Best of our wild blogs: 10 Mar 12

New Record of Mangrove Crab From Singapore
from Mangrove Action Squad

School's out with kids at Chek Jawa!
from wild shores of singapore

Neck-Twisting Spotted Dove
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Important not to trivialise Bukit Brown debate

Chan Kah Tim Today Online 10 Mar 12;

I am saddened that much of the discussion over Bukit Brown and other key spaces pit the urgency of development against preserving heritage and nature. This is a false choice.

Keeping these sites the way they are is about who we are and want to be as Singaporeans, about what we value and how we connect to our nation.

Fostering such shared values and identity is precisely why organisations, from the Education Ministry to the Defence Ministry, invest in National Education, national resilience and psychological defence. It is important not to trivialise such matters.

Pragmatism in Singapore has never been just about the exigencies of concrete and asphalt. It includes a sense of vision and belief, a certain idealism. At its core is the hope that we Singaporeans can and should always demand more of ourselves.

If not, we might have given up after being kicked out of Malaysia, or when the British withdrew east of the Suez or when beset by other difficulties. Instead, we chose to rise to the occasion.

The ideal of bettering ourselves is one that we also share with the pioneers who helped make Singapore. It incorporates Singaporeans from all backgrounds. There can be no strong leadership without the unwavering partnership of ordinary Singaporeans.

As we face new challenges, including how to redefine Singapore and its people, we should again seek more than mere expedience and see beyond buildings and roads.

It means thinking about how we relate to one another as well as the people and land that shaped who we are today. Locating such commonality among Singaporeans is crucial, given our short history and small size.

Maintaining belonging across space and time can be difficult, particularly so given social, economic and other pressures.

Here, I agree with Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal that shared physical spaces like Bukit Brown, Geylang Serai and Chek Jawa continue to be physical manifestations of our rootedness to our nation, our soil, our history and one another.

They supplement and bolster efforts to strengthen the sense of being Singaporean in a fast changing world, leaving aside urbanisation, flooding and even supposed eeriness.

I ask those overseeing development to consider the broader issues at stake for Singapore and to do better to safeguard these needs. I am confident they can.

The writer works in the education sector.

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Midge problem maybe due to environment issues

Study begun into causes of swarming at Bedok Reservoir
Lim Yan Liang Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

IT IS likely that the midge infestation that hit Bedok Reservoir twice since 2011 was due to a combination of environmental factors that wreaked havoc on the eco-system there. That is what experts as well as the authorities have said, although they were quick to add that more time was needed to study the problem.

Rainfall, temperature, wind direction and changes in water quality, such as the amount of nutrients, could all have added up to cause the midge swarming, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) and national water agency PUB.

But they could not conclusively determine as yet the cause of it, said a spokesman representing both agencies.

The issue was raised in Parliament on Tuesday by Aljunied GRC MP Low Thia Khiang, who pressed the Ministry for Environment and Water Resources repeatedly for a progress update as well as long-term solutions.

The green and blue flies made their appearances at Bedok Reservoir in large numbers in January last year and this year, causing inconveniences to residents and businesses.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu said the government had commissioned a three-year study to look into the problem.

The study, which began in January this year, involves researchers from the National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute and Department of Biological Sciences; entomologists from NEA's Environmental Health Institute as well as an overseas midge expert.

They have been tasked to identify the species involved, investigate if the infestation is related to weather or water quality changes, and suggest potential solutions. Residents may have to live with the problem for a while - PUB and NEA say the team has to collect at least two years of data in order to understand what the triggers are.

While some residents speculated that the appearance of midges might be linked to the rainy season, none could explain why they only started becoming a problem two years ago when the reservoir itself is more than 25 years old.

'I've lived here for 20 years and this wasn't a serious problem till two years ago,' said Madam Huang Chew Hong, a shop owner at Bedok Reservoir Road. NEA and PUB said unlike reservoirs like MacRitchie which are located in protected catchment areas with mature eco-systems more than a century old, Bedok Reservoir is man-made and constructed from a former sand quarry.

'Being an urbanised reservoir, the eco-system at Bedok Reservoir may not be adequately balanced or established, and there may not be sufficient predators to feed on and control the midge populations,' said the spokesman.

The midge infestations did result in a jump in spider and swift numbers, both predators that feed on midges. PUB said it is looking into planting flora that can attract such predators to act as a long-term biological control method.

Professor Peter Cranston, the expert involved in the study, told The Straits Times in January that one possible reason for the scale of the infestation here was the onset of heavy rain, which washed nutrients from the soil into the reservoir. This in turn caused the algae in them to bloom, boosting the number of midges as their larvae feed on algae.

Another possible reason for the infestations might be warmer temperatures more conducive to algal growth, said Pestbuster Rentokil Initial technical manager Lim Min Hui.

When contacted, Mr Low said the focus should be on the water eco-system, since that is where midge breeding occurs. He also felt more could have been done sooner.

'I would have expected the study to have at least commenced in early 2011 when swarming occurred, if not earlier,' he said.

Interim measures such as scrubbing of the reservoir wall and removal of plants near the bank to reduce breeding should have been implemented, he said.

