariably in any decision-making process some aspects will come out as ‘more important’ than others, but to consistently ignore the ecological side is, in the long-term, pure folly.  And it is wrong to claim that we as a species are effectively conserving the very resources on which we depend when we are in fact merely paying lip-service.

This open access paper was published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  This is a very well written paper and unlike some science papers, not overly verbose.  It explains the complexities of ocean management well – very much worth a read.

Image:  Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, located off the coast of Georgia.  Credit: NOAA

Fisheries, Aquaculture, & Sustainable Seafood

An unsustainable fishery on the Great Barrier Reef

This rather interesting looking chap is a holothurian – or as it’s more commonly known, a sea cucumber.  There are some 1,250 species of holothurians, most of which scavenge on whatever they find on the sea floor.  This rather unfussy diet has severed this group well- you can find holothurians across all oceans, from the deep sea through to shallow coastal waters.

And if you type ‘sea cucumber’ into Google, it will give you this nutritional information….
Amount per 100 grams
Calories 56
Total Fat 0.4 g
Total Carbohydrate 0 g
Protein 13 g
Vitamin A 6%^
Calcium 3%^
Iron 3%^
^ % daily value

Sea cucumber fisheries and aquaculture have long formed part of a subsistence diet for island and coastal communities.  They have also become a luxury food item in one country in particular….China. Statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicate that between 2000 and 2009, Africa, Asia, and Oceania exported some 100,000 tonnes of dried sea cucumbers – most of which ended up in China.  Overfishing is rife, with an estimated 70% of tropical sea cucumber fisheries classified as fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted^^.  Most of these fisheries come from nations which lack the financial means to manage their fisheries as well as they could be.  Most, but not all – such as the fishery in Australia.  And not just anywhere in Australia – in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  This might sound a little odd, but the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a multiple-use park.  Many different activities occur on the reef, but they are carefully managed.

Or at least they should be…right? Continue reading “An unsustainable fishery on the Great Barrier Reef”