Shark Bay: A World Heritage Site at catastrophic risk



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Shark Bay was hit by a brutal marine heatwave in 2011.
W. Bulach/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Matthew Fraser, University of Western Australia; Ana Sequeira, University of Western Australia; Brendan Paul Burns, UNSW; Diana Walker, University of Western Australia; Jon C. Day, James Cook University, and Scott Heron, James Cook University

The devastating bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 rightly captured the world’s attention. But what’s less widely known is that another World Heritage-listed marine ecosystem in Australia, Shark Bay, was also recently devastated by extreme temperatures, when a brutal marine heatwave struck off Western Australia in 2011.

A 2018 workshop convened by the Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee classified Shark Bay as being in the highest category of vulnerability to future climate change. And yet relatively little media attention and research funding has been paid to this World Heritage Site that is on the precipice.




Read more:
Shark Bay stromatolites at risk from climate change


Shark Bay.
Openstreetmap.org/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Shark Bay, in WA’s Gascoyne region, is one of 49 marine World Heritage Sites globally, but one of only four of these sites that meets all four natural criteria for World Heritage listing. The marine ecosystem supports the local economy through tourism and fisheries benefits.

Around 100,000 tourists visit Shark Bay each year to interact with turtles, dugongs and dolphins, or to visit the world’s most extensive population of stromatolites – stump-shaped colonies of microbes that date back billions of years, almost to the dawn of life on Earth.

Commercial and recreational fishing is also extremely important for the local economy. The combined Shark Bay invertebrate fishery (crabs, prawns and scallops) is the second most valuable commercial fishery in Western Australia.

Under threat

However, this iconic and valuable marine ecosystem is under serious threat. Shark Bay is especially vulnerable to future climate change, given that the temperate seagrass that underpins the entire ecosystem is already living at the upper edge of its tolerable temperature range. These seagrasses provide vital habitat for fish and marine mammals, and help the stromatolites survive by regulating the water salinity.

Stromatolites are a living window to the past.
Matthew Fraser

Shark Bay received the highest rating of vulnerability using the recently developed Climate Change Vulnerability Index, created to provide a method for assessing climate change impacts across all World Heritage Sites.

In particular, extreme marine heat events were classified as very likely and predicted to have catastrophic consequences in Shark Bay. By contrast, the capacity to adapt to marine heat events was rated very low, showing the challenges Shark Bay faces in the coming decades.

The region is also threatened by increasingly frequent and intense storms, and warming air temperatures.

To understand the potential impacts of climatic change on Shark Bay, we can look back to the effects of the most recent marine heatwave in the area. In 2011 Shark Bay was hit by a catastrophic marine heatwave that destroyed 900 square kilometres of seagrass – 36% of the total coverage.

This in turn harmed endangered species such as turtles, contributed to the temporary closure of the commercial crab and scallop fisheries, and released between 2 million and 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the annual emissions from 800,000 homes.




Read more:
Climate change threatens Western Australia’s iconic Shark Bay


Some aspects of Shark Bay’s ecosystem have never been the same since. Many areas previously covered with large, temperate seagrasses are now bare, or have been colonised by small, tropical seagrasses, which do not provide the same habitat for animals. This mirrors the transition seen on bleached coral reefs, which are taken over by turf algae. We may be witnessing the beginning of Shark Bay’s transition from a sub-tropical to a tropical marine ecosystem.

This shift would jeopardise Shark Bay’s World Heritage values. Although stromatolites have survived for almost the entire history of life on Earth, they are still vulnerable to rapid environmental change. Monitoring changes in the microbial makeup of these communities could even serve as a canary in the coalmine for global ecosystem changes.

The neglected bay?

Despite Shark Bay’s significance, and the seriousness of the threats it faces, it has received less media and funding attention than many other high-profile Australian ecosystems. Since 2011, the Australian Research Council has funded 115 research projects on the Great Barrier Reef, and just nine for Shark Bay.

Coral reefs rightly receive a lot of attention, particularly given the growing appreciation that climate change threatens the Great Barrier Reef and other corals around the world.

