South Australia’s tattered environmental remains

16 04 2014
State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

South Australia State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

Yesterday I gave the second keynote address at the South Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) Science Conference at the University of Adelaide (see also a brief synopsis of Day 1 here). Unfortunately, I’m missing today’s talks because of an acute case of man cold, but at least I can stay at home and work while sipping cups of hot tea.

Many people came up afterwards and congratulated me for “being brave enough to tell the truth”, which both encouraged and distressed me – I am encouraged by the positive feedback, but distressed by the lack of action on the part of our natural resource management leaders.

The simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles, yet few seem to appreciate this.

So for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I’ve uploaded my slideshow for general viewing here, and I understand that a podcast might be available in the very near future. I’ve also highlighted some key points from the talk below: Read the rest of this entry »





Biodiversity needs more than just unwanted leftovers

28 02 2014

calm oceanThe real measure of conservation progress, on land or in the sea, is how much biodiversity we save from threatening processes.

A new paper co-authored by Memorial University’s Dr Rodolphe Devillers and an international group of researchers argues that established global marine protected areas are too often a case of all show with no substance and do not adequately protect the most vulnerable areas of the world’s oceans.

“There is a big pressure internationally to expand global MPA coverage from around 3 % of the oceans to 10 %, resulting in a race from countries to protect large and often unused portions of their territorial waters for a minimal political cost,” said Mr. Devillers. “Marine protected areas are the cornerstone of marine conservation, but we are asking whether picking low-hanging fruit really makes a difference in the long-term, or if smaller areas currently under threat should be protected before, or at the same time as, those larger areas that are relatively inaccessible and therefore less used by people.

“We need to stop measuring conservation success in terms of square kilometres,” he added. “The real measure of conservation progress, on land or in the sea, is how much biodiversity we save from threatening processes. Metrics such as square kilometres or percentages of jurisdictions are notoriously unreliable in telling us about the true purpose of protected areas.” Read the rest of this entry »





Noisy oceans

20 01 2014
killers & boats
Killer whales are social animals that navigate all oceans and seas between the Arctic and Antarctica – they can be regarded eusocial since reproduction ceases around 40 years of age and menopausal females help care for offspring: like humans [13, 14]. Group cohesion in killer whales relies on a complex repertoire of vocalisations including clicks, whistles and calls. Sounds are instrumental for prey searching, orientation and communication. Foote [5] focused on calls, which are made up of series of discrete sounds that resemble squeaks, screams, and squawks to the human ear. It has been postulated that individuals learn to vocalise by imitation of peers of the same pod, and that only the base structure has a genetic, hence heritable, component [15]. Regardless, pods develop regional dialects. Those dialects, along with aspects of diet, genetics, morphology and behaviour, differentiate the three main lineages of killer whales (resident, transient and open sea) that might have been genetically isolated for ~ 150 to 700 thousand years and, potentially represent different taxa [16, 17]. The species might abandon the IUCN conservation category of ‘Data Deficient’ as soon its taxonomic uncertainty is resolved.Resident killer whales form matrilineal groups of 2 to 15 individuals  (the matriarch and her offspring) – known as pods, in turn subdivided into subpods centred around grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The Southern Resident population is regarded as an acoustic clan comprising 3 pods currently numbering 81 individuals = 26 (J pod) + 19 (K pod) + 36 (L pod) (2013 survey), among whom the matriarch Granny is the oldest at 103 years! This clan feeds mainly on fish, and dwells in the coastal waters between British Columbia (Canada) and Washington State (USA), particularly south of Vancouver Island – nothing is known about where they spend the winter. The clan lost 20 % of its members between 1995 & 2001, and 13 more by 2013, and now faces the decline of its main prey: Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) [18]. The two pics show two sub pods of this clan swimming close to a whale-watching boat near Friday Harbour (San Juan Island) and a Chinese ship at Puget Sound (Seatle, USA). Photo credits: Marla Holt, NOAA/NMFS Northwest Fisheries Sciences Center.

Acoustic pollution has become a transnational issue, particularly in marine ecosystems [1] by virtue of the physical fact that sounds travel in water farther and faster than in air. In our noisy, modern world, many species are now forced to modify their vocal repertoire in response to noise. The pivotal social role that vocalisations play in all cetacean species makes these predators and filter feeders particularly vulnerable to this environmental problem.

Last night, an ambulance siren woke me, only seconds before the neighbour’s washing machine started spinning, and a good friend of mine rang from overseas. Gradually more and more people are living in societies plugged in to noisy mechanical and electronic devices 24 hours a day, 356 days a year.

Engine-powered vehicles are the main source of anthropogenic noise, and their numbers can grow even at a higher rate than the human population – so spreading not only diseases [2] but also decibels over a global network of travelling routes. In an ecological context, we refer to noise as a kind of sound (= energy wave detected by an auditory system) that is not considered a biologically meaningful cue by wildlife (including us) and might also cause physiological stress. Experts refer to ‘masking’ as those situations in which noise interferes the perception or emission of sounds that matter to the life history of species – a global concern in both terrestrial [3] and aquatic [4] ecosystems.