An NEA-PUB task force continues to fog reservoir grounds three times and apply larvicide five times a week.

Additional reporting by Chow Jia Ying and Chong Ning Qian

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Group told to clear out 'farm' on state land

Clementi folk, who have tended to garden for years, hope for reprieve
Grace Chua Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

FOR three decades, a group of Clementi residents have tended to a garden in their neighbourhood, coaxing harvests of bittergourd, sweet potato and jackfruit from the soil, mostly for their own dinner tables.

But their 'farm' sits on state land.

On Tuesday, they were told by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to clear out by March 20 - in two weeks.

The plot in question is bounded by a portion of the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line, the Sungei Ulu Pandan canal, Clementi Avenue 4 and Clementi Avenue 6.

A notice from the SLA has been posted on the door of the outhouse on the farm, announcing that these 'farmers' had trespassed on state land by erecting an illegal structure and cultivating crops illegally.

The notice also pointed out that 'other items' had been placed on state land without approval, in an apparent reference to a small shrine, a tool shed and several fish ponds.

Asked why it was taking action now, the SLA, in a joint statement with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, replied that a resident in the vicinity had reported that the frequent burning of leaves in the area had made the air acrid, creating discomfort especially for her children who have asthma.

The SLA said it looked into the complaint and found burnt patches of ground, the crops and unauthorised structures, so it posted the eviction notices.

'Going forward, the SLA will consider and discuss with grassroots organisations whether and what arrangements can be put in place to allow community use of the land,' said the statement.

It added, however, that the 'disamenities' caused by the farming had to be taken into account.

The SLA has the law on its side.

The State Lands Encroachment Act states that those who 'unlawfully enter into possession of any state land, either by residing or by erecting any building or hut thereon or by clearing, enclosing or cultivating any part thereof' shall be guilty of an offence. Conviction brings a fine of up to $5,000, a jail term of up to six months or both.

Madam Siow Siew Eng, 72, who is at the farm almost daily, said officers turned up and took down her details. Asked how she felt about the eviction, she patted her chest and said 'sim tiah', meaning 'heart pain' in Hokkien.

She said she is not planting anything new, and will just harvest what is there.

The group of 'urban farmers', mostly elderly, have been pottering on the farm long enough to have seen a new generation of them turn up to work the soil.

Madam Siow herself took over her patch from her godfather, now in his 80s and unable to walk.

Clementi resident Lester Yeong, a 35-year-old laboratory manager, said his father has farmed there in the two years since he retired, surrounded by his grandchildren, who go there to play.

Mr Yeong and others have asked the SLA for the gardening to be permitted until the land is needed for other uses, and for the current users to pay a nominal fee for a temporary occupancy permit.

He said he is meeting his MP, Ms Sim Ann, next week to discuss the issue.

Mr Leong Kwok Peng of the Green Corridor civic interest group looking to preserve the former KTM railway stretch, said an abandoned railway bridge linking Sunset Way to Clementi had significant heritage value, as does that section of the track, which was a branch of the Tanjong Pagar-Woodlands line that became disused more than 20 years ago.

Mr Leong called for the farmers to be allowed to continue their activity, but said the plot should be a community space, open to all, not just the farmers.

Clementi residents say the farm, there since the late 1970s, is something of a neighbourhood institution.

Housewife Jacinta Conceicao, 50, said: 'It's part of the scenery for us. We have the railway track, we have the river and we have this farm - it makes our neighbourhood unique in this way.'

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ExxonMobil's second Singapore petrochemicals complex almost complete

Ronnie Lim Business Times 10 Mar 12;

EXXONMOBIL'S second petrochemicals complex here, costing US$5 billion to US$6 billion - the US oil giant's biggest manufacturing site worldwide - 'is nearing completion', Rex Tillerson, its chairman and CEO, said in a presentation at the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.

'Commissioning and start-up activities are expected to continue through 2012 and will provide a world-scale integrated platform with unparalleled feedstock flexibility,' he told investment analysts.

'The expansion will add 2.6 million tonnes per year of additional capacity and will help meet demand growth in Asia-Pacific,' Mr Tillerson said of its Singapore Parallel Train (SPT) complex, so called as it is being built parallel to ExxonMobil's first petrochemical complex here.

SPT was scheduled to be operational in the second half of last year, but this has been delayed by a year, with full project start-up now expected in the second half of this year.

ExxonMobil officials earlier said this was due to construction 'issues' arising from the project's scale and complexity.

The entire SPT complex comprises an upstream one million tonnes per annum ethylene cracker and six downstream plants, as well as its own 220-megawatt cogeneration plant to provide utilities.

An ExxonMobil spokesman here told BT yesterday: 'The (SPT) project is 98 per cent mechanically complete, and units have been progressively starting up, with product qualifications underway.'

'In January, we reached the milestone of producing our first metallocene polymer in Asia,' the spokesman added, referring to the start-up of the first downstream units at SPT. 'We anticipate that commissioning and start-up activities will continue through 2012.'