The World Heritage Committee has recognised that local efforts alone are no longer enough to save coral reefs, but this logic can be extended to other vulnerable marine ecosystems – including the World Heritage values of Shark Bay.

Safeguarding Shark Bay from climate change requires a coordinated research and management effort from government, local industry, academic institutions, not-for-profits and local Indigenous groups – before any irreversible ecosystem tipping points are reached. The need for such a strategic effort was obvious as long ago as the 2011 heatwave, but it hasn’t happened yet.




Read more:
Marine heatwaves are getting hotter, lasting longer and doing more damage


Due to the significant Aboriginal heritage in Shark Bay, including three language groups (Malgana, Nhanda and Yingkarta), it will be vital to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, so as to understand the potential social impacts.

And of course, any on-the-ground actions to protect Shark Bay need to be accompanied by dramatic reductions in greenhouse emissions. Without this, Shark Bay will be one of the many marine ecosystems to fundamentally change within our lifetimes.The Conversation

Matthew Fraser, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Western Australia; Ana Sequeira, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Western Australia; Brendan Paul Burns, Senior Lecturer, UNSW; Diana Walker, Emeritus Professor, University of Western Australia; Jon C. Day, PSM, Post-career PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Taxonomy, the science of naming things, is under threat



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Museum collections are repositories of specimens and data, including specimens, tissue samples and vocal recordings.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Nic Rawlence

Museums are cathedrals of science, but they are under threat worldwide as part of a malaise of undervaluing museum collections and the field of taxonomy, the science of naming biodiversity.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is the latest example. Te Papa confirmed a restructure in July, following leaked reports. Facing sustained backlash and disquiet in the science community, the museum announced an international review of its collections and has since scaled back its restructure plans.

But jobs remain on the line even though the review panel found the museum didn’t have enough staff to look after all of its collections.




Read more:
From Joseph Banks to big data, herbaria bring centuries-old science into the digital age


Taxonomy a keystone of natural history

Taxonomy underpins everything from health to conservation, and biosecurity to the economy.

The international review shows Te Papa is doing a good job in most areas, but needs to improve on several aspects, including access to collections, cataloguing a backlog of specimens and digitisation.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These areas of concern were seriously exacerbated by the panel’s finding that Te Papa is understaffed.

The review panel was not asked to comment on the restructure. At that stage, the proposal was to cut 25 positions, 10 of which were in the collections team. This has now been scaled back to at least five jobs in the collections team.

Staff whose positions may be affected were told only a day before the review recommendations were made public.




Read more:
Museum or not? The changing face of curated science, tech, art and culture


Museum collections more than sum of parts

Te Papa’s latest leaked restructure document remains a cause for concern. Curators are no longer in the firing line. However, the five natural history collections managers are gone, to be replaced by three assistant curators and two general technical positions. All of this would appear to fall at a lower pay scale.

I congratulate Te Papa on listening to internal and external feedback and increasing their curatorial expertise in neglected strengths, such as marine mammals and seaweeds. Ironically, in the case of marine mammals, this seems to rectify a mistake in making the previous marine mammal expert redundant in 2013.

A member of the international review panel, Tim White at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told the public broadcaster RNZ:

Te Papa could use more professional collections staff. If they are going to promote the use of their collections … then they need
to think creatively about how they could get more staff.

Taking into account the recently published Decadal Plan for Taxonomy and Biosystematics and the 2015 Royal Society Te Apārangi report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand, this is a good opportunity to increase collections staff rather than, at best, approximate the status quo.

It is my hope that the filling of positions in the proposed structure will not result in a loss of areas of taxonomic expertise. Many of Te Papa’s scientists are leaders in their fields, including in areas where Te Papa leads the way internationally. One should not boost the curatorial team at the expense of collections management.

The bigger picture

As an isolated archipelago with unique flora and fauna, New Zealand needs diverse taxonomic expertise to appropriately handle biosecurity and conservation crises. If Te Papa, or museums in general, shed their taxonomic expertise like an unwanted sloughed-off snake skin, it will be up to other institutions to pick up the slack. If not, our biodiversity will suffer.

