Best of our wild blogs: 27 Mar 12

U@live Featuring Leo Tan, Wed 25 Apr 2012
from Otterman speaks

Fierce tiny fish at Tuas with TeamSeagrass
from wild shores of singapore and teamseagrass

Laced Woodpecker foraging on the ground
from Bird Ecology Study Group

The Walking Stick
from My Itchy Fingers

Yet another place lost to development
from Nature rambles

The fight for Borneo’s soul
from EcoWalkthetalk

Read more!

Sea Shepherd call for Giam Choo Hoo to be removed from CITES

Call to remove Singaporean from UN wildlife body
Grace Chua Straits Times 27 Mar 12;

MARINE conservation group Sea Shepherd has called for the removal of Singaporean wildlife consultant Giam Choo Hoo from a prominent United Nations group that regulates endangered-species trade.

Dr Giam represents Asia on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) Animal Committee, which provides scientific evaluation of the threats that species face.

He was also formerly deputy director at the Primary Production Department, the predecessor of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

Responding to charges of conflict of interest against him yesterday, Dr Giam maintained that non-governmental organisations and media hype were responsible for 'misinformation' about shark's fin, and that demand for it is not the main driver of shark extinction.

Rather, he said, bycatch and European consumption of sharks for their meat are the main drivers. So banning the trade in shark's fin will not reduce the number of sharks killed worldwide.

He repeatedly declined to comment on his purported links to the shark's fin industry, saying: 'Anything else that I have to say about myself is irrelevant.'

Last week, Sea Shepherd, a United States-based breakaway group from high-profile environmental organisation Greenpeace International, accused Dr Giam of being a representative of the shark's fin industry, which it said is driving some shark species to extinction.

It said this was a conflict of interest, and asked that Cites introduce conflict-of-interest provisos just as other UN bodies have done.

In a statement, Sea Shepherd claimed that a recently published 50-page report from an independent investigator brought to light a 'major conflict of interest case where the main culprit, Dr Giam Choo Hoo, has been using his position of power to influence and lobby those within Cites against any protection of shark species'.

But it did not provide details on Dr Giam's supposed involvement in the shark's fin industry. It only claimed he had introduced himself to American author Juliet Eilperin in Hong Kong in 2007 as 'a representative of the shark's fin industry in Singapore'. The NGO could not be reached yesterday.

Dr Giam was previously leader of Singapore's Cites delegation from 1986 to 1995. He drafted Singapore's Cites law and was responsible for its implementation. He was also Singapore's Chief Veterinary Officer and an independent director of crocodile-skin trader Heng Long International till the firm was bought by luxury-brand giant LVMH.

Some 80 million to 100 million sharks are caught each year by some estimates, as bycatch in the fishing industry, deliberately for shark's fin or for sport, but the breakdown of those figures is not available.

Singapore abides by the Cites agreement, under which the basking shark, whale shark, Great White Shark and sawfishes are protected species, and their trade is strictly regulated. Here, only licensed fish dealers are allowed to import sharks and shark's fin.

However, marine biologist Chua Sek Chuan pointed out that too little is known about many shark species to decide on their status: 'Just because only one species is on Cites does not mean that the other species of sharks are not critically endangered.'

As of yesterday, a Sea Shepherd petition for Dr Giam's removal had garnered more than 6,200 signatures globally and the support of 24 other NGOs.

The group is aiming for 40,000 signatures. The petition will be submitted to Cites and Singapore's Ministry of National Development, which oversees the AVA, Singapore's Cites authority.

Shark defender's plea
Straits Times Forum 5 Apr 12;

I HAVE stopped eating shark's fin soup after becoming aware of its destructive impact on shark populations ('Call to remove Singaporean from UN wildlife body'; March 27). As an avid diver, I witness shark populations dwindling each time I go diving around the region.

The high value of fins and the comparatively low interest in shark meat mean that it is the taste for shark's fin that is depleting shark populations. As a Chinese Singaporean, I have lost the appetite for a soup I've grown up with.

Singapore can take the lead in reversing a trade and consumption trend that is ultimately unsustainable and destructive. It will be fitting for the country to propose a listing of the 14 shark species most targeted by shark's fin traders, and identified as threatened or near threatened with extinction.

As more and more of my generation turn away from shark's fin soup, it is time for Singapore to put healthy oceans and a sustainable future ahead of the interests of a destructive trade that is largely unregulated, unreported and underground. It is time for us to take the lead to protect sharks.

Jonn Benedict Lu

Read more!

Power failure sets off Shell Bukom refinery's fire alarm

Straits Times 27 Mar 12;

EMPLOYEES at Shell's Pulau Bukom refinery yesterday got a scare when a power failure triggered a fire alarm.

Flames and smoke were seen coming out of a processing plant on the island, said sources.

The power trip had caused the plant's 'flare system' to go off.

