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#469356 - 08/01/13 06:34 AM Expedition to investigate Caribbean coral reef
Marty Offline

New expedition to investigate Caribbean endangered coral reef ecosystems

The SVII in the Caribbean Sea being piloted by Anjani Ganase as part of the Catlin Seaview Suvey

The Catlin Seaview Survey, sponsored by international insurer Catlin Group Limited, has announced a massive expansion of its study of coral reefs with a new campaign in the Caribbean and Bermuda. The program – which will significantly widen opportunities for ocean, coral and climate scientists to understand the changes that are occurring within the region – starts in Belize and moves on to Mexico, Bermuda, Anguilla, St Vincent, Guadeloupe, Turks and Caicos and The Bahamas.

Coral reefs in the Caribbean, like elsewhere, are under growing environmental stress. Being highly sensitive to environmental change, corals are considered the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. Exploitation, pollution, warming waters and increased storms linked with climate change has caused the massive loss of corals across the Caribbean Sea over the last 50 years.

Losing coral reefs in this fashion has long-term implications for Caribbean economies given their dependence on coral reefs and other marine ecosystems for goods, services and economic welfare. According to the World Resources Institute, the value of shoreline protection services provided by Caribbean reefs is between $700 million and $2.2 billion per year. Within the next 50 years, continuing coral degradation and death could lead to losses totaling $140 million to $420 million annually.

“We are committed to understanding the future risks posed by climate change,” said Stephen Catlin, chief executive of sponsor Catlin Group Limited. “It is not only important that scientists have access to this valuable data, but companies such as ours must understand the impact that significant changes to our environment will have on local economies.”

A Scientific Race against Time

Coral reefs globally are in an unprecedented state of decline due to pollution, overfishing and climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict increasing frequency and severity of mass bleaching events over the coming years. As the Catlin Seaview Survey embarks on a race against time to survey the coral reefs of the world, the Caribbean serves as an ideal launching point to take the campaign global because of the stress already experienced by its reefs.

“The Caribbean was chosen to launch the global mission because it is at the frontline of risk. Over the last 50 years, 80 percent of the corals in many places in the Caribbean have disappeared because of coastal development and pollution. They now are also threatened by invasive species, climate change and ocean acidification – it’s the perfect storm,” said Richard Vevers, project director for the Catlin Seaview Survey.

It is expected the state of the Caribbean reefs will provide insights into the future prospects for coral reefs in other regions of the world. Specifically, the new survey will focus on four major scientific goals:

Change detection – creating a Caribbean-wide ecological baseline: Accurate measurements of the current state of the coral reefs in the Caribbean are crucial to support timely decisions about their management.

Understand stress within the Caribbean – when, where and how much? The Catlin Seaview Survey team will use direct measurements as well as information from NOAA and NASA satellite systems to understand how patterns in the health of coral reefs (e.g. coral cover, reef complexity) are influenced by local and global stressors such as changes in sea temperature, coastal pollution, fishing intensity, and exposure to wave stress and storms. This will fill in critical gaps in our understanding of why coral reefs have been in decline over the past 50 years.

Understanding climate change vulnerability: Develop deeper insights into mesophotic (deep-water) coral reef communities: The Catlin Seaview Survey’s work during 2012 on the Great Barrier Reef has revealed that mesophotic coral reefs may play an essential role in regenerating shallow water reef systems. The Survey will gather a more comprehensive understanding of the threat of climate change to coral reefs in the Caribbean by using similar techniques and technologies to map mesophotic coral reefs in the region and to investigate the genetic connectedness of those reefs to shallow water reef systems.

Produce new tools for understanding changes in tropical reef systems: Rapid, semi-automated and rigorous surveys of coral reefs are essential for developing an understanding of the rates of change, vulnerability and priorities for management intervention. To aid in the Survey’s campaign, a new camera has been developed; the SVII-S is a lighter-weight version of the main SVII camera that can be operated by a single diver, allowing dive team members to cover extra survey areas.

