Chronic Nutrient Enrichment Increases Prevalence and Severity of Coral Disease and Bleaching

After exposing test plots in the Florida Keys, USA to increased nutrients (at levels equivalent to nutrient input from onshore sources), researchers found that increased nutrient levels led to increased prevalence and severity of coral diseases and coral bleaching. However, one year after nutrient enrichment stopped, there were no differences in bleaching or disease, indicating that coastal nutrients are increasing prevalence of bleaching and disease. Local scale nutrient input may worsen the effects of global stressors, so limiting nutrient input may be an important management tool for reducing threats to corals. This study is the first to show that nutrients can cause an increase of prevalence of disease or bleaching in the field. 

Vega Thurber, R.L., D.E. Burkepile, C. Fuchs, A.A. Shantz, R. McMinds, and J.R. Zaneveld
Year: 2013
View Abstract
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Global Change Biology 20(2): 544–554. doi:10.1111/gcb.12450

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Dive Against Debris

Participate in or join a Dive Against Debris event. Dates Vary.

Dive against debrisIn response to the onslaught of marine debris, one of the biggest ocean issues of our time, Project AWARE launched Dive Against Debris. Created by divers for divers, this global, underwater survey of rubbish is designed to increase debris removal efforts, prevent harm to marine life and connect your underwater actions to policy changes and prevention.

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Bonaire – Land-Based Pollution

Wastewater Treatment and Fishing Legislation in Bonaire

Bonaire National Marine Park, Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

The Challenge
Collectively, the island of Bonaire and the Ramsar areas of several satellite islands (Klein Bonaire and Lac) form the Bonaire National Marine Park (BNMP). The park encompasses 2,700 hectares of fringing coral reef, seagrass and mangrove ecosystems and contains diverse habitats from the shore to intertidal environments, and from coral reefs to deep water environments.

Bonaire1, caption: Bonaire National Marine Park contains diverse coral reef habitats. Photo © J.P. Carnevale

Bonaire National Marine Park contains diverse coral reef habitats. © J.P. Carnevale

Bleaching and hurricane events have affected this area in the past. Only mild bleaching occurred in association with the 1998 El Niño bleaching event, resulting in good recovery. In 1999, Hurricane Lenny affected the shallow reefs of the leeward side of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire; however recovery was similarly high, with recruitment rates 3.5 times higher than the rest of the Caribbean, and high survival rates. More recently, the 2005 and 2006 bleaching events resulted in bleaching of approximately 9% and 10%, respectively. However, in both events the recovery rate after the thermal stress subsided was almost 100%. After a bleaching event in 2010, 10% of corals bleached and died leading to a sharp decline in coral abundance in 2011. Combined with losses of herbivorous parrotfish to overfishing, this has led to an increase of macroalgae.

Aside from these natural disturbances, this region is threatened by pollution, coastal development, invasive species (lionfish and halophila seagrass) and growth in tourism activities.

Actions Taken
The mission of the Bonaire National Marine Park is to protect and manage the island’s natural, cultural and historical resources, while allowing ecologically sustainable use for the benefit of future generations. The BNMP strongly believes that the first step to ensure healthy and resilient corals is to protect water quality and reduce all stresses. Within this framework, the BNMP has been taking different conservation and management actions to address the distinct problems of overfishing, coastal development, pollution, and negative impacts of tourism.

Constructing the wastewater treatment plant. © Jan Jaap van Almenkerk

Constructing the wastewater treatment plant. © Jan Jaap van Almenkerk

In 2010, legislation was passed to improve environmental protection, and as of 2014 was still in place and starting to show improvements in the environment. The legislation includes protection of identified resilience factors like: full protection of herbivorous fishes, full protection of many carnivorous fishes, and stronger rules and regulations on fisheries. The new legislation also includes improvements in procedures for coastal construction and more stringent construction guidelines.

To address the documented decline in predator fishes like groupers, grunts and snappers, the BNMP started lobbying the government and different stakeholders in 2004 to create fish protected areas (FPAs). Within this lobbying work, a group of fishermen, dive operators, government officers and others stakeholders from St. Lucia visited Bonaire to explain to their counterparts how FPAs in Bonaire would benefit both fisherman and tourism operators. A few months later a group of fishermen, government officers, BNMP Rangers and tour operators visited St. Lucia with the same purpose. In 2008, after intensive negotiations, two FPAs were established on the leeward side on Bonaire, encompassing approximately 4 km of a no-take zone. In 2010 the harvest of parrotfish and use of fish traps were banned.