The greyling is New Zealand’s only extinct freshwater fish.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

There has already been a 10% decline in the taxonomic workforce in Australia in the past 25 years, with declines of around 22% in New Zealand over a similar time period. In both countries, a steadily increasing proportion (currently around a quarter) of taxonomists are unpaid or retired. Let’s not make it any worse.

Undervaluing museum collections and taxonomic expertise is not just limited to New Zealand. The scientific world does not want to see another museum disaster, like the preventable fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum.

Whether it is collections under threat or museum libraries being lost in the digital age, or even false assumptions resulting in the closure of a museum, if chief executives and museum boards listen to their scientists and the scientific community, hope remains.The Conversation

Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lord of the forest: New Zealand’s most sacred tree is under threat from disease, but response is slow



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Tāne Mahuta is New Zealand’s most sacred tree, but its days will be numbered if it is infected with kauri dieback disease.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Matthew Hall, Victoria University of Wellington

Tāne Mahuta is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest living being – but the 45m tall, 2,500-year-old kauri tree is under severe threat from a devastating disease.

Nearly a decade after the discovery of kauri dieback disease, it is continuing to spread largely unchecked through the northern part of the North Island. Thousands of kauri trees have likely been infected and are now dead or dying. The Waipoua forest, home of Tāne Mahuta and many other majestic kauri, is reported to be one of the worst affected areas.

For Māori, who trace their whakapapa (lineage) to the origins of the earth, Tāne Mahuta is kin. The threat of losing this tree should electrify the fight against kauri dieback.




Read more:
People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation


Call to close the forest

Named after Tāne, the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatūanuku the earth mother, Tāne Mahuta is a highly revered taonga, or treasure. In Māori mythology, it was Tāne who brought trees and birds to earth.

The loss of this ancestor, with a presence that has been known to move some to tears, is incalculable.

Kauri dieback has been recorded metres from this ancient tree, despite the best efforts of a prevention programme that has been in place since 2009. Much of the focus of the programme has been on encouraging behaviour change by forest users (following paths, washing boots) and upgrading tracks (from mud to boardwalks). A new national pest management plan proposes more of the same.

As part of a prevention programme to limit the spread of kauri dieback, visitors to kauri forests are encouraged to spray their shoes with a disinfectant.
Eli Duke/WIkimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Signs remind visitors in the Waitākere Ranges about precautions against the spread of kauri dieback disease.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In my view, the most notable, and frustrating, aspect of this programme is the significant resistance to close kauri forest tracks to people, who, along with wild pigs, are one of the major vectors of the disease.

Te Kawerau ā Maki, a Māori tribal group with mana whenua (customary authority) over the land of the Waitākere forest in the Auckland region, have maintained a consistent stance that the only way to protect kauri forests is to close them to humans. In November 2017, they placed a rāhui (temporary closure) over the entire forest area, severely frustrated by the lack of effective action to control kauri dieback by Auckland Council.

A rāhui is not legally enforceable, and it was largely ignored by forest users who continued to enter and spread the disease. Eventually, six months later, Auckland Council voted to close the majority of tracks, but Te Kawerau ā Maki have viewed this as too little, and possibly too late.

Keeping the forest open

In a similar laggardly vein, the Department of Conservation has only just put forward a proposal to close or partially close 24 kauri forest tracks. This proposal is currently going through a consultation process, which seems inappropriate when dealing with an immediate biosecurity crisis.

The proposal does not include the Waipoua forest and the track that leads to Tāne Mahuta, or to other significant kauri such as Te Matua Ngahere. The department says:

the decision to propose track closures is not taken lightly, but has been considered in situations where there is high kauri dieback risk, low visitor use, high upgrade and ongoing maintenance costs, and a similar experience provided in the vicinity.

Tāne mahuta draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Waipoua forest area. This, combined with the fact that forest tracks are generally in good condition has led to the decision to keep the forest open. For now, the tangata whenua (local Māori with authority over land) support it.

Tāne Mahuta draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the kauri forests in the north of New Zealand.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Relinquishing our claims

Although we know that our human presence in kauri forests will lead to the certain death of the trees, many people still wish to venture into the forests, to walk or to hunt, regardless of the consequences.