Scientific Collaborators

The Catlin Seaview Survey has teamed up with the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland in Australia and Davey Kline, a project scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Kline and other Scripps collaborators are working with the Global Change Institute to develop autonomous assessments of the hundreds of thousands panoramic images taken of the reefs within the Caribbean using their sophisticated semi-automated image recognition software to analyse the percent coverage of the main benthic organisms (e.g. corals, algae, other invertebrates) in the photographs. Analysis of such a large data set of photographs would not be possible without a semi-automated computer analysis system.

“These relationships are essential to the success of the research program,” said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, chief scientist of the Catlin Seaview Survey. “By collecting and analysing images in a semi-autonomous fashion, the research project can cover huge distances. This has never been done before.”

Climate Change and Implications for the Insurance Industry

Five hundred million people worldwide rely on coral reefs for food, tourism, economic stability and shoreline protection. When reefs are harmed or destroyed due to climate change and regional drivers, the effects can be devastating and far-reaching. There is a shift in the insurance industry; evaluating and helping clients minimise risk is critical to business, the assessment of the impact of climate change is a natural extension for the future of the insurance industry.

The Geneva Association, the international association for the study of insurance economics, recently released a report, Warming of the Oceans and Implications for the (Re) Insurance Industry, highlighting how climate change has affected the warming of oceans and the correlating effect on the insurance industry’s risk assessment strategies. The report highlights three main drivers of change:

Greater Volumes of Water = Greater Risk: Not only do rising sea levels increase the risk of flooding or the potential impact of storm surges, but they also decrease the protective lifespan of coastal infrastructure. While the probability of a storm is not increased, the damage caused by one is.

Warmer Ocean = More Water in the Atmosphere: A warmer atmosphere contains more water and therefore more energy. This has the potential to increase the intensity of extreme events and associated precipitation. This greater intensity increases the loss potential of natural catastrophes.

Effect on Large-Scale Climate Patterns: The warming of the oceans is also likely to affect large-scale climate patterns such as El Niño, various monsoon systems or the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Caribbean News Now

#469420 - 08/02/13 04:43 AM Re: Expedition to investigate Caribbean coral reef [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Shifting Baselines: Why the Environment Is Even Worse Off Than You Think

When it comes to the ocean, we don't know how good we used to have it.

I had a chance to tag along this past weekend in Belize with a team from the Catlin Seaview Survey as they began their underwater assessment of the endangered coral reefs of the Caribbean. You can read about the project—which is using panoramic underwater cameras and machine vision to digitize the oceans—over here. It’s very cool stuff, done in conjunction with Google Earth.

As part of my reporting, I dove with the team in the waters above Glover’s Reef, which is part of Belize’s protected Hol Chan marine reserve. (I know, environmental reporters have a tough life.) The water was warm and blue, and the varied coral to my eye looked abundant and healthy, with intricate, boulder-size brain coral, jagged fire coral and majestic elkhorn coral. There wasn’t quite as much sealife as I’d been hoping to see, though  brilliantly-colored parrotfish swam among the coral, and I just missed glimpses of sea turtles and even a rare hammerhead shark. To me it was a beautiful dive, a gorgeous coral reef. It was what the oceans should be.

And it was nothing like it used to be. Coral cover in Glover’s Reef  dropped from 80% in 1971 to 13% in 1999. There’s been some recovery in the years since, thanks in part to the establishment of a large “no-take” protected area within the reef, and as a result Glover’s  is one of the healthiest coral ecosystems in the Caribbean. But that’s in many ways a reflection of how degraded the rest of the Caribbean—and coral reefs around the world—have become, thanks to pollution, coastal development, overfishing and climate change. Outside of parts of the South Pacific, too remote yet to be impacted by human activity, coral reefs are nothing like they used to be. The bewildering abundance, the sheer mass and variety of sealife that the first scuba divers would have encountered decades ago is long gone. We’re trying to protect a shadow of what once was—even though to me, floating among the coral of Glover’s Reef and straining for a view of that elusive hammerhead shark, it all seemed so perfect.

