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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Protein mining the world’s oceans

31 03 2009

Last month David Agnew and colleagues published a paper in PLoS One examining the global extent of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing), estimating its value from US$10-23.5 billion and representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish annually. The value is roughly the same as that lost from illegal logging each year. Wow.

Of perhaps most interest is that Agnew and colleagues found evidence for a negative relationship between IUU fishing as a proportion of total catch and an international (World Bank) governance quality index. This suggests that improving governance and eradicating corruption may be the best way to curtail the extent of the illegal harvest.

We have just published a paper online in Fish and Fisheries about the extent and impact of IUU fishing in northern Australia. Entitled Protein mining the world’s oceans: Australasia as an example of illegal expansion-and-displacement fishing, the paper by Iain Field and colleagues advocates a multi-lateral response to a problem that has grown out of control in recent decades.

IUU fishing is devastating delicate ecosystems and fish breeding grounds in waters to Australia’s north, and can no longer be managed effectively by individual nations. The problem now requires an urgent regional solution if food security into the future is to be maintained.

The paper is the first big-picture account of the problem from Australia’s perspective. Although there had been a decline in IUU fishing in Australian waters over the past two years, possibly linked to large Australian government expenditure on enforcement and rising fuel prices, the forces driving illegal fishing have not gone away and are likely to resurface in our waters.

We expect that the small-scale illegal fishers will be back to prey on other species such as snapper, trochus and trepang as soon as it is economically viable for them to do so. To date, these IUU fishers have focused mostly on high-value sharks mainly for the fin trade, to the extent that the abundance of some shark species has dropped precipitously. IUU fishing, which has devastated fish resources and their associated ecosystems throughout Southeast Asian waters, is driven by deep economic and societal forces. For example, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s drove a large number of people out of cities and into illegal fishing.

It is not enough to maintain just a national response as the problem crosses national maritime zones, and it poses one of the biggest threats known to marine ecosystems throughout the region. These IUU fishers are mining protein, and there is no suggestion of sustainability or factoring in fish breeding or ecosystem protection into the equation. They just come into a fishing area and strip-mine it, leaving it bare.

Illegal fishing in Australian waters started increasing steeply about 10 years ago, largely because of over-exploitation of waters farther north, peaking in 2005-06 then falling away just as steeply. There are three factors behind the recent downturn: Australian government enforcement measures estimated to have cost at least AU$240 million since 2006; the high price of fuel for the fishing boats; and, most importantly, the fact that the high-value species may have been fished out and are now economically and ecologically extinct.

The $240 million has funded surveillance, apprehension, transportation, processing and accommodation of the several thousand illegal foreign fishermen detained each year since 2006. These activities have been successful, but it is doubtful whether they can hold back the IUU tide indefinitely – the benefits to the illegal fishers of their activities far outweigh the penalties if caught.

With increasing human populations in the region, the pressure to fish illegally is likely to increase. Regional responses are required to deter and monitor the illegal over-exploitation of fisheries resources, which is critical to secure ecosystem stability as climate change and other destructive human activities threaten food security.

CJA Bradshaw (with IC Field, MG Meekan and RC Buckworth)

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Man bites shark

7 01 2009

cut-shark-finYesterday 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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Classics: Fishing down the web

17 09 2008

A Classic

Fishing_down_the_food_webDaniel Pauly and colleagues’ classic paper in Science, Fishing down marine food webs, is one that merits citation in ConservationBytes.com Classics section. The trend identified by Pauly and colleagues is fairly simple – data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations revealed that the average trophic level (i.e., the position in the food web relative to autotrophs – primary producers such as phytoplankton) has declined by an overall average of 0.2 units. In this case, a trophic unit varied from 1 (phytoplankton) to 4.6 (e.g., snappers, family Lutjanidae). The trends varied by region and whether or not one takes certain overrepresented species into account, but the average decline was more or less consistent across the dataset.

What does all this reveal? Put simply, it means that fishing on a massive and global commercial scale has essentially removed many of the larger species to the point where it has become no longer economically viable to sustain a targeted fishery. This does not necessarily mean that these species have disappeared, but it does indicate a large drop in relative abundance (and thus, ease of capture) necessary to support an industry, with the corollary that highly reduced populations are now much more extinction-prone if they fall below their minimum viable population size. The corollary is that marine species we wouldn’t consider palatable for a dog 50 years ago are now considered top-quality market delicacies.

The paper did not go without critique – Caddy and colleagues argued that Pauly and colleagues oversimplified the case for marine fishes and misinterpreted some data; however, a subsequent paper by Pauly’s team published in 2005, Fishing down marine food web: it is far more pervasive than we thought, argued that the original paper didn’t go far enough, and that fisheries over-exploitation worldwide is much worse than originally reported. Indeed, there are certainly some high-profile examples to support the case (e.g., the Atlantic cod and Peruvian anchoveta fisheries collapses, to name a few).

What did this do for biodiversity conservation? I think it can be argued that this is one of the first big papers to identify that the over-fishing problem was global in extent and massive in magnitude, and that high-seas over-exploitation was stripping our seas of its bigger (generally slower-growing and more extinction-prone) species. I believe things have changed for the better, but we’re still a long way off. Fishing in international waters still operates without an international body to enforce regulation and document catch precisely, and the classic tragedy of the commons applies so well to fisheries that it should be one of the principal examples used to illustrate the concept. People tend to jump up and down about elephants, pandas and whales, but the reduction in fish worldwide is a biodiversity crisis in progress that has not attracted nearly enough attention. We need more papers like Pauly’s on this issue, as well as demonstrations of the loss of marine ecosystem function and services with the loss of species brought about by excessive fishing harvests. Only then can we expect the careless greed driving quick-profit high-seas fisheries to ease up enough to prevent extinctions on a massive scale.

CJA Bradshaw

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Global warming and biodiversity extinction

14 08 2008

My colleague Barry Brook recently posted a discussion on the impacts of climate change on biodiversity extinction rates and patterns. A very good introduction to the subject.

CJA Bradshaw

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