Category Archives: Wildlife

Law: the Central Solution or Insignificant Facet?

For centuries, our ancestors have used plants for various purposes: for food, raw material, and for medicinal purposes. However, in our modern times we have deleted our plant resources due to our excessive over harvesting. Currently, more than 60 million plants are harvested without being replaced. This unsustainable harvesting by pharmaceutical companies and local communities are the cause of endangerment and even extinction for many medicinal plants. This then affects the local communities as they lose a source of income.  Unfortunately, the plot thickens—local peoples resort to biopiracy or the poaching or medicinal plants from both public and private lands. This simply provides as more fuel to the disastrous cycle of overharvesting herbs.

Many solutions have been suggested, such as cultivation and wild crafting, to solve this problem. Also, there are cultural influences, such as religion, that fuel local people to protect their lands. Though all of the above are necessary tools to stopping herb overexploitation, they all have deep flaws to contribute to the current problem. This is why it is important to look to the law when these options fail. Laws protect the plants and repel malevolent and selfish individuals from taking advantage of medicinal plants.

International Laws Protecting Medicinal Plants

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) drawn up in early 1973 is one of the very few laws protecting medicinal plants globally. CITES is a treaty that regulates the international trading of threatened or endangered species. It protects endangered species by establishing specific trading laws that safeguard and sustain that particular species. All imported and exported species must be authorized through a ‘licensing system’. Each country has authorities that oversee this process. This in turn, makes it much harder for poachers to transport and sell their stolen herbs.  However, there are many flaws. CITES does not specifically have a committee or group that enforces this law, making it almost useless as it is not practiced actively. To make things worse, conflicts of interest may arise when deciding if a certain species is endangered or not. This is seen with Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, as they refuse to list the Brazilian mahogany. These three countries now hold 90% of the last mahogany trees in the world. It is obvious that this proves advantageous for them in their timber industries, and will boost their economic output—but it will be at the expense of biodiversity.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Laws in the United States

The United States are very conscious of their harvesting, due to the frequent advocating by many organizations. The United Plant Savers is a non- profit group that help to raise awareness of endangered plants and herbs and distribute seeds to gardeners and companies. Currently, the US mostly cultivates its medicinal plants, decreasing the illegal trade. This is reflected clearly as the United States does not have as many endangered species compared to other countries, such as India and China. Yet, problems still do arise with biopiracy, mostly in National Parks. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, commercial poachers arrive annually and steal hundreds of different plants. Commercial poachers take a special liking to the American Ginseng, a severely endangered and popular herb, as many detained poachers with over 1,000 roots in their possession. However, with a lack of total rangers, it is hard to fully enforce laws, leading to many poachers getting away with such a large amount of poaching.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law that protects ecosystems and endangered and threatened species. ESA is an excellent law that protects endangered species and their ecosystems well, but this act has a fault: it gives states to option to accept or veto the ‘plant’ part of the bill. Unfortunately, many states vetoed the ‘plant’ section of the bill, and currently have no law to protect the plants.  Even worse, each state has different endangered species lists, meaning that one species may be endangered in one state and not endangered another, leading to confusion and possible manipulation by greedy commercial poachers.

The Next Step

As shown above, the environmental laws internationally and in America have as many defects as the other solutions suggested above. Conflicts of interests i.e. Timber industry vs. conservation, could lead to a controversial debate over saving biodiversity or adding more jobs to the economy. It is also important to remember that the individuals who do enforce the law are not botanists, and therefore may not be able to confidently remember and identify each endangered plant. This also contributes to frequent poaching and the endangerment of herbs. Many lawmakers do not find this to be an issue of importance in other developing countries, such as India. Yet above all, with a lack of law enforcers for both the CITES and the ESA, the law itself only an official document, never to be implemented and practiced by the people, and therefore does not serve a purpose. “Mitigating these challenges [of the overexploitation of herbs] and consolidating the gains so far requires the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national policies for conservation of medicinal plants”, stated WHO Regional Director, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo. Without implementation, laws serve no purpose.

