Seagrasses can offset climate change

Plants can store 35 times more carbon than rainforests; S-E Asian varieties more resilient
Luke Anthony Tan Straits Times 13 Jun 18;

The verdant meadows of the sea are up to 35 times better than rainforests at storing carbon and are nurseries for all manner of marine creatures. Yet, about 40 per cent of the world's seagrass may have been lost due to human activity.

Found in coastal waters all over the world, apart from at the poles, seagrasses play a part in mitigating climate change by burying carbon under the seabed for up to thousands of years.

Such carbon, stored in coastal ecosystems like seagrass meadows, is often referred to as blue carbon.

And this potent ability to mitigate climate change is helping to drive conservation efforts for seagrass, said Dr Siti Yaakub, a marine ecologist at the environmental consultant company DHI Water & Environment.

Ms Samantha Lai, a PhD student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who is studying the resilience and restoration of seagrass in Singapore, said: "At the global level, seagrass conservation efforts consist of monitoring seagrass meadows by student scientists or researchers... restoring areas of degrading meadows by planting seagrass seeds or shoots... and by protecting areas from impact or destruction."

While much of the world's seagrass has been lost, there is a silver lining. Recent research done by local scientists, including Dr Siti, and Australian collaborators found seagrasses in parts of South-east Asia - including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore - to be resilient to natural and man-made stressors.

Dr Siti said: "We found that the meadows in this region are very genetically diverse. This means they are resilient to stressors like climate change, disease and all kinds of anthropogenic stressors (such as land reclamation, which destroys the habitat for seagrasses)."

Their genetic diversity is also good news for the marine life that depends on it, noted Ms Lai.

Were seagrasses to disappear, coastal sediments could erode and this erosion would not only negatively affect environments upland such as mangroves, but also environments further down, such as corals, she pointed out.

If the plants lack such diversity, then people run the risk of a "massive die-out", Dr Siti added.

One question that marine ecologists cannot answer for sure is how much seagrass there is overall, especially in South-east Asia. "There are pockets (of research done) in South-east Asia, where there's a lot of information, but for the vast region, it's a big data gap, a big black hole of no information," Dr Siti said.

To help plug this, more than 200 seagrass researchers, students and managers from non-profit organisations have gathered in Singapore for the World Seagrass Conference and the 13th International Seagrass Biology Workshop (ISBW) to share their research and engage the public. The meetings, which began on Monday and will end on Sunday, are organised by the DHI Group, the National Parks Board and NUS.

In line with the theme of translating science into action, there will be a two-hour public talk today at UTown at NUS at 7pm, featuring seagrass researchers from Australia, Malaysia and Sweden.

Members of the public can register for the talk for free at the ISBW website (

Environmental and economic benefits


Despite their name, seagrasses are flowering plants that can be found all over the world in shallow coastlines, except for the poles.

They form extensive beds or meadows, which can consist of only one species of seagrass or multiple species in mixed beds. There are about 60 known seagrass species, with the highest number found in the tropics.

Seagrass meadows can reduce the amount of bacteria that can cause disease in humans and marine life such as corals. A 2003 study found that chemicals from seagrass tissue can kill or stop the growth of bacterial pathogens that affect humans, fish and invertebrates.

Seagrasses also provide shelter and food for a wide range of animals, including fish, crabs, sea turtles, dugongs, birds and tiny invertebrates.


Seagrasses can bury organic carbon, often referred to as blue carbon, into the seabed.

Although seagrass meadows occupy less than 0.2 per cent of the area of the world's oceans, scientists estimate that these meadows bury roughly 10 per cent of organic carbon in the oceans each year.

While tropical rainforests can store carbon for decades, seagrass ecosystems are capable of storing carbon for millennia, and at a rate 35 times faster than rainforests can.


Seagrass meadows support fisheries and so are important for seafood supply.

In the Indo-Pacific, 746 species of fish are known to depend on seagrass meadows. The species of fish associated with seagrass contribute to both industrial and small-scale fisheries.

