Best of our wild blogs: 20 Jun 17

Next time you’re at St. John’s or the Sisters’ Islands, check out the plants
News from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Highlights of the June Love MacRitchie Walk

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3-year global coral bleaching event easing, but still bad


A mass bleaching of coral reefs worldwide is finally easing after three years, U.S. scientists announced Monday.

About three-quarters of the world's delicate coral reefs were damaged or killed by hot water in what scientists say was the largest coral catastrophe.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a global bleaching event in May 2014. It was worse than previous global bleaching events in 1998 and 2010.

The forecast damage doesn't look widespread in the Indian Ocean, so the event loses its global scope. Bleaching will still be bad in the Caribbean and Pacific, but it'll be less severe than recent years, said NOAA coral reef watch coordinator C. Mark Eakin.

Places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef, northwest Hawaii, Guam and parts of the Caribbean have been hit with back-to-back-to-back destruction, Eakin said.

University of Victoria, British Columbia, coral reef scientist Julia Baum plans to travel to Christmas Island in the Pacific where the coral reefs have looked like ghost towns in recent years.

"This is really good news," Baum said. "We've been totally focused on coming out of the carnage of the 2015-2016 El Nino."

While conditions are improving, it's too early to celebrate, said Eakin, adding that the world may be at a new normal where reefs are barely able to survive during good conditions.

Eakin said coral have difficulty surviving water already getting warmer by man-made climate change. Extra heating of the water from a natural El Nino nudges coral conditions over the edge.

About one billion people use coral reefs for fisheries or tourism. Scientists have said that coral reefs are one of the first and most prominent indicators of global warming.

"I don't see how they can take one more hit at this point," Baum said. "They need a reprieve."

Worst global coral bleaching event eases, as experts await next one
US researchers believe worst event on record is ending but fear coral won’t recover in time before oceans warm again
Michael Slezak The Guardian 20 Jun 17;

The worst coral bleaching event in recorded history, which has hit every major coral region on Earth since 2014, appears to be coming to an end, with scientists now worrying how long reefs will have to recover before it happens again.

After analysing satellite and model data, and finding bleaching in the Indian ocean no longer appeared widespread, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) has announced the event is no longer occurring on a global scale, and appears to be coming to an end.

Over an unprecedented period of three years, unusually warm water spread around the world, bleaching and killing coral.

Coral bleaches when the water is too warm for too long. The coral polyps get stressed and spit out the colourful algae that live in inside them, leaving them white. Since the algae provides the coral with 90% of its energy, the coral starves and – unless the temperatures quickly return to normal – dies.

In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef suffered the worst bleaching event in recorded history in 2016 and then again in 2017. It was estimated about half of its coral was killed between the two events.

In the Indian Ocean, reefs were badly hit. One survey in the Maldives found all reefs there were affected, with between 60% to 90% of coral colonies bleached. Christmas Island had virtually all its coral bleached, and 85% of its coral died.

In some other reefs, virtually all the coral was killed, with 98% of the coral around Jarvis dying, for example. Japanese reefs were badly hit, as were reefs in every other coral region.

“We know it has been the longest-lasting event and it has been the most widespread,” said Mark Eakin, coordinator of Noaa’s coral reef watch program. “And it probably has been the most damaging. In some places it definitely has been.”

Eakin said the data on total reef damage had not yet been analysed, so he could not say for sure whether it had been the worst but he said he would bet it had been.

The event started in 2014 when waters in the Pacific Ocean started to warm, in a pattern that resembled El Niño. The El Niño never fully kicked in, but the warming caused widespread bleaching.

In 2015 an El Niño did occur, which spread the bleaching even further, and the effects continued all the way until now.

Although the El Niño cycle tipped water temperatures over the edge, and triggered the bleaching, Eakin said there was no doubt the underlying cause of the bleaching was climate change. There have been two recorded global bleaching events previously, both of which occurred when strong El Niño events warmed oceans around the world – in 1998 and then 2010.

Eakin said the underlying warming was priming the ocean for coral bleaching, potentially with every El Niño.