Flames and smoke were seen coming from Shell's Pulau Bukom refinery yesterday when a power failure triggered the plant's 'flare system', which allows gases to be safely burnt during operational interruptions. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

The system allows gases to be safely burnt during maintenance or operational interruptions such as power failures.

When asked, the company declined to elaborate on the incident but said it posed no danger to its staff or the public.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force said it received a call at 10am yesterday about a fire alarm at Pulau Bukom, but the incident was resolved before its arrival.

The National Environment Agency said it has been monitoring ambient air quality at nearby residential estates on the mainland. It said the ambient air quality has remained in the good range.

The refinery produces 500,000 barrels of oil per day. The entire refinery shut down in September last year for nearly two weeks after a fire struck the complex.

Fire alarm at Shell's oil refinery on Pulau Bukom
Sim Ping Khuan Channel NewsAsia 26 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE : A fire alarm was triggered at Royal Dutch Shell's oil refinery on Pulau Bukom Monday morning.

The company reported that "flame and smoke" were visible from the Bukom refinery's flare system.

It said in an emailed statement that the incident was "quickly resolved with internal resources".

Shell declined to say which units, if any, were affected by the incident.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) dispatched units at around 10am to the site after the fire alarm was activated.

The SCDF said in a statement that the incident "was already resolved" prior to its arrival to the site.

The refinery at Pulau Bukom is Shell's largest crude oil distillation facility globally, with a daily production capacity of 500,000 barrels.

It was the site of a fire outbreak last September, which shut the facility for more than a week.

It took more than two months to get back to full production following the September fire.

Shell subsequently declared force majeure on its export obligations to some of its customers.

Shell currently exports 90 per cent of Bukom's products to countries in Asia Pacific, according to its website.

The Pulau Bukom refinery includes three crude distillation units, a sulfur-recovery unit, a hydro-desulfurizer and a high-vacuum unit that supplies a hydrocracker.

- CNA/ch

Shell shuts Singapore refining unit on outage - sources
Reuters 26 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE, March 26 | Mon Mar 26, 2012 1:14am EDT

(Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell Plc has shut a processing unit at its 500,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) Singapore refinery after black smoke was seen at the site, trade sources said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear which unit went down and what caused the outage.

Shell was not immediately available for comment.

The Singapore Civil Defence received a call at 10 a.m. local time about a fire alarm being activated on Pulau Bukom where Shell's refinery is located.

"SCDF resources were dispatched. However our services were not required as the incident was already resolved prior to our arrival," SCDF said in an e-mailed statement.

Shell shuts FCC unit at Singapore refinery, unit being restarted
Reuters 26 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE, March 26 | Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:10am EDT

(Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell Plc unexpectedly shut a fluid catalytic cracker (FCC) at its 500,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) Singapore refinery, and is currently restarting the unit, trading sources said on Monday.

The restart process was expected to be completed soon, one of the sources said.

The reason for the outage was not clear. Shell was not immediately available for comment.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said it received a call at 10 a.m. local time (0200 GMT) about a fire alarm on Pulau Bukom, where the Shell refinery is located.

"SCDF resources were dispatched. However our services were not required as the incident was already resolved prior to our arrival," the SCDF said in an e-mailed statement.

One of 3 crude units still down a day after outage at Shell Singapore plant
Reuters 27 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE, March 27 | Tue Mar 27, 2012 5:13am EDT

(Reuters) - One of three Crude Distillation Units (CDUs) at Royal Dutch Shell's 500,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) Singapore refinery, its largest in the world, is still down a day after an outage that caused the plant to be shut down for a few hours, industry sources said on Tuesday.

The outage occurred after electricity supply to the plant tripped momentarily -- called a power dip -- and a subsequent fire in one of the smaller secondary cracking units, which is part of its 33,000-bpd Long Residue Catalytic Cracker (LRCC) complex.

A Shell spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.

On the day of the outage, a spokeswoman had said: "We confirm that the flare system and fire alarm were activated this morning. A disruption at one of the units activated the fire alarm, which was quickly resolved."

Read more!

Indonesia: Monstrous ‘King of Wasps’ Discovered in Sulawesi

Jakarta Globe 26 Mar 12;

A team of intrepid scientists has discovered a new species in the remote Mekongga mountain range of southeastern Sulawesi — an insect so large and fearsome that it has been dubbed “the king of wasps.”

Alternately nicknamed the “Komodo dragon of wasps,” a grown male can reach a length of more than three centimeters and boasts massive jaws that are longer than its forelegs and shaped like a sickle.

The wasp, Megalara garuda, is named after the national symbol of Indonesia, the garuda, a mythical bird-like creature.

Lynn Kimsey, a professor of entomology at the University of California at Davis, and Michael Ohl, from the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, published their joint findings in ZooKeys, a journal dedicated to biodiversity, on Friday.

“Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed,” Kimsey told a UC Davis publication last year after the expedition that unearthed the monster wasp.

“When the jaws are open, they are actually longer than the male’s front legs.”