Andy Foote [5] has assessed the effect of vessel traffic on the vocal behaviour of the three pods forming the Southern Resident population of killer whales (Orcinus orca¸ see video). He recorded calls from these cetaceans from a ship, and through an array of submarine microphones in Haro Straight, between San Juan Island (Washington State, USA) and Vancouver Island (British Columbia, Canada). Between the 1990s and the 2000s, local traffic density had multiplied by a factor of 5 and currently, > 20 whale-watching vessels follow these killer whales daily among an active fleet of > 70 commercial vessels. Foote compared call length through 35 hours of underwater killer whale recordings over three periods (1977-1981, 1989-1992, 2001-2003), each comprising situations in which the pods were exposed to both noisy and quiet environments. Over the study, call length varied between 0.3 and 2.0 seconds; while on average, L-pod calls were the shortest (0.6-0.8 seconds), and J-pod calls the longest (0.9-1.0 seconds). Read the rest of this entry »





More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »





Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at ConservationBytes.com, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »





No more ecology

9 05 2012

To all ecology people who read this blog (students, post-docs, academics), this is an intriguing, provocative and slightly worrying title. As ecology has matured into a full-fledged, hard-core, mathematical science on par with physics, chemistry and genetics (and is arguably today one of the most important sciences given how badly we’ve trashed our own home), its sophistication now threatens to render many of the traditional aspects of ecology redundant.

Let me explain.

As a person who cut his teeth in field ecology (with all the associated dirt, dangers, bites, stings, discomfort, thrills, headaches and disasters), I’ve had my fair share of fun and excitement collecting ecological data. There’s something quaintly Victorian (no, I am not referring to the state next door) about the romantic and obsessive naturalist collecting data to the exclusion of nearly all other aspects of civilised life; the intrepid adventurer in some of us takes over (likely influenced by the likes of David Attenborough) and we convince ourselves that our quest for the lonely datum will heal all of the Earth’s ailments.

Bollocks.

As I’ve matured in ecology and embraced its mathematical complexity and beauty, the recurring dilemma is that there are never enough data to answer the really big questions. We have sampled only a fraction of extant species, we know embarrassingly little about how ecosystems respond to disturbance, and we know next to nothing about the complexities of ecosystem services. And let’s not forget our infancy in understanding the synergies of extinctions in the past and projections into the future. Multiply this uncertainty by several orders of magnitude for ocean ecosystems.

Read the rest of this entry »





More than leftovers: getting marine parks right in Australia

7 08 2011
Taken by user Hossen27

Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks back I cosigned a ‘statement of concern’ about the proposal for Australia’s South West Marine Region organised by Hugh Possingham. The support has been overwhelming by Australia’s marine science community (see list of supporting scientists below). I’ve reproduced the letter addressed to the Australian government – distribute far and wide if you give more than a shit about the state of our marine environment (and the economies it supports). Basically, the proposed parks are merely a settlement between government and industry where nothing of importance is really being protected. The parks are just the leftovers industry doesn’t want. No way to ensure the long-term viability of our seas.

On 5 May 2011 the Australian Government released a draft proposal for a network of marine reserves in the Commonwealth waters of the South West bioregional marine planning region.

Australia’s South West is of global significance for marine life because it is a temperate region with an exceptionally high proportion of endemic species – species found nowhere else in the world.

Important industries, such as tourism and fisheries, depend on healthy marine ecosystems and the services they provide. Networks of protected areas, with large fully protected core zones, are essential to maintain healthy ecosystems over the long-term – complemented by responsible fisheries management1.

The selection and establishment of marine reserves should rest on a strong scientific foundation. We are greatly concerned that what is currently proposed in the Draft South West Plan is not based on the three core science principles of reserve network design: comprehensiveness, adequacy and representation. These principles have been adopted by Australia for establishing our National Reserve System and are recognized internationally2.

Specifically, the draft plan fails on the most basic test of protecting a representative selection of habitats within the bioregions of the south-west. There are no highly protected areas proposed at all in three of the seven marine bioregions lying on the continental shelf3. Overall less than 3.5% of the shelf, where resource use and biodiversity values are most intense, is highly protected. Further, six of the seven highly protected areas that are proposed on the shelf are small (< 20 km in width)4 and all are separated by large distances (> 200 km)5. The ability of such small isolated areas to maintain connectivity and fulfil the goal of protecting Australia’s marine biodiversity is limited. Read the rest of this entry »





Disaster coming to a coastline near you

24 02 2011

Many of you already know that against all better judgement, the spectacularly audacious Australian Commonwealth government has granted BP offshore drilling rights in our southern waters.