Coastal Development and Pollution
In addition to fishing pressures, Bonaire is experiencing rapid coastal development. To minimize the impact of construction practices, the BNMP developed an officially approved booklet of Construction Guidelines, together with the Department of Physical Planning, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the local waste management company, construction companies, land owners, developers, and local NGOs. The BNMP ran an intensive nutrient monitoring program during 2006-2008, and Nov. 2011- May 2013 that covered the entire leeside of Bonaire and all around Klein Bonaire. This nutrient monitoring program was run in cooperation with the Central Government, the Department of Physical Planning of Bonaire and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida. Preliminary data show that the levels of dissolved nitrogen are high and that the most probable cause is due to sewage and unsustainable irrigation practices in the coastal zone. To mitigate this sewage water input to the sea, the BNMP worked with resort operators to establish “water balances,” and to improve fresh water and waste water management. This work has ended with the establishment of a local sewer system.

With over four years of nutrient monitoring data indicating high levels of nutrients in the area, a wastewater treatment facility is under construction. The facility plant is designed to move wastewater away from the shoreline and is anticipated to be in operation by late 2014. A temporary plant is in place and has been operating since 2011 while construction continues on the main plant.

Bonaire3, caption: Bonaire National Marine Park's coral reef habitats are threatened by over-fishing, pollution, coastal development, tourism, and bleaching events. Photo © BNMP

Bonaire National Marine Park’s coral reef habitats are threatened by over-fishing, pollution, coastal development, tourism, and bleaching events. © BNMP

Dive tourism is an essential component of the economy of Bonaire, generating significant income and creating employment, and it is vital that dive operators and their clients are well educated about potential negative impacts and means of reducing them. In 2008, the BNMP developed a “Reef Ranger” course. This course has been mandatory since 2010 but not yet fully implemented. The goal of this program is to maximize active support for coral reef conservation by providing standardized training for dive staff, tailored to local circumstances. BNMP recognized that dive operators and divers can be natural ambassadors for coral reef conservation since they have a vested interest in maintaining healthy and diverse marine ecosystems.

Effective communication is also a fundamental goal of Stichting Nationale Pareken (STINAPA) Bonaire, which successfully manages two nature parks of Bonaire National Marine Park and Washington Slagbaai National Park. Communication with the general public and stakeholder groups is a main priority for the BNMP, prompted by a group of residents who indicated a decrease of awareness and involvement, and no sense of ownership of the BNMP. As a result, an on-going communication campaign titled “Nature is our livelihood,” was developed to provide knowledge and change attitudes about conservation issues. Providing adequate information concerning the importance of nature conservation and the sustainable development of Bonaire was considered of utmost importance. The campaign has been successful in some areas and is currently undergoing an evaluation.

How successful has it been?

Monitoring has taken place regularly since 2003 in Bonaire. The ban on fishing of parrotfish (and use of fish traps) has led to an increase in parrotfish population density and biomass after 2011, and, despite a decrease in coral abundance due to bleaching, coral cover began to increase again (while macroalgae cover decreased) in 2013. Perhaps due to an increase in predation, Diadema urchin populations have decreased.

Coastal Development and Pollution
A temporary water treatment plant was built on Bonaire and began operation in late 2011, and a second will be in operation in late 2014. It is estimated that a total of 17.5 to 35 tons of nitrogen a year will be removed from waste water. However, recent nutrient monitoring in late 2013 showed that water quality indicators on the west coast of Bonaire signal eutrophic conditions, though levels of nitrogen have been decreasing slightly. Some sampled sites had high levels of fecal bacteria numbers, and increasing levels of phosphorous. Generally, sampling has showed a slight improvement since 06-08 values, but nutrients remain at threshold levels.

