Best of our wild blogs: 2 Oct 12

A Forest Worth Fighting For (I)
from Diary of a Boy wandering through Our Little Urban Eden

Celebrating 10 years of Tropical Marine Science Laboratory on St John's Island from Psychedelic Nature

References on plants of Southeast Asia
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Marine study centre aims to swim with the best

Decade-old St John's station 'needs long-term funding' to fulfil potential
Grace Chua Straits Times 2 Oct 12;

SINGAPORE'S first post-independence marine research station celebrates its 10th anniversary this year - and there are big plans for its future.

But the Tropical Marine Science Institute's (TMSI) laboratories and aquariums need long-term funding if they are to match the standards of the world's leading ocean research centres.

The station is on St John's Island, just 6.5km off the southern coast of Singapore, beyond Sentosa. An outpost with a chequered past, the island was once a quarantine area, then a drug rehabilitation centre.

The 40ha island is home to much of Singapore's marine research work. Among its major projects are the study of the movement of currents in the Singapore Strait, the breeding of giant clams, how to prevent ships' hulls from becoming encrusted with sea life and collection of data on marine mammals in local waters.

TMSI's director, Professor Peter Ng, said the station has the potential to be Singapore's answer to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute or the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, American institutes renowned for their studies of the sea and sea life.

But a long-term funding programme is needed if it is to succeed, he said.

On Sunday, the island research station opened its doors to some 200 of TMSI's research collaborators and their families, including those from government agencies like the National Parks Board.

Researchers showed off their projects and some recounted how the St John's station was set up.

In 1996, a multi-disciplinary group of scientists campaigned for a marine science initiative, which was then housed on Kent Ridge.

An island nation, they pointed out, ought to have marine research on aquaculture and food safety, and how land reclamation and shipping might affect water quality and the marine environment, among other things.

For research tanks of fish and corals, they had to truck seawater into the National University of Singapore's (NUS) main Kent Ridge campus and haul it from a main storage tank in jerrycans.

After talks with the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, they leased space on St John's Island and secured about $10 million to build the station, which pumps seawater from the island's southern edge into aquariums.

The institute's budget was much smaller than the more than $1 billion a year Singapore was then pouring into biomedical and life sciences research.

Professor Chou Loke Ming, the first director of the Tropical Marine Science Initiative before it became TMSI, said: "We went through the 'dark age' when resources and funding were focused on biotechnology. The situation has changed now with a balanced focus on environment, accompanied by resources and research funding."

Professor Chan Eng Soon, who succeeded Prof Chou until he left in 2008 to become the dean of NUS' engineering faculty, said that early dedication has been borne out.

"If you look at some of the grand challenges today, they include climate change, sustainability and biodiversity", in which marine research plays a key role, he said. "In that sense, we believed in it ahead of its time and we pursued it."

Today, the institute runs on $10 million to $14 million a year, much of it from competitive government consultancy tenders and research grants.

For example, a three-year collaboration with the Housing Board and planners Surbana found that cultured coral could survive and grow on man-made seawalls.

And TMSI has recently revived its aquaculture programme, developing cockles free of hepatitis A by feeding them nutrients from seabass vaccinated against the virus.

Prof Ng, the current director, now wants to do more outreach and education for secondary to tertiary students, and wants the island station to play a "more national role as well", answering more research questions of strategic national importance.

"To build a Scripps or Woods Hole, you need to look 20 years down the road," he said.

"A lot of different agencies are involved here. How do we get them to come together and put forth a national agenda?"

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Tuas to have mega port for all container shipments

Long-term plan will raise efficiency of port operations and free up prime land
Alvin Foo Straits Times 2 Oct 12;

SINGAPORE has officially decided to consolidate all its container port activities at Tuas over the long term with the first berths to be built there in 10 years.

Announcing the decision yesterday, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said the move would free up prime land occupied by the terminals in the city area for redevelopment and result in more efficient port operations.

The announcement came at a launch ceremony at which PSA Singapore Terminals (PSA) said it is investing $3.5 billion to develop Phases 3 and 4 of its Pasir Panjang Terminal.