“We didn’t even have an El Niño in 2014-15,” Eakin said, adding that a near-El Niño was enough to cause widespread bleaching then. “At this point I’d say any El Niño, even moderate ones, will probably result in widespread, if not global, bleaching.”

That view is backed up by studies with modelling that suggests the conditions causing the most recent global bleaching event would be average conditions within two decades.

Coral reefs need between 10 and 15 years to regain their coral cover, Eakin said. But that assumes they are not hit with too many local problems – such as pollution – or another bleaching event.

“The big fear is just simply that these events keep coming,” Eakin said.

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Malaysia: Fisheries Dept: Up to RM6bil lost to illegal fishing every year

The Star 20 Jun 17;

PUTRAJAYA: A total of 980,000 tonnes of seafood worth up to RM6bil is lost annually due to illegal fishing activities, says the Fisheries Department.

Its director-general Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan said it is estimated only about 50% of seafood caught in local waters was landed in the country while the rest were not reported.

"There are two forms of leakages. Firstly, foreign fishermen invading the country's waters and secondly, local fishermen selling their catch to foreign fishermen," he told reporters here Monday.

Ismail hoped the Government would provide an allocation to the Fisheries Department to add nine more ships to strengthen enforcement operations, especially in hot spots along the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

"Currently, the enforcement department has 380 personnel, and 40 ships, most of which are aged. Provisions are required for the repair of existing ships and adding new assets," he said.

On enforcement, Ismail said a total of 184 cases were recorded by the Department this year for various offences involving vessels and unlicensed equipment, intrusion, use of foreign crew and using prohibited equipment.

For offences involving vessels, he said the department had auctioned the catches totalling RM260,351, while RM423,100 in fines were imposed.

"The Fisheries Department also detained three foreign fishing vessels, one from Thailand and the rest from Vietnam. The value of seizures was RM7mil," he added.

In the meantime, he said the Department was proposing to make it compulsory for Zone B and C fishing vessels to install Automated Identification System (AIS) from next January to facilitate monitoring by the authorities.

"However, the matter is subject to the decision of the Cabinet," said Ismail, adding that about 2,630 AIS units had been given free of charge to trawlers in Zone B and C nationwide last year. – Bernama

Malaysia loses RM6b annually due to illegal fishing in South China Sea
NOORSILA ABD MAJID New Straits Times 19 Jun 17;

PUTRAJAYA: Malaysia loses RM6 billion in revenue annually due to illegal fishing by encroaching foreign fishing vessels in the East Coast, said the Fisheries Department (DOF).

Describing the issue as ‘very serious’, DOF director-general Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan said most of the illegal fishermen are from Vietnam and Thailand.

“These illegal, big fishing vessels from Vietnam and Thailand purposely encroach into our waters. They steal about 980,000 metric tonnes of fish annually from us, estimated to be worth RM6 billion,” he told a press conference in his office today.

Among the hotspots are Kemaman (Terengganu), as well as Kuala Sedili and Mersing (Johor).

In the first half of the year, the DOF recorded two encroachment cases from Vietnam and one case from Thailand.

All the foreign fishing vessels have been confiscated, with total assets (including the stolen fish) worth RM7 million.

The captain of an illegal foreign fishing vessel can be fined up to RM1 million each and his crew members can be fined RM100,000 each if found guilty.

“I've also discussed the issue with my counterparts at Asean level," said Ismail.

Ismail admitted that DOF’s assets are in dire straits as they are already 25-years-old and cannot keep up with the illegal foreign boats in high speed chases.

“My department desperately needs new ships in order to protect our waters from these illegal foreign fishermen.

“In our current situation, we have to risk our lives in catching any illegal fishermen because our old ships can only travel up to 12 nautical miles per hour.

With new assets, Ismail said his department, comprising 380 enforcement officers, can reduce illegal fishing by 20 percentage points.

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Malaysia: On the trail of the dugong

ANDREW SIA The Star 20 Jun 17;

Our hunt for dugongs began at 6am. The air was heavy with salt and darkness as I trudged sleepily from the village homestay to the jetty.