A strong conservation ethic persists in Bonaire, mainly due to the large revenue from tourism focused on SCUBA diving and snorkeling. The focus of this environmental work has been on local people rather than tourism, although tourism has increased in the last few years.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
Lessons learned and some key recommendations include:

  • Involvement of key stakeholders is critical. No conservation plan will succeed long term without complete support of interested parties.
  • Involve all stakeholders from the beginning; demonstrate that what you want to implement (with their help) has unique value, and that they are the beneficiaries of this plan/action.
  • Set up an implementation plan (simple is better), discuss it with the stakeholders when ready make it public, and follow it step-by-step with little improvisation.
  • Once the plan is implemented, inform stakeholders about news of progress as well as failures. Transparency is critical!
  • Create clear rules, laws and procedures. People are more willing to support what they understand and trust.
  • Communication campaigns can help provide updated information to the general public and government officers.
  • The development of Integrated Coastal Management can reduce the amount of stressors on the reef to improve resilience to future climate change.
  • The development of a course similar to the “Reef Ranger” program can improve the sustainable practices of reef divers and other water sport practitioners.

Funding Summary

Lead Organizations
Bonaire National Marine Park

Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment
Ministry of Economic Affairs
DROB—NMB (Local environmental planning department)
Sea Turtle Conservation of Bonaire
Council of Underwater Resource Operators
The Nature Conservancy

Bonaire construction guidelines formulated by the BNMP, Department of Physical Planning, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the local waste management company, construction companies, land owners, developers, and local NGOs.

Results of the nutrient monitoring program, conducted in cooperation with the Central Government, the Department of Physical Planning of Bonaire, and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

Bonaire National Marine Park Management (pdf)

Coral Reef Resilience Assessment of the Bonaire National Marine Park (pdf)

Status and Trends of Bonaire’s Reefs in 2013: Causes for Optimism

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Palau – Land-Based Pollution

Community Support for Watershed Management Leads to Ridges to Reefs Protection in Palau

Palau, Micronesia

Rock Islands, Palau. © Stephanie Wear (TNC)

Rock Islands, Palau. © Stephanie Wear (TNC)

The Challenge
Palau is located approximately 800 km east of the Philippines, and consists of a series of islands approximately 459 km2 in total size. Palau’s coral reefs are considered to be one of the “Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.” Located on the northeastern margin of the “coral triangle,” Palau’s coral reefs have both high species diversity and high habitat diversity. Palau’s reefs contain more than 350 species of hard corals, 200 species of soft corals, 300 species of sponges, 1,300 species of reef fish, and endangered species such as the dugong, saltwater crocodile, sea turtles, and giant clams. In addition to Palau’s diverse marine resources, it has the highest terrestrial biodiversity of all countries in Micronesia.

Coral bleaching during the 1998 bleaching event was as high as 90% at some sites, with average mortality reaching 30%. Following the bleaching event, the construction of a ring road around Babledaob Island (the largest Palauan Island) began. The road construction led to widespread clearing of forest and mangroves, causing soil erosion into rivers and coastal waterways that impacted seagrass beds and coral reefs. At the same time, Palauans started noticing declining coral reef health and fish stocks, and degraded quality of freshwater resources. Studies conducted by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) revealed that the degradation of reefs was a direct result of land-based sediments, which cause reduced coral cover, lower coral recruitment, and excessive growth of algae. Reefs in Airai Bay, a lagoon on the southeastern end of Babeldaob, were particularly affected by sediment.

Palau's coral reefs have both high species and high habitat diversity. Assessing the biodiversity of the area was a step in the development of the Protected Area Network. Photo © Paul Marshall

Palau’s coral reefs have both high species and high habitat diversity. Assessing the biodiversity of the area was a step in the development of the Protected Area Network. © Paul Marshall

Actions Taken
Research on reefs that were impacted by bleaching and land-based sediments brought greater awareness of ecosystem connectivity, which shifted the conservation efforts in Palau to entire watershed areas. PICRC scientists presented their findings to communities in Babeldaob as evidence of the importance of terrestrial ecosystems in protecting coastal water quality and coral reef health. In response, community members lobbied the governing body of Airai state, the second-most populated state in Palau, to ban the clearing of mangroves, which act as important buffers between the marine environment and terrestrial runoff.

It has always been easy to captivate interest in marine conservation because of close connection of Palauans to fish that provide a source of protein to feed Palauan families. However, there has been a lag in terrestrial conservation efforts because of limited interest in conserving forests. As a result of research showing impacts of land clearing on soil erosion, water quality, and the subsequent impact on coastal marine environments, Palauans began to see the need to protect forests. However, the need was seen as important because of the threat to the marine environment. Not until the discussion was about protecting fresh water for water security was a strong connection between Palauans and the terrestrial system made. The recognition that surface water contributes to water security and does not respect political boundaries led traditional and elected leaders to come together to discuss how they could ensure water security for their communities. The creation of the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance (BWA) successfully merged the interests of communities, government agencies, conservation practitioners, and traditional leaders to protect entire watershed areas that ultimately protect the water source.

