Two and a half hours west of Key West by boat is lonely Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort marooned in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and encrusted in coral reefs. Here the color of the water ranges from cerulean to toothpaste-aquamarine as magnificent frigatebirds, masked boobies, and sooty terns haunt the coral-white beaches of this unfinished garrison, a former prison for union army deserters.
One of seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas (so named for their lack of water and wealth of turtles at the time of Ponce de Leon’s discovery in 1513) Fort Jefferson is a monument to the ingenuity and industry of engineers and masons who slogged bricks from as far as Brewer, Maine, to the middle of the ocean to construct a fort that has survived in the crosshairs of two centuries of hurricanes. Now, the park is also a monument to the scientific principles of ecosystem management, proof that protecting habitat benefits all—environmentalists and fishermen alike.
In 2001, over the objections of local fishermen, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it would establish a 151-square nautical mile no-take zone in the area—the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. It was assumed that closing the well-known grouper and snapper spawning grounds of the Dry Tortugas to fishing would hurt the industry’s bottom line.
But that didn’t happen. The fish got bigger. And there were more of them.
No, it’s not the annual full moon spawning event, but corals in the Pacific and Caribbean have something just as exciting to wave their tentacles at: possible protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
After many years facing changing ocean temperatures, acidification, and increased disease, corals have significantly declined in overall health and abundance. Scientists and conservationists have long studied and understood the plight of corals, but recently their efforts have prompted renewed action.
Three years after scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of coral under the protection of the ESA, NOAA has responded with a proposal to protect 66 coral species through the ESA.
Protecting coral reefs which provide homes to countless colorful reef fish, ambling sea turtles, sharks, and an endless host of other vital marine creatures, is paramount to our own enjoyment and success as fellow inhabitants of this finite blue planet. Corals are estimated to provide the U.S. economy with an annual net benefit of over one billion dollars from tourism, recreation, and commercial and recreational fisheries. They provide shore breaks from storms, new pharmaceuticals to treat diseases, and act as biological reserves due to the unparalleled level of genetic diversity contained within the ecosystems they support.
This month, in the midst of the 18th UN Climate Change Conference (COP-18) in Qatar, the World Bank released a report titled “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.” The report, already causing a buzz in the global community, paints a grim picture of what the world might look like if global temperatures reach 4°C above preindustrial levels.
The report states that without intensive mitigation and global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, we will reach the 4° threshold by the end of the century, leading to the inundation of low-lying and island communities, extreme weather including drought and flooding, severe losses to biodiversity, and global instability due to displacement and famine.
But the report also details the dangers of ocean acidification, often referred to as climate change’s (equally evil) twin. Carbon dioxide emissions, the root cause of both climate change and ocean acidification, fundamentally change the chemistry of the ocean. Increased carbon dioxide uptake by the ocean increases the acidity of seawater, which threatens corals, plankton, oysters, cuttlefish, and other marine organisms that build shells. Ocean acidification is dangerous for many marine species and it is happening right now.
In the projected “4°C world,” the oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than preindustrial levels. This type of rapid, anthropogenic change in ocean chemistry is likely unparalleled in Earth’s history and could eliminate entire ecosystems, including coral reefs. If CO2 levels reach 450 ppm (corresponding to a global warming of about 1.4°C), coral growth could stop altogether.
The loss of coral reefs would be catastrophic for the ocean and the millions of people who depend on reefs for food, income, and protection against coastal floods and rising sea levels. The bottom line: marine life and those that depend on the ocean for their livelihoods will suffer as global temperatures rise.
In the foreword, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim writes, “A 4°C world can, and must, be avoided.” Oceana is working hard to make sure solutions like shifting from dirty energy to clean, offshore wind power and regulating carbon dioxide emissions are part of the international movement to prevent ocean acidification from further impacting our oceans.
Want to be a part of the movement? Click here to learn what you can do!
Caroline Wood is the Clean Ocean Energy Intern on Oceana's Climate and Energy Campaign
While the retreat from rising seas may seem like a distant, if abysmal, end-of-the-century scenario, it is in fact already taking place in some low-lying island communities. For the Guna (pronounced “Kuna”) people of Panama the abandonment of their ancestral homeland, the San Blas Islands, has become the only option after frequent floods have made their way of life impossible.
