Author Archives: buttress

Laboratory nurseries could save Coral Reefs

A natural underwater Atlantis is found beneath the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean; clustered corals of all shapes and colours create the home of a vibrant array of fish species. But these reef ecosystems are declining and are threatened with destruction unless the corals can be saved. Marine researchers have uncovered the secret to breeding pillar corals in the laboratory with the hope that these can be transplanted to reefs to reverse such trends.

A Caribbean coral reef ecosystem (copyright - Ken Clifton)

A Caribbean coral reef ecosystem (copyright – Ken Clifton)

Corals are soft-bodied organisms which associate with algae, they form a hard limestone base which forms the structure of reefs. These cover less than a quarter of one percent of the ocean floor yet support 25% of all marine life. That equates to 2 million species whilst also acting as a nursery to a quarter of the oceans fish. In addition to the beauty of an ecosystem rivalling the diversity of the Amazon rainforest, coral reefs are vital fisheries. If sustainably managed, one square kilometre can yield 15 tonnes of fish per year whilst the total commercial annual output of coral fisheries is valued at $5.7 billion. Furthermore, coral reef fish species are a significant food resource for over a billion people worldwide and are the principle protein source for 85% of this total. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that we conserve these ecosystems.

Pollution from oil depots enters the ocean and poisons coral reefs (copyright - Kris Krug)

Pollution from oil depots enters the ocean and poisons coral reefs (copyright – Kris Krug)

However, one quarter of coral reefs are considered damaged beyond repair whilst the remainder are under serious threat. The warming ocean temperature has disrupted their associations with algae; this is known as bleaching and leads to the death of corals. Climate change has increased CO2 levels; this has raised the acidity of the ocean which then dissolves the coral limestone skeleton. Moreover, pollution from oil, industry and agriculture has poisoned the corals thus furthering their decline. Overfishing also poses a threat through disordering the complex food webs of the ecosystem whilst fishing practices such as trawling can directly damage the reef.

Pillar corals of the Caribbean reef (copyright – BioMed Central)

Marine researcher Kristen Marhaver and her team are hoping to reverse these effects through raising juvenile pillar corals in the laboratory environment. Coaxing the corals into reproduction was a difficult task; Dr. Marhaver drew the “analogy to in vitro fertilization in humans.” Pillar corals build single gender colonies and spawn eggs or sperm on very few nights annually. The offspring then grow at just half an inch per year. However, the team succeeded and learnt of the optimal conditions of water, bacteria and other species that help them to grow in the wild. Furthermore, there is hope that these laboratory grown juveniles could be transplanted back to the Caribbean reefs to regenerate the ecosystems. Marhaver added, “We do see that coral juveniles can survive in places where the adults are suffering badly, so we are thinking that some reefs can recover in places we have given up on.” Such research can only help to protect and potentially regenerate these crucial coral reef ecosystems upon which so much is dependent.

Toby Buttress

Lagoons to provide tidal waves of power

We’ve all heard of the story regarding fossil fuels: they’re running out, they’re damaging the environment and they’re causing climate change. The energy sector must diversify into new forms of production if we’re to secure the future of our planet.

Fossil fuel plant (Courtesy - Gerry Machen)

Fossil fuel plant (Courtesy – Gerry Machen)

Moves have been made across the world towards nuclear energy. France generates 75% of its requirements in this manner, with low costs of production and high economic gains of over €3 billion per year to the economy. However, this will fall to 50% by 2025 due to concerns over safety given the 2011 Fukushima, Japan nuclear disaster following a tsunami. Over 19,000 people died, whilst a further 120,000 remain uprooted with 67.5% stating they have relatives who are showing signs of physical or psychological distress.

Artist’s impression of the Swansea lagoon (Courtesy Tidal Lagoon Power)

Renewable energies offer an alternative, from wind turbines to solar farms, but what of the ocean? The UK-based firm Tidal Lagoon Power has unveiled plans for six lagoons in Wales and England to provide 8% of the UK’s electricity. These tidal energy lagoons would be a world-first and have been supported by the UK government; the Energy Secretary Ed Davey has set-aside £30 billion from the existing renewable energies budget. The first installment would construct a five mile wide breakwater more than two miles out to sea in Swansea. This scheme could produce energy for 14 hours per day, powering 155,000 homes. If successful, a much larger Cardiff lagoon of 90 turbines over 22 km could follow and be in operation by 2022, powering more than 1.5 million homes. Tidal systems provide predictable energy sources, unlike wind and solar, but just how would this be captured?