The creation of the BWA was an effort of young conservation practitioners who saw the need to conserve terrestrial systems. These young champions enlisted the guidance of Paramount Chief Reklai of Melekeok, who then inspired Chief Ngirturong of Ngermelnegui State, and the adjacent state. The two traditional Chiefs and the elected leaders of the two States established the largest terrestrial protected area that protects the water source for both States. After seeing the successes of this effort, other States began to join the Alliance and establish terrestrial protected areas within their States to protect water sources. Today, 9 of the 10 states in Babledaob are now a member of the Alliance.

How Successful has it been?
Prior to the formation of the BWA and its conservation efforts, there was only one terrestrial protected area, Lake Ngardok. As a result of the efforts by BWA to raise awareness and assist local communities to establish terrestrial protected areas, there are now eight additional protected areas with a total coverage of 25.2 km2.

A major success of the the BWA was the signing of ‘Master Cooperative Agreements’ between several states on Babeldaob, which identify collective conservation goals and incentives for progress toward these goals. Other major outcomes include the establishment of new terrestrial protected areas and completion of several community-level land management plans. The BWA has also improved communication between local communities and government agencies and conservation organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT), allowing for better coordination and streamlined assistance to meet local priorities.

The BWA was instrumental in engaging with 9 Babeldaob States through Conservation Action Planning (CAP), which identified important conservation targets, threats, and key strategies for addressing these threats. Through the efforts of the BWA and with support from The Nature Conservancy and the Palau Conservation Society, all these sites used the action plan that resulted from the CAP to draft and finalize management plans for these sites. This has allowed them to access funding from the Green Fee through the Protected Area Office and Protected Area Network Fund. The Alliance (now titled the Belau Watershed Alliance) continues to assist these sites, through working with various partners to build organizational and management capacity to manage these sites.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Relevance to livelihood—Conservation targets must be linked to quality of life with the focus shifted away from species and ecosystem conservation towards protecting community culture and way of life. This shift is significant in that the BWA found natural allies in the traditional chiefs who, despite the modern democratic government, are still widely recognized as stewards of all commonly shared resources and defenders of the Palauan culture and way of life.
  • Leadership —Identification of an individual who can act as project champion is key. The charismatic leadership of High Chief Reklai added credibility and authority to the BWA’s message and engaged the traditional leaders of other states to rise to the same challenge.
  • Relevant and sound science—Available and effective communication of sound scientific information is essential. The scientific data documenting the negative impacts of sediment on coral reef communities increased awareness in some and empowered many others by validating what they were already seeing on their reefs.
  • Awareness of social, cultural and political context—Palau, much like other small cultures in a modernizing world, has complex, sometimes subtle, but often intersecting social, cultural and political landscapes. Understanding and navigating through this complexity is not always given enough emphasis in conservation projects. In the case of the BWA, young local conservation practitioners who understood the science and the culture were able to communicate the scientific information and leverage community support.
  • Reducing/managing land based source of stress to the marine environment will help build resilience of the reefs through rapid recovery following major natural disturbances.
  • Healthy herbivore populations on the reefs will facilitate coral recovery through high recruitment and post recruitment survival.

Funding Summary
The Nature Conservancy
The Wallis Foundation
Government of Palau (in kind)
Palau International Coral Reef Center (in kind)
German Lifeweb
NOAAUS Fish and Wildlife Service

Lead Organizations
The Government of the Republic of Palau
Ministry of Resources and Development

The Nature Conservancy
Palau Automated Land and Resources Information System (PALARIS)
Other government offices: Bureau of Agriculture, Bureau of Marine Resources
Coral Reef Research Foundation
Palau International Coral Reef Center
Palau Conservation Society
Belau Watershed Alliance (BWA) (formerly the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance)

Biodiversity Planning for Palau’s Protected Areas Network, An Ecoregional Assessment (pdf)

Impacts of Riparian Forest Removal on Palauan Streams

Trapping of Fine Sediment in a Semi-enclosed Bay, Palau, Micronesia

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Modelling Coral Reef Futures to Inform Management: Can Reducing Local-Scale Stressors Conserve Reefs under Climate Change?

