A sea-change in environmental thinking
The audience in the Royal Geographical Society was transported to muddy mangrove forests in Kenya and vibrant coral reefs of the Seychelles as leading marine scientists spoke at the second Earthwatch Event of 2015.
Our panel of speakers address questions from the audience. From left: Prof. David Smith; Prof. Jennifer Smith; Prof. Mark Huxham; Emily Penn; Prof. Martin Attrill
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Watch the full live streamed Webinar here. (Please note a few minutes are missing due to a technical problem.)
Turning the Tide: Coastal Communities and Conservation explored innovative projects helping to protect tropical coasts and the resources and services they provide. It was chaired by Prof. Martin Attrill, director of the Marine Institute at Plymouth University.
The time to act
Emily Penn opened the evening. She is the youngest and only female recipient of Yachtmaster of the Year, awarded by HRH Princess Royal.
After graduating as an architect, Emily travelled around the world on the eco-powerboat Earthrace, firing her passion for preserving our oceans. She has organised the largest ever community-led waste clean-up from a Tongan island, and trawled for micro plastics on a voyage through the Arctic Northwest Passage.
At the heart of her varied experiences was a clear message.
“This is not the time to be overwhelmed by the challenges round us. This is the time to act.”
Mangrove forests: a bio-crutch?
Prof. Mark Huxham is the Earthwatch lead scientist for long-standing project Managing Mangroves and Capturing Carbon in Kenya.
People depend on mangroves for fuel, shelter, coastal defence, and habitat for species. Yet these ecosystems are being destroyed.
Mark described his dependence on crutches after breaking his leg. Some of the ways that people use mangroves, he said, reflect this type of dependency. It’s an unsustainable use of mangroves, and a dependence from which “people need to be liberated”.
He stressed that we have to find an ecosystem service - a dependency provided by a mangrove forest - that “speaks the language of money”. For Mark, this means leveraging the extraordinary ability of a mangrove to sequester huge amounts of carbon.
Mikoko pamoja – meaning mangroves together in Swahili - is the first community based mangrove conservation project funded by carbon credits. Local communities and Earthwatch volunteers are helping with restoration projects, planting about 4000 mangrove trees every year.
A virtual time machine
“For all of you fortunate to have gone snorkelling or scuba diving on coral reefs I’m sure you share my passion,” began Prof. Jennifer Smith of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, California.
Jennifer’s research is focused on determining effects of human impact on coral reefs and how reefs look in the absence of humans. Working on remote coral reefs, her team can see what reefs looked like 5000 years ago.
One challenge is ocean acidification. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 which gets absorbed by ocean, making the water slightly more acidic. Jennifer believes that ocean acidification will be problematic for species that build shells – mussels, clam, oysters – as the shells dissolve in the acidic environment, which this will affect reef building the future.
However, there’s a new trend, Jennifer said, suggesting that seaweed aquaculture might be able to mitigate the negative effects of ocean acidification.
Seaweed is useful to humans too, as it is being farmed to produce a thickening agent used in foods like yoghurts and ice creams. Seaweed farming can provide income for communities and be an alternative to destructive activities. “It’s a rapidly expanding industry.”
However, she said, “given the extent of seaweed farms, there’s a large amount of information that we’re lacking”, and this is what Jennifer will be investigating in her new project with Earthwatch.
Prof. David Smith leads the Earthwatch project Coral Communities in the Seychelles. He echoed Jennifer in illustrating the importance of reefs.
He also noted how only recently, scientists were predicting that 2015 might see a big El Niño event, which could lead to widespread coral bleaching. This is when important algae are lost, making the coral more fragile. 1998 saw a similar event in which over 16 per cent of the world’s reefs were lost.
David’s studies focus on Curieuse Island, a Marine Park in the Seychelles. With scientists and volunteers including Earthwatch teams, he’s built up data on 315 sites . The research looks at age of the corals and if they are found to be older than 1998, this suggests they are tolerant to such bleaching events.
His research found some coral had clearly survived the event.
The research is helping to understand how reefs can best be managed, and could also make a difference on an international level. David and his team are writing a proposal to UNESCO to make the Curieuse Marine Park a Biosphere Reserve.
Dave reiterated Emma’s message of hope.
“It’s a positive story, we can make a difference."
Prof. Martin Attrill closed the event, by suggesting that we need new thinking in the way that we use our sea, drawing on our experience of land use being separated into both wild and modified areas.
“Humans are integral part of coastal ecosystem,” he concluded. “We mustn’t forget that. We need to work with local communities, not exclude them. It’s an old adage to ‘think global but act local’…but we can all make a difference, and Earthwatch is very much part of the solution.
The next big question
The next Earthwatch Event will be our annual Debate, on Thursday, October 29. We’re asking you to suggest the next topic.
In previous years we’ve asked whether the trade in ivory should be legalised, and whether wild wolves should be reintroduced to the UK.
If you have a thorny environmental question that you’d like to see debated by leading experts, make your suggestions on Twitter using #EWdebate.
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