Kimsey said the first time she saw the species, she could tell immediately that it was something she had never seen before.

“I had never seen anything like this species of [the genus] Dalara,” she said. “We don’t know anything about the biology of these wasps. They are only known from southwestern Sulawesi.”

The researcher speculated that the large jaws could play a role in defense and reproduction.

“In another species in the genus, the males hang out in the nest entrance,” she said. “This serves to protect the nest from parasites and nest robbing, and for this he exacts payment from the female by mating with her every time she returns to the nest. So it’s a way of guaranteeing paternity.”

Additionally, she said, the jaws are big enough to wrap around the female’s thorax and hold her still during mating.

In three trips to the biodiversity hot spot that is Sulawesi, Kimsey said, she has brought back “hundreds, maybe thousands of new species.”

“It will take years, maybe generations, to go through them all.”

Bizarre "King of Wasps" Found in Indonesia
Males of new species have long, sickle-shaped jaws.
Dave Mosher National Geographic News 27 Mar 12;

A new species of giant, venomous wasp has been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (map), scientists say.

The two-inch-long (five-centimeter-long) black insects are shrouded in mystery—all of the wasp specimens caught so far have been dead.

"I'm not certain any researcher has ever seen one alive, but they are very bizarre-looking," said study co-author Lynn Kimsey, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis, who co-discovered the insect.

"It's the extreme version of the [larrine wasp] subfamily they belong to."

Larrine wasps typically dig nests for their eggs and larvae in open, sandy areas. The adults grow no longer than an inch (2.5 centimeters)—making the newly discovered Megalara garuda the "king of wasps," according to the study authors.

Wasp Males' Spiky Jaws

Female M. garuda wasps look like most other wasp species, but the males grow long, sickle-shaped jaws.

The males' flattened faces and large, spiked jaws may be clever adaptations to protect a nest that contains vulnerable larvae, she suggested.

"Other wasps of the same species often rob burrows for food, and parasites try to get in there, too," she said. "There's a serious advantage to having the nest guarded. This may be how the male helps guarantee his paternity."

In general, "we don't know what this wasp does," Kimsey said. "But it probably feeds its larvae grasshoppers or katydids, like other wasps in its subfamily."

"Mythical" Wasp Under Threat

Kimsey and co-author Michael Ohl, of Berlin's Humboldt University, caught their first glimpse of the new wasp in Indonesia's Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense, where the bugs had been kept in storage since 1930. Ohl also found unidentified specimens at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.

On a 2009 expedition, the team found more wasps at a cacao plantation in the southeastern mountains of Sulawesi. In naming M. garuda, the team looked to the national symbol of Indonesia: a mythical half-human, half-bird creature in the Hindu religion called Garuda.

Although as many as a hundred thousand species of insects may live on Sulawesi, Kimsey suspects "only half have names."

But the fates of these species—including the newfound wasp—are in jeopardy. Since the 1960s forests in the region have been increasingly leveled to plant several types of crops.

"The place where we collected wasps is slated to be an open-pit nickel mine," Kimsey said.

"Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach."

The new giant-wasp study recently appeared in the journal ZooKeys.

Read more!

Malaysia: Corruption and the illegal timber trade

Harnessing 21st century technology to tackle an old problem.
Natalie Heng The Star 26 Mar 12;

DESPITE efforts to ensure the legality of timber harvests, an unwanted spectre looms: corruption.

Somehow, illegally sourced timber always seems to find a way into consumer markets.

The unfortunate flip side to conservation efforts is that as the price of legal timber increases, the incentive and financial benefits of illegal logging go up.

There have been numerous attempts to address this. The European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade initiative, for example, aims to improve standards of governance in key producer countries and exclude illegal timber products from entering the market.

However, as Transparency International (TI) points out, even if customs agencies and government procurement policies are strengthened, corruption can all too easily circumvent such changes, undermining legitimate processes.

A 2011 paper by TI alleged that Malaysia is one of the main timber laundering centres in the region, playing a large role as a transit country in a network that also involves China and Singapore. A recent spate of news reports on corrupt practices seem to support this. In January, a senior Perak Forestry Department official was detained by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) after RM720,000 was found in his house in Gerik. Later that month, a 40-year-old suspect was nabbed after offering a RM3,000 bribe to forestry officials in Port Klang, Selangor to recover some 110 seized mangrove logs.

People sitting at home reading about such cases often feel frustrated and powerless about these trends, but thanks to TI’s new Forest Watch Project, everyone can now participate in the fight against illegal forestry activities. With part of its over-arching Forest Governance Integrity Programme focusing on forest governance, anti-corruption advocacy, analysis and monitoring, Forest Watch allows anyone to become the eyes and ears of the forest.

Its premise is simple: If you chance upon a bald patch which you suspect has been illegally logged, all you have to do is go to the Forest Watch website and submit a report, which will then be investigated. The beauty of the project is how it uses the genius of 21st century technology – Google Earth – to empower the masses. A virtual global map and geographical information programme that can be downloaded for free from the Internet, Google Earth displays satellite images (of varying resolutions) of the Earth’s surface.