A lack of understanding of the impacts of multiple stressors on coral reefs in a changing climate and the most effective management strategies was addressed in a recent paper using a simulation model. Researchers validated the model at four sites in Bolinao, the Philippines. The future reef state was projected for each site 40 years into the future under varying scenarios of cumulative impacts of poor water quality, fishing, and bleaching mortality. Management of water quality and fishing were found to have a significant impact on future reef condition. Simulated coral recovery following mortality caused by bleaching was highest at the least degraded sites and sites with the least impact from stressors. Poor water quality alone had a larger effect on overall reef state than the individual effect of fishing and bleaching. The authors highlight the importance to management of considering impacts of multiple stressors rather than considering them individually. For coral reef managers, the take away message is that managing local-scale stressors is critical to the future persistence of coral reefs in a changing climate.

Author: Gurney, G.G., J. Melbourne-Thomas, R.C. Geronimo, P.M. Alino, and C.R. Johnson
Year: 2013
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PLoS ONE 8(11): e80137. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080137

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Are U.S. Coral Reefs on the Slippery Slope to Slime?

This article has received significant attention from researchers, managers, and the public. It is a bit controversial and the doom and gloom picture presented may or may not most accurately describe the current state of affairs. Regardless, the paper draws attention to issues of coral reef decline as part of Science’s Policy Forum. The author’s vision of how to reverse coral reef decline in the United States requires addressing multiple threats at the same time. Numerous responses to this paper are available in the 17 June 2005 Science issue (Volume 308).

Author: Pandolfi, J. M., J.B.C. Jackson, N. Baron, R.H. Bradbury, H.M. Guzman, T.P. Hughes, C.V. Kappel, F. Micheli, J.C. Ogden, H.P. Possingham, and E. Sala
Year: 2005
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Science 307: 1725-1726. doi: 10.1126/science.1104258

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Relating Landscape Development Intensity to Coral Reef Condition in the Watersheds of St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

This study relates coral reef condition to human modifications of the landscape. Stony coral community richness, cover, colony size, and density were assessed along with 3-dimensional coral cover in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, in 2006 and 2007. Land use/land cover data (LULC) and a landscape development intensity (LDI) index, an indicator of human activity calculated from the LULC data, were used to explore relationships with coral indicators. Human activity, measured by the LDI index, was negatively correlated with various indicators of coral condition, including taxa richness, colony size, and colony density. The LDI index is an effective landscape indicator of human impact on St. Croix corals, highlighting the link between land-based human activity and marine ecosystems.

The finding of a negative correlation between the watershed LDI index and coral condition indicators is consistent with expectations that higher human land-use activity adversely affects coral condition. The strength and significance of the relationships from this exploratory examination reveal a strong potential for this approach to demonstrate the cumulative effect of human watershed stressors on coral reef ecosystems.

Author: Oliver, L.M., J.C. Lehrter, and W.S. Fisher
Year: 2011
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Marine Ecology Progress Series 427: 293-302. doi:10.3354/meps09087

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Global Gradients of Coral Exposure to Environmental Stresses and Implications for Local Management

In this study, researchers aimed to identify global spatial gradients of thermal and eutrophication stressors, and the key factors that reduce these stressors, to develop a broad-scale metric of environmental exposure for coral reefs. Main considerations of this research included assessing which stressors corals are most exposed to in their respective locations and how these stresses interact with reinforcing and reducing variables. Researchers used combinations of stressors and used them to evaluate 12 oceanic provinces. Results of this study indicated that corals in all 12 provinces were highly exposed to radiation and reinforcing stress, with spatial variability within regions. Results also showed that sedimentation and eutrophication are common in all regions but differ in intensity and co-occurrence with radiation and reducing stressors. Despite radiation stress being dominant, most reef locations are expected to be less severely affected if sedimentation and eutrophication are managed. Effective local management requires moving reefs that are moderately exposed to climate related stress towards low reinforcing conditions through improved water quality. 

Author: Maina, J., T.R. McClanahan, V. Venus, M. Ateweberhan, J. Madin
Year: 2011
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PLoS ONE 6(8): e23064. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023064

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