World’s largest marine park created in Antarctica

October 28, 2016

The EU and 24 countries have signed an agreement to protect more than 1.55 million sq km of the Ross Sea, a deep bay in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica.  

 

A map of the Ross Sea protected area released by WWF

A map of the Ross Sea protected area released by WWF

 

 

Over 1.1 million sq km of the area will become a fully-protected marine reserve with no fishing allowed. Beyond this area, designated research zones will be set up allowing for controlled fishing for krill and toothfish. In total, the sanctuary will cover more than 12 percent of the Southern Ocean.

After 5 years of negotiations (including Russia and China blocking the deal), the agreement was made in Hobert, Australia on Friday (28.10.16) at the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. It will expire in 35 years.  WWF said that in coming years, it “will continue to push for the Ross Sea to become a marine protected area (MPA), protected in perpetuity.”

The area covered by the agreement is home to a huge variety of wildlife including 95 species of fish as well as whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, and seabirds.

“The Ross Sea has been described as the one of the most pristine wilderness areas left on Earth”, said WWF-Australia Ocean Science Manager Chris Johnson, who attended the CCAMLR meeting in Hobart.

“It is home to one third of the world’s Adélie penguins, one quarter of all emperor penguins, one third of all Antarctic petrels, and over half of all South Pacific Weddell seals.

Today’s agreement is a turning point for the protection of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Over 1.5 million km2 is to be set aside for conservation – an area the size of France, Germany and Spain combined – with over 70 per cent of it as fully protected marine reserves.

“This is important not just for the incredible diversity of life that it will protect, but also for the contribution it makes to building the resilience of the world’s ocean in the face of climate change”.

Source: WWF

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Warmer ocean threatens California sea lion population

July 25, 2016
Photos of California sea lions

California sea lion harem at San Miguel Island rookery. Taken by Tony Orr (NOAA)

According to a recent Reuters article, biologists have reported worrying trends in the California sea lion population resulting from a warming ocean. This has seen both lower birth rates, and an alarming increase in young sea lions starving and being stranded on the beaches.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since January this year, already over 2,000, mostly young sea lions have been found either dead or dying on the southern and central coasts of California.

This is apparently over twice the average number of stranded animals considered normal, yet comes nowhere near the record 4,600 beached sea lions found in 2015, predominantly in the first half of that year. (Of those animals beached in 2015, rescue teams were able to rehabilitate and release 1,300. The rest were already dead when found or died during rehabilitation.)

Rather than seeing this year’s reduction in stranded sea lions as a positive sign, however, NOAA biologists have proposed that this fall may in fact be a consequence of the declining birthrate. Both phenomena are thought to be due to rising ocean temperatures along the Pacific Coast, which has caused increasing scarcity in the sea lion’s food supply of sardines, anchovy and squid.

The California sea lion population has been estimated to be around 300,000; however this was prior to the dramatic rise in beached animals which began in 2013, the overall impact of which has not yet been calculated.

In contrast to other sea lion populations, California sea lions are not yet considered too be a species at risk. Nevertheless, if continued for a decade or more, this trend could pose “pretty dire consequences,” said NOAA’s Jeff Laake. 

According to Laake, “It’s all nutrition-based.” 

Scarcity of food around the island rookeries off Southern California has lead nursing mothers to venture further afield to feed their pups, which in turn has meant young sea lions being left on their own for greater periods of time. 

Normally, the pups fast for several days while their mothers are away, however, with longer to wait, many malnourished pups and juveniles stray from the islands in search of food, before being caught up in currents and washed up on mainland beaches.

The reproductive cycle of these marine mammals has also been severely affected. NOAA figures from the Santa Barbara coast in the Channel Islands show a 40 percent fall in sea lion births between 2014 and 2015. According to Reuters, this is also due to food-related stresses on adult female sea lions. The more energy required to find prey, the harder it is for them to successfully breed or carry their pups to term.

The rise in sea temperatures has been linked to a decline in winds which help bring cooler, nutrition-rich water from the depths of the Pacific up closer to the surface. It is unclear how long these conditions will persist and experts have postulated that this situation may have been exacerbated by the recent El Niño impact. 

In 1983, another El Niño year, California sea lion pup numbers on all rookery islands in the Channel Islands declined between 30 – 71 percent, according to the NOAA, and it took another 6 years before the recorded total born and that survived equalled those recorded in 1982. 

Sources include: Reuters and NOAA

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Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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First whaling fleet leaves Japan since International Court ruling

April 29, 2014

Japanese fishing fleets have launched their first whaling hunt since UN courts called an end to the killing of whales in the Antarctic.

Four whaling ships set forth from the fishing town of Aykawa in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, north-eastern Japan on Saturday morning. Despite the International Court of Justice’s recent order for Japan to cease all research whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean, this whaling mission has gone ahead, towards the Sanriku coast, which is not covered by the International Court’s ruling.

Such ‘research whaling’ missions such as this one are intended to prove that the whale population is large enough to justify and sustain commercial hunting, hence its exclusion from the court ruling. However, some activists have suggested that the spring ‘research’ is nothing more than a way of continuing whaling through a loophole in the law.

The organizers of the whaling mission deliberated for some time over the specifics of the spring whaling event, eventually deciding  to proceed with research whaling this spring by cutting back on the number of mink whales to be caught by ten, from 61 to 51, due to the controversy surrounding the program.