Users can browse certain regions by entering a general area and scrolling with the mouse, or search for specific locations by keying in the address or co-ordinates. For example, if you happen to be at the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve in Kedah and spot bald patches of forest and lorries with covered loads travelling in and out of the site, all you need to do is go into Google Earth to pinpoint the location. Then, you submit the co-ordinates along with a description of what you saw, to the Forest Watch website, and it would be investigated.

The project monitoring team consists of members from the Forestry Department, MACC, Institute of Foresters Malaysia and TI.

“We (TI) act as a facilitator. The monitoring team will go through the submitted reports every two weeks to a month, and the information will be passed onto relevant agencies, such as the Forestry department and the MACC, for investigation,” says project manager, Victor Soosai.


One advantage of the programme is that people can submit reports anonymously; so whistleblowers need not be fearful of repercussions.

“One of the ways to fight against corruption in the forestry sector is the offer of rewards to informants. This requires one to disclose one’s identity. Forest Watch presents another alternative. It’s very important that forestry staff know about the tool because many times, they may have information but don’t feel like they can do anything about it.”

The project was launched early last month. If many reports come in, Soosai says, they will install a coordinate-based filter to streamline the process.

The project will be replicated in Sabah and Sarawak by June. Should it be viable, he says, a later goal will be to replicate the system at state levels, where individual monitoring teams will handle reports from areas under their charge.

TI is encouraging local conservation groups to use the tool. After Malaysia, it intends to initiate the programme in China, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Soloman Islands.

There are however, some hurdles to the success of Forest Watch. One is that isolated communities – often in a good position to witness any illegal logging – may not have access to the Internet.

Institute of Foresters Malaysia vice-president Datuk Baharuddin Ghazali says getting the public interested is crucial.

“Young people, in particular, are good with technology. We need to instill in them a love for our forests. We need to help them understand the importance of keeping our forests intact, so they too will act accordingly when they realise that they can do something about this.”

He says that although channels such as the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 already exists to protect informants, the Forest Watch reporting tool presents an additional, straightforward avenue for reporting.


With so many ways in which malpractices can occur within the forestry industry, the website is a welcome platform to information sharing. Malpractices include logging timber species protected by national law, harvesting logs outside concession boundaries, logging in prohibited areas such as steep slopes, river banks and catchment areas, extracting under-sized or more trees than is authorised, and obtaining concessions illegally.

“The root cause of corruption is based on a formula … power plus discretion, minus transparency and accountability,” notes MACC director of investigations Datuk Mustafar Ali, who was present at the project launch.

The equation is embodied by a number of situations, such as political interference, abuse of power and influence for personal or political gain, or a bias in decision-making, resulting in unjustified procurements.

Personnel holding the same job or position in high risk areas for an extended period, a high level of interaction and frequent contact with would-be criminals, poor monitoring and a lack of severe penalty, as well as procedures with no stipulated governance processes, also create conditions ripe for corruption.

Mustafar cites a recent case, providing a clear picture of what anti-corruption efforts are up against: RM700,000 in cash and RM2.6bil in 11 fixed deposit accounts were discovered during investigations into a Perak forestry official.

Indeed, corruption can be lucrative but there are other, wider costs.

“Not only does corruption in the forestry sector act as a direct impediment to achieving sustainable forest management, it undermines the World Bank’s objectives of poverty reduction and sustainable development,” says Mustafar. “And as the statistics go, for every crime that is uncovered, there may be 10 more that are not.”

> For more information on Forest Watch, go to

Read more!

India: Roar to lion conservation efforts in Gujarat!

Himanshu Kaushik The Times of India 27 Mar 12;

AHMEDABAD: The roar of Asiatic lions in Gujarat just got louder. The conservation efforts of the state are now reflected not just in the growing numbers of the big cats but also in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

IUCN has now shifted the big cats from critically endangered species category to endangered species.

This change has been triggered by the state's undying conservation efforts and the growing populace of lions in Gujarat.

Asiatic lions of Gujarat were listed as critically endangered species in 2000. The IUCN list released recently has listed the 'lion king' in the endangered species category. IUCN officials have justified this change thus: "Asiatic lion exists as a single isolated population in India's Gujarat state. The number of mature lions has been increasing, all occurring within one subpopulation (but in four separate areas, three of which are outside of the Gir forest protected area). Since the population now extends beyond the boundary of the lion sanctuary, and the numbers are stable, the subspecies is listed as Endangered based simply on the population size."

A senior Gujarat forest officer said that the IUCN report has quoted 2005 figures, which shows that the lion populace of Gujarat has 175 mature animals. But the 2011 census has revealed that the lion populace here consists of 97 males and 162 females. The forest officer added, "Going by the global criteria, if the population of adults is about 50 per cent of the total population it is considered to be healthy. In 2011, of the 411 lions, the adult population was 259."

