Environment Forum

Crustaceans rule!

Mex_00-hrEver wondered what kinds of wildlife dominate the world’s seas and oceans? Now there’s an answer, at least in terms of the number of species in different categories. It’s not fish. It’s not mammals. It’s crustaceans!

A mammoth Census of Marine Life has revealed that nearly one-fifth, or 19 percent, of all the marine species known to humans are crustaceans — crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, barnacles and others far too numerous to mention here. The census didn’t count the actual numbers of animals beneath the waves — that would have been impossible — but it did count up the number of species in 25 marine areas. The aim is to set down a biodiversity baseline for future use.

Car_00-hrIt took 360 scientists to figure this out. Their findings were posted on Monday in PLoS ONE, an open-source peer-reviewed online scientific journal. An even more fulsome list will be out in October.

For now, there’s plenty of data to chew on: of the 25 marine areas around the world that were examined, Australian and Japanese waters were the most biodiverse, with nearly 33,000 species in each of these locations. The oceans off China, the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico round out the top five most biodiverse marine regions.

Aus_00-hrAfter crustaceans, mollusks (like squid, octopus, clams, snails and slugs) rank second in terms of the number of species found in these regions, with 17 percent. Fish, including sharks, make up 12 percent of species. After that, it’s one-celled micro-organisms at 10 percent; algae and other plant-like organisms at 10 percent; segmented worms at 7 percent; sea anemones, corals and jellyfish, 5 percent; flatworms, 3 percent; starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers, 3 percent; sponges, 3 percent; mat or “moss animals,” 2 percent; sea squirts, 1 percent.

Voyage around the Americas sees acidification off Alaska

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Scientists aboard the Ocean Watch, a 64-foot yacht on a year-long voyage circling the Americas, are testing the waters as they go. Instruments on the vessel have picked up evidence of ocean acidification, another result of the spewing of carbon dioxide from tailpipes and smokestacks, they say.
 
Much of  CO2 pollution ends up in the atmosphere, but some is absorbed in the ocean, where it is converted into carbonic acid. The average pH of the word’s oceans is about 8.1 and the lower the reading, the greater the acidity. 
 
Scientists are concerned that if pH levels keep falling ocean waters could eat away the shells of organisms large and small. That would put the web of ocean life at risk, not to mention be a potential disaster for land-loving seafood lovers
   
Ocean Watch has picked up readings of 7.88 in the Gulf of Alaska. Michael Reynolds, the scientist taking the measurements, said the preliminary data may show that the Gulf of Alaska is a primary “sink” for atmospheric carbon.
 
The good news is that readings have returned to normal as the voyage continues off the coast of South America.    

The Ocean Watch has taken other environmental observations, on things like declining ice cover in the Arctic, and it sailed through the Northwest Passage, one of only 100 ships to do so in the last 100 years. A special camera is observing the gaggles of jellyfish the ship encounters. The creatures are among the world’s hardiest, so the scientists want to see what kind of jellyfish are thriving in waters that are acidic or are polluted in other ways and what changes they are undergoing.
 
“The boat is acting as a spotlight on issues known to scientists and local fisherman, but are not known to the general public,” said David Rockefeller, a philanthropist who is sponsoring the $2 million voyage for Sailors for the Sea. He will climb aboard Ocean Watch later this month off the coast of Patagonia.
 
The sailors are sharing their observations and concerns with the public at ports along their journey.  
 
Ellen Lettvin, an education expert at the Pacific Science Center, said the Ocean Watch scientists will analyze the data at the end of the voyage and provide it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations tracking the health of the oceans.

Photo:  David Thoreson

Coral erodes off Taiwan as divers take it home

Taiwan tourists are destroying a piece of exactly what they travel to see on an outlying mid-Pacific islet known — at least at one time — for its abundant coral reefs.

A pair of Taiwan environmental groups that marshaled 56 people to check the coral supply near Orchid Island, which is southeast of Taiwan proper, for the first time since 2004 found that the sensitive but colourful marine species covered only 18 percent of the surrounding ocean floor, down from 65 percent, said the Taiwan Environmental Information Center .