(MORE: Antarctica Melted in the Past, and As the Climate Warms, It’s Poised to Melt Again)

It turns there’s a scientific term for this feeling: shifting baselines. The fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined it in 1995 to describe how overfishing has changed the ocean so rapidly over the past several decades that what we think of as normal and healthy—the baseline—has had to shift to keep up with reality. Our picture of the environment becomes skewed, as we forget what used to be and adjust unconsciously to a diminished present.

Pauly explained the concept in a 2010 TED talk filmed on a  expedition to the Galapagos organized by the oceanographer Sylvia Earle—another trip I was lucky enough to be part of:

We transform the world, but we don’t remember it. We adjust our baseline to the new level,and we don’t recall what was there. If you generalize this, something like this happens. You have on the y axis some good thing: biodiversity, numbers of orca, the greenness of your country, the water supply. And over time it changes — it changes because people do things, or naturally. Every generation will use the images that they got at the beginning of their conscious lives as a standard and will extrapolate forward. And the difference then, they perceive as a loss. But they don’t perceive what happened before as a loss. You can have a succession of changes. At the end you want to sustain miserable leftovers. And that, to a large extent, is what we want to do now. We want to sustain things that are gone or things that are not the way they were.

Ocean science is particularly vulnerable to this effect because we still know so little about the state of the deep now—and even less about the way it was decades or centuries ago. Reliable global fishing statistics only go back to about mid-century, and it was only around the same time that scientists began to be able to explore the underwater oceans in depth. But underwater pictures and film from decades ago are rare, and there’s little hard, original baseline data—which is why that baseline shifts so easily. The best evidence of how the oceans have changed over that time period is found in the memories of the veteran scientists and divers who have actually seen the transition over the course of their lifetimes—people like Earle, who has been diving and studying the oceans since the 1950s, and Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Jackson has studied the coral reefs around Jamaica for decades, and over that time, he’s seen that ecosystem destroyed by development and pollution. But someone diving today in Jamaican waters—and thousands of people do every year—would have no idea what they were missing, just as I can’t imagine what a pristine Glover’s Reef might have looked like decades ago. The present—diminished as it may be—is my baseline.

(MORE: Breaking the Waves: Catlin Seaview Survey Digitizes the Endangered Oceans)

That’s what makes the work of the Catlin survey so valuable. Over the course of several years, the group aims to build reliable, broad baseline data about the health of coral reefs around the world. That’s something that only became possible within the last few years, as underwater cameras became capable of taking thousands of pictures at a time and computer programs were written to analyze those images more than a hundred times faster than a human being could. The work is being done just in time—coral reefs have already degraded significantly, but as coastal population continues to grow and climate change takes its toll, coral will come under even more pressure in the future. By developing a firm baseline picture of the state of corals now, in 2013, we’ll have a reliable reference as they change in the future. The baseline will be fixed.

Still, I can’t help wondering if there’s a psychological value to shifting baselines. We live in an era of unprecedented and rapid environmental change—change that’s happening faster than our brains, which evolved over a period when stasis was the norm, might be able handle. By moving the baselines, by resetting our memories, we can cope with that change—with that decay, really. We can convince ourselves that the sea is clear, the coral is vibrant and it’s all not slipping away.

[UPDATE: Don't end this piece thinking that the situation is entirely hopeless—though there's been more environmental decline than most of us are aware of, actions can and have made a difference. A new study in Conservation Letters that looked at reefs in Belize found that instituting "no-take" policies in marine reserves can help make affected coral reefs much more resilient to future threats. Corals are six times more likely to regrow after a stressful event if parrotfish are protecting from fishing. Parrotfish are herbivores, and they keep seaweed in check that would otherwise crowd out growing corals. "If we ensure that corals are still able to regrow and reproduce, then even when they die, they'll be able to replenish themselves," says Peter Mumby, a coral ecologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Pew Marine Fellow who was the lead author on the paper. "It keeps the door open for adaptation." Just because the baselines are shifting beneath our feet doesn't mean that we're helpless.]




