Best of our wild blogs: 16 Mar 12

She sucks and swallows
from The annotated budak

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Rising Ocean Temperatures Harm Protected Coral Reefs

ScienceDaily 15 Mar 12;

Special conservation zones known as marine protected areas provide many direct benefits to fisheries and coral reefs. However, such zones appear to offer limited help to corals in their battle against global warming, according to a new study.

To protect coral reefs from climate change, marine protected areas need to be complemented with policies that can meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions, researchers said.

The new study, published online recently in the journal Global Change Biology, was conducted by scientists from Conservation International, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To determine whether coral deaths caused by ocean warming were lower inside marine protected areas, researchers combined more than 8,000 coral reef surveys performed by divers with satellite measurements of ocean surface temperatures.

"Although marine protected areas could help coral populations recover from temperature-induced mortality in particular situations, this does not appear to be an effective general solution," said study author John Bruno, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

Elizabeth Selig, Ph.D., conservation scientist with Conservation International and the study's lead author, said corals living in marine protected areas can be just as susceptible to ocean warming as their unprotected neighbors.

"Marine protected areas (MPAs) can protect coral reefs from localized problems, particularly overfishing and terrestrial run-off," said Selig, who led the study as part of her dissertation in Bruno's lab at UNC. "However, the magnitude of losses from increased ocean temperatures as a result of climate change seems to be overwhelming these positive effects. This paper suggests that we need to rethink our current planning for MPAs in order to maximize the benefits they can provide."

Globally, corals reefs are being degraded by a number of factors including overfishing, sedimentation and rising ocean temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions, Selig said.

A rise of just 1 degree to 2 degrees Fahrenheit (about 0.5 degrees to 1 degree Centigrade) above normal summertime highs can kill coral polyps, which build reefs.

Given the difficulty of slowing or reversing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, coral reef scientists, managers and conservationists had pinned their hopes on a different, more localized strategy: saving corals by restricting fishing in marine protected areas. The reasoning is that fishing depletes herbivorous fishes, which can lead to more seaweed on the seafloor; that can harm baby corals, so restricting the taking of fish that trim back seaweed should help coral populations recover.

Previous research has shown that under optimal conditions, reefs in marine protected areas saw increases in coral cover of 1 percent or 2 percent per year.

But those gains might not be enough to mitigate the impact of thermal stress events. For example, the new study found that when water temperatures were more than 1 degree Centigrade above summertime averages for eight weeks (recognized as the threshold that generally results in widespread bleaching and significant coral death), it correlated with coral cover loss of 3.9 percent annually.

"Reducing overfishing, although clearly a very good thing, will not meaningfully limit the damage being done to the world's coral reefs by greenhouse gas emissions," Bruno added.

Richard B. Aronson, Ph.D., professor and head of the biological sciences department at the Florida Institute of Technology, said the study clearly showed that marine protected areas cannot by themselves save coral reefs.

"We have to reverse climate change by stopping runaway greenhouse gas emissions," said Aronson, who did not participate in the study. "That is a lot harder than protecting a reef against local problems like fishing pressure, because it requires international cooperation. But it can be done -- and it must be done if we are going to save the coral reefs and the rest of the planet."

Along with Selig and Bruno, the other author of the study was Kenneth S. Casey, Ph.D., a satellite oceanographer and technical director of NOAA's National Oceanographic Data Center.

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Plans to ban fishing discards threatened by EU member states

A group of European Union member states are planning to thwart key reforms aimed at conserving dwindling fish stocks
Fiona Harvey 15 Mar 12;

Efforts to ban the practice of discarding edible fish at sea could be thwarted by a group of EU member states which are planning to block reforms aimed at conserving dwindling fish stocks.

Campaigners, including the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have been calling for a ban on discards – where as many as two-thirds of healthy fish caught by fleets are thrown back into the sea, dead, because they are less valuable than the species fishermen are trying to catch – for more than a year. In his series, Hugh's Fish Fight, he said half of all fish caught in the North Sea are thrown back. He called moves to block the proposed ban "worrying in the extreme".

The EU fisheries chief, Maria Damanaki, had backed a change to the European common fisheries policy (CFP) to ban discards. Her reforms would mean fishermen would be forced to land all fish they catch, in return for compensation.

But on Monday, some member states led by France and Spain will hijack a council meeting of the EU's fisheries ministers, the Guardian has learned. They will attempt to pass a "declaration" allowing discards to continue indefinitely – dismissing the ban as "unrealistic" and "too prescriptive".

Some fishermen – mainly in companies with industrial-scale vessels – want to keep the present arrangement because by throwing back lower value, though edible, fish they can maximise their profits.

If the declaration is passed, experts warned, the hopes of banning discards would effectively be over."This will kill the reform," one Brussels insider said. "It would be the end. Monday is make or break time for the policy." "This declaration looks like a vote for maintaining the status quo, or at best tinkering at the edges, and allowing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible fish to continue to be wasted in European waters," said Fearnley-Whittingstall. "If it succeeds I fear we can expect negligible progress on discards for many years ahead."

The declaration's signatories "restate their commitment to an ambitious reform of the common fisheries policy, [and] reiterate their view that the wasteful practice of discarding fish, that is tolerated and in some cases even promoted by the current management system, constitutes a considerable obstacle on the road to a sustainable fisheries policy".

But it adds: "[We] consider a discard ban as proposed in the draft basic regulation of the future common fisheries policy … is unrealistic and too prescriptive, and a pragmatic approach is needed especially in the context of mixed fisheries, particularly in the Mediterranean [and] support instead the inclusion of a significant reduction of discards … on a fisheries-based approach."