While the flooding of the San Blas Islands is partly a consequence of rising sea levels, the Guna are not entirely blameless. Coral reefs that once surrounded and buffered the islands from storm surges and flooding have been destroyed after decades of exploitation (ironically, the Guna mined the reefs to build up the islands). It has been enough, according to Reuters “to submerge the Caribbean islands for days on end”.
Oceana’s new report, Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World ranks nations to show which are most vulnerable to reductions in seafood production as a result of climate change and ocean acidification. While seafood is currently a primary source of protein for more than a billion of the poorest people in the world, carbon dioxide emissions are causing the oceans to warm and become more acidic, threatening fisheries and the people who depend on them.
Rising ocean temperatures are pushing many fish species into deeper and colder waters towards the poles and away from the tropics, while increased acidity is threatening important habitats such as coral reefs and the future of shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels.
Many coastal and island developing nations, such as Togo, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Madagascar and Thailand depend more heavily on seafood for protein and could suffer the greatest hardships because they have fewer resources to replace what is lost from the sea. For many developing countries, seafood is often the cheapest and most readily available source of protein, losing this resource could have serious impacts on livelihoods and food security.
The only way to address global ocean acidification and the primary path to ending climate change is by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions. One of the first steps in this process should be to phase out all fossil fuel subsidies.
Some local measures may help make marine resources more resilient to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification such as stopping overfishing, bycatch and destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, as well as establishing no take marine protected areas and limiting local pollution. But reducing carbon dioxide emissions is essential to make sure the oceans stay vibrant and productive for future generations.
To find the full ranking of nations’ vulnerability to climate change and ocean acidification check out our report: http://oceana.org/en/HighCO2World
One fish is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems facing the fragile food web of coral reefs in the U.S.: the lionfish. Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region, but are an invasive species in the Caribbean and Atlantic.
In their native waters, lionfish are at the top of the food chain, and are ferocious hunters. They are equipped with dangerous venom-filled spines that run along their dorsal, pectoral, and anal fins. Although they are venomous, they are not poisonous, and are safe to eat once you cut the spines off – and are actually quite tasty!
Twenty years ago lionfish could only be seen in their native habitat in the Pacific, as well as in many aquariums in the United States, but today they can be seen off the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and everywhere in the Caribbean. They are thought to have been accidently released when a hurricane in the late 1990s destroyed a beachfront aquarium in Florida. The fish immediately colonized the Florida Keys, and their eggs floated in the currents around the Caribbean. Scientists were left to watch in horror as the lionfish spread in a predictable pattern around the Caribbean Sea along the current patterns.
Lionfish are voracious feeders, and have no natural predators here, which has resulted in an exponential growth of their population. Plus, they spawn year-round and each brood can have tens of thousands of eggs. They are especially worrisome in the Caribbean since they prey on juvenile fish species, including the endangered Nassau grouper and other recovering fish species.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to solving the problem. The population has established itself to the point where eradication appears futile. But every little bit helps, and I myself have hunted the pesky predators all across the Caribbean; from beaches in Florida to the pristine reefs of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and in the world’s second longest barrier reef off the coast of Belize.
There are two ways to hunt lionfish. The easiest is with a spear gun, and the other is by trapping the fish in between two nets. The key to hunting lionfish is to move slowly and stalk the fish so as not to spook it. When threatened, they will swim into small crevices that make them nearly impossible to reach. When using nets, they key is to herd the fish into one net by chasing it from behind with the other. This is difficult because you have to anticipate where the fish will swim to. Using a spear gun is much easier, but can attract sharks, who want to check out the fresh piece of meat you just snagged.
There are endless ways to eat lionfish; my personal favorites are lionfish pizza and lionfish-cakes (crab cake style). Lionfish is a flaky white fish and can be used in recipes for halibut, cod, tilapia, and haddock.