I was on Pulau Tinggi, one of several islands off eastern Johor, with two marine scientists; and we were going to chug along in a large wooden fishing boat to Pulau Sibu Kukus, 45 minutes away.

Last October, seagrass expert Dr Jillian Ooi and coral reef ecologist Affendi Yang Amri, both from Universiti Malaya (UM), had accidentally discovered that a group of dugongs were regularly frolicking on the surface of the sea at dawn near Sibu Kukus, a small rocky island near the larger Pulau Sibu Besar. Would we see them again this year?

Why care for dugongs?

Our underwater buddies may be helping to ensure we have lots of seafood.

This is because dugongs are like the “cows of the sea” – they are marine mammals (like dolphins and whales) which feed mainly on seagrass.

While feeding, they are also “cultivating” large underwater beds of seagrass by recycling nutrients as they uproot whole plants to feed on them. An adult dugong can consume about 30kg of seagrass a day. Constant “trimming or pruning” by dugongs encourages the regeneration of more seagrass. The mammals’ faeces also act as fertiliser.

But why should the average Malaysian care about all that?

Research by Affendi and Ooi shows that there are six times more juvenile fish in seagrasses than in adjacent coral reefs. In contrast, coral reefs have five times more adult fish than the seagrass areas.

Their hypothesis is that seagrass meadows are probably a nursery and feeding ground for many juvenile fish, which then move over to coral reefs when they become adults.

In addition, seagrass also filters out pollutants and bacteria that bring disease, thus creating healthier environments for coral reefs.

“Both kinds of habitat are important for the marine environment. We can’t just protect coral reefs without also protecting seagrass,” summed up Ooi. She explained that seagrass does not always occur near coral reefs, but Johor is lucky to have both types of habitat close to each other.

“Dugongs are like ecosystem engineers,” she explained. “If the dugongs become extinct, what would this mean for the seagrass meadow? We are not sure yet, but the meadow could be affected in a way that fish, crabs, squid and prawns that depend on it could also decline. This would hurt our source of seafood and the livelihood of Johor fishermen.”

Patriotic duty

But do we really need to justify protecting dugongs based on how much seafood and profit we can extract from the sea? What about basic human compassion for these loveable gentle giants?

Isn’t it our patriotic duty to protect our national living heritage?

The hill at Pulau Sibu Kukus offers a glorious view of the surrounding seas. Photos: The Star/Andrew Sia

If Africa is proud of its giraffes, lions and hippos, shouldn’t we be proud of our dugongs? Sure, neighbouring Singapore may have its famous zoo and aquariums, but Johor has the real thing in the wild!

“It’s a matter of national pride that Malaysia has a wealth of wildlife,” said Ooi.

“Every species should matter to us, especially one as iconic as the dugong.”

Johor happens to be blessed with two major areas of seagrass. There is one off Gelang Patah in southern Johor, but it has been damaged by land reclamation and other development work and the number of dugongs there have dropped.

Luckily, the second expanse of seagrass off eastern Johor is still largely intact. This will be the site of a proposed dugong sanctuary including all islands from Pulau Rawa (in the north) to the Pulau Sibu groups of islands (in the south). It will also stretch right up to the mainland in Mersing.

Media reports have noted that it will soon be gazetted as the Sultan Iskandar Marine Park – that would be a royally fitting way to conserve and celebrate our marine heritage.

Robinson Crusoe

So there I was, in a wooden fishing boat off tiny Pulau Sibu Kukus. By now, I was fully energised by the chilly winds of our boat trip just as the first rays of the morning sun peeked out of the horizon.

“Sssshhhhh,” Affendi reminded us – dugongs are very sensitive to noise and we didn’t want to scare any away.

Everyone – including Ooi, Affendi, five other research assistants and the boat crew – focused their eyes or binoculars on the calm morning sea.

Looking out for dugongs from the boat. Photo: The Star/Andrew Sia

Suddenly, there was a little splash, but no … it was a sea turtle coming up to catch its breath before diving back down. We kept scouring and scanning the sea with laser-like attention … hmmm, were those just little waves in the distance? Or the faint marks of dugong activity? But after an hour, we only saw more turtles.