It is important that we pressure our lawmakers and force their attention on to this significant problem. With their support, we can increase our number of local law enforcers and have a notably better hold on enforcing the law and protecting endangered plants. Get involved by sending a letter to your local councilman. Awareness is necessary, but it is also important to take action. Please spread the word and help protect the endangered plants in your area.

Pointing Out the Nonpoint Source: The Impact of Runoff on Coral Reefs

Non-Pointsource Pollution flowing into Florida Waters. Photo Courtesy of NOAA/Flickr.

An estimated 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Dirt, oil, nutrients, and chemicals enter the oceans as runoff; polluted liquid that flows from land to sea.  The sources of runoff are numerous, and its impacts on coral reefs, especially those in costal areas, are profound.

In elementary school, one of my teachers presented the class with a model of our costal city.  She handed a few students bottles of different colored water, and asked them to ‘water their lawns,’ ‘wash their cars,’ and ‘make it rain’ on the city.  They proceeded to drench the model.  Then she told us to watch where the water went.  It rolled down into a small pool of clear water at the bottom of the model.  We watched the pool turn to a brownish-grey hue.

Nonpoint Source Pollution. Photo Courtesy of EPA/ water.epa.gov

The point of the model was to show us how pollutants, in the form of runoff, flow from land to sea.  We couldn’t really see the ocean turn greyish-brown in real-life, so the model let us visualize where a lot of the pollution was coming from, and what it was doing to the sea water. As kids who grew up on the shore, the lesson hit home.  Most of us weren’t strangers to summer time beach closures due to high levels of pollution.

Watershed Model. Photo Courtesy of AISBWETWMS/Picasa.

Runoff poses a significant threat to coral reefs.  Pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, inorganic materials, sewage, sediments, and heavy metals are washed into oceans daily. As a nonpoint source pollutant, runoff is hard to control, precisely because it enters the water in many places and because the pollutants originate from so many different sources.  Both urban and rural environments contribute to the runoff problem.

Agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to coral reefs.  Over-irrigation and rainstorms cause nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to flow into the sea. Ordinary levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for life on reefs, but increased levels of nutrients result in algal blooms.  Algae thrive off of these nutrients, and grow at alarming rates on reefs when the water becomes over-saturated with nutrients.  Eventually the algae take over, and the coral cannot compete for resources, so they die.

As the EPA points out, “When nutrient levels increase, the delicate balance that exists between corals and algae is destroyed and the algae can overgrow the corals. When this situation is prolonged, the corals are smothered and die beneath the algal carpet. This, in turn, affects the fish and other aquatic organisms using the area, leading to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and affecting use of the water for fishing and swimming.”

Algal Bloom. Photo Courtesy of chesbayprogram/Flickr.

Katharina E. Fabricius of The Australian Institute of Marine Science has noted the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich terrestrial run-off on reefs in her paper,“Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis”.  She writes that “considerable effort has gone into experiments studying the direct effects of elevated dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, as nitrate or ammonium) and phosphate (DIP) on coral calcification, tissue growth and zooxanthellae.”  She goes on to conclude that “chronically increased levels of dissolved inorganic nutrients may alter reef metabolism and reef calcification sufficiently to cause noticeable changes in coral communities.”

Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef is at risk due to agricultural runoff.  According to a report by students at the University of Michigan, “80% of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef is farmland that supports agricultural production, intensive cropping of sugar cane, and major beef cattle grazing (GBR, 2007). These types of agriculture and cattle production pose large threats to the Great Barrier Reef close by.”  Nutrients from these farm areas reach the reef, and cause damage.

Excess nutrients also reach the sea when human or animal waste is discharged as untreated wastewater into the sea or when sewer systems overflow before treatment.  According to UNEP “around 60% of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated, in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is close to 80%, and in large parts of Africa and the Indo-Pacific the proportion is as high as 80-90%.” As the EPA describes, aside from adding excess nutrients to the water, this untreated sewage can bring bacteria and other pathogens to reefs that can cause coral disease and death.