This will be spent on leading infrastructure and the latest port technology, such as an automated container yard and unmanned cranes.

The idea of a mega port at Tuas was proposed by the Government's Economic Strategies Committee in 2010.

Yesterday, Mr Lui said: "We will work towards consolidating all our container port activities at Tuas over the longer term."

This means that the city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani, plus those at Pasir Panjang will eventually be merged at Tuas. The port leases at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani will end in 2027.

Tuas is suitable given its "sheltered deep waters and proximity to (Singapore's) major industrial areas and international shipping routes", said Mr Lui.

Tuas Port will be a long-term project rolled out in phases, with the first set of berths to be operational in about 10 years, he added.

The target is for Tuas Port to handle up to 65 million standard containers a year, nearly double the current total container handling capacity of 35 million 20ft equivalent units (TEUs). It will also result in greater efficiency.

Now, Singapore has five container terminals - Tanjong Pagar, Keppel, Brani, Pasir Panjang Terminal 1 and Pasir Panjang Terminal 2. Containers are often trucked between these terminals for transhipment, adding to time taken, business costs and road congestion.

Mr Lui said: "Consolidation will eliminate this need for inter-terminal haulage."

The new port will also give a clean slate and the chance to introduce more advanced technology and processes to meet future challenges, he added.

Meanwhile, PSA said Pasir Panjang Terminal Phases 3 and 4 will have 15 new berths, with nearly 6,000m of quay length and up to 18m draft. These new phases can accommodate the next generation of container vessels.

"It will showcase state-of- the-art technologies that will take our overall capacity, productivity and customer service to new heights," said PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng.

The upcoming phases at Pasir Panjang Terminal will feature an automated container yard with proprietary intelligent planning and operation systems, and unmanned, rail-mounted gantry cranes.

When completed by 2020, these additions will boost Singapore's total container handling capacity from 35 million standard containers a year now to 50 million. Last year PSA handled 29.37 million containers.

All container port activities to be consolidated at Tuas in future
Sim Ping Khuan Channel NewsAsia 1 Oct 12;

SINGAPORE: Singapore will work towards consolidating all container port activities at Tuas over the long term as recommended by Singapore's Economic Strategies Committee.

The first set of berths at the new Tuas Port is expected to be operational in about ten years' time.

Speaking at the launch of Pasir Panjang Terminal Phases 3 and 4 by PSA Singapore, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said the development of Tuas Port will free up prime land, which the city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Pulau Brani are currently occupying, for future redevelopment.

The port leases for the city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Pulau Brani will expire in 2027.

Consolidation of port activities at Tuas will improve capacity to meet longer term demands, achieve greater efficiency and economies of scale.

It will also reduce the need for containers to be moved by trucks between existing terminals.

There are currently five container terminals - Brani, Keppel, Tanjong Pagar, Pasir Panjang Terminal 1 and Pasir Panjang Terminal 2.

Mr Lui said: "Tuas provides a suitable location because of its sheltered deep waters and proximity to both our major industrial areas and international shipping routes. We will plan for Tuas Port to be able to handle up to 65 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) per annum."

Meanwhile, PSA will spend S$3.5 billion to bring in class-leading infrastructure and latest port technology to develop Phases 3 and 4 of its Pasir Panjang Terminal.

Phase 3 is expected to be operational in 2014.

When fully completed with 15 berths by 2020, the development will increase the total port capacity by 50 per cent to 50 million TEUs.

- CNA/fa

Full speech at SG Press Centre: Speech by Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Transport at "Unveiling the Future - The Launch of Pasir Panjang Terminal Phases 3 and 4, 1 Oct 2012 at PSA Auditorium.

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Malaysia: Two million turtles released into the sea since 2001

The Star 2 Oct 12;

DUNGUN: About two million newly-hatched turtles were released by the Turtle and Marine Ecosystem Centre (Tumec) in collaboration with the Fisheries Department since 2001, in efforts to preserve the species for future generations.