“We know the dugongs are around because we’ve seen their feeding trails in the seagrass,” explained Ooi.

“But we are not sure why they are not surfacing at dawn like last year. Had the last monsoon season changed the dugongs’ habits? We need to do more research.”

Dr Jillian Ooi (left) and Affendi Yang Amri plan to spend at least six months on Pulau Sibu Kukus to monitor dugongs, seagrass and corals in the surrounding seas.

In fact, Ooi and Affendi plan to become like Robinson Crusoe “hermits” for at least six months on Pulau Sibu Kukus to monitor dugongs, seagrass and corals in the surrounding seas.

To this end, they surveyed the only (tiny) beach on the island to see where they could set up work and sleep areas, a kitchen and that most crucial thing – a toilet.

“Well, luckily we’ve not seen any scorpions or centipedes here yet. Only kerengga ants (which have painful bites!),” smiled Affendi. “We also have to watch out for sea snakes that may return to the island at night.”

We then clambered up the slippery slopes of a small hill, to be rewarded with a glorious panorama of the surrounding seas and islands.

“From up here, we can constantly look out for dugongs,” quipped Affendi.

After the land survey, it was time for a marine survey. I had a chance to kayak round the small island (it took about 20 minutes) and could see how wild and rugged it was – most of it was rocky.

Affendi is off on his round-island kayak survey.

Then we all donned our masks and fins to snorkel among the seagrass.

“The seagrass has decreased compared to last year,” reported Ooi.

Before we left the island, we had one more spotting session from the boat. With every eye peeled and every ear opened, we waited … and soon enough, we saw little tell-tale splatters with our binoculars – the dugongs had showed up!

The kayak was promptly lowered into the sea and Affendi paddled out to have a closer look.

As for me, I was just savouring the scene from the boat, ah … this was the frontline of scientific research and conservation. Why, it was like being in a National Geographic episode!

Hopefully, the dugongs and seagrass will continue to be a national treasure.

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Philippines oceans in trouble: Overfishing, pollution, climate change ail our seas

Jonathan L. Mayuga Business Mirror 19 Jun 17;

WILFREDO LICUANAN, a professor and fellow at the De La Salle University, said the world’s oceans are suffering from three global threats: climate change, solid waste and sewage pollution and overfishing.

These threats, he said, are experienced in the most remote areas and even in relatively pristine areas, like in the Philippines.

“Philippine seas are unique, especially in terms of biodiversity, but suffer from the same threats,” Licuanan said. “The combined effects of these threats are actually enhanced locally because of our high human-population densities.”

Another global trend is the destruction of mangrove forests.

Also known as the “rainforest of the sea”, mangrove forests exist in tropical countries, including the Philippines.

Illegal wildlife trade

ASIDE from the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems, the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines reported that large marine wildlife, despite laws to protect them, are being targeted to the brink of extinction.

Globally, deaths of large marine wildlife, such as whales, dolphins, marine turtles, sharks and rays, are attributed to pollution—mainly ingestion of plastics and other solid wastes dumped into the ocean, habitat destruction and accidental bycatch.

In the Philippines, however, deaths of large marine mammals are now also being attributed to illegal wildlife trade.

Marine turtles are being killed for their meat and shell, while their eggs are being harvested. Sharks and rays are being targeted not only for food, but for their medicinal
or pharmaceutical values.

Other practices threatening ecological balance are observed in Oslob, Cebu, with whale sharks being fed to promote whale-watching as an “ecotourism” attraction.

Advocacy organization Oceana Philippines said the country’s fishing grounds are overfished, very much like most of the world’s fishing grounds.

Destructive fishing activities aggravate the sorry-state of Philippine seas, as commercial fishing continues to harvest fish in excess of the fish’s capacity to breed and replenish the ocean with fish stock.

Degraded mangroves

MANGROVES compose one of three habitat-forming species that are essential for the survival of fish and other marine species.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), of the world’s more than 70 mangrove species, around 46 species are known to occur in various parts of the country.