Whether conscious or not, the value assessment here must be that the right of kauri trees to live and flourish is of lesser value than some fleeting recreation on a weekend afternoon. As people kept blindly tramping into the Waitākere forest, infection rates increased from 8% to 19% in just five years.

What I find most disturbing here is that government agencies tasked with preserving the “intrinsic values” of native species are prepared to let this happen for pragmatic and economic reasons. This is one of those situations where competing values can’t be balanced.

The life and flourishing of kauri must be prioritised above all else, whatever the economic or recreational hit. This means letting go of our claim to kauri trees as “natural and recreational resources” and acknowledging them for what they are – our living, spiritual, intelligent kin.

Kauri or kiwifruit

Pragmatically, our assistance to kauri also necessitates that we re-assess the value we place on the survival of kauri from an economic perspective.

Funding of less than NZ$2 million per year for the kauri dieback programme pales in comparison to the magnitude of the response to recent agricultural biosecurity threats.

In 2010, a huge response to the incursion of a microbial pathogen (Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae, or Psa) in kiwifruit vines saw a NZ$50 million fund created to fight the disease.

In 2015, after a single Queensland fruit fly was caught in a trap in February, a large coordinated response, with local, restrictive biosecurity control orders in place, resulted in eradication in October, at a cost of NZ$13.6 million.

With such funds, it would be much easier to enforce the closure of kauri forests, until more long-term measures, such as improving genetic resistance, become possible.

At the end of last year, Minister for Forestry Shane Jones was quoted expressing a similar opinion, following the government’s announcement that it would attempt to eradicate the cow disease Mycoplasma bovis.

If it’s possible for us to move swiftly and cull diseased cows and stop the transport of potentially diseased cows off private farms, we need a similar level of vigour in safeguarding areas where our kauri are still strong.

The ConversationFor the survival of Tāne Mahuta, we should close off kauri forests immediately and boost funding for the implementation of the dieback management programme.

Matthew Hall, Associate Director, Research Services, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ozone hole is both an environmental success story and an enduring global threat



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Researchers release a balloon carrying instruments to measure ozone levels above Antarctica.
Kelli-Ann Bliss/NOAA, CC BY

Shane Keating, UNSW and Darryn Waugh, Johns Hopkins University

The headlines in recent months read like an international eco-thriller.

At Mauna Loa Observatory, perched high on a Hawaiian volcano, researchers measure unusual levels of CFC-11 in the atmosphere. The measurements baffle the scientific community: CFC-11, a potent ozone-depleting gas, has been carefully monitored since it was banned under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. But the measurements are soon confirmed by observing stations in Greenland, American Samoa and Antarctica. The evidence points to illegal production of the banned chemical, threatening the fragile recovery of Earth’s UV-shielding ozone layer. But the identity of the environmental super-villain remains a mystery.

Then, a breakthrough. By running global climate models backwards, a team of scientists in Boulder, Colorado, trace the source of CFC-11 to East Asia. The trail is picked up by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a tiny activist organisation based above a coffee shop in Islington, London. EIA dispatches investigators to China and uncovers rampant illegal production of CFC-11 for insulation foam used in the Chinese construction industry. “This is an environmental crime on a massive scale,” says Clare Perry, EIA’s climate campaign leader.

Meanwhile, scientists and diplomats from around the world converge on Vienna for a meeting of the United Nations working group on the Montreal Protocol. EIA’s blockbuster report is high on the agenda. But can the international community band together once more to protect the ozone layer and save “the world’s most successful environmental treaty”?




Read more:
After 30 years of the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is gradually healing


A model of cooperation

The last time the ozone hole was front-page news, President Ronald Reagan was still eating jelly beans in the Oval Office. In 1985 British scientists announced the discovery of a shocking decline in atmospheric ozone concentrations high above Antarctica. The “ozone hole”, as it became known, was caused by ozone-eating chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants in air conditioners and propellants in aerosol spray cans.

The discovery galvanised public opinion, particularly over concerns about the risk of skin cancer, cataracts and sunburn associated with increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In Australia and New Zealand, popular ad campaigns featuring a dancing seagull encouraged the beach-goers to “Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat!”.