But a 98 per cent mechanical completion rate suggests that the main upstream cracker - which will supply feedstock to the downstream plants - is still not completed. Georges Grosliere, ExxonMobil Chemical's venture executive, had said last June that 'the main cracker (the heart of the SPT complex) . . . will be the last to be completed, on purpose'.

BT earlier reported that the main cracker, which is being built by US-based contractor Shaw Group, had run into some construction delays, with the latter reporting millions of dollars in cost overruns as a result.

Some good news finally emerged from Shaw last December when it said 'we continue to progress on our schedule with the project . . . and that it will be completed next year (2012), next summer'.

In his presentation, Mr Tillerson also said additional projects are also in progress here, 'including new facilities at ExxonMobil's Singapore refinery'.

He was apparently referring to a diesel hydrotreater expansion, reportedly costing US$500 million, at the 605,000 barrel-per-day refinery to produce more 'green' diesel for the growing regional market.

When it starts up in 2014, this ultra-low sulphur diesel (ULSD) plant will produce another nine million litres of ULSD daily, boosting ExxonMobil Singapore's production to over 25 million litres per day.

ExxonMobil has invested well over US$11 billion in its Singapore refinery/petrochemicals facility to-date.

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2 common pond plants in stamps as reminders to preserve natural habitat

Channel NewsAsia 9 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE: Two plants commonly found in the ponds, Yellow Burhead and Water Lettuce, will be featured as stamps in the Pond Life definitive issue.

Singapore Post said on Friday that they serve as reminders of the need to preserve the natural habitat so that wonderful creatures can continue to be part of Singapore's rich natural wildlife.

The set of two stamps is worth 58 cents.

Yellow Burhead can grow up to about one metre above water.

Its flowers are yellow and cup-shaped, and its seeds are dispersed by water, water birds and animals.

It is also an edible herb.

The young leaves and stems are traditionally eaten as a vegetable in most parts of Southeast Asia and India.

Water Lettuce floats on the water surface with only its long roots submerged in the water.

Its light green leaves are arranged like a lettuce and can grow up to about 14 centimetres.

It has small white flowers that are rarely seen.

- CNA/ck

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Christmas comes early for scientists

Raffles Museum team finds new crab species on Christmas Island
Grace Chua Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

A TEAM of Singapore scientists who explored the remote Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands received an unexpected gift: Not only did they find a number of new species of crabs, but they are also beginning to understand better how different species arise in isolated habitats.

This crab may be completely new to science. -- PHOTO: RAFFLES MUSEUM OF BIODIVERSITY RESEARCH, NUS

Researchers from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research took a two-week trip last month to the islands off Sumatra and discovered species new to science.

The icing on the cake: Last week, they published records of three new crab species that were discovered on their first research trip in 2010, in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.

One of them, a sky-blue crab found on Christmas Island, was thought to be a colourful variant of another species, but they proved that it is genetically different.

Genetics also suggests that the crabs began to evolve into a separate species only two to three million years ago - an eternity to humans, but the blink of an eye on geologic time scales.

'We used to think that evolution takes millions of years, but now think that it can take place much faster,' explained Professor Peter Ng, who heads the Raffles Museum.

Christmas Island, a 132 sq km speck in the Indian Ocean south of Sumatra, was chosen for its long history with Singapore, which administered it in colonial times. (In 1957, it was transferred to Australia.)

Because the original Raffles Museum had studied the island in pre-war times, its collection holds a library of specimens that researchers can compare their new finds to.

'Even though Christmas Island is Australian, its rainforests and reefs are South-east Asian, and our focus is South-east Asian biology,' Prof Ng said.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands to the south-west, also an Australian territory, feature a similar environment.

They consist of two atolls. These are islands with an enclosed lagoon, formed when coral reefs grow around a volcanic island which then subsides, leaving just the reef like a fringe around a balding man's pate.

The northern atoll, North Keeling, is battered by waves so strong that boats do not land there.

Instead, the research team had to swim about 20m to shore, said Dr Tan Heok Hui, a fish taxonomist with the museum.

But they were rewarded with new finds, such as a purple land crab and a marine crab from 40m depths.

The research has implications for Australia's national parks management.

If a species is found only on a particular island, for instance, the rules that govern it, such as limiting access or harvesting, are stricter than if it is widespread.

This year's trip was supposed to be the last of three, but Dr Tan said the team is trying to get funding to go back later this year. 'We're trying to strike while the iron is hot.'

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Malaysia: Sipadan sharks are fin-ished, unless...

The Star 10 Mar 12;

KOTA KINABALU: The killing of sharks in the vicinity of the world's premier diving haven of Sipadan is setting off alarm bells among conservationists who want immediate safeguards in place to protect the fast diminishing species.

International and local divers have filmed dead sharks with their fins removed while diving around popular spots around Sipadan and Mabul and other reefs and islands in the east coast of Sabah.

Tourists continue to see sharks being finned along the beach near the village in Mabul Island and the carcasses thrown back into the sea.

“This is not good for Sipadan's international image,” Sabah-based non-governmental organisation Borneo Conservancy headed by Daniel Doughty said.

Borneo Conservancy, which is pushing for the creation of the Semporna Shark Sanctuary, is hoping the state government will put in place a sanctuary ahead of Sabah's plan to ban total shark hunting.