But over the last 50 years, mangrove forests in the Philippines have deteriorated significantly. The country now only has approximately 120,000 hectares of mangroves remaining.

Mangrove reforestation efforts in the past few years have increased the country’s mangrove cover from 247,000 hectares in 2003 to 311,000 hectares in 2012.

Despite such effort, the country remains unprotected from climate change’s worst impacts as demonstrated by the storm surge triggered by Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) in November 2013, which devastated coastal areas in Central Philippines.

In response, the DENR launched a P1-billion project, dubbed “Mangrove and Beach Forest Development Project” in 2015, on top of its annual allocation for mangrove reforestation efforts under the National Greening Program (NGP) implemented between 2010 and 2016.

Climate-change effect

ASIDE from the environmental degradation and unsustainable fishing practices, sea level rise and ocean temperature increase are starting to take its toll on coral reefs in the Philippines.

In Honda Bay, Palawan, scientists have recently discovered that 90 percent of the corals in the area have suffered extensive damage because of coral bleaching.

Coral bleaching have been reported to occur in other areas, as well. The government has yet to come up with its own assessment of the areas affected by coral bleaching.

Scientists explain that coral bleaching occurs when corals experienced stressed caused by change in temperatures. When water temperature becomes warmer, corals expel algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn white.

Another cause of death of corals is the extinction of reef fishes depriving the process of symbiosis to take place. Reef fishes feed on algae that cover corals, allowing it to “breathe” and survive.

Without reef fishes, the health of corals suffer eventually leading to their demise.

Globally, climate change is causing massive bleaching of corals. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) warned that if current trends continue and the world fails to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, nearly all of the world’s coral reefs will suffer severe bleaching every year. Coral bleaching was described by the UNEP as the gravest threat to one of the Earth’s most important ecosystems.

The UN body’s report on coral bleaching was culled from a study that reviewed new climate-change projections to predict which corals will be affected first and at what rate. It says that “on average, the reefs will start to undergo annual bleaching starting in 2043”.

“Without the required minimum of five years to regenerate, the annual occurrences will have a deadly effect on the corals and disrupt the ecosystems which they support,” it added.

Declining fish production

THE Philippines is one of the top fish producers in the world. However, annual fish production continues to experience slight but steady decline in the past few years.

On account of “unfavorable weather”, fishery production last year went down by 6.34 percent, from 4.69 million metric ton (MMT) in 2015 to just 4.35 MMT in 2016.

El Niño, which caused warmer ocean temperature, was seen as the reason behind the drop in fish production. It is also seen as the reason behind the high mortality rate of fish in the aquaculture sector.

The “Fisheries Situation 2016” released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) indicate that all fisheries subsectors posted production decline. Commercial fishing dropped by 6.35 percent, municipal fisheries slid by 6.47 percent and aquaculture dropped by 6.27 percent, thereport said.

Commercial fisheries recordeda total volume output of 1.05 MMT, compared to the 1.084 MMT posted in 2015. Commercial fisheries accounted for 23.33 percent of the sector’s total production. Municipal fisheries production recorded an output of 1.4 MMT in 2016, down from 1.22 MMT in 2015. The subsector accounts for 26.13 percent of total output.

Fish caught in inland municipal fishing grounds declined by 21.37 percent, from 204,733 MT recorded in 2015 to 160,989 MT in 2016. Meanwhile, the fish caught in aquaculture farms, which accounted for more than half of the country’s total production last year, dropped by 6.27 percent to 2.2 MMT, from 2.35 MMT in 2015.

Overfishing woes

OVERFISHING is seen as a serious threat to sustainable fishery production.

Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo-Ramos said the country’s ocean badly needs resuscitation and healing from humanity’s over exploitation of its marine resources.

According to Ramos, two-thirds of the country’s fishing grounds are already overfished.

She added that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) needs to come up with more accurate data so that scientists can come up with an accurate assessment, as well as possible solutions to overfishing and other threats to the country’s coastal and marine areas.

From time to time, the BFAR has been declaring “fishing ban” in certain areas to allow fish stocks to recover.

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