The Center for Biological Diversity, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the Surfrider Foundation have filed a lawsuit compelling the Trump administration to declare 17 bodies of water in the Hawaiian Island chain “impaired” under the Clean Water Act due to massive amounts of plastic pollution in those waters. The administration has thus far failed to examine the studies, according to a press release put out by the Center.
“The beaches where our keiki (children) gathered shells are now covered in plastic. Waters where our families fish are filled with toxic debris. Marine life in our coral reefs is choking on microplastics,” said Maxx Phillips, the Center’s Hawaii director. “It’s a crisis we have to address before it’s too late.”
According to the Center, the Clean Water Act requires that the Environmental Protection Agency designate as impaired all bodies of water in the country that do not meet state water quality standards. Once a body of water is declared as impaired, the government must take action to reduce the pollution. Surveys have found that much of the plastic found in Hawaiian waters originate in the state.
“As one of the leaders in plastic pollution cleanup and education in Hawaii, we’ve witnessed the increasing threats of Hawaii’s plastic pollution epidemic,” said Rafael Bergstrom, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. “Every year, a denser wave of plastic makes its way into our coastal waters. This insidious pollution shows up as giant heaps of nets that strangle our endangered marine life and as the most microscopic fragments that are mistaken for food by fish and animals of all sizes. Our islands need action on one of the most devastating forms of water pollution our planet has seen.”
The plastic pollution found in the waters off the Hawaiian island chain ranges from plastic water bottles and food containers to fishing nets and plastic goods. These materials make their way into the human food chain and are also killing marine life such as sea birds and turtles.
While coral reefs around the world are dying from the effects of ocean acidification and global warming, one little section of the world, Kāne’ohe Bay off the windward side of Oahu, Hawaii, is defying that trend, as certain species of the corals in the bay are actually thriving.
Researchers with the University of Hawaii at Manoa are calling these corals super corals, because not only are they thriving in warm and acidic waters, the corals survived a massive sewage spill in the bay around 30 years ago. They hope that the corals offer a study for reef resilience.
“We won’t save every coral or every reef — many are already gone — but neither is it inevitable that we are going to lose all of them,” Christopher Jury, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii, told DiscoverMagazine.com. “If we seriously reduce the rate of climate change and the intensity of local stressors, we can still give the survivors a chance.” Jury is the lead author of the study that describes how these corals are surviving one of the most heavily used and popular bays in Hawaii.
The bay suffered from dredging, coastal development and the dumping of sewage from 1930 to 1970, killing 95 percent of the bay’s corals. In 1978, the sewage outlets were relocated and the corals began to thrive again, according to the study. Between 50 percent and 95 percent of the corals recovered by 1998, in what Jury said was in waters that are warmer and more acidic than neighboring bodies of water.
“I began to realize that the temperature and chemistry conditions in Kāne’ohe Bay are very similar to the conditions that many people predict will kill corals off globally, yet the reefs in the bay seem to be thriving, making the area incredibly valuable as a possible window into the future,” Jury told DiscoverMagazine.com.
The researchers collected frags from the three dominant coral species in Kāne’ohe Bay and neighboring Waimānalo Bay: Montipora capitata, Pocillopora acuta and Porites compressa. While the bays are just 11 miles from each other, Waimānalo Bay has better reef water exchange with offshore waters than does Kāne’ohe Bay. And you would expect Waimānalo Bay corals to fare better, but in the research lab, they did not.
The coral frags were then brought into a laboratory where they were assessed for pH and temperature tolerance. The Kāne’ohe Bay corals Poc. acuta and M. capitata were more tolerant of the higher temperatures than the same species from Waimānalo Bay while Por. compressa, didn’t show any difference between the locations. Ph didn’t factor into the survival of any of the species.
The researchers also noted that the corals from Kāne’ohe Bay not only tolerated the warming water temperatures and the more acidic water of the bay, but they also grew faster than the frags taken from Waimānalo Bay.
“In contrast with many projections, we find that at least these corals do in fact harbor a lot of individual variation for temperature and chemistry tolerance and that the hardy members of the population were able to drive rapid reef recovery in Kāne’ohe Bay in spite of the warmer, more acidic conditions found there,” Jury said.
The complete paper “Adaptive responses and local stressor mitigation drive coral resilience in warmer, more acidic oceans” can be read on the Royal Society Publishing website.
Local efforts to reduce pollution on coral reefs is not enough to save the world’s coral reefs, as a global effort to reduce global warming is needed to help these reef ecosystems, according to a National Science Foundation study put out by Oregon State University and University of California, Santa Barbara researchers.
The researchers collected Pocillopora meandrina cauliflower coral samples off the coast of Moorea in French Polynesia and exposed them to stressors that affect them in the wild. They examined how the dinoflagellates, fungi, bacteria and archaea that comprise a coral microbiome reacted.
“We subjected the corals to three stressors: increased temperature, nutrient enrichment—meaning pollution—and manual scarring,” Rebecca Maher, lead author of the study and a graduate research fellow in the OSU College of Science, said in a statement released to the media. “We scarred the corals with pliers, which was meant to simulate fish biting the coral.”
They then examined how these coral stressors interacted to negatively affect the coral microbiome and coral health.
“We found that with every form of stress, the amount of ‘friendly’ bacteria decreases in the coral and the amount of ‘unfriendly’ or disease-related bacteria increases,” Maher said. “Stressed corals had more unstable microbiomes, possibly leading to more disease and coral death.”
The researchers determined that stressing the corals with two stressors didn’t necessarily result in twice the stress on the coral, as there was less stress in some instances, but they determined that all three stressors together fueled each other to the detriment of the corals.
