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The Australian Government closed a third of the GBR to fishing at the beginning of this month, giving it the highest level of protection seen on any reef system yet. This monumental move came after countless studies indicating massive declines in coral reefs in Australian waters and around the world. Banning fishing will relieve one of the pressures on reefs, allowing them to cope better with other major threats like climate change, pollution and storms.

The GBR and other coral reef ecosystems are well known for being home to an incredible array of marine species, full of vitality and color. The GBR itself is inhabited by 1,500 species of fish, 359 types of hard coral, 175 species of birds and more than 30 species of mammals, including dugongs and six of the world's seven threatened species of sea turtles.

Yet, contrary to what common sense might tell you, the waters in which the GBR makes its home are actually very poor quality. From a nutritional standpoint, they are like marine 'deserts'. So how do the reefs survive? Scientists have found that reefs and the myriad species that depend on them are all part of incredibly finely tuned ecosystems, in which nutrients are continually recycled. There is continual turnover of life as animals are born and die, but there is very little new input of nutrients. Thus they are not very 'productive' areas, in the way that the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are, with their once seemingly endless populations of cod and other fish. These waters, though now massively overfished, can cope with much higher levels of fishing than the poorly productive reef waters. Removal of any of these finely tuned elements could result in big changes in the reef ecosystem. For example, the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks that have left enormous areas of the GBR dead might well be as a result of man's removal of their natural predators.

The GBR is a global treasure. In protecting it, the Australian government has done a service not only to Australians, but to the entire world.

Grist Magazine (motto: "gloom and doom with a sense of humor"), asked me a few questions last week. Now it's your chance to hit me with your best shot. Check out the interview, then submit your own questions by noon PDT Wednesday. I'll answer them and they'll be posted by Friday. Also, check out their magazine in general; they've got great environmental articles, and a wonderful sense of humor.

Last week, a former executive of Holland America Cruise Line pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in a pollution case in Miami federal court. He was charged with filing false reports about the existence of an environmental audit program at the company, one of Carnival Corp.'s brands.

Richard K. Softye, vice president for operating line compliance at the Seattle-based cruise line, was sentenced to three years probation, ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and perform 450 hours of community service...

"The charge against Softye stems from a pollution case settled in 2002 in which Carnival pleaded guilty to six felony counts and agreed to pay $18 million in fines related to the dumping of oily discharges into the waters off Florida and the Caribbean."

And this industry keeps asking us to trust it! They talk about their industry-wide environmental policies, and many times, when a state has considered legislation for cruise ship pollution, the cruise industry has called for a voluntary agreement in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) instead of legislation. But as we keep seeing, these promises to deal with their wastes are unenforceable and do not work.

This is just more evidence of why an enforceable national law, like the Clean Cruise Ships Act, is needed.

A new study (here is the abstract) has found that the quantity of large fishes weighing 4-16kg in the North Sea has declined by 97% since the onset of fishing. For bigger fish (16-66kg) that percentage is 99%. Pretty shocking numbers I think you'll agree. Perhaps even more remarkably, the total amount of fish (expressed by weight), including all species, ages, and sizes, has dropped by nearly 40% since fishing started. That's more than a third of the fish in the North Sea.

No wonder it's so difficult to get fish and chips made with cod anymore - pop into a British 'chippy' and you'll likely get dogfish in batter. At least that's still a fish I guess (though it's a closer relative to sharks than bony fishes like cod, bass and herring). Perhaps soon we'll only get deep fried squid or shrimp, animals that were once scorned from the dinner table for being 'bait' food.

Oh, wait, that's already happened.

The following is a blurb from Science magazine's writeup (subscribers only) about the new study (cite at the bottom).

"There is abundant evidence that fish stocks are being exploited at unsustainable rates in many sectors of the world's oceans. In order to gauge the extent of human impacts, it is necessary to assess where stocks stood in prefishery times; however, accurate analyses are hampered because records did not begin until many years, and often centuries, after initial exploitation.

"Jennings and Blanchard [the authors] have devised a method for estimating what fish abundances would be in the absence of fishing, using macroecology theory that relates abundance, biomass, predator-prey mass ratio, and efficiency of energy transfer between trophic levels in an ecosystem. Applying it to the North Sea fishery, they estimate that the current biomass of fishes larger than 4 kg is only about 2.5% of its pretrawling level, and the total biomass of all fishes is nearly 40% lower than it would have been. These effects are larger than those predicted from existing time-series data, and this approach may provide a useful basis for comparing the impacts of fishing across different ecosystems and different fish communities."

Fish abundance with no fishing: predictions based on macroecological theory, Journal of Animal Ecology, Volume 73 Issue 4 Page 632 - July 2004

Good story on the Environment News Service (ENS, registration required) today -- "Thousands of Years Old, Cold-Water Corals Ripped by Trawlers":

Research with sophisticated underwater camera technology and deep-sea vehicles has begun to shed new light on cold-water corals, little known in comparison to the tropical corals found in warmer waters. At risk from trawlers and undersea cables, cold-water corals are attracting attention this week as representatives from governments, nongovernmental organizations and coral reef experts meet in Okinawa for the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium.

The latest research, published in a United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) report entitled "Cold-water coral reefs: out of sight - no longer out of mind," shows that these corals are found in almost all the world's oceans and some have already been destroyed or scarred.

For more coverage check out Jason and Santi's entries on this important report.

To check out UNEP's report:

And make sure to visit Oceana's site to check out what we are doing to protect the world's deep sea coral gardens!