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Here’s how a Small Stretch of Ocean Boosted a Conservation Movement

Know how a small stretch of ocean stirred a conservation movement

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Purple Vase Sponge ocean
Purple vase sponges are shown in this underwater photograph taken while scuba diving at Gray's Reef ocean. VOA

From the surface, these 22 square miles of water are unexceptional.But dip beneath the surface — go down 60 or 70 feet — and you’ll find a spectacular seascape. Sponges, barnacles and tube worms cover rocky ledges on the ocean floor, forming a “live bottom.”

Gray’s Reef is little more than a drop in the ocean 19 miles off the Georgia coast, but don’t confuse size for significance. In one of his last official acts, President Jimmy Carter declared the reef a national marine sanctuary at the urging of conservationists who said its abundance of life was unique and worth saving for future generations.

For nearly 40 years, the U.S. government has protected the reef, home to more than 200 species of fish and an amazing array of nearly 1,000 different kinds of invertebrates. Recreational fishing and diving are allowed, but commercial fishing and other kinds of exploitation are not.

And Gray’s Reef has served as a global inspiration. Following the lead of the U.S., other nations have designated similar sanctuaries and protected areas, which now cover about 6% of the world’s oceans — a bonanza for researchers but, more importantly, an important tool for safeguarding the seas.

Doubts remain about how much of the ocean they can truly save. Last year was the hottest on record for the planet’s oceans, and protected areas can’t slow the biggest source of that warming — increasing greenhouse gases. The federal government says more than 90% of the warming that has occurred on the planet over the past half-century has taken place in the ocean.

Save Ocean
A black sea bass swims along the reef in Gray’s Reef ocean. VOA

That has had dramatic effects in the waters that cover 70% of Earth’s surface. Scientists have tied the warming to the rise of sea levels, the disappearance of fish stocks and the bleaching of corals. The ocean also has become more acidic as humans have released higher concentrations of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that jeopardizes valuable shellfish and the plankton that form the base of the food chain.

The supporters for the protected areas range from sustenance fishermen on the tiniest islands of the Pacific to researchers at the most elite institutions of academia.

“We’re not protecting these areas just for ourselves,” Roldan Munoz, a research fishery biologist with the U.S.’s National Marine Fisheries Service, says during a research trip to the reef, “they’re for our nation.”

On a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition to Gray’s Reef, the federal research vessel Nancy Foster is packed with scientists conducting research on subjects ranging from whether invasive lionfish are present to how changing ocean conditions are affecting coral species.

Sanctuary research coordinator Kimberly Roberson and other scientists prepare to dive to collect data about what fish can be found in the area, while Craig Aumack, an assistant professor of biology at Georgia Southern University, peers through a microscope at algae.

Aumack notes that more types of seaweed and tropical species of fish are appearing on the reef as waters warm, like the odd-looking and colorful clown wrasse, a fish native to the Caribbean Sea that was found off the coast of Georgia this summer, most likely pushed hundreds of miles to the north by changing ocean temperatures.

The sanctuary is named after Milton “Sam” Gray, a biologist who studied it in the 1960s and identified it as an ecosystem worth saving — a reef not far from the U.S. coast that teemed with life, especially an “abundance of diversity of invertebrates,” Roberson notes.

Without that designation, the habitat could have vanished due to high-impact industries such as bottom-trawl commercial fishing, which are now prohibited there.

“In some ways, it’s a test of what a marine protected area can do for surrounding areas,” says Clark Alexander, director and professor at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and a former member of the sanctuary’s advisory board. “It was sort of an ideal spot to preserve this kind of habitat and make it available for research and recreation.”

Marine animals in ocean
Scad and red snapper swim past divers Alison Soss, Geospatial Analyst, and Kimberly Roberson, Research Coordinator for Gray’s Reef ocean. VOA

In the decades since Gray’s was established, large and more stringently protected zones have popped up all over the world.