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Sustainable tourism key to Malaysian marine park’s ambitious plans

Alternative livelihoods for fishermen essential to survival of threatened turtles, dugongs and whale sharks off Sabah
BEN BLACKLEDGE South China Morning Post 12 Jun 18;

The boat docks at a rickety pier and our guide leaps over the side to begin up a steep path cutting through tropical jungle. It is approaching midday and, shielded from the cooling sea breeze, the air is becoming thick and heavy. Ahead, our escort of M16-wielding soldiers (a formality, I’ve been told) clambers up the slippery slope while trying to maintain discipline.

A crevice marks the entrance to the cave, which has special importance for the locals, Muslims who also hold pagan beliefs. Our guide sternly warns us not to disturb anything within – and he has good reason.

Nearly two years ago to the day, two Spanish tourists were taken to this cave at the end of a tour of the island. On their return to the mainland, a wave overturned their speedboat, flooding the engine. They drifted for 10 days. Starving and parched, they survived on the flying fish that landed in their boat and from the condensation droplets formed in the early dawn.

Eventually found in a state close to death, the tourists admitted to having stolen a rock adorned with crystal from the cave. Villagers believe they were punished accordingly.

We are being shown the sights of Balambangan, one of a small cluster of islands off the northern coast of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. We slip into the darkness and soon a spectacular cavern is revealed, illuminated by sunlight that penetrates through a collapsed section of roof. A low screech grows to a din as thousands of black bodies – a colony of wrinkle-lipped bats – take flight at our approach.

The cave appears familiar, but it takes some weaving through the shimmering stalactites and stalagmites before the reason dawns: it is almost identical to Thailand’s celebrated (and popular with visitors) Phraya Nakhon Cave – but here, we are completely alone.

There can be few places of such pristine natural beauty in Southeast Asia where tourism has not taken hold. Local villagers hope, however, that the cave will become a significant attraction in coming years, and that they will benefit financially.

The islands are among the more than 50 that lie in the Tun Mustapha Marine Park, which, at 900,000 hectares, is Malaysia’s largest such conservation area. The park was established in 2016 to combat issues that plague Southeast Asia’s marine environment, including climate change, overfishing, poaching and destructive fishing techniques. Local and commercial fishing are restricted to distinct zones to facilitate sustainability and reef recovery.

Rich in biodiversity, Tun Mustapha is a haven for green and hawksbill turtles, dugongs and migrating whale sharks, with some 350 or so fish species also recorded as living among its corals, seagrass and mangroves. Although nearly all sea turtles are classified as endangered, hawksbills are at particular risk from drowning in fishing nets (when caught as by-catch) and destructive fishing techniques.

Dugongs, sometimes known as “sea cows”, are listed as vulnerable to extinction due to destruction of their preferred sea grass habitat, late age of sexual maturity and low breeding rates.

Global conservation body WWF – which was involved in the establishment of Tun Mustapha from an early stage – is promoting eco-tourism in the park alongside what it calls “alternative livelihoods” for locals previously reliant on fishing. And while the term “eco-tourism” is frequently little more than a savvy marketing tool, Tun Mustapha appears to be one of the few protected areas where the concept might actually be working.

In 2012, a WWF assessment showed that Tun Mustapha park was the third biggest supplier of fish in Sabah, with nearly 100 tonnes – valued at 700,000 ringgit (US$175,000) – landed every day. The WWF predicted that this was not sustainable, however.

To provide alternative incomes, the WWF programme today offers a range of opportunities, supplying grants for equipment and training in everything from the running of homestays on Balambangan to eco-friendly farming and aquaculture of sea cucumbers on the island of Tigabu, 50km to the southeast, thereby helping to ease the burden on fish populations.

The 2012 report estimated that eco-tourism could generate about 340 million ringgit every year for Sabah, offering a profitable alternative to fishing in protected zones, or with dynamite or cyanide.