Conservationists in Semporna said their ground teams had witnessed the finning of sharks “once every two to three days” over the last 12 months.

“With an average of more than 50 sharks seen dead each day, we estimate that the number could be much higher as we don't see sharks being finned,” said a conservationist who declined to be named.

The proponents of a sanctuary said dive tourists had shown videos of dead sharks being dumped on reefs in Mabul.

“Sadly, more tourists are seeing these images for real on Mabul Island and in Semporna and they have complained about the lack of protection for sharks and marine life in this world famous dive destination,” said the conservationist.

Doughty said there was a need for the state to have a shark sanctuary in Semporna as an immediate measure while waiting for changes to federal laws to facilitate a ban on shark hunting in Sabah waters.

“The shark population is depleting; we must act now,” he said, adding that an online petition for the setting up of the sanctuary had gained nearly 12,000 signatures from at least 40 organisations involved in shark and marine conservation worldwide.

'Govt needs to ban shark hunting'
New Straits Times 12 Mar 12;

KOTA KINABALU: Social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye has called for Federal Government legislation to ban shark hunting in Malaysian waters.

Lee said this in the wake of reports about conservationists from Sabah protesting about the rampant inhumane killing and finning of sharks in Sabah waters.

He said the confirmed reports of sharks being finned on the beach and thrown back into the sea in the vicinity of the world's premier diving haven of Sipadan was most disgusting and nauseating.

"Such inhumane acts must be stopped. Divers have filmed dead sharks with their fins removed while diving around popular spots around Sipadan and Mabul.

"This must be looked into seriously by the relevant authorities. I agree with the view expressed by Sabah-based NGO Borneo Conservancy that this most inhumane killing of sharks is not good for Sipadan's international image," he said in a statement, here yesterday.

With this in view, Lee said it was time for authorities in Sabah to take appropriate action to deal with the problem. Bernama

Inhumane ‘finning’ acts must be stopped
The Star 12 Mar 12;

I AM perturbed by “Sharks are fin-ished, unless...” (The Star, March 10). Confirmed reports of the killing of sharks or sharks being finned on the beach and thrown back into the sea in the vicinity of the world’s premier diving haven of Sipadan is most disgusting and nauseating. Such inhumane acts must be stopped.

The Star’s report that divers have filmed dead sharks with their fins removed while diving in popular spots around Sipadan and Mabul must be looked into seriously by the relevant authorities.

I agree with the view expressed by Sabah-based NGO Borneo Conservancy that this most inhumane killing of sharks is not good for Sipadan’s international image.

What is most disturbing is that, according to conservationists in Sabah, their people had witnessed the finning of sharks “once every two to three days” over the last 12 months, with an average of more than 50 sharks seen dead each day.

With this in view, it is time for the authorities concerned to take appropriate action to deal with the problem.

While the Sabah authorities can look into providing a safe sanctuary for sharks and other marine life, the Federal Government should look into introducing new legislation to provide a ban on shark hunting in Sabah and Malaysia waters.

The shark population is depleting and we must do something to protect the sharks and other marine life in the interest of marine conservation and eco-tourism.

Kuala Lumpur.

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Eco-Tourism May Be Good News for Sharks

Andrea Mustain Yahoo News 10 Mar 12;

Imagine swimming in crystalline ocean waters shot through with sunlight when one of Earth's most notorious predators swims into view — a very close view.

Such pulse-quickening encounters are, in fact, the whole point for visitors to Tiger Beach, an idyllic spot in the Bahamas where eco-tourists can get up close and personal with tiger sharks — indiscriminate eaters known to devour everything from sea turtles to kegs of nails (and occasionally a few unlucky humans).

Yet it is by playing to the sharks' voracious appetites that dive operators are able to lure them into view, courtesy of generous offerings of chum — minced fish.

However, some have argued that the free meals — and resulting close encounters between humans and sharks — could have bad consequences for both species.

Shark meal

"People are concerned that it could be causing sharks to associate people with food," said shark researcher Neil Hammerschlag, an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Some worry that, like cartoon castaways eyeing each other hungrily in a boat, tiger sharks might, essentially, begin to see humans as giant pork chops with legs.

"Shark attacks are so very rare, so it's really hard to draw conclusions," Hammerschlag told OurAmazingPlanet.

Another concern, he said, and one that is easier to test, is that all the free food might disrupt the sharks' natural wanderings, and artificially limit their movements to areas close to tourist sites. (Why go hunting out at sea when the bipeds regularly serve up snacks?)

Since sharks are apex predators — a bit like the Godfathers of the ecosystem — and keep potentially disruptive ecological usurpers in check, such a change could have negative effects.

"They help keep balance," Hammerschlag said, "so if this really changes their behavior long term, it could have ecological consequences."

Neither idea has been properly tested, he said. To that end, Hammerschlag, heading up a team of researchers, designed a study to investigate.

Shark testing

They used satellite tags attached to the sharks' dorsal fins to track tiger sharks in areas where eco-tourism packages offer plenty of free food to the sharks — the Bahamas' Tiger Beach — and an area where the practice is forbidden — Florida.