These caveats would effectively mean fishermen could continue to discard edible fish at sea indefinitely.

"This will kill the reform," one Brussels insider said. "It would be the end. Monday is make or break time for the policy."

Discarding results in as much as two-thirds of the fish caught being thrown back in the water, with about 1m tonnes estimated to be thrown back each year in the North Sea alone. Discarding is a consequence of the strict quotas in the EU under the common fisheries policy on the amount of fish that boats may land. When fishermen exceed their quota, or catch species of fish for which they do not have a quota, they must discard the excess.

Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace UK, said: "This declaration shows that fishing ministers in some European countries will stop at nothing to slow down reform of the CFP. In doing so, they're defending the interests of a minority of extremely powerful, greedy, industrial-scale fishing companies at the expense of many thousands of sustainable and small-scale fishers."

The member states currently signed up to the declaration are led by France and Spain – the two countries "that make the music" on fisheries policy, according to one fisheries expert, as the positions those two adopt are usually followed by newer member states. They are joined by Portugal and Belgium, but other countries are wavering. Italy and Cyprus may sign up, as may the Irish. Heavy lobbying is going on behind the scenes, and will continue until the meeting on Monday.

Germany is undecided on its stance, but Richard Benyon, the UK fisheries minister, said: "We do not support this declaration and will pressing the EU hard to end the wasteful practice of discarding fish."

But many fishermen, particularly companies with large-scale industrial fishing vessels, would like to retain the practice, because it enables them to throw away lower value fish and keep the most valuable in order to maximise their profits.

Spain's stance was prefigured in a secret document revealed by the Guardian this year, which showed that the previous Spanish government was planning to scupper the proposed ban. The incoming government said at the time its position had not been decided, but it is now evident that Spain – which has the EU's biggest fleet and receives more of the EU's fishing subsidies than any other member state – is orchestrating opposition to the ban.

"Ending this horrendous waste has to be the number one priority of a reformed CFP, and I'm going to do all I can to keep it on the top of everyone's agenda," said Fearnley-Whittingstall, "Over three quarters of a million people have already signed the Fish Fight petition calling for an end to discards ... Now its time for the politicians and decision makers to make it happen."

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How Rio+20 can herald a constitutional moment

The conference should focus on assessing the governance reforms required to put the planet on a more sustainable path
Frank Biermann and Steven Bernstein 15 Mar 12;

Governments have a historic opportunity this June to create the institutions needed to fulfill the promise made at the 1992 Earth Summit. The Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development should mark nothing less than a constitutional moment, putting the planet on a more sustainable path. But, it is in grave danger of being stillborn, lacking the political will to commit to the transformations required to collectively thrive within planetary boundaries.

The need for action hardly needs rehearsing. To put it bluntly, humanity is demanding more of the Earth than it can supply, sending us toward tipping points beyond which the planet's air, water and other natural systems can't recover.

The current structures can't cope with this new reality, as was underscored by the disappointing outcome of the recent climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa. Despite the more than 900 environmental treaties in the past 40 years, human-induced environmental degradation continues, reaching levels that prompted the International Council for Science (ICSU) to warn last year that we have "reached a point in history at which a prerequisite for development – the continued functioning of the Earth system as we know it – is at risk."

While the science could not be clearer, far less systematic attention is devoted to assessing the governance reforms required.

How to create a "constitutional moment" will be a focus of the ICSU-sponsored Planet Under Pressure conference in London later this month. There, some 3,000 experts on global change and sustainability will provide a state of the planet assessment, discuss concepts for planetary stewardship and societal and economic transformation, and prescribe a route to global sustainability.

As our input into that process, we, together with 30 other leading scholars from around the world, undertook the first independent assessment of the state of environmental and sustainable development governance, with our summary findings appearing in the journal Science today. Our overarching conclusion: tinkering won't be enough. The situation requires a fundamental transformation of existing practices..

First, the largely ineffective and politically paralysed UN Commission on Sustainable Development should be replaced by a high-level council under the UN general assembly, to better handle emerging issues such as water, climate, energy and food security, natural disasters and the linkages among them, and to fully integrate environmental, economic and social sustainability goals. To be effective, the world's largest economies – the G20 - should hold 50% of the votes, with the rest distributed among smaller states.

Second, environmental and social goals must be mainstreamed into the activities of all global economic institutions. This avoids the current situation where their activities undermine gains achieved by environmental treaties because of poor policy coherence. This will require meaningful high-level dialogue among economic development and environmental institutions and the same government ministers – especially of finance or treasuries – to attend such dialogues to ensure consistent national engagement at the highest levels. The UN Sustainable Development Council that we propose could host such dialogues.

Third, the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme should be elevated to a fully fledged international organisation with a status similar to the World Health Organisation – a step that would give it greater authority, more secure funding and facilitate the creation and enforcement of international regulations and standards. Such a change should not be simply symbolic, but include mobilisation of resources to properly monitor the state of the planet including socioeconomic indicators.

While our proposals focus first on intergovernmental institutions, they aim to facilitate necessary transformations at the national level, where decisions must be made on how best to respond to local needs.

Similarly, reforms must send more consistent signals and incentives to the private sector to engage and invest in the necessary transformation to a green economy. For example, governments must close regulatory gaps at the global level, including in the development and deployment of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and geoengineering.

Finally, the environment crisis is part of a wider set of issues; including poverty, financial and political instability, and uneven economic development. This interconnectedness increases our collective vulnerability. It makes effective earth system governance even more imperative.

• Frank Biermann is chair of the Earth System Governance Project and professor of political science at the VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

• Steven Bernstein is professor of political science and director, master of global affairs programme at the Munk School, University of Toronto, Canada.

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