Education is key, says WWF senior programme officer Joannie Jomitol, who is based in the town of Kudat, on the northern tip of Sabah and only about 20km from Balambangan by sea. And information provided needs to be practical, making it clear to fishermen how a declining environment has already affected their catches.

“If you say to them, ‘The coral is damaged. No coral, no fish,’ they don’t see it,” Jomitol says. “When they see coral, they see only rocks. You need to talk to them about things that relate to them, like their livelihoods.”

Two decades ago, fishermen will tell you, a three-day trip in local waters would have brought in enough income for several months. Today, they must voyage ever further because of depleting fish stocks. They have little choice: diversify their means of income or face increasing hardship. And considering that a subsistence fisherman in the area typically makes 400 ringgit a month, according to Jomitol, even a single tourist staying at a homestay for 50 ringgit a night would provide a significant boost to income.

Indeed, despite the wide range of alternative livelihoods now available to locals, most see tourism as the panacea to all their problems. But, according to Rosalie Corpuz, eco-tourism development assistant for Coral Triangle Initiative Southeast Asia (CTI-SEA), that mindset is unrealistic and could present a problem.

“Eco-tourism should be a supplementary income,” says Corpuz, whose regional organisation is affiliated with and reports to the more expansive Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF), a six-nation project aimed at protecting marine resources that is funded primarily from government budgets and overseen by a council of ministers from participating countries. “People have so much expectation. They think the whole community will benefit, but you have to meet in the middle. A lot of these communities are not ready for this.”

From 2016 until November last year, CTI-SEA ran a project called the Alternative Kudat CbEt Collective (the included acronym standing for “community based eco-tourism”) – financed by the Asian Development Bank – that provided training, marketing and support to five villages in the marine park area, helping communities pool resources and involving groups such as youth clubs.

“A lot of these communities,” says Corpuz, “when they do stand-alone projects, are not as robust as they could be if marketing as collective, so the thing is to share one vision.”

Establishing eco-tourism from the ground up is based on three elements – social, economic and environmental – that together are known as the “triple bottom line”, Corpuz adds, but finding the correct balance can be difficult, especially when supporting villagers who have never had to think beyond the bottom of their nets.

“They are so used to living a subsistence lifestyle. For them to get involved in something like eco-tourism, it’s very far from what they actually know.” Substantial teething problems include changing the mindset. “It’s about working together, about networking,” Corpuz continues. “It’s not every man for himself.”

Initially, Alternative Kudat focused on domestic tourism because villagers feel more comfortable conversing to other Malaysians; having to speak English to international tourists, the organisers believe, could have resulted in them rejecting the initiative, and the national approach was deemed more sustainable. One entrepreneurial north Sabah villager who saw the potential was Junaidi Awang Bulat.

Along the coast from Kudat, modest and rustic Tajau Laut Guest House, while certainly not aimed at the luxury end of the market, has welcomed international visitors and provides opportunities to interact with the local community through activities that include crab trapping in nearby mangroves, creating intricate batik fabrics from natural dyes, and scuba diving, the latter employing young local men as boat operators and in the filling of compressed-air tanks.

With 20 years of experience in hospitality under his belt, including a role as a Sabah resort’s assistant manager, Awang Bulat, 44, started the business in 2016, scraping together money from friends, family and CTI-SEA grants. Today, despite initial scepticism from naysayers in his village, he is celebrated as an eco-lodge pioneer, and has won the community over to the trickle-down benefits of eco-tourism.

Tajau Laut employs seven full-time staff, while a visit to the mangroves will cost a guest 35 ringgit, a fishing trip 85 ringgit, with the entire amount being paid directly into the community.

“In the beginning a lot of people made fun of him,” says Corpuz. “It takes a special kind of champion to see it through. A lot of communities have herd mentality and, when you are like Junaidi, you stray from the herd and do your own thing.”

Making batik fabric is one activity offered by Tajau Laut Guest House. Picture: Lim Sheng Haw/ADB
Making batik fabric is one activity offered by Tajau Laut Guest House. Picture: Lim Sheng Haw/ADB

Nestled in jungle and less than 20km away by road from Tajau Laut lies another environmentally conscious enterprise. Founded in May 2011 and the first eco-tourism resort in the Kudat area, Tampat do Aman is owned and managed by Briton Howard Stanton, one of the few foreigners running such a business in the area.