The 1981 “Slip! Slop! Slap!” ad campaign by Cancer Council Victoria (Australia).

Although many uncertainties over the science remained – which were eagerly exploited by the chemical industry – President Reagan recognised the danger posed by the ozone hole and vigorously backed international negotiations to ban CFCs, including CFC-11. On January 1 1989, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer became law.

In his signing statement, Reagan heralded the Montreal Protocol as “a model of cooperation” and “a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem”. It remains his signature environmental achievement.

An enduring impact on Earth’s climate

Three decades after Montreal, the ozone layer is showing signs of recovery. In January 2018, a NASA study found that the ozone hole was the smallest it had been since 1988, the year before the Montreal protocol went into effect. But a full recovery will take decades. “CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time,” said NASA scientist Anne Douglass, one of the authors of the study. “As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080.”

In the meantime, CFCs continue to impact Earth’s climate in some unexpected ways. CFCs are powerful greenhouse gases, with more than 5,000 times the warming potential of an equivalent weight of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that banning CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals has delayed global warming by as much as a decade.

However, those gains are threatened by the ozone-friendly, but heat-trapping, chemicals that have replaced CFCs in our air conditioners and insulation. The latest amendment to the Montreal Protocol will phase out the use of this new class of chemicals by 2028.




Read more:
Explainer: hydrofluorocarbons saved the ozone layer, so why are we banning them?


Even more surprising is the complex influence of the ozone hole on Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The loss of UV-absorbing ozone over the South Pole has changed the pattern of winds around Antarctica. Strengthened winds blowing over the Southern Ocean draw more deep water towards the surface, where it is “ventilated” by contact with the atmosphere.

Deep Antarctic water is rich in carbon, making it a poor absorber of atmospheric CO₂. That means that the ocean has become less efficient at removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing its ability to offset global warming.

Darryn Waugh on the ozone threat.

Lessons from a world avoided

The success of the Montreal Protocol holds lessons for today’s efforts to confront human-induced climate change. Vigorous leadership by Reagan and the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a trained chemist, was crucial during the negotiations of the treaty. The protocol began modestly and was designed to be flexible so that more ozone-depleting substances could be phased out by later amendments. Developing countries were also provided with incentives and institutional support to meet their compliance targets.

Lessons from the World Avoided: Dr Sean Davis at TEDx Boulder 2017.

But perhaps the most important lesson is the need for action, even when the science is not yet conclusive. “We don’t need absolute certainty to act,” says Sean Davis, a climate scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “When Montreal was signed, we were less certain then of the risks of CFCs than we are now of the risks of greenhouse gas emissions.”


The ConversationProfessor Darryn Waugh will present a public lecture about the enduring impact of the ozone hole on climate at UNSW Sydney on July 30, 2018. Details and registration information are available here.

Shane Keating, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics and Oceanography, UNSW and Darryn Waugh, Professor, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Plastic poses biggest threat to seabirds in New Zealand waters, where more breed than elsewhere


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The Northern Royal Albatross is one of many species of seabird that breed in New Zealand.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Stephanie B. Borrelle, Auckland University of Technology

Plastic pollution has the potential to cause the worst damage to seabirds in the seas around Aotearoa New Zealand, where many of them come to feed and breed.

Aotearoa boasts the greatest diversity of seabirds in the world. Of the 360 global seabird species, 86 breed here and 37 are endemic, which means they breed nowhere else.

Some 90% of New Zealand’s seabirds are threatened with extinction. They (and many other marine species) are under pressure from pollution, climate change, and overexploitation of marine resources. Plastic pollution could be the final nail in the coffin for many seabirds that are already struggling for survival.




Read more:
An international plastics treaty could avert a ‘Silent Spring’ for our seas


Plastic – not so fantastic

Every week, another grotesque story illustrates the impact of plastic in the environment. A whale was recently found with 80 plastic bags in its stomach – it died, of course.

One-third of marine turtles have died or become ill due to plastic ingestion in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A 2015 study suggested that 99% of seabirds would be ingesting plastic by 2050. The authors also predicted that seabirds in our backyard, the Tasman Sea (Te Tai o Rēhua) would be the hardest hit, because of the high densities of seabirds foraging in the region, and the overlap with plastic. This not that surprising, given that the earliest observations of Aotearoa’s seabirds ingesting plastic go back to 1958.