“Two stressors did not always compound each other’s negative effects but instead interacted antagonistically to produce less-than-additive effects on changes in microbial community distinctness, instability and diversity,” Maher said. “However, when three forms of stress were experienced by corals, the microbiomes dramatically changed, showing that stress can act synergistically to amplify the negative effects of single stressors.”
While the simulated fish bites definitely stressed the corals, the high temperatures were the death knell for the marine organisms.
“There is no magical number of stressors, but multiple stressors may interact in ways that we would not expect and that can depend on the type of stressor – human vs. environmental – or the severity of the stress,” Maher said. “Therefore, we should take care to understand these interactions before attempting to manage them with conservation actions. Our work is an important step in informing those actions by providing insights into how the coral and its microbiome will change under increasing human impacts.”
While we as ocean lovers can do our part to reduce the effects of global warming, it is imperative that people around the world continue to pursue a path to reduce our carbon footprint, so our coral reefs can recover from a warming planet.
Kahaluu Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii has such high levels of oxybenzone in its waters that a marine scientist says the reef could die within 10-15 years and be completely wiped out. Oxybenzone has proven to be toxic to coral reefs, algae and the organisms that depend on reef ecosystems. It also disrupts the hormones in fish.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took five water samples from five different areas in the bay and found average oxybenzone levels 262 times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls a high-risk situation for marine life.
“Those concentrations are rather horrifying,” marine scientist Craig Downs, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory told Honolulu Civil Beat. “I can see that reef dying in 10 to 15 years, and it won’t come back,” Downs said.
Kahaluu Bay is the Big Island’s busiest snorkeling beach, averaging more than 400,000 visitors every year. The 50th state, beginning in 2021, will ban sunscreens that have oxybenzone as part if its ingredients.
Downs told Civil Beat that countries in Asia, the Caribbean and other nations that people visit as part of ocean-based tourism are studying Hawaii’s approach to oxybenzone testing and regulation.
Researchers with the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa Department of Biology have developed a method for measuring the amount of living coral on a coral reef by analyzing coral DNA in surrounding seawater.
Graduate students Patrick Nichols and Associate Professor Peter Marko of the university’s Department of Biology published their techniques, which were honed on the coral reefs of the Hawaiian Islands, in the journal Environmental DNA.
The traditional approach to measuring living coral on reefs is visually, via SCUBA diving, which can often be time consuming, the researchers say. Environmental DNA analysis can complement the visual approach, because reef organisms are constantly expelling DNA. This genetic resides can then be found and analyzed with molecular biology tools.
“It still amazes me that in a tiny tube of water, there is enough information to track the relative abundance of entire communities,” Nichols said in a statement released by the university. “Increasing the breadth and scope of surveys is exactly what makes the future of eDNA so exciting!”
The researchers say that their technique has the capability to measure the amount of coral cover of a given reef. The coral cover is an important measuring device to determine how well a coral reef is doing. Nichols and Marko measured eDNA on Hawaiian coral reefs via a technique called metabarcoding. This techniques measures all of the DNA present in a water sample, and is analyzed with DNA sequencing. The coral DNA sequences are then ID’d and counted, which helps to determine the abundance of specific species of corals on a given reef. Those reefs that have been compromised or are degraded have fewer coral eDNA to count, whereas healthy reefs have more eDNA to count, the researchers said.
The complete paper, “Rapid assessment of coral cover from environmental DNA in Hawai’i” can be accessed in the open access journal Environmental DNA.
In a bid to help coastal and island communities to reduce their debt burdens, while helping to save and restore the world’s oceans, the Nature Conservancy announced that it will start selling “blue bonds” to help restructure and refinance debt for communities that live near the ocean. As part of its Blue Bonds for Conservation initiative, the Nature Conservancy is hoping that these nations will protect at least 30 percent of near-shore ocean areas such as coral reefs, mangroves and related near-shore ocean habitat, in exchange for better debt repayment terms. (See “Greenpeace Releases 30×30 Blueprint For Ocean Protection)
As part of its Blue Bonds for Conservation initiative, the Nature Conservancy is hoping that these nations will protect at least 30 percent of near-shore ocean areas such as coral reefs, mangroves and related near-shore ocean habitat, in exchange for better debt repayment terms.
The countries’ governments commit to protect at least 30 percent of their near-shore ocean areas, including coral reefs, mangroves and other important habitats, and engage in ongoing conservation work such as improving fisheries management and reducing pollution.
Then TNC leverages public grants and commercial capital to restructure the nations’ sovereign debt, leading to lower interest rates and longer repayment periods.
A portion of those savings fund the new marine protected areas and the conservation activities to which the country has committed.
We also lend our scientific expertise to the planning process and work with local partners to identify activities that combine conservation and sustainable economic opportunities, such as restoring reefs for tourism and improving fisheries management to help ensure buy in and compliance from all stakeholders.
“There’s still time to reverse decades of damage to the world’s oceans before we hit the point of no return,” Mark Tercek, CEO of TNC told GreenBiz. “It’s going to take something audacious to tackle marine protection at this scale, which means thinking beyond more traditional approaches to ocean conservation.”
According to GreenBiz, TNC has already secured more than $US 23 million in funding from donors. It is hoping to secure $US 40 million, which will hopefully unlock $US 1.6 billion in ocean conservation funding. Up to 20 countries will be the recipients of these funds, of which the NTC hopes 1.5 million square miles of biodiverse, near-shore ocean areas are protected.
When a nation accepts these Blue Bond monies, marine scientists with The Nature Conservancy will develop a “marine spatial plan,” to help pay for newly established marine protected areas and other programs to help protect the oceans. These will be paid for via debt restructuring and philanthropic donations, according to GreenBiz.
“This is the philanthropic opportunity of a lifetime,” said Tercek. “Every dollar we raise will result in 40 times the impact. It’s hard to find better leverage than that.”