You’d think that with all the evidence that BP is a company that cannot be trusted with this particular form of resource exploitation, we’d be a little bit more discerning when granting exploration permits to them. Apparently not.

In protest and within my rights as an Australian citizen, I wrote to the Minister responsible for the decision, MP Martin Ferguson (Federal Minister for Resources and Energy) to register my protest:

Dear Minister Ferguson,

As an ecologist, academic and citizen, I find it rather astounding that Australia has permitted the deep-sea exploration of oil by BP in our own back garden. The unreasonable environmental risk aside, it simply equates to poor economics – the very real probability of a disaster on the same scale (or larger) than the Gulf of Mexico’s fiasco last year will effectively destroy the commercial fishing and aquaculture industry of our southern coastline overnight. The loss of tourism dollars could arguably exceed even that.

This is most definitely not in Australia’s best interest, and will represent yet another blight on our already poor environmental record (see http://wp.me/phhT4-1cf and http://wp.me/phhT4-Zt). I urge you to reconsider your permission and revoke the licence to drill in our waters. It is a mistake you and your government will regret for decades, and will make the recent flooding disaster in Queensland appear mild in comparison.

Sincerely,
Professor Corey J. A. Bradshaw

I certainly wasn’t expecting the Minister to say suddenly “Oh my. You are right, Prof. Bradshaw. It is a bad decision. I’ll revoke that permission forthwith”, but I was expecting a little bit more than the jumbled form letter I received in reply: Read the rest of this entry »





Global erosion of ecosystem services

14 09 2010

A few months ago I was asked to give a lecture about erosion of ecosystem services to students in the University of Adelaide‘s Issues in Sustainable Environments unit. I gave that lecture last week and just uploaded a slidecast of the presentation (with audio) today.

I’ve reproduced the lecture here for your viewing pleasure. I hope you find the 45-minute presentation useful. Note that the first few minutes cover me referring to the Biodiversity film short that I posted not too long ago.

CJA Bradshaw





February Issue of Conservation Letters

13 02 2010

Diver at Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Hard to believe we’re already at Volume 3 – introducing the latest issue of Conservation Letters (Volume 3, Issue 1, February 2010). For full access, click here.

Note too we’ve jumped from 5 to 6 papers per issue. Congratulations to all our authors. Keep those submissions coming!

CJA Bradshaw

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Breaking the waves – conservation conundrum of bioshields

9 12 2009

Today’s post covers a neat little review just published online in Conservation Letters by Feagin and colleagues entitled Shelter from the storm? Use and misuse of coastal vegetation bioshields for managing natural disasters. I’m covering this for three reasons: (1) it’s a great summary and wake-up call for those contemplating changing coastal ecosystems in the name of disaster management, (2) I have a professional interest in the ecosystem integrity-disaster interface and (3) I had the pleasure of editing this article.

I’ve blogged about quite a few papers on ecosystem services (including some of my own) because I think making the link between ecosystem integrity and human health, wealth and well-being are some of the best ways to convince Joe Bloggs that saving species he’ll never probably see are in his and his family’s best (and selfish) interests. Convincing the poverty-stricken, the greedy and the downright stupid of biodiversity’s inherent value will never, ever work (at least, it hasn’t worked yet).

Today’s feature paper discusses an increasingly relevant policy conundrum in conservation – altering coastal ecosystems such that planted/restored/conserved vegetation minimises the negative impacts of extreme weather events (e.g., tsunamis, cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes): the so-called ‘bioshield’ effect. The idea is attractive – coastal vegetation acts to buffer human development and other land features from intense wave action, so maintain/restore it at all costs.

The problem is, as Feagin and colleagues point out in their poignant review, ‘bioshields’ don’t really seem to have much effect in attenuating the big waves resulting from the extreme events, the very reason they were planted in the first place. Don’t misunderstand them – keeping ecosystems like mangroves and other coastal communities intact has enormous benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation, minimised coastal erosion and human livelihoods. However, with massive coastal development in many parts of the world, the knee-jerk reaction has been to plant up coasts with any sort of tree/shrub going without heeding these species’ real effects. Indeed, many countries have active policies now to plant invasive species along coastal margins, which not only displace native species, they can displace humans and likely play little part in any wave attenuation.

This sleeping giant of a conservation issue needs some serious re-thinking, argue the authors, especially in light of predicted increases in extreme storm events resulting from climate change. I hope policy makers listen to that plea. I highly recommend the read.

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgFeagin, R., Mukherjee, N., Shanker, K., Baird, A., Cinner, J., Kerr, A., Koedam, N., Sridhar, A., Arthur, R., Jayatissa, L., Lo Seen, D., Menon, M., Rodriguez, S., Shamsuddoha, M., & Dahdouh-Guebas, F. (2009). Shelter from the storm? Use and misuse of coastal vegetation bioshields for managing natural disasters Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00087.x





Sleuthing the Chinese green slime monster

21 10 2009

greenslimemonsterI just returned from a week-long scientific mission in China sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I was invited to attend a special symposium on Marine and Deltaic Systems where research synergies between Australian and Chinese scientists were to be explored. The respective academies really rolled out the red carpet for the 30 or so Australian scientists on board, so I feel very honoured to have been invited.