Next time you venture into the water in the Caribbean, be on the lookout for this invasive species, just don’t get too close! Learn more about the Lionfish invasion at http://www.reef.org/lionfish.
Though you won’t see them saddled and ready to ride anytime soon, seahorses are pretty fascinating little sea creatures.
Named for their resemblance to the horses that we’re used to seeing on land, the seahorse is one of the slowest moving fish in the ocean. They swim upright, unlike their cousin the pipefish, and flutter their dorsal fin up to 30-40 times per second to move around (more like a hummingbird than a horse).
There are 47 distinct species of seahorses, and all are in the genus Hippocampus, which comes from the Ancient Greek for “sea monster.” You can find them in shallow waters throughout the world, especially in seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves, where they can take cover and hide from bigger fish that might want to make a meal out of them.
Seahorses are fairly small, ranging from 0.6 to 14 inches. But the smallest of all are the pygmy seahorses. Scientists are continuing to discover new species of pygmy seahorse, but they’re tough to find because they camouflage themselves and live in or near coral, algae, or seaweed, where they blend so well that they’re nearly impossible to spot. They often use their tails to anchor themselves to a surface, then use their snouts to catch brine shrimp and other small crustaceans floating by.
One of the seahorse’s most unique characteristics is that males carry the fertilized eggs instead of females. The male seahorse has a brood pouch on his front side where the female deposits eggs during mating. He carries the eggs until they’re fully developed, then releases the tiny seahorses out into the ocean to fend for themselves. A single brood can contain up to 1,500 young!
Because seahorses are so elusive, we don’t know very much about their populations worldwide. But the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other areas they call home are endangered by habitat depletion, pollution, and ocean acidification, which has made some species of seahorse vulnerable to extinction.
The Florida ocean conservation community said farewell to one of its greatest servants this week. John Halas, who was the winner of Oceana’s first annual Ocean Heroes contest, has retired after nearly 32 years of work protecting coral reefs in Florida.
Halas, a marine biologist and manager of the Upper Region of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, has been working to protect coral systems in Florida since 1981. After observing coral damage caused by careless anchoring, he took it upon himself to develop an environmentally friendly anchor and mooring buoy system that prevents damage to coral reefs and has worked to implement this anchorage system in 38 countries.
We’re sad to see John go but wish him a very happy retirement!
Stay tuned for this year’s Ocean Heroes contest, which kicks off with nominations on World Oceans Day, June 8.
On Sunday "60 Minutes" aired a great piece by Anderson Cooper on one of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, the Gardens of the Queen (or Jardines de la Reina) in Cuba.
Diving in, Cooper is not disappointed – he is surrounded by colorful corals, large sharks and a 200-lb critically endangered goliath grouper.
Oceana’s research vessel, the Ranger, sailed to the Gardens of the Queen in 2008, and documented a wide variety of marine life including sharks and sea turtles.
Check it out:
This is part of a series of ocean infographics by artist Don Foley. These infographics also appear in Oceana board member Ted Danson’s book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.”
Coral reefs cover around 1 percent of the world’s continental shelves, yet they provide habitat and food to at least a quarter of all species in the oceans, including 4,000 species of fish. These diverse habitats also provide food, income and coastal protection for some 500 million people.
But coral reefs and the species that rely on them are increasingly threatened by an invisible menace: ocean acidification. Thanks to human-produced carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans are now 30 percent more acidic than they were prior to the industrial revolution and more acidic than at any point over the past 20 million years. Corals and other species are unlikely to be able to adapt to this rapid change in acidity and are likely to suffer severe decline.
Coral reefs are built by tiny, soft coral animals, or polyps. These polyps are relatives of jellyfish and have evolved to secrete calcium carbonate skeletons that provide the polyp with structure and protection.
Colonies of hundreds to thousands of polyps live together as corals and can build huge reef structures over many years. Not only are coral reefs some of the most diverse habitats on Earth, but they are also some of the oldest. Corals grow only millimeters to centimeters per year, and it can take tens to hundreds of thousands of years for large reefs to form.
You can help protect coral reefs by telling your Senators to reduce carbon emissions and stop ocean acidification.