The Chatham Island albatross feeds in the Southern Ocean and breeds only on The Pyramid, a large rock stack in the Chatham Islands, New Zealand.
Stephanie Borrelle, CC BY-SA

Sentinels of ocean plastic pollution

Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics because most species feed at or near the ocean surface. They forage along eddies and oceanic convergence zones – the same areas where marine plastics accumulate. The impacts of plastic on seabirds and other marine wildlife include death by entanglement. Ingested plastic can inhibit a bird’s feeding capacity, leading to starvation or internal ulcers, and eventually death.

Flesh-footed shearwater populations in Aotearoa may have declined up to 50% to around 12,000 pairs since the 1980s, and have gone extinct at some of their Hauraki Gulf breeding sites. These declines continue in spite of predator eradication and an end to harvesting on many of the islands where they breed.

Autopsies of birds caught in fisheries in Aotearoa’s waters show flesh-footed and sooty shearwaters are more likely to contain plastic fragments than other species. Plastic fragments found in New Zealand flesh-footed shearwater colonies showed a linear relationship between the number of nest burrows and plastic fragments, indicating that plastic ingestion may be a driver in their population decline.

Toxic plastic soup

In Australia, up to 100% of flesh-footed shearwater fledglings contained plastic, the highest reported for any marine vertebrate. Fledglings with high levels of ingested plastic exhibited reduced body condition and increased contaminant loads.

The chemical structure of plastics means that they act as toxin sponges, attracting harmful contaminants from the surrounding seawater, including persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. When an animal ingests plastic, there is the potential for those toxic chemicals to leach into its tissues.

Chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants that are added to plastics during manufacture have been found in seabird tissue around the Pacific. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can retard growth, reduce reproductive fitness and, ultimately, kill.

Sooty shearwater (tītī) chicks, which are harvested and consumed by Māori in Aotearoa, have a high potential for ingesting plastic, given evidence of plastic ingestion in shearwaters from Australia and anecdotal evidence from harvesters on Stewart Island (Rakiura). The closely related short-tailed shearwater, which breeds in Australia, has also been show to consume plastic. In one study, 96% of chicks contained plastics in their stomachs and chemical loads in their tissue.

Ocean health and human health

Few, if any, studies have specifically looked at contaminant loads derived from plastics in any species of seabird in Aotearoa. However, Elizabeth Bell from Wildlife Management International is now collecting samples of preen glands, fat and liver tissue for analysis of toxic chemicals in bycatch birds found with plastic inside them. This research is crucial to understanding the implications of the transfer of toxins to people from harvested species that ingest plastic.

Seabirds are the sentinels of ocean health. They tell us what we can’t always see about the health of the oceans and its resources that we rely on.

Plastics are sold to us on the perceived benefits of strength, durability and inexpensive production. These qualities are now choking our oceans.

In a few decades, we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes. The expedited pace of production has not been met with adequate waste management and recycling capacity to deal with it all. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic pollute the environment each year.

The ConversationGlobal production of plastics is doubling every 11 years. It is predicted to be an order of magnitude greater than current production levels by 2040. The time is ripe for the initiation of an international agreement to lessen plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and save our seabirds and marine wildlife.

Stephanie B. Borrelle, Conservation Ecologist, Auckland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

One-third of the world’s nature reserves are under threat from humans



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People transporting gasoline by boat in Indonesia’s Kayan Mentarang National Park.
ESCapade/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

James Watson, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Pablo Negret, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland

In the 146 years since Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern
United States became the world’s first protected area, nations around the world have created more than 200,000 terrestrial nature reserves. Together they cover more than 20 million km², or almost 15% of the planet’s land surface – an area bigger than South America.

Governments establish protected areas so that plants and animals can live without human pressures that might otherwise drive them towards extinction. These are special places, gifts to future generations and all non-human life on the planet.

But in a study published today in Science, we show that roughly one-third of the global protected area estate (a staggering 6 million km²) is under intense human pressure. Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places.