Video courtesy – NMANewsDirect

The lagoons would operate a gated mechanism. As the tide comes in, water builds up outside the wall before gates are opened and water enters. Turbines capture this motion and generate electricity. As the tide goes out once more, the water is released from the lagoon with energy captured by turbines once again.

Concerns have been raised regarding the initial costs of the project along with the price of the energy when returned to the grid. At £168 per MWh, the cost is more than twice that of onshore wind. However, as technology develops and efficiency increases, costs will fall to £90-95 per MWh; this is comparable to nuclear energy priced at £92.50 per MWh.

Environmental groups are widely positive upon the prospects of the lagoons. Minimal impact is forecast regarding the tide flow of estuaries; the vital habitat of wading birds. However, anglers are concerned that migrating fish may stray into turbines. Although, Tidal Lagoon Power states that this effect will be offset by the sea walls creating reef habitat to actually increase numbers.

Wading bird of the estuarine habitat (Courtesy Clematis Wilt)

Wading bird of the estuarine habitat (Courtesy Clematis Wilt)

Overall, the construction of tidal lagoons to harness natural ocean movements appears a positive. After the initial costs fall, the system will provide a substantial portion of electricity at low environmental costs in a renewable manner. The UK could act as a platform for such systems on a global scale.

Toby Buttress

Unmanned Aerial Conservationists…?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or, more commonly, drones have been used by the United States military for many years. They are associated with warzones and the subsequent collateral murder of innocent civilians. Attempts to kill 41 men by the US have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people in Pakistan alone. But what if drones were adapted to conserve rather than kill? NGOs such as SoarOcean and ConservationDrones have been developing drone technology to serve as wildlife protection.

The rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are home to the orang-utans, a tree dwelling member of the great apes. Their habitat is being converted to palm trees at an ever increasing rate by developers keen to cash-in upon the rising demand for palm oil, a substance that is estimated to feature in half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets. This has led to a fall in orang-utan numbers, from 300,000 to fewer than 50,000. ConservationDrones are working with local NGOs to survey the forest habitat to obtain a better picture of the individuals movements and where they are likely to aggregate in groups. This evidence will provide strong support to pressure the government into protecting certain areas. Previous efforts on foot can be expensive and time-consuming in the dense jungle, whilst a 30-minute flight can capture 900 images of 30-times satellite clarity over a 30 km2 region. A vast improvement upon conservation efforts.

Photo courtesy - National Geographic

Photo courtesy – National Geographic

Drones could also be used to tackle Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, a major concern to Belize due to its detrimental effect upon environmental, social and economical axes. Such practices are often undertaken by distant water fishing vessels from other nations who hide their identity through changing flags in order to obtain the valuable resources from the territorial waters of vulnerable countries without prosecution. The 70 enforcement personnel of Belize struggle to police the 386 km coastline and 200 islands, hence the need for drones. These could catch illegal fishers by surprise to gather evidence for prosecution in court, eventually acting as deterrent from the territorial waters. The $2,400 cost per drone is economically viable but practice must be undertaken and safety protocols established prior to their implementation. Belize could soon be patrolled by the buzz of drones to protect from and prevent IUU fishing.

Blog 1 - Rhino photo

Photo courtesy – Jeremy Smith

The poaching of rhinos across Africa has seen a stark increase in recent years, from 122 deaths in 2009 to 388 in 2012. Their horns are of high value due to their demand for use in traditional Asian medicine. Organised gangs deploy advanced technologies to exploit this illegal market with park rangers out-manned and out-gunned. However, the use of drones could be an alternative combative measure. The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge is an international competition whereby robotics teams are tasked with building inexpensive, easy-to-fly drones with an emphasis upon data process for use in wildlife protection. See the following video for more information:

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Video courtesy – National Geographic

For more interesting uses of drones, check out this link!

Toby Buttress