#469481 - 08/03/13 07:03 AM Re: Expedition to investigate Caribbean coral reef [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline


Last year we were suitably shocked by news that Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef had lost over half of its coral in the past 27 years. The loss is attributed to tropical cyclones (48%) coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (43%) and coral bleaching (10%).

A recent survey on Caribbean coral reefs provides even worse results: an 80% loss in recent years. The Catlin Survey measured reefs in waters off Belize, Mexico, Bermuda, Anguilla, St. Vincent, Guadeloupe, Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas.

From the Guardian:

The Caribbean was chosen to launch the global mission because it is at the frontline of risk. Over the last 50 years 80% of the corals have been lost due mainly coastal development and pollution. They now are also threatened by invasive species, global warming and the early effects of ocean acidification — it’s the perfect storm

–Richard Vevers, director, Catlin Survey

lionfish caribbean invasive Survey: Caribbean coral reefs show 80% loss

An invasive lionfish photographed in Curaçao. Pic: Lazlo Ilyes (Flickr CC)

Loss of coral reefs impacts greatly on the ecology and economy of the Caribbean and already has done so for nearly 100 years – people just haven’t really been paying attention. That’s one of the problems with environmental degradation, it often happens gradually and unobserved. But if we, for example, could see what our oceans were like 30, 50 or 100 years ago we would be shocked. They used to be teeming with fish and other life. Imagine a rich, diverse underwater eco-system that was in some places 10x more packed with coral and sea life than what people are currently oohing and aahhing about on their scuba diving vacations.

A piece in Time Magazine explains:

It turns there’s a scientific term for this feeling: shifting baselines. The fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined it in 1995 to describe how overfishing has changed the ocean so rapidly over the past several decades that what we think of as normal and healthy—the baseline—has had to shift to keep up with reality. Our picture of the environment becomes skewed, as we forget what used to be and adjust unconsciously to a diminished present.

So what’s to be done? Stop polluting with excessive chemicals and sewage for one. Cut down on global greenhouse gas emissions for another (like that’s gonna happen). Some conservationists are urging people to catch and eat lionfish, an invasive species from the Pacific that has ended up in the Caribbean due to the pet trade. As cool as these spiny tropical fish look, they just eat everything in their path including animals vital to coral health. Unfortunately they need to be caught with nets and their spines pack a sting.

Scientists will further research the causes of all the coral loss in the Caribbean, but I think we can safely guess that it’s mostly our fault.

Read the official press release of the Catlin Seaview.

#469886 - 08/09/13 06:30 AM Re: Expedition to investigate Caribbean coral reef [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Reef Survey shows good news for Belize

The Catlin Seaview Survey is organized by the University of Queensland and promoted by the Catlin Insurance Company. It is a global campaign and a race against time to study coral reef. In the Caribbean reef health has declined and that is why the marine scientists from the group have targeted the region. So far the Seaview survey has taken place in Belize and Bermuda. Manuel Gonzalez, a marine scientist, says that there has been an improvement in the overall health of the Belize Barrier Reef, but the same can’t be said for the rest of the region.

Manuel Gonzalez, Marine Scientist

“It looks at how to take images to document reef at this stage and generate a global baseline of reef to rapidly suggest to people and stakeholders about regimes.”

Jose Sanchez

“The survey at this point will look at the Caribbean region. You’ve looked at Bermuda and Belize so far. What has been the result between those two countries?”

Manuel Gonzalez

“Belize is in an amazing state. The Mesoamerican barrier reef is the most prominent in the region. We’ve seen areas in a very good condition and there are working towards progress, but some areas are not so good. So we still have some areas with the potential to become better in the future.”

Jose Sanchez

“There was an impression that our reef was in decline in the past few years.”

Manuel Gonzalez

Manuel Gonzalez

“Even in decline, fortunately the Caribbean reef had gone from around sixty percent to about around ten percent in the last thirty-forty years. So that is why the campaign came straight to the Caribbean to come up with solutions and baselines that can actually advise as quickly as possible how to preserve the reef.”