Phoenix Island Protected Area, established in January 2008, covers more than 150,000 square miles off the tiny island republic of Kiribati and has been cited by scientists for bringing back species of fish in just over a decade. And an area nearly twice as large, the Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area, now surrounds Easter Island after its creation in 2018.

Former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama greatly expanded the U.S.’s protected areas. Bush created the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off Hawaii and Obama extended it late in his presidency to a whopping 582,578 square miles.

Smaller protected areas, such as the 5,000-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument off New England, created by Obama in 2016, also have been established.

Nine years ago, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to the goal of protecting 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. The UN said in 2017 that it was on its way to meeting that target and that protected areas “contribute substantial social, economic and environmental benefits to society” and “provide food security and livelihood security for some 300 million people.”

One commonly cited problem with the protected areas is the difficulty of enforcing rules that restrict commercial fishing and other intrusive industries from vast areas where few people ever venture, particularly in developing parts of the world where resources are limited.

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Cannonball jellyfish float in the water as scuba divers surface after diving at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. VOA

Creating new protected areas without reducing fishing quotas won’t save species, says Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

And that is not a small issue, as some estimates say the number of fish in the ocean was reduced by half from 1970 to 2015, with warming oceans expected to add to that loss.

“Rebuilding will require not just new protected areas, but it will require quotas reduced,” Pauly says.

Many scientists believe protecting broad swaths of the ocean simply might not be enough.

Last year, a group of researchers led by University of North Carolina marine ecologist John Bruno published a pessimistic study of the effects of climate change on the world’s marine protected areas. Their findings: those areas will warm by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, destroying species and marine life despite the existence of protections.

Bruno’s study reflects the reality of coral bleaching in places such as the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, which is heavily protected but still vulnerable to the impacts of a warming world.

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It’s a lesson that illustrates the legacy of Gray’s Reef: Protected areas can save pieces of the ocean from extinction, but they can’t save it all.

“If it was up to me, we’d protect about 30% of the ocean,” Bruno says. “We’re just saying we’ve got to directly address climate change with emission reduction. There’s no way around it.” (VOA)

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Deep Sea Life Under Threat as Global Warming Reaches Ocean Depths: Research

Animals living in the deep ocean are more exposed to climate warming and will face increasing challenges

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Global warming
Global warming is seriously affecting deep sea life. Pixabay

Even though the deeper layers of the ocean are warming at a slower pace than the surface, animals living in the deep ocean are more exposed to climate warming and will face increasing challenges to maintain their preferred thermal habitats in the future, warn researchers. The study led by the University of Queensland in Australia and published in the Nature Climate Change, looked at how ocean life was responding to climate change.

“We used a metric known as climate velocity which defines the likely speed and direction a species shifts as the ocean warms,” said study researcher Isaac Brito-Morales. The international team of researchers calculated the climate velocity throughout the ocean for the past 50 years and then for the rest of this century using data from 11 climate models. “This allowed us to compare climate velocity in four ocean depth zones – assessing in which zones biodiversity could shift their distribution the most in response to climate change,” Brito-Morales said.

The researchers found climate velocity is currently twice as fast at the surface because of greater surface warming, and as a result, deeper-living species are less likely to be at risk from climate change than those at the surface. “However by the end of the century, assuming we have a high-emissions future, there is not only much greater surface warming but also this warmth will penetrate deeper,” Brito-Morales said.

Global warming
Researchers believe that action must be taken to aggressively manage carbon emissions and global warming. Pixabay

In waters between a depth of 200 and 1000 metres, The research showed climate velocities accelerated to 11 times the present rate.”And in an interesting twist, not only is climate velocity moving at different speeds at different depths in the ocean, but also in different directions which poses huge challenges to the ways we design protected areas,” Brito-Morales added. The research team believed action must be taken to aggressively manage carbon emissions.

“Significantly reducing carbon emissions is vital to control warming and to help take control of climate velocities in the surface layers of the ocean by 2100,” said study researcher Anthony Richardson. “But because of the immense size and depth of the ocean, warming already absorbed at the ocean surface will mix into deeper waters,” he added.