During our marine workshop, one of my Chinese counterparts, Dongyan Liu from the Yantai Institute for Coastal Zone Research, presented a brilliant piece of ecological sleuthing that I must share with readers of ConservationBytes.com.

The first time you go to China the thing that strikes you is that everything is big – big population, big cities, big buildings, big projects, big budgets and big, big, big environmental problems. After many years of overt environmental destruction in the name of development, the Chinese government (aided by some very capable scientists) is now starting to address the sins of the past.

Liu and colleagues published their work earlier this year in Marine Pollution Bulletin in a paper entitled World’s largest macroalgal bloom caused by expansion of seaweed aquaculture in China, which describes a bloody massive outbreak of a particularly nasty ‘green tide’.

What’s a ‘green tide’? In late June 2008 in the coastal city of Qingdao not far from Beijing (and just before the 2008 Olympics), a whopping 1 million tonnes of green muck washed up along approximately 400 km2 of coastline. It took 10,000 volunteers 2 weeks to clean up the mess. At the time, many blamed the rising eutrophication of coastal China as the root cause, and a lot of people got their arse kicked over it. However, the reality was that it wasn’t so simple.

The Yellow Sea abutting this part of the Chinese coast is so named because of its relatively high productivity. Warm waters combined with good mixing mean that there are plenty of essential nutrients for green things to grow. So, adding thousands of tonnes of fertilisers from Chinese agricultural run-off seems like a logical explanation for the bloom.

Qingdoa green tide 2008 © Elsevier

Qingdao green tide 2008 © Elsevier

However, it turns out that the bulk of the green slime was comprised of a species called Enteromorpha prolifera, and it just so happens that this particularly unsavoury seaweed loves to grow on the infrastructure used for the aquaculture of nori (a.k.a. amanori or zicai) seaweed (mainly, Porphyra yezoensis). Problem is, P. yezoensis is grown mainly on the coast hundreds of kilometres to the south.

Liu and colleagues examined both satellite imagery and detailed oceanographic data from the period prior to the green tide and not only spotted green splotches many kilometres long, they also determined that the current flow and wind direction placed the trajectory of any green slime mats straight for Qingdao.

So, how does it happen? Biofouling by E. prolifera on P. yezoensis aquaculture frames is dealt with mainly by manual cleaning and then dumping the unwanted muck on the tidal flats. When the tide comes back in, it washes many thousands of kilos of this stuff back out to sea, which then accumulates in rafts and continues to grow in the warm, rich seas. Subsequent genetic work also confirmed that the muck at sea was the same stock as the stuff growing on the aquaculture frames.

Apart from some lovely sleuthing work, the implications are pretty important from a biodiversity perspective. Massive eutrophication coupled with aquaculture that inadvertently spawns a particularly nasty biofouling species is a good recipe for oxygen depletion in areas where the eventual slime monster starts to decay. This can lead to so-called ‘dead’ zones that can kill off huge numbers of marine species. So, the proper management of aquaculture in the hungry Goliath that is China becomes essential to reduce the incidence of dead zones.

Fortunately, it looks like Liu and colleagues’ work is being taken seriously by the Chinese government who is now contemplating financial support for aquaculturists to clean their infrastructure properly without dumping the sludge to sea. A simple policy shift could save a lot of species, a lot of money, and a lot of embarrassment (not to mention prevent a lot of bad smells).

CJA Bradshaw

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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

ResearchBlogging.orgLiu, D., Keesing, J., Xing, Q., & Shi, P. (2009). World’s largest macroalgal bloom caused by expansion of seaweed aquaculture in China Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (6), 888-895 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2009.01.013





How to make an effective marine protected area

22 09 2009

Here’s a nice little review from the increasingly impressive Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment which seems to be showcasing a lot of good conservation research lately.

© USGS

© USGS

As we know, the world’s oceans are under huge threat, with predictions of 70 % loss of coral reefs by 2050, decline in kelp forests, loss of seagrasses, over-fishing, pollution and a rapidly warming and acidifying physical environment. Given all these stressors, it is absolutely imperative we spend a good deal of time thinking about the right way to impose restrictions on damage to marine areas – the simplest way to do this is via marine protected areas (MPA).

The science of MPA network design has matured over the last 10-20 years such that there is a decent body of literature now on what we need to do (now the policy makers just have to listen – some  progress there too, but see also here). McLeod and colleagues in the latest issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment have published a review outlining the best, at least for coral reefs, set of recommendations for MPA network design given available information (paper title: Designing marine protected area networks to address the impacts of climate change). Definitely one for the Potential list.