Jose Sanchez

“And this is because of the degree in temperature change in the Caribbean that’s very notable right?”

Manuel Gonzalez

“There have been changes in temperature and also hurricanes, but there is also a local impact on reef. Reefs are being overfished and being polluted for a long time and the combination or sea-state temperatures, hurricanes and local impact is what have been causing the short decline on coral reef.”

Jose Sanchez

“The local impact, does it take into account tourists maybe from cruise ships who go out and venture on the reef itself?”

Manuel Gonzalez

“Well tourists are the main users of the reef, but the impact of the cruise ships relate more to the dragging and ports where they can anchor. So fortunately there are not many accesses in the barrier reef here and the les impact we have in there, the better off for the reef.”

Jose Sanchez

“You mentioned advice. What would be the advice for Belize and where you are off to next?”

Manuel Gonzalez

“Belize is going one step ahead of many other countries in the region. They’ve already banned pirate fishing. We wouldn’t be able to come out with the right decisions at the moment since we just came out the field. The local foundations here is going for that. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is perhaps one of the most organized regions. We are just going to come back again with our images and suggest areas that haven’t been targeted for all the conservation regimes.”

The marine scientists have moved onto Mexico. When the survey is complete, it will be uploaded to an open access database which will be shared with affected communities so they can develop strategies to offset or slow the damage. 

Channel 5

#469889 - 08/09/13 06:53 AM Re: Expedition to investigate Caribbean coral reef [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Breaking the Waves: Catlin Seaview Survey Digitizes the Endangered Oceans

Together with Google, a scientific expedition is exploring endangered coral reefs, producing baseline data about ocean health—and breathtaking panoramic images of the world below.

Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero operates the SVII underwater camera over Glover's Reef in Belize

Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet—and for most of us, that’s where the story ends. Our knowledge goes only as deep as the shimmering surface, even though the oceans in their full volume provide 90% of the habitable space on the planet. More than 95% of the underwater world remains unseen by human beings. It’s as if you tried to explore the entire land mass of Earth and only made it as far as Australia. It’s a great continent, but there’s a whole lot more out there.

Still, there’s a reason why we  know more about our local solar system than we do about the waters beneath us. Underwater ocean exploration is expensive, difficult and sometimes dangerous. The glimpses scientists do get of the undersea world are all too brief ones, just slices of time and space that offer only a glimpse of an ocean system that has enormous impact on the planet in everything from the food we eat to the way the climate is changing. Last year the director James Cameron made news by becoming the first person in decades to dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot on the planet, in a sub of his own design. Our understanding and management of the oceans is “very data poor,” as David Kline of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography puts it.

All of which is why Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero found himself floating in the Caribbean Sea off the Central American country of Belize, as his colleagues stood in a bobbing fishing boat, trying to ensure that a very expensive underwater camera didn’t get dinged as they lowered it into the seas. Gonzalez-Rivero is a coral ecologist at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute in Australia, but he was in Belize this past weekend working with the Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientific expedition that is trying to assess threatened coral reefs around the world with a level of unprecedented scope and detail. The camera is the SVII, and it’s actually three separate cameras, mounted at the end of a six-foot long pole and attached to a propeller sled. The propellers saved Gonzalez-Rivero the work of swimming as he covered about 1.25 miles of varied underwater terrain here on Belize’s protected Glover’s Reef, part of the vast Mesoamerican reef that stretches from southern Honduras to the eastern tip of Mexico.

The custom-designed SVII has lens facing to the left, right and below, and all three snap pictures of their surroundings automatically every three seconds. Over the course of his dive Gonzalez-Rivero will produce more than 900 detailed images of the reef below him, each one rich with data about coral structure and sealife. Those images will be processed to produced a precise 3-D image of the reef, and later computers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography will crunch the data and analyze the coral structure, allowing scientists to diagnose the health of one of the most valuable marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. What’s long been possible on land thanks to satellites eyeing rainforests and deserts will now be doable beneath the waves. “We’ll be able to see the reef as it is,” Gonzalez-Rivero tells me later on the sailing catamaran his team is using as a floating base.