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is globally recognized as the most comprehensive and objective approach in evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species.

Y V Jhala, head of the department of Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology, told TOI: "This report reflects the success of lion conservation in Gujarat. It is a feather in the cap for the state. Gujarat should now set a target to get the big cat listed in a further safer category - threatened species."

Read more!

Some Gulf Dolphins Severely Ill After Gulf Oil Spill

ScienceDaily 26 Mar 12;

Bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health, according to NOAA marine mammal biologists and their local, state, federal and other research partners.

Barataria Bay, located in the northern Gulf of Mexico, received heavy and prolonged exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.

Researchers fear that some of the study dolphins are in such poor health that they will not survive. One of these dolphins, which was last observed and studied in late 2011, was found dead in January 2012.

Investigation of Dolphin Strandings in the Northern Gulf Continues

Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Franklin County, Florida, to the Louisiana/Texas border)-a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins per year, prompting NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) and investigate the cause of death for as many of the dolphins as possible. The vast majority of stranded dolphins have been found dead; however, 33 have stranded alive and seven have been taken to facilities for rehabilitation.

In the spring, it is typical to see some newborn, fetal and stillborn dolphins strand, and there has been an increase in strandings of this younger age class during this UME in 2010 and 2011. Yet all age classes continue to strand at high levels. NOAA is working with a team of marine mammal health experts to investigate the factors that may be contributing to the dolphin mortalities.

Gulf Seafood Safety Since the 2010 oil spill, the Food and Drug Administration, NOAA and the Gulf Coast states have used an agreed-upon protocol to test seafood and ensure that it is free of harmful oil and dispersant residues. NOAA opened federal waters to fishing after extensive testing, and the Gulf states continue to use the protocol to routinely test finfish and shellfish to ensure all seafood reaching the consumer is safe. Some waters in the northern Barataria Basin, a larger area that includes Barataria Bay, remain closed to commercial fishing, as visible oil is still present along the shoreline where the closures are in place. The joint protocol directs seafood safety testing to begin only after visible oil is gone.

NOAA and its state and federal partners are researching multiple ways Gulf dolphins may have been exposed to oil, including through ingestion, inhalation or externally. Dolphins could have routinely ingested oil from sediments or water while feeding or by eating whole fish, including internal organs and fluids such as liver and bile, which can harbor chemical contaminants. These are not likely routes of exposure for most people.

NOAA and its local, state and federal partners started the Barataria Bay dolphin study in 2011 as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the process for studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

NOAA is sharing the preliminary results from the study so that stranding responders and veterinarians can better care for live stranded dolphins and look for similar health conditions.

Read more!

BP oil spill seriously harmed deep-sea corals, scientists warn

Evidence 'compelling' that explosion at Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in 2010 badly damaged colonies in the Gulf of Mexico
Press Association 26 Mar 12;

Deep sea corals appear to have been seriously harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to scientists.

A survey of one site near the well in the Gulf of Mexico uncovered "compelling evidence" of pollution damage. Coral communities more than 1,220 metres (4,000ft) below the surface of the ocean appeared stressed and discoloured.

Tests showed that oil from the site bore Deepwater Horizon's chemical "fingerprint".

Determining the impact of oil spills at the bottom of the ocean can be difficult because oil seeps naturally from cracks in sea floor.

The explosion, in April 2010, poured an estimated 405m litres (160m gallons) of oil into the Gulf, causing a major environmental disaster.

Scientists looked at 11 deep-water coral sites three to four months after the well head was capped.

Healthy coral was found at all locations more than 12 miles from the Macondo oil prospecting site, where the blowout occurred. But at one site, seven miles south-west of the well, coral colonies presented "widespread signs of stress", including bleaching and tissue loss. Almost half of the 43 corals observed at that site showed evidence of impact.

The US scientists used an automated submersible, Sentry, and a manned robotic-armed vehicle, Alvin, to obtain images and samples at a depth of more than 1,300 metres. Their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Charles Fisher, from Pennsylvania State University, took part in the initial dive, by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which identified the site.

He said: "We discovered the site during the last dive of the three-week cruise.

"As soon as the ROV got close enough to the community for the corals to come into clear view, it was clear to me that something was wrong at this site. I think it was too much white and brown, and not enough colour on the corals, and brittle stars.

"Once we were close enough to zoom in on a few colonies, there was no doubt that this was something I had not seen anywhere else in the Gulf: an abundance of stressed corals, showing clear signs of a recent impact. This is exactly what we had been on the lookout for during all dives, but hoping not to see anywhere."

A second, more detailed look, including six dives by Alvin, confirmed the findings.

An advanced "fingerprinting" technique called comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography was used to determine the source of the oil.

The scientists wrote: "The presence of recently damaged and deceased corals beneath the path of a previously documented plume emanating from the Macondo well provides compelling evidence that the oil impacted deep-water ecosystems."