The fleet’s departure marks the start of the country’s spring coastal whaling program, which has divided opinion across media across the world, attracting large amounts of criticism from anti-whaling countries such as Australia.

The scenes at the Ayukawa port, however, were far from hostile. In stark contrast to the departure of the wintertime Arctic hunt, which regularly sees violent protests from activists chasing down the fleet in an attempt to end the hunt, this weekend’s springtime departure was peaceful, with no protesters to be seen.

Japanese response to the International Court’s ruling was strongly mixed, falling ultimately in favour of the whaling fleets. Some Japanese governmental members dismissed the court’s ruling as nothing more than an example of cultural imperialism by the West, while local residents in Ayukawa expressed fears that the decision could ultimately ruin their livelihoods. Whaling forms a significant part of Japanese cultural heritage and economy, and is for many citizens a crucial source of income. Ayukawa was badly struck by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, and has been recovering ever since: many locals say that without whaling, the community’s entire existence would be put at risk.

“No matter what the (ICJ) court ruling was, all we can do is let everyone see that we’re still hanging in there,” said Koji Kato, a 22-year-old whaling crew member. “People from outside are saying a lot of things, but we want them to understand our perspective as much as possible. For me, whaling is more attractive than any other job.”

Tokyo has called off its next Antarctic hunt, scheduled for late 2014, and has said that it will be modifying the specifics of the mission in order to make it more scientific. But vessels would still go to the icy waters to carry out “nonlethal research,” raising the possibility that harpoon ships might return to the Antarctic the following year.

Sources include: Japan Times, Asahi Shinbun

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First river dolphin species in 100 years discovered in Brazil

January 24, 2014

River dolphins are some of the rarest creatures in the world. With only four species ever before discovered, of which one is already “functionally extinct”, and no new discoveries made since 1918, the revelation of a new species in Brazil has justly made headlines. But it seems that this new family is just as endangered as its relatives… 

Scientists working at the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, believe they have discovered a new species of river dolphin in the Araguaia river basin. After undertaking close analysis and DNA testing, the team found that a group of dolphins separated by a narrow canal and series of rapids, was a different species to the recognized Amazon river dolphin. The temporarily named “Araguaian boto” or “boto-do-Araguaia”, displayed stark genetic differences to its cousins, constituting “strong evidence that individuals from the Araguaia River represent a distinct biological group”. According to The Independent, the scientists’ research, published in the journal Plos One, suggests that the species most likely separated from other dolphin species more than two million years ago.

Studies of mitochondrial DNA showed that these two species shared no lineage. “The groups that we see, the haplotypes, are much more closely related to each other than they are to groups elsewhere. For this to happen, the groups must have been isolated from each other for a long time.”  said Dr Hrbek of the University. “The divergence we observed is larger than the divergences observed between other dolphin species”.

During observations of the area, which spanned 12 weeks, 120 dolphins were spotted. BBC News reported that the researchers estimate that there are about 1,000 of these creatures living in the river that flows northward for more than 2,600km to join the Amazon.

Sadly, this number is not enough to protect the species and researchers are now concerned about the future of the dolphin suggesting the new species should be categorised as Vulnerable on the Red List. Their study claims that human development is a problem:

“Since the 1960s the Araguaia river basin has been experiencing significant anthropogenic pressure via agricultural and ranching activities, and the construction of hydroelectric dams,” the authors write in their study.

“The dolphins are at the top of the line, they eat a lot of fish,” said Dr Hrbek. “They rob fishing nets so the fishermen tend to not like them, people shoot them.”

Let’s hope that these creatures do not suffer the same fate as its Chinese cousin the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji, which is believed to have gone extinct in about 2006 after a survey recorded no sightings.

Sources include: The Independent; BBC News

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81 elephants killed by poachers in Zimbabwean national park

September 27, 2013

Experts have confirmed that numerous of animals, including 81 animals, have died of cyanide poisoning by poachers in a game park in Zimbabwe.

A group of Zimbabwean government representatives visited Hwange National Park on Saturday when numerous reports of cyanide poisoning emerged. Today their fears were confirmed, as they verified that the deaths of the elephants, which are fast facing extinction by ivory poachers, were indeed caused by ingesting cyanide which had been put in places in the park where the elephants graze. Several other animals were also killed by the cyanide, although the total number is not yet known.

Poachers have long targeted the elephants for their tusks, which are highly prized in the illegal ivory trade. Sources suggest as many as 25,000 elephants were poached last year, which raises serious concerns for the species’ survival. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the species could become extinct in as little as 12 years if poaching continues at current rates.

In the aftermath of the cyanide poisonings, nine people have been arrested in connection with the incident, charged with the deliberate placing of cyanide nearby the elephants’ watering holes in the game park.

This is not the first case of poisoning the park has experienced – just two years ago, nine elephants, five lions and two buffalo died from ingesting cyanide in the Hwange National Park. However the scale of this week’s attack is unprecedented.

Workers at the park have long expressed the need for increased security in the park. The number of patrol rangers currently stands at 50, charged with the task of protecting 120,000 elephants and thousands of other animals in the 5,660 square mile park. Wildlife authorities say that ten times the amount of rangers are needed.

Sources include BBC News, Metro News

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