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This means that marine life in the deep ocean will face escalating threats from ocean warming until the end of the century, no matter what we do now. “This leaves only one option – act urgently to alleviate other human-generated threats to deep-sea life, including seabed mining and deep-sea bottom fishing,” the authors wrote. (IANS)

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Thousands of Australians Get Killed Each Year Due To Heat: Study

Australian researchers have called to add climate change as an official cause of death In Australia, heat-related deaths have been under-reported in the country.

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Heat
Climate change an official cause of death in Australia study suggests. Pixabay

Australian researchers have called to add climate change as an official cause of death after a study published on Thursday found that heat-related deaths have been under-reported in the country.

The study, published by Australian National University (ANU), found that excessive natural heat has been responsible for at least 50 times more fatalities than recorded on death certificates, reports Xinhua news agency.

A statistical analysis found that 36,765 deaths in Australia over the past 11 years could have been attributed to heat, but there were only 340. “Climate change is a killer, but we don’t acknowledge it on death certificates,” Arnagretta Hunter, a co-author of the study from the ANU Medical School, said in a media release.  “If you have an asthma attack and die during heavy smoke exposure from bushfires, the death certificate should include that information.

Heat
Excessive natural heat was responsible for approximately 2 per cent of all deaths in Australia. Pixabay

“We can make a diagnosis of disease like coronavirus, but we are less literate in environmental determinants like hot weather or bushfire smoke,” Hunter said, adding that heat is the most dominant risk posed from climate change in Australia. According to the study, excessive natural heat was responsible for approximately 2 per cent of all deaths in Australia.

Hunter said the country’s death certificates must be modernized to capture the impact of global warming. “Climate change is the single greatest health threat that we face globally even after we recover from the coronavirus.

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“We know the summer bushfires were a consequence of extraordinary heat and drought and people who died during the bushfires were not just those fighting fires – many Australians had early deaths due to smoke exposure,” she said. (IANS)

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Monitoring Method May Help To Conserve Lions in India

In the new study, Keshab Gogoi and his colleagues have demonstrated an alternative method for monitoring Asiatic lions

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Lions
Conserving this sub-specie of lions with the use of best scientific methods is a global priority and responsibility, according to authors of the study from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). Pixabay

An alternative method of monitoring endangered lions in India can help improve estimates of their numbers and also in making informed conservation policy and management decisions.

New conservation practices have helped increase the number of Asiatic lions from 50 to 500 in the Gir Forests of Gujarat.

Accurate estimates are needed for better conservation efforts, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The existing methods, particularly a technique known as total counts, can miss some and double-count others. Also, they provide limited information on the spatial density.

Conserving this sub-specie of lions with the use of best scientific methods is a global priority and responsibility, according to authors of the study from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).

In the new study, Keshab Gogoi and his colleagues have demonstrated an alternative method for monitoring Asiatic lions.

“Our research addresses this priority by developing a robust approach to their population assessment and monitoring, which can be used for all lion populations across the world,” said an author.

Gogoi and colleagues used whisker patterns and permanent body marks to identify lions using a computer programme, and analysed the data with a mathematical modelling method known as ‘spatially explicit capture recapture’ to estimate the lion density.

They also assessed the prey density and other factors that could influence the lion density.

Lion, Predator, Dangerous, Mane, Big Cat, Male, Zoo
An alternative method of monitoring endangered lions in India can help improve estimates of their numbers and also in making informed conservation policy and management decisions. Pixabay

The researchers identified 67 lions of the 368 sightings within the 725 sq km study area in the Gir Forests, estimating an overall density of 8.53 lions per 100 sq km. They found the prey density didn’t appear to influence the lion density variations in the study area.

The lion density was higher in the flat valley habitats (as opposed to rugged or elevated areas) and near sites where food had been placed to attract lions for tourists to see them.

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The study suggests that baiting lions for tourism affects their natural density patterns, in line with other researches that baiting disrupts lion behaviour and social dynamics.

The authors said the alternative monitoring method could be used to assess lions across their range (in India and Africa) and better conservation efforts. (IANS)