Unprecedented Impact of Deepwater Horizon On Deep Ocean Revealed
ScienceDaily 26 Mar 12;

Six scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have contributed to a new report finding "compelling evidence" that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has impacted deep-sea coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico. The study, published the week of March 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, utilized all of the deep-sea robotic vehicles of the WHOI-operated National Deep Submergence Facility -- the three-person submersible Alvin, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason, and the autonomous vehicle Sentry -- to investigate the corals, and employed comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography to track the source of petroleum hydrocarbons found.

Lead author Helen White, an assistant professor of chemistry at Haverford College and a graduate of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in oceanography, was part of a diverse team of researchers, led by Charles Fisher from Penn State University, that included Erik Cordes from Temple University and Tim Shank and Chris German from WHOI. Fisher, Cordes, Shank, and German are co-authors of the study, along with WHOI's Chris Reddy, Bob Nelson, Rich Camilli, and Walter Cho (now with Gordon College) and six other scientists from Penn State, Temple, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"These corals exhibited varying levels of stress, from bare skeleton, tissue loss, to excess mucous production, all associated with a covering of brown flocculent material," said Tim Shank, a WHOI biologist and an expert in life in the deep ocean. "This was 11 kilometers southwest of the well and underscores the magnitude of the release and potential impact to other deep-water ecosystems. Corals like these in particular serve as hosts to other animals -- crabs, shrimp and brittle stars that may be impacted by the loss of their habitat."

The study grew out of a previously scheduled research cruise to the Gulf led by Fisher in late October 2010 -- approximately six months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This expedition was part of an ongoing study funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Exploration and Research program. Using the ROV Jason, the team examined nine sites 20 km from the Macondo well and found deep-water coral communities unharmed. However, when the ROV explored an area 11 km to the SW of the spill site at a depth of 4,300 feet, the team was surprised to discover numerous coral communities covered in a brown flocculent material and showing signs of tissue damage.

"We discovered the site during the last dive of the three-week cruise," said Fisher, a biologist and the chief scientist of this mission. "As soon as the ROV got close enough to the community for the corals to come into clear view it was clear to me that something was wrong at this site. I think it was too much white and brown, and not enough color on the corals and brittle stars. Once we were close enough to zoom in on a few colonies, there was no doubt that this was something I had not seen anywhere else in the Gulf: an abundance of stressed corals, showing clear signs of a recent impact. This is exactly what we had been on the lookout for during all dives, but hoping not to see anywhere."

"When we sampled small parts of these corals, some of the tissue sloughed off. We'd never seen anything like this," said Shank. "Some of the brittle stars were lacking color, and tightly wrapped around the coral."

Despite the coral communities' proximity to the Macondo well, at the time, the visual damage could not be directly linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Determined to find answers, the team set out barely a month later on a second cruise to the Gulf -- a rare opportunity to return so quickly made possible by the National Science Foundation's RAPID Collaborative Research grant program.

Joining this second research cruise, again headed by Fisher, was Helen White, whose expertise as a geochemist was key to the interdisciplinary effort. "It is easy to see the impact of oil on surface waters, coastlines and marine life, but this was the first time we were diving to the seafloor to examine the effects on deep sea ecosystems," said White.

To examine the deep water, the team employed the AUV Sentry to map and photograph the ocean floor and the deep submergence vehicle Alvin to get a better look at the distressed corals.

"This research drew upon all the resources of the National Deep Submergence Facility to complete the work," said Chris German, the chief scientist for deep submergence at WHOI. "This is a great exemplar of why we need such a diverse array of assets, not just for fundamental research but also to enable scientists to respond, rapidly, independently and objectively, at a time of national need."

During six dives in Alvin, the team collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown material off of the corals for analysis. "Collecting samples from the deep ocean is incredibly challenging, and Alvin is crucial to this kind of work," said White. "As a geochemist, my primary aim in this research was to determine the composition of the brown flocculent material covering the corals and the source of any petroleum hydrocarbons present."

Because oil can naturally seep from cracks in the sea floor of the Gulf, pinpointing the source of petroleum hydrocarbons in Gulf samples can be challenging to scientists, especially since oil is composed of a complex mixture of different chemical compounds. However, there are often slight differences in oils that can be used to trace their origin. To identify the oil found in the coral communities, White worked with WHOI marine chemist Christopher Reddy and research specialist Robert Nelson using an advanced technique called comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography, which was pioneered at WHOI by Reddy and Nelson for use in oil spill research. The method provided invaluable evidence on the source of the oil.

This exacting petroleum analysis coupled to the analysis of 69 images from 43 individual corals at the site, performed by Pen-Yuan Hsing, a graduate student of Charles Fisher's at PSU, yielded strong evidence that the coral communities were impacted by oil from the Macondo well spill.

"We don't know the long-term impacts on these corals. We don't know if the living corals will recover or not. We hope our continued monitoring of this site, including time-lapse imaging, will give us insight into the potential for long-term recovery," said Shank, who is currently exploring the diversity and distribution of deep-sea habitats and marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico aboard NOAA's Okeanos Explorer.