The Taipei-based information centre and its research partner the Taiwan Association for Marine Environmental Education suspect that the aftermath of a long-lasting August typhoon may have caused parts of the reef to break apart.

Panic at 2 a.m. — the search for multiyear Arctic ice

    When you’re looking for shrinking packs of multiyear ice in the Arctic Ocean, bizarre things tend to happen. Top Canadian scientist David Barber knows this first hand, as he explained in a presentation in Parliament on Wednesday. Barber said that to all extents and purposes the multiyear ice in the Arctic had already vanished, which could open up the region to shipping and mineral exploitation.

    Barber, who holds Canada’s Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, boarded the icebreaker Amundsen last month and steamed north from the Arctic port of Tuktoyaktuk to look for the Beaufort Sea pack ice, the “thickest, hardest, meanest, multi year sea we have left in the northern hemisphere”.

    According to up-to-date satellite maps provided by the Canadian Ice Service, the Amundsen should have started ploughing into progressively thicker ice almost from the start. Soon after the ship set sail Barber went to bed, and then woke up at 2 am in a panic.

Oceans away! U.S. makes federal stab at ocean policy

The seven seas get a single U.S. approach in a draft federal plan for oceans released on Thursday (and dated Sept. 10, when it was given to the prez). The report is a response to President Obama’s request for a plan and says a new National Ocean Council should use ecosystem management to take on the task. Previous efforts have been focused on solving individual problems — saving fisheries, stopping water pollution — which did not always match.

“This is the first time they have declared their intention to adopt a new way of managing the oceans, one that puts a priority on the health of the marine ecosystem, from which all the other benefits flow,” said Chris Mann, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s campaign for healthy oceans.

Goals include addressing changing conditions in the Arctic, reacting to climate change and ocean acidification and land practices that affect water.

Good news for South American penguins

Half a million Magellanic penguins are among the critters to get protection in a new coastal marine park just established by Argentina.

It is the first protected area in Argentina specifically designed to safeguard not only onshore breeding colonies but also areas of ocean where wildlife feed at sea,” the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said on Tuesday.

Researchers found that the area was in need of protection from increasing pressures by commercial fishing and the oil industry,” said WCS, which helped set up the park. Named the Golfo San Jorge marine park, it became official earlier this month.

Smoke and mirrors to slow global warming?

With worries about recession in many countries, does it make sense to try out some more radical ideas for fighting global warming, like placing mirrors in the sky to block the sun or fertilising the oceans to soak up greenhouse gases?

They sound like great proposals at first sight: simple,  probably cheaper and in some cases reversible. See a story about the technologies here. But there’s a lot of scepticism among scientists in the U.N. Climate Panel – there could be nasty side effects.

If you spew clouds of tiny particles, such as sulphur, into the upper atmosphere to block out some sunlight, for instance, they will eventually fall to earth and add to smog (think Beijing on bad days before the Olympics). Backers say that volcanoes do the same thing naturally — big eruptions can cool the planet. But who wants to breathe it in every day?

Good news on the Texas turtle front

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There are two turtle tales brewing on the coast of Texas at the moment and they’re both good.

First the numbers tale. 

The dedicated folks at the South Padre Island conservation facility Sea Turtle, Inc, report record numbers of nests by endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

“We have had record numbers of ridley nests on the Texas coast this year. We have found over 170 so far in 2008 compared to the previous record of 128 for all of last year,” Sea Turtle, Inc, curator Jeff George told Reuters.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

A giant squid weighing 250 pounds and measuring 25 feet in length is prepared for exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in this undated photo. The squid, which was netted off the coast of New Zealand in 1997, goes on display on October 12. PM/TBIt’s almost creepy watching this video of a colossal squid slowly thawing out in a giant tub at the Museum of New Zealand. If this were a horror movie, after all, it would suddenly start flailing around with its monstrous tentacles.

Researchers say that the squid, weighing 495 kg (1,090 lb) and caught off Antarctica in 2007, will be unfolded for study on Wednesday after it is defrosted. It is expected to be 6-8 metres long.

That could tell scientists more about colossal squid, rare creatures that are the world’s biggest invertebrates. Sometimes someone wanders into the video frame and you get a sense of how enormous the squid is.

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