It is well established that these types of human activities are causing the decline and extinction of species throughout the world. But our new research shows how widespread these activities are within areas that are designated to protect nature.




Read more:
The global road-building explosion is shattering nature


We assessed the extent and intensity of human pressure inside the global protected area estate. Our measure of human pressure was based on the “human footprint” – a measure that combines data on built environments, intensive agriculture, pasturelands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways, and navigable waterways.

Astoundingly, almost three-quarters of countries have at least 50% of their protected land under intense human pressure – that is, modified by mining, roads, townships, logging or agriculture. The problem is most acute in western Europe and southern Asia. Only 42% of protected land was found to be free of measurable human pressure.

Satellite images reveal the human pressure within many national parks. A: Kamianets-Podilskyi, a city inside Podolskie Tovtry National Park, Ukraine; B: Major roads within Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park; C: Agriculture and buildings within Dadohaehaesang National Park, South Korea.
Google Earth, Author provided

A growing footprint

Across Earth, there is example after example of large-scale human infrastructure within the boundaries of protected areas. Major projects include railways through Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks in Kenya, which are home to the critically endangered eastern black rhinoceros and lions famous for their strange lack of manes. Plans to add a six-lane highway alongside the railway are well underway.

Construction of the standard gauge railway in Tsavo East and West National Parks, Kenya.
Tsavo Trust, Author provided

Many protected areas across the Americas, including Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta in Colombia and Parque Estadual Rio Negro Setor Sul in Brazil, are straining under the pressure of densely populated nearby towns and rampant tourism. In the US, both Yosemite and Yellowstone are also suffering from the increasingly sophisticated tourism infrastructure being built inside their borders.

In highly developed, megadiverse countries such as Australia, the story is bleak. A classic example is Barrow Island National Park in Western Australia, which is home to endangered mammals such as the spectacled hare-wallaby, burrowing bettong, golden bandicoot and black-flanked rock-wallaby, but which also houses major oil and gas projects.

While government-sanctioned, internationally funded developments like those in Tsavo and Barrow Island are all too common, protected areas also face impacts from illegal activities. Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra – a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, orangutan and rhinoceros – is also now home to more than 100,000 people who have illegally settled and converted around 15% of the park area for coffee plantations.

Fulfilling the promise of protected areas

Protected areas underpin much of our efforts to conserve nature. Currently, 111 nations have reached the global standard 17% target for protected land outlined in the United Nations’ Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. But if we discount the supposedly protected land that is actually under intense human pressure, 74 of these 111 nations would fall short of the target. Moreover, the protection of some specific habitat types – such as mangroves and temperate forests – would decrease by 70% after discounting these highly pressured areas.

Governments around the world claim that their protected areas are set aside for nature, while at the same time approving huge developments inside their boundaries or failing to prevent illegal damage. This is likely a major reason why biodiversity continues to decline despite massive recent increases in the amount of protected land.




Read more:
Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event


Our results do not tell a happy story. But they do provide a timely chance to be honest about the true condition of the world’s protected areas. If we cannot relieve the pressure on these places, the fate of nature will become increasingly reliant on a mix of nondescript, largely untested conservation strategies that are subject to political whims and difficult to implement on large enough scales. We can’t afford to let them fail.

The ConversationBut we know that protected areas can work. When well-funded, well-managed and well-placed, they are extremely effective in halting the threats that cause species to die out. It is time for the global conservation community to stand up and hold governments to account so they take conservation seriously. This means conducting a full, frank and honest assessment of the true condition of our protected areas.

James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Pablo Negret, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, Professor in Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’

The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.

Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative will sweep across some 70 nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.

Tapanuli Orangutan

The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.

All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.

A Tapanuli Orangutan.
Maxime Aliaga

The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.

It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.

What environmental safeguards?

China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.

According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.

The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.

The Greater Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the last place on Earth where Orangutans, Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos still persist together.

Stacked deck

There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.

First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.

Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.

Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.

President Xi Jinpeng at the 19th People’s Congress, where the BRI was formally inscribed into China’s national constitution.
Foreign Policy Journal

Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.

Remember the ape

It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.




Read more:
China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


The ConversationWe all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.