Reddy stated that he was interested in why and how far the oil travelled and spread along the seafloor. This result adds to other studies that have shown that the Deepwater Horizon disaster affected the seafloor, the seawater with plumes of hydrocarbon-rich water, surface slicks, and vapors in the atmosphere as well as oiled beaches and marshes.

"Ongoing work in the Gulf will improve our understanding of the resilience of these isolated communities and the extent to which they are affected by human activity. Oil had a visible effect on these corals and it is important to determine if they can rebound," said White.

Read more!

Natural teak forests decline, while planted teak forests increase

New FAO survey reveals trends in teak forests and markets
FAO 26 Mar 12;

26 March, 2012, Rome - The results of a new FAO global Teak Resources and Market Assessment conducted in 60 tropical countries show that natural teak forests are declining worldwide and that the quality of natural grown teak wood is deteriorating. On the other hand, today's survey also reveals that planted teak forests are increasing in area and — when good management practices are applied — producing high quality wood.

Natural teak forests in decline

Natural teak forests grow in only four countries in the world: India, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2010 their combined area of natural teak forest was estimated at about 29 million hectares (ha), almost half of it growing in Myanmar. Myanmar is the only country that currently produces quality teak from natural forests — India, Lao PDR and Thailand have bans on logging in natural forests or on log exports in place.

According to the survey, natural teak forests declined in area by 385,000 ha globally, or by 1.3 percent, between 1992 and 2010. Substantial declines have been particularly notable in Laos (down by 68,500 ha), India (down 2.1 million ha), and Myanmar (down 1.1 million ha). In Thailand, a complete ban on logging in natural forests introduced in 1989 may have contributed to the recovery of natural teak forests, which are reported to have increased by 2.9 million ha, according to FAO's report.

"Although there is no better up-to-date information on teak resources available at the moment, data provided by the survey must be handled with care," said Walter Kollert, FAO Forestry Officer. "It is difficult to obtain precise figures on teak forest loss, because teak trees do not grow in pure stands in nature. Natural teak forests are mixed deciduous or tropical evergreen forests which have a share of teak of between 4 and 35 percent."

Planted teak - a globally emerging forest resource

Teak is one of the most important and valuable hardwoods in the world, and planted teak forests have attracted large private sector investments in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As a result, the planted teak area has increased in Africa (Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania), Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama), South America (Ecuador, Brazil) and Asia (India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos).

"Although the time until trees reach harvestable dimensions is comparatively long and on average takes between 20 and 80 years, teak planting serves local communities as a savings account and in the long run helps smallholders improve their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their children," added Kollert.

Genetic resources conservation is needed

In the future it can be expected that sustained production of teak logs from natural forests will be further limited due to continuing deforestation and competition for environmental services, according to Kollert. "Supply trend points to a continuing decline in the volume and quality of natural teak, which results in progressive loss of genetic resources. This is why it is essential in the near future to plan, organize and implement a programme for the genetic conservation of native teak resources in the four countries with natural teak forests," he stressed.

Global teak market trends
Asia holds more than 90 percent of the world's teak resources, and India alone manages 38 percent of the world's planted teak forests. The major teak trade flows worldwide are directed towards India, while its own considerable teak production is processed within the country. Eleven out of fourteen reporting countries named India as their number one importer, absorbing 70 to 100 percent of global teak exports, including shipments of plantation logs and sawn timber from Africa and Latin America. Myanmar, India and Indonesia are expected to maintain their market position on premium quality teak though this market is limited by supply.

Read more!

Global Warming Close To Becoming Irreversible: Scientists

Nina Chestney PlanetArk 27 Mar 12;

The world is close to reaching tipping points that will make it irreversibly hotter, making this decade critical in efforts to contain global warming, scientists warned on Monday.

Scientific estimates differ but the world's temperature looks set to rise by six degrees Celsius by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to rise uncontrollably.

As emissions grow, scientists say the world is close to reaching thresholds beyond which the effects on the global climate will be irreversible, such as the melting of polar ice sheets and loss of rainforests.

"This is the critical decade. If we don't get the curves turned around this decade we will cross those lines," said Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University's climate change institute, speaking at a conference in London.

Despite this sense of urgency, a new global climate treaty forcing the world's biggest polluters, such as the United States and China, to curb emissions will only be agreed on by 2015 - to enter into force in 2020.

"We are on the cusp of some big changes," said Steffen. "We can ... cap temperature rise at two degrees, or cross the threshold beyond which the system shifts to a much hotter state."


For ice sheets - huge refrigerators that slow down the warming of the planet - the tipping point has probably already been passed, Steffen said. The West Antarctic ice sheet has shrunk over the last decade and the Greenland ice sheet has lost around 200 cubic km (48 cubic miles) a year since the 1990s.