Here’s what they recommend:

Size

  • bigger is always better
  • minimum diameter of an MPA should be 10-20 km to ensure exchange of propagules among protected benthic populations

Shape

  • simple shapes best (squares, rectangles)
  • avoid convoluted shapes to minimise edge effects

Representation

  • protect at least 20-30 % of each habitat

Replication

  • protect at least 3 examples of each marine habitat

Spread

  • select MPA in a variety of temperature regimes to avoid risk of all protected reefs succumbing to future climate changes

Critical Areas

  • protect nursery areas, spawning aggregations, and areas of high species diversity
  • protect areas demonstrating natural resilience or rapid recovery from previous disturbances

Connectivity

  • measure connectivity between MPA to ensure replenishment
  • space maximum distance of 15-20 km apart
  • include whole ecological units
  • buffer core areas
  • protect adjacent areas such as outlying reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves

Ecosystem Function

  • maintain key functional groups of species (e.g., herbivorous fishes)

Ecosystem Management

  • embed MPA in broader management frameworks addressing other threats
  • address and rectify sources of pollution
  • monitor changes

Of course, this is just a quick-and-dirty list as presented here – I highly recommend reading the review for specifics.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgMcLeod, E., Salm, R., Green, A., & Almany, J. (2009). Designing marine protected area networks to address the impacts of climate change Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (7), 362-370 DOI: 10.1890/070211





June Issue of Conservation Letters

6 06 2009

Quick off the mark this month is the new issue of Conservation Letters. There are some exciting new papers (listed below). I encourage readers to have a look:

Policy Perspectives

Letters

CJA Bradshaw





Eastern Seaboard Climate Change Initiative

30 04 2009
© A. Perkins
© A. Perkins

I’ve just spent the last few days in Sydney attending a workshop on the Eastern Seaboard Climate Change Initiative which is trying to come to grips with assessing the rising impact of climate change in the marine environment (both from biodiversity and coastal geomorphology perspectives).

Often these sorts of get-togethers end up doing little more than identifying what we don’t know, but in this case, the ESCCI (love that acronym) participants identified some very good and necessary ways forward in terms of marine research. Being a biologist, and given this is a conservation blog, I’ll focus here on the biological aspects I found interesting.

The first part of the workshop was devoted to kelp. Kelp? Why is this important?

As it turns out, kelp forests (e.g., species such as Ecklonia, Macrocystis, Durvillaea and Phyllospora) are possibly THE most important habitat-forming group of species in temperate Australia (corals and calcareous macroalgae being more important in the tropics). Without kelp, there are a whole host of species (invertebrates and fish) that cannot persist. The Australian marine environment is worth something in the vicinity of $26.8 billion to our economy each year, so it’s pretty important we maintain our major habitats. Unfortunately, kelp is starting to disappear around the country, with southern contractions of Durvillaea, Ecklonia and Hormosira on the east coast linked to the increasing southward penetration of the East Australia Current (i.e., the big current that brings warm tropical water south from Queensland to NSW, Victoria and now, Tasmania). Pollution around the country at major urban centres is also causing the loss or degradation of Phyllospora and Ecklonia (e.g., see recent paper by Connell et al. in Marine Ecology Progress Series). There is even some evidence that disease causing bleaching in some species is exacerbated by rising temperatures.

Some of the key kelp research recommendations coming out of the workshop were:

  1. Estimating the value of kelp to Australians (direct harvesting; fishing; diving)
  2. Physical drivers of change: understanding how variation in the East Australian Current (temperature, nutrients) affects kelp distribution; understanding how urban and agricultural run-off (nutrients, pollutants, sedimentation) affects distribution and health; understanding how major storm events (e.g., East Coast Lows and El Niño-Southern Oscillation) affects long-term persistence
  3. Monitoring: what is the distribution and physical limits of kelp species?; how do we detect declines in ‘health’?; what is the associated biodiversity in kelp forests?
  4. Experimental: manipulations of temperature/nutrients/pathogens in the lab and in situ to determine sensitivities; sensitivity of different life stages; latitudinal transplants to determine localised adaption
  5. Adaptation (management): reseeding; managing run-off; managing fisheries to maintain a good balance of grazers and predators; inform marine protected area zoning; understanding trophic cascades

The second part of the discussion centred on ocean acidification and increasing CO2 content in the marine environment. As you might know, increasing atmospheric CO2 is taken up partially by ocean water, which lowers the availability of carbonate and increases the concentration of hydrogen ions (thus lowering pH or ‘acidifying’). It’s a pretty worrying trend – we’ve seen a drop in pH already, with conservative predictions of another 0.3 pH drop by the end of this century (equating to a doubling of hydrogen ions in the water). What does all this mean for marine biodiversity? Well, many species will simply not be able to maintain carbonate shells (e.g., coccolithophore phytoplankton, corals, echinoderms, etc.), many will suffer reproductive failure through physiological stress and embryological malfunction, and still many more will be physiologically stressed via hypercapnia (overdose of CO2, the waste product of animal respiration).