The Catlin Seaview Survey—the name comes from the Catlin insurance company, the chief sponsor of the expedition—was launched about a year ago, with the team first tackling the vast Great Barrier Reef off the northeastern coast of Australia. Begun by Richard Vevers—a former advertising executive turned underwater photographer—Seaview is nothing if not ambitious. Over the course of several years, it aims to survey every major coral reef system in the world, providing broad scientific data about marine ecosystems that are as vital to a healthy ocean as they are threatened by overfishing, pollution and climate change. “By creating a really large global baseline of coral health, we can identify the areas that really need protecting,” says Vevers.

It’s not just about the science, though. The images taken by the SVII as it glides over a reef can be stitched together to create 360 degree vistas of the undersea world, the kind that would have only been available before through the eyes of a scuba diver. Seaview has been working with Google to bring the company’s Street View map function beneath the water—you can see some of the panoramic images from the waters off the Great Barrier Reef’s Heron Island here. Vevers knows that most people will never visit the ocean, let alone scuba dive in the tropics and see a living coral reef. The images created by the Seaview will be the next best thing. “The main reason for setting this up is to show people the oceans of the world as they are,” says Vevers. “We want to give them the real experience of diving.”

Seaview just launched its Caribbean expedition, beginning in Belize. The video below shows what a dive with the SVII looks like, stitched together with time-lapse photography.

The oceans, and especially the deep, have always been a challenge for conservationists because they are so removed from everyday life. Viewed from above the waves, a healthy coral reef and a dying one look much the same. The images brought back by Seaview—viewable by anyone with an Internet connection—could begin to change that. If you can dial up a view of your closest reef on Google Earth the way you can zero in on your childhood home, we might begin to notice what’s happening to the 70% of the planet covered by water.

And make no mistake—the ocean, and especially the coastal coral reefs, are in trouble. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest such system, has lost more than half its coral cover since 1985. Over the last half-century, some 80% of the corals in much of the Caribbean have died off because of pollution and development. As the climate changes, warming the oceans and causing the water to become relatively more acidic, corals will come under even more pressure. Researchers in the journal Environmental Research Letters recently predicted that if carbon emissions continued rising unchecked, most coral reefs would be all but dead by the end of the century. That would have dire implications for sealife—coral reefs are the nursery of the oceans, and they provide vital protection for coastlines from erosion and flooding. “Coral is an intrinsic part of sealife, and it’s valuable to society,” says Stephen Catlin, the CEO of the Catlin Group. “It’s the first layer of protection for the coast.”

Seaview is just beginning—over the next several years, the team expects to cover the Caribbean, the Coral Sea in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, producing hundreds of thousands of images. Just a few years ago, it would have likely taken decades for scientists to analyze it all, with each individual image requiring 15 to 30 minutes of labor to identify pictured coral species. But the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California-San Diego, using facial recognition technology similar to what CIA employs to identify wanted terrorists in pictures of crowds, will be able to analyze the images a hundred times faster. With 90% accuracy, a computer program can scan each image from the expedition and spit out the pictured species and extent of coral growth, giving researchers a quick and accurate picture of reef health—more than a hundred times faster than such work could have been done by humans alone. As more and more images are fed into the program, the computer will get better and better at identifying pictured coral, learning as it goes. “What used to take us years we can now do in weeks and months,” says Kline, a project scientist at Scripps and a Seaview partner. “We’ll have large-scale quality data about the health of the reefs, and that will allow managers to make much more informed decisions about protection policies.” This is big data for a very big scientific challenge.

The scientific data produced by Seaview will be open-source, meaning any scientist working on coral reefs will be able to access it for their own research. Dive by dive, they’ll digitize the oceans, and this remote, mysterious territory that takes up most of our planet will begin to become comprehensible—just in time to save it.

NY Times


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