Tumec chief Syed Abdullah Syed Abdul Kadir said that they had been working with the Fisheries Departments of Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Perak and Penang to preserve four turtle species, namely leatherback turtles, karah, agar and cockroach.

“We managed to increase agar turtle nestlings to 820 as of Sept 25 this year compared with 450 nests in 1992, on Mak Kepit Beach in Pulau Redang.

“The nesting of the turtles on Mat Kepit Beach were increased and can be a model for turtle management in the country, as one million newly-hatched turtles were released on the beach within 20 years,” he said.

He said Tumec had managed to increase the number of turtle nestlings in Teluk Mak Nik Pantai in Kamaman by about 1,000 nests every year from 2009 compared with only 400 to 600 nests from 2000 to 2006.

“Tumec's success is due to the close co-operation with the Fisheries Department and 30 private companies which undertake the turtle conservation activities throughout peninsula Malaysia.

“We also managed to include almost 150,000 Malaysians through various awareness programmes each year at seven information centres and conservation of turtles nationwide,” he said.

He said Tumec is a research centre which conducts studies on turtles and marine mammals as well as provides technical services on management and turtle conservation programmes in Labuan and Pulau Layang Layang. - Bernama

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Storms to starfish: Great Barrier Reef faces rapid coral loss

* Great Barrier Reef suffers unprecedented coral loss
* Study says storms, starfish, bleaching cause most damage
* Risk of rapid decline unless world adopts tough CO2 goals

David Fogarty Reuters 2 Oct 12;

SINGAPORE, Oct 2 (Reuters) - The world's largest coral reef - under threat from Australia's surging coal and gas shipments, climate change and a destructive starfish - is declining faster than ever and coral cover could fall to just 5 percent in the next decade, a study shows.

Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in the northeastern city of Townsville say Australia's Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral in little more than a generation. And the pace of damage has picked up since 2006.

Globally, reefs are being assailed by myriad threats, particularly rising sea temperatures, increased ocean acidity and more powerful storms, but the threat to the Great Barrier Reef is even more pronounced, the AIMS study published on Tuesday found.

"In terms of geographic scale and the extent of the decline, it is unprecedented anywhere in the world," AIMS chief John Gunn told Reuters.

AIMS scientists studied data from more than 200 individual reefs off the Queensland coast covering the period 1985-2012. They found cyclone damage caused nearly half the losses, crown-of-thorns starfish more than 40 percent and coral bleaching from spikes in sea temperatures 10 percent.

The starfish are native and prey on the reefs. But plagues are occurring much more frequently.

Ordinarily, reefs can recover within 10 to 20 years from storms, bleachings or starfish attacks but climate change impacts slow this down. Rising ocean acidification caused by seas absorbing more carbon dioxide is disrupting the ability of corals to build their calcium carbonate structures. Hotter seas stress corals still further.

Greens say the 2,000 km (1,200 mile) long reef ecosystem, the centre-piece of a multi-billion tourism industry, also faces a growing threat from shipping driven by the planned expansion of coal and liquefied natural gas projects.

Those concerns have put pressure on the authorities to figure out how to protect the fragile reef.


The researchers say the pace of coral loss has increased since 2006 and if the trend continues, coral cover could halve again by 2022, with the southern and central areas most affected.

Between 1985 and 2012, coral cover of the reef area fell from 28 percent to 13.8 percent.

"Coral cover on the reef is consistently declining, and without intervention, it will likely fall to 5 to 10 percent within the next 10 years," say the researchers in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. They called for tougher curbs on greenhouse gas emissions as a crucial way to stem the loss.

Shipping and new ports on the Queensland coast are another major threat, Greenpeace says.

Coal is one of Australia's top export earners and the state of Queensland is the country's largest coal-producer. It also has a rapidly growing coal-seam gas industry for LNG exports.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace estimated port expansion could more than triple Queensland's coal export capacity by 2020 from 257 million tonnes now. That would mean as many as 10,000 coal ships per year could make their way through the Great Barrier Reef area by 2020, up 480 percent from 1,722 ships in 2011, according to the group.