Many good studies have come out in the last few years demonstrating the sensitivity of certain species to reductions in pH (some simultaneous with increases in temperature), but some big gaps remain in our understanding of what higher CO2 content in the marine environment will mean for biota. Some of the key research questions in this area identified were therefore:

  1. What is the adaptation (evolutionary) potential of sensitive species? Will many (any) be able to evolve higher resistance quickly enough?
  2. In situ experiments outside the lab that mimic pH and pCO2 variation in space and time are needed to expose species to more realistic conditions.
  3. What are the population consequences (e.g., change in extinction risk) of higher individual susceptibility?
  4. Which species are most at risk, and what does this mean for ecosystem function (e.g., trophic cascades)?

As you can imagine, the conversation was complex, varied and stimulating. I thank the people at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science for hosting the fascinating discussion and I sincerely hope that even a fraction of the research identified gets realised. We need to know how our marine systems will respond – the possibilities are indeed frightening. Ignorance will leave us ill-prepared.

CJA Bradshaw

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More than just baby sharks

23 04 2009

Sharks worldwide are in trouble (well, so are many taxa, for that matter), with ignorance, fear, and direct and indirect exploitation (both legal and illegal) accounting for most of the observed population declines.

Despite this worrisome state (sharks have extremely important ‘regulatory’ roles in marine ecosystems), many people have been slowly taking notice of the problem, largely due to the efforts of shark biologists. An almost religious-like pillar of shark conservation that has emerged in the last decade or so is that if we save nursery habitats, all shark conservation concerns will be addressed.

Why? Many shark species appear to have fairly discrete coastal areas where they either give birth or lay eggs, and in which the young sharks develop presumably in relative safety from predators (including their parents). Meanwhile, breeding parents will often skip off as soon as possible and spend a good proportion of their non-breeding lives well away from coasts. Sexual segregation appears to be another common feature of many sharks species (the boys and girls don’t really play together that well).

The upshot is that if you conserve these more vulnerable ‘nursery’ areas in coastal regions, then you’ve protected the next generation of sharks and all will be fine. The underlying reason for this assumption is that it’s next-to-impossible to conserve entire ocean basins where the larger adults may be frolicking, but you can focus your efforts on restricted coastal zones that may be undergoing a lot of human-generated modification (e.g., pollutant run-off, development, etc.).

However, a new paper published recently in Conservation Letters entitled Reassessing the value of nursery areas to shark conservation and management disputes this assumption. Michael Kinney and Colin Simpfendorfer explain that even if coastal nurseries can be properly identified and adequately conserved, there is mounting evidence that failing to safeguard the adult stages could ultimately sustain declines or arrest recovery efforts. The authors support continuing efforts to identify and conserve nurseries, but they say this isn’t enough by itself to solve any real problems. If we want sharks around (and believe me, even though the odd swimmer may get a nip or two, it’s better than the alternative of no sharks), then we’re going to have to restrict fishing effort on the high seas as well.

I think this one qualifies for the ‘Potential‘ list.

CJA Bradshaw

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South Australian marine park boundaries released

29 01 2009

As an addendum to my last post (Marine Conservation in South Australia), I thought it worth mentioning that the South Australian government has released its plans for coastal marine parks. I have yet to look through these in detail, but public comment is welcomed until 27/03/2009. We’ll see what the fallout is.

Release approved by Allan Holmes, Chief Executive of the Department of Environment and Heritage (SA):

The outer boundaries of South Australia’s network of 19 new marine parks were proclaimed today. This exciting development will help protect our unique and diverse marine environment for future generations to use and enjoy, and will also position South Australia as a national leader in marine conservation.

The boundaries will be available for public comment until 27 March 2009. To support the public consultation, 57 public information sessions will be held across South Australia. To find out more about South Australia’s new marine parks network, visit here or ring 1800 006 120.

CJA Bradshaw





Marine conservation in South Australia

26 01 2009

© U.R. Zimmer

© U.R. Zimmer

Just before the holidays last year I participated in the Conservation Council of South Australia‘s (CCSA) Coast & Marine in a Changing Climate Summit 2008. It was an interesting, mature and intelligent summit with some good recommendation surfacing. Although I certainly didn’t agree with all the recommendations (view the entire report here), I must say up front that I have been very impressed with the CCSA’s approach in their ‘Blueprint’ summit series to address South Australia’s environmental problems.

Many environmental groups, especially regional ones, are seen by many as raving environists1 with little notion for balance or intelligent debate. CCSA is definitely not one of those. They are very careful to engage with scientists, public servants, industry leaders and politicians to hone their recommendations into something realistic and useful. Indeed, I am now certain the only way to convince people of the necessity of dealing with the world’s environmental mess is to make intelligent, scientifically defensible arguments about how environmental degradation worsens our quality of life (yes, this is the principal aim of ConservationBytes.com). So, good on the CCSA for a rationale approach.