Originally from Stratford-upon-Avon, Howard moved to Malaysian Borneo in 2008 to manage a resort that was never finished. The developers taught him a valuable lesson in how not to integrate with the local community.

“It was just a mess,” Stanton, 45, recalls. “A load of white guys coming in and going, ‘Fence it all off. This is our bit, that’s your bit.’”

Initially viewed by locals as guilty by association, in February 2010, Stanton bought just under three hectares of land on which to create something of his own. His “basic but comfortable” guest house is now praised for its forward-thinking approach to the environment, its kitchen that focuses on nutritious dishes using local produce like fresh ginger and chillies, a large conservation area and a small museum to preserve and promote the culture of the local Rungus people, an indigenous ethnic group living primarily in northern Sabah. (Tampat do Aman, in the Rungus language, means “place of peace”.)

When Stanton takes guests on jungle treks, he is keen to pass on knowledge that he has picked up locally, pointing out medicinal plants such as yellow guava, used to treat stomach ache, or lemongrass, for hair loss. With support from the British Council, Tampat do Aman has even published, with the help of local villagers, illustrated children’s books of Rungus folk tales.

Stanton employs 20 staff and indirectly involves many more people by outsourcing services such as laundry and vegetable growing. He ensures workers are paid more than the minimum wage of 920 ringgit a month, contributes to a staff pension fund and insures them.

Volunteer groups organised by Stanton have transformed the underfunded local primary school over the last five years with new furniture, books and teaching materials, built compost toilets for houses and churches, constructed two turtle hatcheries and supported an environmentally friendly laundry.

The ethos at Tampat do Aman is “local, local, local”, explains Stanton, the entire staff recruited from the three closest villages, and then taught skills that can be passed on.

“You’ve got the opportunity to do things right and show people what can be done,” Stanton says. “And hopefully, they’ll copy it and head in the right direction.”

Standing above the jungle canopy atop Tampat do Aman’s three-storey-high watchtower, Stanton muses on what his guests are looking for. “They come here thinking they are coming to Borneo, a bastion of wildness,” he says, “and they are expecting to come to a place that looks after it rather than destroys it.”

Stanton recalls a conversation he had with a Kudat government officer in November 2016. “I told him, ‘You’re sitting on a gold mine: stunningly beautiful coastline, if it’s done right, it’ll always be a gold mine.’”

After more than eight years in the area, the Briton still sees much potential, though he adds a caveat. “If they let every man and his dog come in here and do what they want to do, it’ll get smashed up, destroyed, and that’ll be game over,” Stanton says. “You’ll never get it back again.”

Excessive tourism has been blamed for the destruction of a number of previously pristine areas of Southeast Asian coastline recently, with both the island of Boracay, in the Philippines, and Maya Bay, on Phi Phi Leh island in southern Thailand, being closed by their respective governments for periods of environmental recovery.

Chinese tourism boom blamed as Thai beach from Leonardo DiCaprio film closes
The local people in those popular resort areas, however, enjoyed the financial spoils of decades of rampant tourism before the closures, and likely will again when the beaches reopen, as they undoubtedly will.

Limiting tourism in and around Tun Mustapha Marine Park might be a harder sell, especially now that conservation bodies have spent much time and effort to convince locals to move away from fishing – their traditional means of livelihood.

Indeed, many fishermen may have already returned to their old ways, the nearly 900,000 hectares of the marine park being near impossible to police: when we left Balambangan island after exploring the cave, local fisherman Suaib Bin Seleg, 55, spoke of a dugong that had washed up dead the day before, either from drowning in a trawler’s nets or from dynamite fishing.

Despite most fishermen’s assurances that they gave up such practices years earlier, many suspect that they continue to some degree in local waters. “Sustainability is very elusive,” says Corpuz of CTI-SEA. “You won’t know if [an initiative] is sustainable for maybe 50 years. We can hope, but there’s no guarantee.”