All told, they tracked 11 Floridian tiger sharks and 10 Bahamian sharks, in near-real time, for spans of six months to almost a year. Hammerschlag said he expected the Bahamian sharks, with access to cushy meals, to travel far less than their Floridian counterparts.

"But, in fact, we found the opposite," he said. The Florida tiger sharks traveled, at most, 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from their tagging site.

In contrast, "the tiger sharks from the Bahamas diving site moved massive distances," Hammerschlag said. "Definitely that area was important, but they didn't rely on it."

Some swam as far as 2,175 miles (3,500 km) out into the middle of the Atlantic and spent seven months there. The researchers noted that the difference could be related to size: The Bahamian sharks are bigger, and bigger animals tend to travel larger distances.

Their research is published today (March 9) in the journal Functional Ecology.

Shark people

Hammerschlag said that the work indicates that eco-tourism, when done right, may not be all bad for sharks — crucial predators that are disappearing from oceans around the world, many falling victim to the lucrative and devastating shark-fin trade.

With proper policies, he suggested, people could continue to see economic benefit from sharks, but in a way that keeps the animals alive.

"In the Bahamas, they've encouraged shark diving because it's good for the economy, and because of that they're protecting sharks in their water," he said — something that Florida policymakers might want to keep in mind.

"I would say that before we ban these things outright, we should do some research," he said. "Rather than basing our decisions on fear, we should base them on fact."

Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds: Using Satellite Technology to Evaluate the Effects of Ecotourism On Tiger Sharks
ScienceDaily 9 Mar 12;

Ecotourism activities that use food to attract and concentrate wildlife for viewing have become a controversial topic in ecological studies. This debate is best exemplified by the shark dive tourism industry, a highly lucrative and booming global market. Use of chum or food to attract big sharks to areas where divers can view the dwindling populations of these animals has generated significant criticism because of the potential for ecological and behavioral impacts to the species. However, the debate has been largely rhetorical due to a lack of sufficient data to make any conclusions either way.

Five University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science researchers, Drs. Neil Hammerschlag, Jerald S. Ault and Jiangang Luo, and graduate students Austin Gallagher and Julia Wester, combined efforts to tackle this issue. In a paper published in the British Ecological Society's Functional Ecology titled, "Don't bite the hand that feeds: Assessing ecological impacts of provisioning ecotourism on an apex marine predator," the team conducted the first satellite tagging study to examine the long-term and long range movement patterns of tiger sharks (the largest apex predator in tropical waters) in response to dive tourism.

"We studied two separate populations of tiger sharks: one that originated in Florida and the other in the Bahamas," says Hammerschlag. At the Bahamas site, nicknamed Tiger Beach, chum is widely used to attract sharks for dive tourism purposes. In contrast, shark feeding for ecotourism in Florida waters is illegal.

The team hypothesized that Tiger Beach sharks would exhibit restricted movements around the dive site, especially when compared to tiger sharks tagged in Florida. However, what they discovered was totally different -- Tiger Beach sharks did not exhibit restricted movements near the dive site. Instead, the Bahamas sharks occupied an area over 8500 km2 in size -- almost five times greater than Florida tiger sharks.

"Not only did we discover that ecotourism provisioning did not affect tiger shark behavior, we found that tiger sharks undergo previously unknown long-distance migrations up to 3,500 km into the open Atlantic. These apparent feeding forays follow the Gulf Stream, an area of high biological productivity that concentrates shark prey," said Ault.

"Given the economic and conservation benefits we believe managers should not prevent shark diving tourism out of hand until sufficient data were to demonstrate otherwise," added Hammerschlag.

Shark finning, the practice of catching a shark, slicing off its fins and then disposing of the body at sea, is resulting in immense shark population declines worldwide. Fins are sold to support the growing demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. In a 2011 study by UM's Gallagher & Hammerschlag, they showed that shark dive tourism generates more money to local economies than does killing the sharks.
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Journal Reference:

Neil Hammerschlag, Austin J. Gallagher, Julia Wester, Jiangang Luo, Jerald S. Ault. Don’t bite the hand that feeds: assessing ecological impacts of provisioning ecotourism on an apex marine predator. Functional Ecology, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2012.01973.x

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Appetite for shark fin soup 'causing decline of blue sharks in UK waters'

Study says blue shark population off UK coast is targeted by fisherman using 'wall of death' method, before being sent to Asia
Jonathan Watts 9 Mar 12;

The demand for shark fin soup in Asia is probably the major cause of the alarming decline of blue sharks off the British coast and much of the Atlantic, the authors of a new study claim this week.

Scientists from the UK and Portugal have tracked the ocean predators to busy fishing grounds, where they believe they are being deliberately targeted by fishermen with "walls of death" from long-line fishing that can stretch as long as 100km.

Blue sharks are thought to be the most frequently caught shark species, with population declines of up to 80% in some regions since the 1980s, the fish is now classified as "near-threatened" on the IUCN Red List.

Various reasons for its demise have been suggested, but until recently scientists and conservationists were not even sure of blue sharks' movements in the Atlantic. They were not helped by a fishing industry that logs every catch, but does not release or compile its data.