Sewage outfall. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr.

Other toxic materials also impact coral reefs. Heavy metals, chemicals, and oils runoff into the ocean from urban areas and poison corals.  The upset the chemical balance of water that is necessary for coral to live. Most of the oil in the world’s oceans does not come from large-scale oil spills, but rather from smaller sources such as runoff.  The World Wildlife Fund states that only around 12% of the oil that enters the sea each year comes from oil spills. The US National Resources Council estimates that 36% of oil that enters the sea comes “as waste and runoff from cities and industry.”

Cyanobaterial Bloom on a Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The question that begs to be asked is what can be done to prevent damage to coral reefs by runoff?  For one, the US government has enacted the “The Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program.” The program was passed by Congress in order to achieve “coordination between state coastal zone managers and water quality experts to reduce polluted runoff in the coastal zone.”

The program, which focuses on runoff-pollution prevention and is jointly administered by NOAA and the EPA, “establishes a set of management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification), and wetlands and vegetated shorelines, or riparian areas. These measures are backed by enforceable state policies and actions—state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.”  Thus the goal of the program is to give governments the tools and the power to regulate and prevent runoff.  Though these laws are significant achievements, the challenge to lessen runoff is still steep, and threats to coral reefs as a result of runoff are ever-present.

Sustainability or Livelihood? Tensions in the Uttarakhand Community

India is widely known for its large amount of medicinal plants. Approximately 7,500 species can be found there. Ayurveda, India’s oldest medical system, reported 2,000 native medicinal plant species, Sidha reported 1121, and Unani reported 751 species. All three of these medical systems rely almost entirely on medicinal plants to cure its patients.

Many pharmaceutical companies also rely heavily of India’s array of herbs. More than 95% of 400 plant species harvested from wild populations in are used in preparing medicine. Generally, one-fourth of each medicine is plant based. Some examples of plant based drugs are contraceptives, steroids and muscle relaxants for anesthesia and abdominal surgery, defenders against malaria, heart failure and cancer.

Yet, taking away 95% of the wild plant species leaves the community with barely any resources to support itself sustainably and if the pharmaceutical companies do not over exploit the native herb, it fosters tension between villagers in paying one who sells the herb it needs. Both problems are seen the Uttarakhand, a northern state in India, where the over harvesting of Taxus baccata, and Hemidesmus indicus led to economic turmoil and the need of timur by pharmaceutical companies fueled tension between the Bhotiya and the Garhwals.

Uttarakhand, India

Uttarakhand, India

The presence of pharmaceutical companies has negative consequences on the communities who reside in the area that it harvests in, leaving them in ecological, and sometimes social, ruin.  Commercial harvesting and activity is the primary factor in over exploitation of their native herbs.

Commercial activity of medicinal plants influences competition between Uttarakhand’s two ethnic groups: the Bhotiya and the Garhwal in the usage of timur, a shrub used to cure toothaches, common colds, cough, and fevers, as a flavoring agent or spice. The Bhotiyas used timur fruit, while the Garhwals collected and traded timur sticks to pilgrims visiting the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. As they harvest different parts of timur, they were not in competition with each other, and were environmentally sustainable as it did not pressure on the wild. Yet when pharmaceutical companies started to purchase timur fruit from that region, tension emerged among the villagers, who competed fiercely to sell the timur fruit to the companies. If not controlled adequately, this could eventually lead to endangerment of the timur fruit in Uttarakhand.

Many families rely entirely on their environment for food and medicine. Villagers also use medicinal plants as a source of food. The Bhotiya tribal community uses timur fruit as a seasoning or spice. There are traditional dishes made from the fruit of timur such a ‘hag’ a soup made from the dried fruit, and ‘dunkcha’, a type of sauce or topping. They used timur in alcohol, as walking sticks, and for religious purposes. They also used timur to cure children’s toothaches by pressing it over its tooth. Timur was a big part of the people’s lives, as their source of revenue as well as food relied on it.