Most climate estimates agree the Amazon rainforest will get drier as the planet warms. Mass tree deaths caused by drought have raised fears it is on the verge of a tipping point, when it will stop absorbing emissions and add to them instead.

Around 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon were lost in 2005 from the rainforest and 2.2 billion tonnes in 2010, which has undone about 10 years of carbon sink activity, Steffen said.

One of the most worrying and unknown thresholds is the Siberian permafrost, which stores frozen carbon in the soil away from the atmosphere.

"There is about 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon there - about twice the amount in the atmosphere today - and the northern high latitudes are experiencing the most severe temperature change of any part of the planet," he said.

In a worst case scenario, 30 to 63 billion tonnes of carbon a year could be released by 2040, rising to 232 to 380 billion tonnes by 2100. This compares to around 10 billion tonnes of CO2 released by fossil fuel use each year.

Increased CO2 in the atmosphere has also turned oceans more acidic as they absorb it. In the past 200 years, ocean acidification has happened at a speed not seen for around 60 million years, said Carol Turley at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

This threatens coral reef development and could lead to the extinction of some species within decades, as well as to an increase in the number of predators.

As leading scientists, policy-makers and environment groups gathered at the "Planet Under Pressure" conference in London, opinions differed on what action to take this decade.

London School of Economics professor Anthony Giddens favours focusing on the fossil fuel industry, seeing as renewables only make up 1 percent of the global energy mix.

"We have enormous inertia within the world economy and should make much more effort to close down coal-fired power stations," he said.

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell favours working on technologies leading to negative emissions in the long run, like carbon capture on biomass and in land use, said Jeremy Bentham, the firm's vice president of global business environment.

The conference runs through Thursday.

Shadow of 'Anthropocene' falls over Rio Summit
Richard Ingham (AFP) Google News 26 Mar 12;

LONDON — Man's catastrophic damage to the environment and disparities between rich and poor head the daunting challenges facing the Rio Summit in June, experts said on Monday.

The summit must sweep away a system that lets reckless growth destroy the planet's health yet fails to help billions in need, they said.

"This century is special in the Earth's history. It is the first when one species -- ours -- has the planet's future in its hands," said Martin Rees of the Royal Society, Britain's academy of sciences.

"We've invented a new geological era: the Anthropocene," he said referring to an epoch shaped by Man, not nature.

The four-day London meeting gathers 2,800 scientists, economists, business executives and policymakers in the goal of issuing a snapshot of the planet's health ahead of Rio.

The June 20-22 UN conference is the 20-year followup to the famous Earth Summit.

That year, political leaders declared they would nail sustainable development to their agenda and set up two UN institutions for tackling global warming and species loss.

But many experts on Monday painted a grim tableau of threat and called on governments to ditch strategies based obsessively on GDP growth.

The drivers of the peril are a world population set to balloon from seven billion today to nine billion by mid-century -- but also voracious, inefficient and damaging consumption of resources, they said.

Will Steffen, head of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, said the Anthropocene was pushing several of Earth's ecological systems towards "tipping points."

Within a few decades, these vital buffers could suffer lasting or irreversible damage through man-made warming, he said.

Worry spots include the Greenland icesheet, the Amazonian forest as well as Siberia, where billions of tonnes of natural greenhouse gas could be freed from melting permafrost. The Arctic Ocean would probably become ice-free "this century," he said.

"Under a worst-case scenario, it's very likely, I think, that the Earth's system will move to a new state of some sort, with a very severe challenge to contemporary civilisation," said Steffen. "Some people have even talked about a collapse."

Twenty leading figures and organisations, all of them past winners of the prestigious Blue Planet Prize for environmental work, called for Rio to look at problems through fresh eyes.

The UN's goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is already out of reach, said Bob Watson, former head of the UN's climate panel and chief advisor to Britain's environment ministry, as he presented the laureates' study.

"If you look at the commitments today from governments around the world, we've only got a 50-50 shot at a 3 C (5.4 F) world, almost no chance of a 2 C (3.6 F) world, and to be quite honest I would say it's not unlikely that we will hit a 5 C (9.0 F) world," said Watson.

"That is clearly a world with significant adverse consequences for ecological systems, for socio-economic systems and for human health."

He added: "We have to realise that we are looking at a loss of biodiversity that is unprecedented in the last 65 million years... We are clearly entering the (planet's) sixth mass extinction."

"The challenges we face today are exactly the same challenge of Rio 20 years ago," Watson said bluntly.

"We just have not acted. The need for action is becoming more and more urgent with every day that passes."

Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona, said the news was not entirely bleak.

Since 1950, "we have have seen a great acceleration in human impacts but there are some signs that some drivers are slowing or changing," she said.

Liverman pointed to a slowdown and eventual stabilisation in population growth, gains in energy efficiency and reforestation in some countries.

But, she added, "many people still struggle to meet basic needs. Many of them see a profoundly unequal world. And many still aspire to increase their consumption."

Read more!