Enough about the CCSA for now – let’s move onto some of their marine-related recommendations. I won’t reprint the entire summary document here, but a few things are worthy of repetition:

Significantly increase the amount of resources available for marine species research and taxonomy, especially for non-commercial species.

Despite my obvious conflict of interest, I couldn’t agree more. One of the principal problems with our ability to plan for inevitable environmental change to lessen the negative outcomes for biodiversity, industry and people in general is that we have for too long neglected marine research in Australia. Given that most Australians live near the coast and almost all of us rely on the oceans in some way, it is insane that marine research in this country is funded almost as an afterthought. How can we possibly know what we’re doing to our life-support system if we don’t even know how it works?

Take climate change for example. The majority of climate change predictions are merely single-species predictions based on physiological tolerances. Most almost completely ignore species interactions. Any given species must compete with, eat and be eaten by others, so it’s insane not to combine community relationships into predictive models.

A strict monitoring regime should be implemented in all ports and harbours to continuously monitor [sic] for introduced marine pests in order to inform better management, in conjunction with the species outlined in the Monitoring section of the National System for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pest Incursions.

Many people, and scientists in particular, have traditionally turned their noses up at so-called ‘monitoring’. However, as a few Australian colleagues of mine recently observed, the marine realm has a huge, gaping hole in monitoring data necessary to determine the future of Australia’s marine environment. Take it from me, a scientist who regularly uses time-series data to infer long-term patterns (see Publications), it’s essential that we have more long-term data on species distributions, reproductive output, survival, etc. to make inference about the future.

Recreational fishing should be licensed, with the license fees being directed towards increased research of non-commercial species and education of recreational fishers.

I really like this one. It seems South Australia is the only state in the country that doesn’t have mandatory recreational fishing licences. Absolute madness. Given the capacity of recreational fishing to outstrip commercial harvests for some species (e.g., King George whiting Sillaginodes punctatus), we need vastly better monitoring via licences to determine local impacts. Not to mention the necessary generation of money to support monitoring and research, which to the average recreational fisher, would not be such a hefty price to pay. The political drive to keep the status quo is woefully outdated and counter-productive. See one of my previous posts on the potential impacts of recreational fishing.

There is a need for a co-ordinated, state/Adelaide-wide stormwater strategy. Currently the Stormwater Management Authority examines individual projects but does not manage a bigger picture with a co-ordinated approach.

A colleague of mine recently published an article showing how South Australian waters, being more oligotrophic on average than other areas of the country, are particularly susceptible to nutrient overloading. The main losers are seagrasses and macroalgae (kelp) forests – the Adelaide metropolitan coast has lost up to 70 % of its kelp forests since major urbanisation began last century.

There are many more recommendations that you can peruse at your leisure, and many of them will be updated this year once the CCSA incorporates all the received comments. I thank them for the opportunity to take part in their worthy aims.

CJA Bradshaw

1My colleague, Barry Brook, invented this excellent term to describe those people who blindly support anything ‘green’ without really thinking of the consequences. It’s also a great way to differentiate serious ‘environmentalists’ and conservation biologists from raving ‘greenies’.

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Man bites shark

7 01 2009
© RG Harcourt

© RG Harcourt

Yesterday I had a comment piece of the same title posted on the ABC‘s Unleashed site. I have permission to reproduce it here on ConservationBytes.com.

The silly season is upon us again, and I don’t mean the commercial frenzy, the bizarre fascination with a white-bearded man or a Middle-Eastern baby, the over-indulgence at the barbie or hangovers persisting several days into the New Year. I mean it’s the time of year when beach-goers, surfers, and municipal and state policy makers go a bit ga-ga over sharks.

There are few more polite pleasures than heading down to the beach during the holidays for a surf, quick dip or just a laze under the brolly. Some would argue it’s an inalienable Australian right and that anything getting in our way should be condemned to no less than severe retribution. Well, in the case of sharks, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Apart from a good number of adrenalin-addicted surfers and mad marine scientists, most people are scared shitless by the prospect of even seeing a shark near the beach, let alone being bitten or eaten by one. I won’t bore you with some ill-advised, pseudo-psycho-analytical rant about how it’s all the fault of some dodgy 1970s film featuring a hypertrophied American shark; the simple fact is that putative prey don’t relish the thought of becoming a predator’s dinner.

So, Australia is famous for its nearly 100-year-old pioneering attempt to protect marine bathers from shark attack by setting an elaborate array of shark nets around the country’s more frequented beaches. Great, you say? Well, it’s actually not that nice.