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

With many of the materials becoming commercially popular, more and more of the medicinal plant is harvested, eventually leading to endangerment.  This leaves communities with fewer options. Taxus baccata, or the Himalayan yew, is a tree used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, commonly used in the Himalyans.  Hemidesmus indicus is used in treatment of skin diseases, wounds, psoriasis, syphilis, in inflammations, heptopathy, neuropathy, cough, asthma and fever. It is used to cure 39 different types of diseases.

Both plants species from Uttarakhand, where the Bhotiya tribal community resides, are currently endangered. Both were commonly sold by the villagers. According to local collectors and traders of medicinal plants from North Kashmir Himalaya, the demand and supply is not in equilibrium for some medicinal plants, leaving villagers with the choice of being sustainable, or instead, providing for their families. “Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating”, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated. And this will only become worse if we do not educate villagers like Bhotiya and the Garhwal on the negative affects their actions have on the environment and sustainable yet economically friendly ways to thrive.

There have been advances in this cause. The workshop “Endangered Medicinal Plant Species in Himachal Pradesh” was held at G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment &Development, Mohal-Kullu, H.P., India in March of 2002, where NGOs, managers, funders, farmers, scientists, and policy makers came together to address these issues and to reach a “common agreement and to execute in collaboration with identified partners”. The Convention of Biological Diversity has also made some steps forward with the “Adapted Global Strategy for Plant Conservation” in April 2002, which provides a “policy environment” that addresses conservation challenges.

Inspired Activism

For this week’s post, I am going to stray a bit from the structure of my first  few blog-posts. This change was inspired by a conversation that I had with another student who uses poetry and painting to express her passion for the environment.

Pen and Paper. Photo Courtesy of LucastheExperience/Flickr.

She recently learned about the impact of climate change on coral reefs, and decided to take pen to hand, and write about her feelings on the subject.  Merav is a student and new-found coral reef enthusiast who is eager to put her artistic talent to work, in order to make others aware of the threats to survival that coral reefs face.

In light of this, this post will discuss the different ways in which young people channel their passion for coral reefs in order to make others aware of the threats that reefs face.  The methods that they use are sometimes conventional, but often unconventional.  All are equally important, and all have the ability to bring coral reefs to the attention of a broader audience. From Merav and other inspiring individuals, I have learned that environmental activism comes in many forms: the written, the spoken, the painted, and the danced, just to name a few.

Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of stitchlily/Flickr. The hyperbolic crocheted coral reef project began as an initiative of two sisters to raise awareness about coral reefs. It uses math, science, and art to create crocheted reefs. It is one of the largest community-based art projects in the world (http://crochetcoralreef.org/about/index.php)

The crocheted reef above is an example of an art-based project that raises awareness about coral reefs.  It is my belief, and my hope, that projects like this will enable the artists to engage the public in discourse about the threats that coral reefs face, and will inspire others to action.

Environmental activism also comes in more conventional forms; forms that are based in scientific education. I spoke with Jessica Pretty, a student of oceanography at Old Dominion University, a SCUBA diver, and an activist for coral reef preservation.  She has been an avid SCUBA diver for many years, and this has contributed to her love of coral reefs.  She sees education as a central component to environmental activism.  For this reason, she decided to get a degree in Oceanography.  She explained the link between her education and her desire to protect coral reefs.

Jessica said, “Coral reefs were some of the first things I got to explore whilst scuba diving. I was inspired to follow the dream of [studying] Marine Science/Oceanography when I realized how our oceans and the life they contain are taken for granted by the human race…the oceans have always given us plenty, but now they are in danger of being decimated by the greed of humanity and I would like to change that.”

By educating herself in a formal environment, Jessica will gain the scientific tools that she needs to work to save the marine environments that she loves.  Her education in Oceanography has given her a broader knowledge of the threats that coral reefs face, as well as a better understanding of why coral reefs are so important.  This in turn, has caused her to advocate for their protection.

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of USFWS Pacific/Flickr.