The new study published in PLoS One finds the strongest evidence yet that long-line fishing is to blame, prompting the authors to call for the establishment of protected areas.

Using satellites, the authors followed the migration of 16 sharks from south-west England and the coast of Portugal. They discovered that the sharks hunted at greater depth than had been previously thought and tended to congregate in the same areas as long-line fishing boats, particularly the continental shelf off the south-west of England.

This made them vulnerable to the lines, which can bristle with up to 1,000 hooks and ostensibly target tuna and swordfish, at depths of 100 to 300 metres.

The paper's lead author, Prof David Sims of the Marine Biological Association, said it was no accident that blue sharks are also snared.

"The sharks are having to cross a wall of death across the continental shelf edge off the south west of the UK," he said. "The fishermen know what they are going to be catching. Due to the reduction of target species such as tuna and swordfish, they have come to rely on blue shark and mako shark to improve the profit from each trip."

It's estimated that 1.1 million blue sharks are caught in the Atlantic each year, mostly by Spanish, Portuguese and Tunisian boats. Most are sold on to Taiwan or Hong Kong, which is the centre of the processing industry.

Sharks are slaughtered for their fins, which are used in soup that is popular in Chinese banquets. The demand for this delicacy has surged in the past decade as income levels have risen.

In recent months, a high-profile campaign against the practice has prompted a number of leading Hong Kong hotels, such as the Shangri-la group, to take shark fin soup off their menus.

But Sims said that action to regulate the source of supply on the high seas was woefully lacking, and that information from the new study should provide the basis for the establishment of marine conservation areas. He also urged regulators – such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – to press fishing companies to release data on what they caught and where.

"There is an economic reason why this data isn't being compiled," he said. "Of the 20 species of shark that are caught in the Atlantic, only 1% are protected. It's fair to say high seas fisheries are like the wild west."

Without better protection, he warned the blue shark – which has long been the most common, large pelagic shark in UK waters – faces extinction. "There is a good chance that our grandchildren won't see these sharks," he said.

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Australia: Disappearing underwater world

Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

SYDNEY: On a small island in the Great Barrier Reef, marine biologist Mia Hoogenboom has been running experiments on the impact of warming waters on the area's famous coral life.

'It looks pretty grim,' she said. 'The main corals that build the reef are unlikely to be there in the future. The general view is that we will see major changes within 50 years. Around this part, there was fantastic coral cover up till seven or eight years ago - but that is gone now.'

The reef, which extends more than 2,000km off the coast of Queensland, is one of Australia's best known tourist sites and one of the seven wonders of the natural world. About two million people visit each year to see some of the 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands. The Queensland government said the reef provides well over A$5 billion (S$6.7 billion) a year from tourism and provides jobs for more than 53,000 people.

But the make-up of its coral and marine life has been rapidly changing. As the waters warm and the acidity rises, many scientists said a tragic expiry date looms over the underwater world.

At the Orpheus Island research station, scientists from across the world have been conducting a range of experiments to examine how coral and fish will fare in warmer waters. There, Dr Hoogenboom has been running tests in temperature-controlled tanks filled with local coral samples.

'Corals are the building blocks of the reef - removing them is like taking away the foundation of a house,' she said. 'It has consequences right through the food chain. If the corals are not there, everything else will suffer.'

In the past 30 years, sea surface temperatures there have risen by more than 0.4 deg C and are due to rise by between 1 and 3 deg C by 2100. This has led to a loss of pigment, which can kill corals. At the same time, rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have added to ocean acidity, which makes it harder for corals to build skeletons and survive.

The trends have had devastating consequences, with rising temperatures causing major bleaching. The worst occurred in 2002, when more than half of the corals in the reef experienced bleaching and up to 10 per cent died.

As with other phenomena linked to global warming, there has been much scientific debate about the long-term forecasts for the reef and the precise role of human-induced climate change. It has largely focused on whether corals will eventually be able to adapt to the changing environment and whether global warming is the main cause of the degradation.

Dr Hoogenboom said: 'There are some signs that the corals can adapt. But the question is whether or not they can adapt quickly enough. The general view is that they cannot.'

James Cook University professor David Miller believes the corals will be able to adapt to the warmer waters but the reef will lose much of its diversity and lustre. This is because the less colourful corals have proved most able to adapt.

But the changes will have a massive impact on the fish of the reef, many of which will migrate or die as their feeding patterns change, he added.

Though the reef is one of the world's best-protected marine parks, most experts believe the strict rules on fishing, boating and shipping have not been enough to prevent degradation.

While the scientists largely agree that human-induced climate change is destroying the reef, there is debate about the role of other factors, such as coastal development.

'We need to clean up these problems locally so that when the climate change threat becomes very oppressive, the reefs will be in as good a state to deal with them,' said University of Queensland Professor John Pandolfi.


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Australia: Living with climate change

Climate change is leaving its mark on Australia in diverse ways - from floods and deadly heatwaves to vanishing beaches. Sydney Correspondent Jonathan Pearlman looks at how it is changing the country's landscape and way of life.
Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

SYDNEY: Tourists and locals have long spent summers lazing on the lush stretch of golden sand at Kingscliff Beach on Australia's east coast, home to one of the country's oldest surf clubs.