Between December 1990 and April 2005, nearly 3500 sharks and rays were caught in NSW beach nets alone, of which 72 per cent were found dead. Shark spearing was a favourite past-time in the 1960s and 1970s, with at least one high-profile species, the grey nurse shark, gaining the dubious classification of Critically Endangered as a result. Over-fishing of reef sharks has absolutely hammered two formerly common species in the Great Barrier Reef, the whitetip and grey reef sharks (See the Ongoing Collapse of Coral-Reef Shark Populations report). And illegal Indonesian fishing in northern Australia is slowly depleting many shark species in a wave of protein mining that has now penetrated the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

Despite the gloomy outlook for sharks, I’m happy to say today that we are a little more aware of their plight and are making baby steps toward addressing the problems. Australia has generally fared better in shark conservation than most other parts of the world, even though we still have a lot of educating to do at home. Over 50 per cent of all chondrichthyans (i.e., sharks, rays and chimaeras) are threatened worldwide, with some of the largest and most wide-ranging species being hardest hit, including white sharks. The most common threat is over-fishing, but this is largely seen by the lay person as of little import simply because of the persistent attitude that “the only good shark is a dead shark”.

The attitude is, however, based on a complete furphy. I’m sure many readers would have seen some statistics like the following before, but let’s go through the motions just to be clear. Dying from or even being injured by a shark is utterly negligible. Based on the International Shark Attack File data for Australia, there were 110 confirmed (unprovoked) shark attacks in Australian waters between 1990 and 2007, of which 19 were fatal. Using Australian Bureau of Statistics human population data over the same period, this equates to an average of 0.032 attacks and 0.006 fatalities per 100,000 people, with no apparent trend over the last two decades.

Now let’s contrast. I won’t patronise you with strange comparative statistics like the probability of being killed by a (provoked) vending machine or by being hit by a bus, they are both substantially greater, but I will relate these figures to water-based activities. Drowning statistics for Australia (1992-1997) show that there were around 1.44 deaths per 100,000 people per year, or approximately 0.95 if just marine-related drownings are considered. These values are 240 (158 for marine-only) times higher than those arising from shark attack.

It’s just plainly, and mathematically, ridiculous to be worried about being eaten by a shark when swimming in Australia, whether or not there’s a beach net in place. The effort made, money spent and anxiety arising from the illogical fear that a shark will consider your sunburnt flesh a tasty alternative to its fishier sustenance is not only regrettable, it’s an outright crime against marine biodiversity. Of course, if you see a big shark lurking around your favourite beach, I wouldn’t recommend swimming over and giving it a friendly pat on the dorsal fin, but I wouldn’t recommend screaming that the marine equivalent of the apocalypse has just arrived either.

You may not be fussed either way, but consider this – the massive reduction in sharks worldwide is having a cascading effect on many of the ocean’s complex marine ecosystems. Being largely carnivorous, sharks are the ecological equivalent of community planners. Without them, herbivorous or coral-eating fish can quickly get out of control and literally destroy the food web. A great example comes from the Gulf of Mexico where the serial depletion of 14 species of large sharks has caused an explosion of the smaller cownose ray that formerly was kept in check by its bigger and hungrier cousins. The result: commercially harvested scallops in the region have now collapsed because of the hordes of shellfish-eating rays.

The day you fail to find sharks cruising your favourite beach is the day you should really start to worry.

CJA Bradshaw

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Our new Environment Institute: tackling environmental crises

9 12 2008

© T. Hampel

© T. Hampel

It’s official, the University of Adelaide has put in some major investment to get its environmental research specialists together to turns things into high gear. I’m privileged to be a part of the Institute, and I hopefully will be blogging about many of the exciting, topical and revolutionary research coming out this new ‘think tank’ (also, a ‘do tank’) over the coming years.

This report from AdelaideNow:

THE University of Adelaide will bring together experts in water management, climate change, economics, marine research, energy technology and ancient DNA to tackle Australia’s most pressing environmental challenges.

The new Environment Institute will be headed by water policy expert Mike Young who said Australia faced diabolical policy problems in relation to climate change and water resources.

“While climate change is the issue of greatest national importance, it is arguable that water is the issue of most interest to South Australia,” Professor Young said.

“The River Murray, our greatest ecological icon, is under terminal stress and we need to find alternative water sources.

“We should expect the adverse effects of climate change to first be expressed in water.”

Professor Young said research was needed to help reduce Australia’s carbon footprint, to restore and improve native habitats and restructure agricultural systems.

“Many of these issues have been dealt with in isolation in the past but this is no longer an option,” he said.

“All are linked and must be dealt with in a holistic and co-ordinated way.”

Also involved in the institute will be the university’s climate change expert Barry Brook and conservationist David Paton.

University vice-chancellor James McWha said all of the institute’s researchers had an outstanding track record and were internationally recognised in their fields.

“Collectively, they have been growing their research at a phenomenal rate over the past five years and they will play a critical role in building the state’s reputation as a global leader in environmental research,” Professor McWha said.








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