Dylan Vicchione, founder of the organization ReefQuest, proves that ability to act on behalf of coral reefs (or any environmental cause) is not limited by one’s age.  At the age of 12 he founded an NGO, ReefQuest.  He has been honored by the President for his efforts, and has created educational materials that thousands of other students have used to learn to protect coral reefs. Dylan is a prime example of a young person who is taking initiative to save coral reefs.  Young people like him have the power to change the world and to inspire other young people to do the same.  The video below tells his inspiring story!

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ReefQuest Promo from IDEAS Quest on Vimeo.

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Reefs Reduced to Rubble

What can a glass bottle, some kerosene, and a little fertilizer destroy? For one thing, a coral reef.  Blast fishing is a destructive fishing method that is practiced in many parts of the world.  In Southeast Asia, it has been responsible for the destruction of many coral reefs, and as a result, has negatively impacted vital parts of certain economies.

A Reef Destroyed by Dynamite Fishing. Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Blast fishing is a technique whereby fishermen use dynamite, cyanide bombs, or homemade explosives to stun or kill fish for collection. Fisherman blast coral reefs because large numbers of fish congregate around them.  The blasts are indiscriminately destructive. They stun the fish desired by the fisherman, kill other species, and physically turn the reefs into piles of rubble. Though blast fishing has been outlawed in many places, it continues to be practiced.

The long-term impacts of blast fishing are both environmentally and economically devastating. Indonesian waters boast some of the most beautiful and bio-diverse coral reefs on the planet.  According to the Reefbase Reefs at Risk database, Indonesia has the largest diversity of reef fish in the world, and it’s coral reefs help support a marine fisheries industry that, in 1997, resulted in 3.6 million tons of marine fish production.

The World Resources Institute estimates that blast fishing results in a net economic loss of $570 million annually in Indonesia, and as much as $1.2 Billion in the Philippines. Economic loss comes mainly from the depletion of marine fisheries.  The destruction of coral reefs contributes to the depletion of marine fisheries. With the destruction of reefs, comes the destruction of the ecosystem that supports fish populations.  When coral reefs are destroyed, the number and diversity of fish that the ecosystem can support decreases.  Healthy coral reefs provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for fish, but when the physical structure of a reef is demolished, it cannot perform these functions.  Thus, blast-fishermen devastate the very ecosystems that sustain the fish populations that they rely on to sustain their livelihoods.

Blast fishing also harms the reef-based tourism economy.  If reefs are reduced to rubble SCUBA divers no longer have reason to visit, and even a small blast here and there can scare tourists away from SCUBA diving in an area.

Chart from World Resources Institute "THE ECONOMIC LOSS ASSOCIATED WITH CORAL REEF DEGRADATION"

The World Resources Institute argues that healthy coral reefs can contribute about $1.6 billion U.S dollars per year to the Indonesian economy. As reefs are  destroyed by blast fishing, this economic potential decreases.

Fortunately, there is some hope for reefs that have been blasted.  The long-term ecological impact of blast fishing on coral reefs is a question of major concern.  In the short term, blast fishing is clearly destructive, but in some cases there is evidence of recovery. In their article, “Recovery From Blast Fishing On Coral Reefs: A Tale of Two Scales”, Fox and Caldwell show that certain reefs areas that suffered acute blasts recovered from damages.  However, those that were extensively blasted did not recover. They write,

“Rubble resulting from single blasts slowly stabilized, and craters filled in with surrounding coral and new colonies. After five years, coral cover within craters no longer differed significantly from control plots. In contrast, extensively bombed areas showed no significant recovery over the six years of this study, despite adequate supply of coral larvae. After extensive blasting, the resulting coral rubble shifts in ocean currents, forming unstable ‘‘killing fields’’ for new recruits.”

Thus when areas are extensively blasted, an inhospitable habitat for new coral growth results, and reefs, even are unlikely to recover.