The Queensland and national governments, which jointly manage the reef, have launched a major review of managing the risks facing the UNESCO-listed reef and its surrounding marine area. The review will look at managing the threats from increased shipping to urban development.

Gunn said better management was all about buying time and improving the reef's resilience to climate change. A key area was improving water quality from rivers flowing into the reef area, with studies suggesting fertiliser-rich waters help the crown-of-thorns starfish larvae rapidly multiply. (Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

Half of Great Barrier Reef Lost in Past 3 Decades
Katharine Gammon Yahoo News 2 Oct 12;

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a glittering gem — the world's largest coral reef ecosystem — chock-full of diverse marine life. But new research shows it is also in steep decline, with half of the reef vanishing in the past 27 years.

Katharina Fabricius, a coral reef ecologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and study co-author, told LiveScience that she has been diving and working on the reef since 1988 — and has watched the decline. "I hear of the changes anecdotally, but this is the first long-term look at the overall status of the reef. There are still a lot of fish, and you can see giant clams, but not the same color and diversity as in the past."

To get their data, Fabricius and her colleagues surveyed 214 different reefs around the Great Barrier Reef, compiling information from 2,258 surveys to determine the rate of decline between 1985 and 2012. They estimated the coral cover, or the amount of the seafloor covered with living coral.

That overall 50-percent decline, they estimate, is a yearly loss of about 3.4 percent of the reef. [Photos of Great Barrier Reef Through Time]

They did find some local differences, with the relatively pristine northern region showing no decline over the past two decades.

Cyclones and starfish

The reef’s decline, detailed this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can be chalked up to several factors, they found. The biggest factors are smashing from tropical cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish that eat coral and are boosted by nutrient runoff from agriculture, and coral bleaching from high-temperatures, which are rising due to climate change. (Coral bleaching happens when ocean temperatures rise and cause the corals to expel their zooxanthellae — the tiny photosynthetic algae that live in the coral's tissues.)

Other coral experts say the precipitous decline matches what they have found. "This is a really grim wake-up call," said John Bruno, a biologist at UNC Chapel Hill. "The GBR [Great Barrier Reef], which only 10 years ago was considered the world's most pristine and resilient coral reef is clearly not better off and no less threatened than any other reef. I am bullish on the long-term survival of reefs, but science like this is challenging that outlook."

Saving the reef

As for what can be done to save the reef, or what's left of it, some say reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is key. "International efforts to cap and reduce CO2 emissions are equally critical and must occur at the same time as cleaning up local impacts," said Les Kaufman, a biologist at Boston University who is part of an international consensus statement on climate change and coral reefs.

Fabricius says not much can be done in the short term about the climate-change-driven frequency of cyclones — five category 5 storms in the past seven years have pounded the reefs — or high temperatures. However, there are efforts in place to stem the damage from starfish, which can grow up to 3 feet (0.9 meters) in diameter and sport long venomous spines and 21 arms. Young starfish feed on coral-making algae, and leave behind the coral's skeleton.

One project encourages farmers to adopt practices that limit the amount of nutrient-rich runoff draining into reef areas. Another would allow tour operators to manually remove starfish from tourist areas, which Fabricius admits isn't a solution, just a temporary fix.

Another option is to examine ways of harnessing natural starfish diseases that typically keep starfish numbers low. "Starfish normally are rare," Fabricius said. "We want to help Mother Nature keep them rare." The research shows that the reef could rebuild itself in 20-30 years despite the cyclones and bleaching, if the starfish population died back.

The experts agree that doing nothing is not an option at this point. "The problem is entirely soluble, and coral reefs can be saved through concerted effort over this and the following two or three generations," said Kaufman. "There is absolutely no excuse for failure to do this, and if we do fail our generation will forever be remembered for unimaginable, unforgivable stupidity and sloth."

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Sea Creatures in a Warming World: Winners and Losers

Katharine Gammon LiveScience Yahoo News 2 Oct 12;

MONTEREY, Calif. — The world's oceans are getting more acidic, a phenomenon predicted to wreak havoc on most sea life. But some organisms are performing better in these caustic conditions than researchers had anticipated, raising questions about what the oceans will look like in the future.