Now the beach is gone. Hundreds of thousands of cubic m of sand have been swept away into waters to the north.

Mr Richard Adams, who runs a holiday park overlooking what used to be the 60m-deep beach at Kingscliff in northern New South Wales, said: 'This was all thick, fluffy, white sand, not this white water. It used to be one of the best beaches in Australia.'

Indeed, some of the most popular surfing and holiday spots along the coast have disappeared. Of 309 regularly frequented beaches, 38 now have beach areas that have shrunk to 10m or less.

'It was heartbreaking to watch,' said Ms Dot Holdom, who has lived in Kingscliff for 30 years. 'You're torn between Mother Nature and watching something that you love falling away. We have a love affair with the sea and the beaches, but we can't do any more what we have done in the past.'

The disappearance of beaches on this island continent is a dramatic sign of the changing climate and increasingly extreme weather - not a distant threat, but an unfolding danger taking a growing toll. Inland, there is more evidence - heavy rain and flooding are changing the face of the driest of Earth's inhabited continents.

Indeed, as I was surveying the lost beach of Kingscliff last month, record flooding struck inland, just a few hours' drive away. In the Queensland town of Roma, one woman stuck in her car with her seven-year-old son died after insisting that rescuers take him first.

Last week, the rain struck again, killing three people and causing the evacuation of thousands more across the three eastern states of New South Wales (NSW), Queensland and Victoria.

Even so, the human toll this summer was nowhere near as tragic as the Queensland floods of 2010 that killed dozens, virtually wiped out the entire town of Grantham, and brought the state capital Brisbane to a standstill as the city's main river overflowed and swamped suburbs.

Irony of flood and drought

THE cost of the damage to cotton, sugar, grain and livestock farmers, home owners, businesses and miners, as well as the tourism industry is still being counted - but the toll has been estimated at A$30 billion (S$40 billion).

Such floods have been occurring on the continent for thousands of years, but scientists say they are occurring more often and becoming more severe.

In the past 30 years, the El Nino and La Nina weather events that cause drought and flooding have been more frequent. In the past 18 months, Australia has endured two La Ninas - leading to the nation recording its wettest two-year period since instrumental records began in the 1880s.

It has all happened almost exactly as predicted by climate scientists when they first spelled out the long-term risks in the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990.

'Since about 1990, all the climate models have been producing the same or similar results, and that's what we are seeing now,' said climatologist Karl Braganza. 'There is more heavy rain in the tropics, as well as more drought in southern Australia.'

A great irony has played out across the country in the past two decades: While some areas have been inundated by sudden deluges and record flooding, others have become so dry that they have forced farmers off the land and devastated the nation's food bowl. The Murray-Darling basin, a land mass of more than a million sq km that produces 45 per cent of the nation's food, has seen less and less rain since 1990. Rivers ran dry and farmland turned to scrubland. It was the worst drought in 117 years of recorded history.

Water supplies to the cities plummeted. State authorities, fearing they were about to run out of water, began to spend billions of dollars on desalination plants. In Melbourne, where newspapers ran daily dam levels on the front page, there were bans on watering sports fields and households were restricted to watering their gardens twice a week.

The drought finally broke in 2010, cruelly, with floods that, for some farmers, were equally crushing. 'It is devastating,' said farmer Tony Wass, during flooding in NSW in 2010. 'For people having gone through a decade of drought, then to be looking at having one of the best harvests possibly ever, and then to have that snatched away - it's just heartbreaking.'

The drying up of the rivers and wetlands in the nation's heart left state governments and farmers battling over the dwindling water supply. It forced farmers to uproot and the nation to reconsider whether it can really think of itself as a country whose soul is on 'the land'.

Now the coastal cities face challenges that are no less daunting. As waters rise around a country where more than 80 per cent of the population live on the coast, the consequences are set to be catastrophic.

Entire suburbs of Sydney and other major cities are expected to be under water by the end of the century. Modelling by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has provided a grim forecast of what could disappear: up to 247,600 houses, 33,000km of roads, 1,500km of rail lines and tramways and 14,800 business properties.

The analysis, released in a report last year, said that natural disasters cost Australia about A$1 billion a year but this will 'double or more in the next few decades' - and hundreds of billions of dollars of assets will be at risk.

'The exposure of coastal assets to sea-level rise associated with climate change is widespread and the hazard will increase into the future,' it said. 'Exposure will also increase as the population grows. Greater than A$226 billion in commercial, industrial, road and rail, and residential assets are potentially exposed to inundation and erosion hazards at a sea-level rise of 1.1m.'

This sort of threat is not merely a danger to property and infrastructure - it is a threat to the nation's way of life. Local councils have begun identifying areas at risk from storms, king tides and overloaded creeks and drains, which could then be used to eventually ban future development and even relocate housing.

Similar measures have been taken against bush fires which have ravaged parts of Australia in recent years. The country's worst bush fire occurred just three years ago, on Feb 7, 2009, when 173 people were killed and 2,000 homes lost in Victoria. But fires and heatwaves are set to become more severe and more extreme.