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Indonesia: Extreme drought hits four districts in East Nenggara Tenggara

Bernadus Tokan Antara 12 Jun 18;

Kupang, E Nusa Tenggara (ANTARA News) - Extreme drought hit four districts in East Nusa Tenggara Province, according to information from the Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency.

The four affected districts were East Suma, Negekeo, Lembata, and Rote Ndao, Apolinaris Geru, head of the Kupang climatology station, stated, here Tuesday.

The areas had received no rain for over 60 days, he remarked.

Extreme drought had affected Temu/Kanatang and Kawangu in East Sumba; Danga in Nagekeo; Wulandoni in Lembata; and Feapopi in Rote Ndao.

Other parts of the province have received rain but with low precipitation of between 0 and 50 mm.

However, small parts of South Timor Tengah, North Timor Tengah District, and Malaka District have received rain with moderate precipitation of 51 to 150 mm.

East Nusa Tenggara occupies a unique position at the junction of the Australian and Asian submarine ridges marked by the Wallace line. It is one of the most dynamic and exotic marine environments in the world.

The arid landscape of eastern and southern Nusa Tenggara is the result of hot, dry winds blasting in from the Australian continent. In fact, in several coastal areas, not a drop of rain falls during most of the year.

Editor: Otniel Tamindael

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Global warming will make veggies harder to find: Study

AFP Jakarta Post 12 Jun 18;

By the end of this century, less water and hotter air will combine to cut average yields of vegetables -- which are crucial to a healthy diet -- by nearly one-third, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Shutterstock/File)

Global warming is expected to make vegetables significantly scarcer around the world, unless new growing practices and resilient crop varieties are adopted, researchers warned on Monday.

By the end of this century, less water and hotter air will combine to cut average yields of vegetables -- which are crucial to a healthy diet -- by nearly one-third, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A 7.2 Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) increase in temperature, which scientists expect by 2100 if global warming continues on its current trajectory, reduces average yields by 31.5 percent, said the report.

"Our study shows that environmental changes such as increased temperature and water scarcity may pose a real threat to global agricultural production, with likely further impacts on food security and population health," said lead author Pauline Scheelbeek of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Southern Europe, large parts of Africa and South Asia may be particularly affected.

The findings are based on a systematic review of 174 studies examining the impact of environmental exposures on yield and nutritional content of vegetables and legumes since 1975.

Some previous research has pointed to a likely increase in crop yields as carbon dioxide rises, but the current review found that any such boost would be cancelled out by higher greenhouse gases, reduced water availability for irrigation and rising temperatures.

"We have brought together all the available evidence on the impact of environmental change on yields and quality of vegetables and legumes for the first time," said senior author Alan Dangour, also of LSHTM.

'Urgent action' needed

"Our analysis suggests that if we take a 'business as usual' approach, environmental changes will substantially reduce the global availability of these important foods," he added.

"Urgent action needs to be taken, including working to support the agriculture sector to increase its resilience to environmental changes and this must be a priority for governments across the world."

A second study in PNAS found that rising temperatures will increase the volatility of corn, the most widely grown crop on the planet.

Researchers confirmed prior studies that showed global warming would likely cut back on corn growth.

They also showed that heat waves may boost inconsistency and volatility across various regions from year to year, leading to price hikes and global shortages.

"Previous studies have often focused on just climate and plants, but here we look at climate, food and international markets," said lead author Michelle Tigchelaar, a University of Washington postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric sciences.

"We find that as the planet warms, it becomes more likely for different countries to simultaneously experience major crop losses, which has big implications for food prices and food security."

The vast majority of the global corn exports come from the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Ukraine.

"Under 4 degrees Celsius warming, which the world is on track to reach by the end of the century if current greenhouse gas emissions rates continue, there's an 86 percent chance that all four maize-exporting countries would simultaneously suffer a bad year," said the report.

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