Ultimately, governments and citizens need to act in order to save coral reefs from blast fishing.  Unfortunately, the regulation of blast fishing, even in places where it has been outlawed, has proven difficult.  According to a paper published by the Conservation and Community Investment Forum, attention has been drawn to the problems that blast fishing causes, but Indonesian authorities are often unresponsive because regulation is expensive, and because political will to fight against blast fishing is lacking.

Thankfully, a lack to will to stop blast fishing is not universal. The video below is an uplifting story about collaboration between the NGO Seacology and members of an Indonesian community, to restore a reef destroyed by blast fishing.

Oceans: Save the 99%

The Ocean as Inspiration

I first heard of biomimicry when I was visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer. After spending the day enchanted by the colors of seahorses, mesmerized by the foreignness of jellyfish, and playing with starfish, I settled down in the movie theatre for a break. The movie introduced me to the term biomimicry and thus began my fascination with nature as an inspiration for technology.

One technology highlighted in the film was the Mercedes-Benz bionic car. Bionics is another name for biomimicry in technology and was given its name in 1958 by an officer in the American air force.

Biologists and engineers collaborated at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center (MTC) to find a new, innovative shape for a car that would, among other things, be more aerodynamic and would increase the car’s gas mileage.

Boxfish AMody/Flickr Creative Commons

Surprisingly, the boxfish with its angular, cube-shaped body was found to be more aerodynamic than animals such as the dolphin and their streamlined shape.

It turns out that the boxfish has the ideal shape for a car, a shape that has emerged after millions of years of evolution. The box-like, rigid shape of the fish both protects it from getting hurt by collisions or high pressure and it also causes vortices in the water to form, which stabilize the fish and ensures it is not “blown” off course.

When applied to cars, the boxfish’s shape resulted in one of the lowest drag coefficients ever tested. Because of this the bionic car’s fuel consumption is 20% lower than other cars.

Bionic Car: Mercedes-Benz Researchers Used the Box Fish as Inspiration for a New Energy Efficient Car

Not only that, but the boxfish’s hexagonal scales are also utilized in the bionic car. These “scales” are lightweight (the weight of the car decreases by 30%) but the structure of the car is much more stable and rigid (about 40% more rigid). This means that the bionic car is energy efficient, environmentally friendly and still extremely safe!

A Whole New World

There is still so much to learn about the ocean, but already it is incredible to realize the multitudes of problems the ocean can solve as we learn more about its mysteries. Researchers are inspired by everything from bull kelp as anchors to whale fins as wind turbine blades.

One of my favorite sources of inspiration from the ocean is cephalopods (such as octopi and cuttlefish). Cephalopods have the incredible ability to camouflage themselves. Watch this video (an excerpt from David Gallo’s, a famous oceanographer, TED talk) to see a breathtaking example.

This octopus (and other cephalopods) can camouflage because of three main reasons:

1) Chromatophores: These are sacs of pigment (color) directly connected to the octopus’s nervous system that allow it to change its own color almost instantaneously.

2) Papillae: These allow the octopus to change the texture of its skin.

3) Leucophores and Iridphores: These allow the octopus to affect how light is reflecting off of itself, perfecting its optical illusion.

Octopus CCaviness/Flickr Creative Commons

This vanishing act is not merely a youtube phenomenon. As scientists learn more about how these underwater magicians do what they do (even though cephalopods are color blind), there are a lot of potential applications. Biodegradable video screens for electronic devices, non-toxic paints, and possible military applications are just some of directions engineers and designers can take this biological inspiration.

How To Protect Our Oceans

Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with water pollution and lack of respect for the oceans that cover 71% of our planet.

71% of Planet Earth is Water

Despite the fact that the majority of our world is water, only 1% of the ocean is protected, in contrast to the 12% of land that is protected.

Groups like the Marine Conservation Institute, Oceana and MarineBio were created to increase that number.

MarineBio is an organization that remains politically neutral while working to protect our oceans. David Campbell, the founder and director of MarineBio, stresses that the ocean is “where we look to see what the condition of our planet is. We can clean up the land in some places but until we address what is going on with the ocean with pollution…and the climate and CO2…we’re not getting anywhere.” Even though in the past ten years ocean protection has improved, Campbell emphasizes that “science has been saying for a long time that we need to start paying attention to the ocean. We have just begun.”