A report released last November by PricewaterhouseCoopers and government and meteorology experts said the government should consider a 'national heatwave plan', including public air-conditioned cooling rooms to provide respite from 45-plus deg C days. Other proposals included early warning systems and programmes adopted by cities such as Shanghai and Chicago to increase vegetation and promote rooftop gardens.

Associate Professor Janette Lindesay, a climate change scientist at the Australian National University, said: 'In Australia, because of where we sit, we get it all. We have tropical and subtropical systems - we straddle a whole range of latitudes and are prone to a high degree of variability in rainfall from year to year.'

She said Australia has been experiencing more extreme versions of cyclical weather patterns - and the trend will only worsen. 'What we are seeing and can continue to expect is increased variability - the floods and droughts are more extreme,' she added.

For some Australians, the effects are in plain sight. At the Kingscliff holiday park, where dozens of beachside cabins have been torn down or swept away, occupancy rates have fallen this year.

Professor Rodger Tomlinson, one of Australia's leading experts on coastal erosion, would not predict if the beaches would ever return to their former beauty.

'We don't know,' he said. 'We had pretty calm weather throughout the last three decades - now we are moving back into an era of stormy conditions, especially with La Nina.'

The only exception to the downturn in the numbers coming for the sand and surf is a new type of visitor - 'disaster tourists'. They are keen to see first-hand the beach that no longer exists.

Still, the residents along the coast are not yet ready to make a retreat - in part, perhaps, because there is nowhere to run.

On the balcony of Kingscliff's surf club, which locals jokingly say may have to be turned into a yacht club, Ms Holdom looks out at what was once the beach.

'Things here have not ended - they have just changed,' she said. 'People have had to adapt. To think that these things won't happen where you live is a flight of fancy.'

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Helping nature restore Japan's tsunami-battered coast

Julian Ryall and Kwan Weng Kin Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

RIKUZENTAKATA (Iwate prefecture): Mrs Takako Niinuma used to play among the thousands of pine trees that were the proudest feature of Rikuzentakata. One year after the March 11 earthquake, just one tree remains, the rest cut off at head height by the mighty tsunami that battered this coast.

But the remaining tree is also ultimately doomed as sea water has rotted its roots.

'I have black-and-white photos of me as a child when the trees were quite small, but it looks completely different without them,' says Mrs Niinuma.

Undeterred, the 75-year-old has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest, designated in 1927 as one of the 100 best landscapes of Japan, to its former glory for the sake of future generations.

After the March 11 disaster, she started collecting pine cones buried in the debris, dried them in the sun and donated the seeds to the Society for the Preservation of the Takata Pine Tree Woods.

The seeds were passed on to a nursery at a forestry research centre in Takizawa, which Mrs Niinuma visited last year.

'It was wonderful,' she says. 'They had already grown more than 500 saplings from my seeds and they were about 10cm tall when I saw them.'

She is not alone in wanting to help nature along in Japan's restoration efforts. Former civil servant Yoichiro Otsuka, who heads a non-profit organisation that promotes cooperation between the farm and business sectors, has started a project to plant tomatoes on farmland damaged by sea water.

He got help from Mr Kazuma Nishitsuji, who suggested planting a strain that had been successfully cultivated for almost a decade in salt-tainted reclaimed land in Kumamoto prefecture in southern Japan.

Mr Nishitsuji's venture company has developed a material that uses bacteria to break down the salt in tainted soil.

In early June, volunteers young and old led by Mr Otsuka arrived in Iwanuma city, Miyagi prefecture, to plant the tomatoes on some of the damaged farmland.

Two months later, they returned to harvest them.

Not a plant had withered. The hardy tomatoes were quickly dubbed 'Restoration Tomatoes' and declared a symbol of the rebirth of the crippled Tohoku region.

Says Mr Nishitsuji: 'I believe the success of the project has given a ray of hope to Tohoku farmers. I understand many were encouraged to revive their own farms after that.'

Impressed by the results, two corporations have agreed to donate 10 million yen (S$155,500) to Mr Otsuka, who intends to run his tomato project for another year, enlisting the help of more farmers this time.

He also hopes to get them to plant salt-resistant cabbage, which was also successfully tried out last year.

The March 11 disaster has given the government an opportunity to try out new farming techniques aimed at cutting production costs and doubling output.

The Agriculture Ministry intends to create a large farm in the devastated coastal areas of Miyagi, utilising the latest in farm technology.

For instance, the farm will feature unmanned tractors, sensors to accurately measure the amounts of water and fertiliser needed for efficient plant growth, and robots for packing the produce into boxes for transportation to the market.

The proposed farm, which will span some 250ha, will involve private-sector companies and research institutions.

The government also has a three-year plan that provides 90 per cent of the funds needed for reviving all damaged farmland.

Meanwhile, Mrs Niinuma has big plans for the pine saplings.

'I want them to form the basis of a new park,' she says, pointing out an area close to the solitary remaining tree where she believes they could be planted.

'I hope that one day they will be able to grow and give pleasure to future generations.'

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