"We know evolution can occur on relatively short ecological timescales," said Gretchen Hofmann, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, at the Third International Symposium on the Oceans in a High CO2 World meeting last week. She added that the big remaining question is which species will survive, and which won't be able to cope.

As carbon dioxide levels increase in the atmosphere (as a result of burning fossil fuels), about a quarter of that atmospheric carbon makes its way into the oceans, where it dissolves and makes the waters more acidic. Currently, because of this process, the oceans are about 30 percent more acidic than they were at the start of the industrial revolution.

Species that make shells out of calcium carbonate are particularly compromised in acidic waters, where the carbonate ions needed for shell-making are not available. But other ocean-dwellers that rely on protein instead of calcium carbonate to create shells fare better. For instance, small crablike arthropods about the size of sand fleas actually increase productivity in extremely acidified water, said Kristy Kroeker, a biology doctoral student at Stanford University. "These are rapidly growing, small-bodied creatures with larvae that crawl instead of swim, and they actually do very well," Kroeker told LiveScience. [Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

Hofmann's lab has found that purple sea urchins are able to cope with highly acidic waters, probably because of the amount of genetic diversity within the species. The group collected sea urchins from a spot off the Oregon coast that has naturally high acidity from the upwelling of deep ocean water. In the lab, the researchers compared the genetic data of these urchins when raised at high-acidity and normal-acidity conditions, finding 150 genes turned on that helped the urchins move calcium around their systems.

In addition to urchins, some corals tolerate the changing oceans better than others. Katharina Fabricius, a coral reef ecologist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said that colorful branching coral can't cope with higher temperatures and ocean acidity, but massive boulder corals and sea grasses survived in these conditions. Fabricius has worked in Papua New Guinea, along vents that bubble carbon dioxide into shallow water, giving a good experimental lab to researchers looking at future ocean conditions. [Photos of Colorful Corals]

Her research suggests these reefs will still exist in 100 years. "But they would be much more simple. The complex species are unable to deal with high carbon dioxide situations," she said. Reefs are hope to hundreds of thousands of species, and replacing the branching coral — with its myriad nooks and crannies for habitat — with boulder coral means a drop in biodiversity. "If you don't have the structure, you don't have the habitat," Fabricius said.

Other parts of the world share a similar story. Kroeker works in carbon-dioxide-bubbling vents off the coast of Italy. As waters become more acidic there, Kroeker explained, fewer patches of bright orange-and-pink algae can survive. "Instead, we see lots of fleshy seaweed. It looks like a dark mat on the seafloor." Kroeker’s 2010 meta-analysis detailed in the journal Ecology Letters also showed that crustaceans generally do better than other calcium-carbonate shell-making creatures. Some lobsters, prawns and crabs actually increase their shell-building when faced with more acidic waters.

Even different algae species differ in their responses to ocean acidification. Dave Hutchins, a marine biologist at UCLA, said that harmful algae blooms like those that cause red tides are likely to produce more toxins in future ocean conditions.

"These blooms cost around $100 million per year in the U.S. alone, and may get more toxic in the future," Hutchins told LiveScience, adding that they're a special problem on the West Coast; sea lions washing up around the LA area were poisoned by algae called Pseudo-nitzschia that produce a powerful neurotoxin that leads to memory loss, nerve damage and death.

A group of cyanobacteria called Trichodesmium that turn atmospheric nitrogen into a form other organisms can use for growth are also winners. His lab has looked at hundreds of generations of algae, and found that they produce far more nitrogen in high carbon-dioxide (CO2) conditions.

"For hundreds of generations, we grow them under lab conditions, and their production of nitrogen goes way up under high CO2," he said.

Hutchins said he also found the algae couldn't scale back their nitrogen production, even when the carbon dioxide level drops. "They're stuck in an 'on' position, and we're trying to understand what that means in terms of marine food chains," he said.

Ocean acidification also interferes with some fish's ability to sense predators. One bit of research presented at the conference showed that juvenile clownfish lost their ability to sniff out predators in high carbon-dioxide environments.

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