By protecting the ocean, these groups are also protecting biomimicry. They are ensuring that the ocean, a muse of technology, is still able to inspire us as the world progresses. As Campbell said when asked about what we can learn from the ocean: “Pretty much everything.”

Coral Reef Ecosystems

From Bright and Bio-diverse to Blighted and Bleached. What are Coral Reefs, and why are they in Danger?

Coral Reefs are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet.  These wondrous undersea worlds are often referred to as ‘rain forests of the sea,’ a name that expresses their ecological complexity, their beauty, and their vulnerability.  But what exactly is a coral reef, and why are they in danger of destruction?

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

The first time I saw a coral reef ‘up-close and personal,’ was on a snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys. The beauty of what I saw amazed me. I was eager to explore its nooks and crannies, and I was curious to know how it all got there.  My first question was: What exactly is a coral reef, and what exactly are corals?

I would soon get my answer.  I would also get a lot more information about coral reefs than I had asked. Through an impassioned, impromptu speech from a man who had grown up in the Caribbean, I learned of the destruction of the once beautiful coral reefs off the shores of his hometown. Solemnly, he told me of the remains of a reef that he used to swim at as a teenager.  The reef had once thrived, but now it sat seemingly life-less and abandoned on the seafloor.

In the past three decades, the world’s coral reefs have experienced unprecedented decline.  The trend is continuing.  Decline in coral reef health and coverage is caused by a number of factors; many of them inflicted by humankind.  Overfishing strips reefs of species that keep the ecosystem in balance; pollution from agricultural runoff brings toxins that can kill the coral; and hurricanes ravage and crumble the reef structure. On top of all of this, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, may be the most significant threat of all. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, both of which are linked to increasing carbon emissions, can have serious impacts on coral reefs.

The video below describes some of the most significant threats to coral reefs.

Coral reefs are extremely complex ecosystems: conglomerations of animals, minerals, algae, and other organisms, breaming with life and ecological productivity. What most of us see underwater and identify as ‘coral,’ is actually a colony of thousands upon thousands of tiny invertebrate animals (coral polyps) nestled together and built up upon the calcium carbonate (limestone) ‘skeletons’ of sometimes thousands of years worth of old coral colonies. Mollusks, young fish, sea turtles, and many others, seek food and refuge within the reef, so when coral reefs are destroyed, so are the habitats for all these other living things. But with this complexity and productivity comes vulnerability.

Even small changes in water temperature leave coral reefs vulnerable to a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Bleaching occurs when coral polyps under stress expel the algae that live symbiotically within them. When the algae are gone, the coral appears white, or “bleached,” because algae gives coral reefs their vibrant color.  Bleaching also leaves coral without a significant source of energy, energy from algal photosynthesis.  The stressed, bleached coral may become more susceptible to disease.

Coral Bleaching. Photo by Mark Spalding Courtesy of World Resources Institute/Flick

In their study, Coral Reefs & Global Climate Change, Robert Buddemeier et al., link the bleaching phenomenon to global climate change. They write, “Increases in ocean temperatures associated with global climate change will increase the number of coral bleaching episodes…While coral species have some capacity to recover from bleaching events, this ability is diminished with greater frequency or severity of bleaching. As a result, climate change is likely to reduce local and regional coral biodiversity, as sensitive species are eliminated.”

Ocean acidification, associated with increased atmospheric CO2 levels, may also seriously harm coral reefs. Acidification of the ocean will lessen the availability of carbonate ions in the water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Corals need to be able to extract carbonate ions from the seawater in order to build their skeletons.

Sadly, coral reefs, with all their beauty and biodiversity, are among the first of many ecosystems to suffer the effects of climate change and increased carbon dioxide emissions. However, all hope is not lost. Efforts to protect and restore the world’s coral reefs are underway. Future blogs will discuss some of these efforts, in hopes of inspiring readers towards action.